A Latter-Day Book of Ruth, in Marmaros

This post tells the story of a commentary on the Book of Ruth called Shoresh Yishai, published in Sighet in 1891. It is a tale of tragedy, kindness, and compassion – an embodiment and re-enactment of the Book of Ruth itself.

Of all the books in the Hebrew Scripture, none is more infused with kindness and compassion than the Book of Ruth, which we read on Shavu’ot. The entire redemptive story turns on acts of compassion: Of youth caring for old age, the wealthy for the impoverished, and the enfranchised for the disenfranchised. It is also the “backstory” of the Davidic dynasty, suggesting that it is such acts that form the bedrock of society upon which David’s kingdom could be built.

This post tells the story of a commentary on the Book of Ruth called Shoresh Yishai, published in Sighet in 1891. It is a tale of tragedy, kindness, and compassion, an embodiment and re-enactment of the Book of Ruth itself.

Shoresh Yishai was composed by Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz, best known as the author of Lekhah Dodi, and first published in Constantinople in 1561, during the author’s lifetime. The commentary is quite extensive; despite the extreme brevity of the Book of Ruth, the first edition of Shoresh Yishai is 191 pages. R. Alkabetz discusses a wide range of topics, many of which are tangential to the text. Shoresh Yishai was republished in Lublin a few decades later, after R. Alkabetz had died.

In the late 1800s, a young man named David Shmuel Katz of Felsöneresznicze, Hungary (today’s Novoselytsya, Ukraine) decided to reissue the book. As he wrote on the title page [apparently unaware of the Lublin edition]:

It has been many years since this book was printed in Constantinople, in [5]321, and only very few – some here, some there – reached our country. So now, my spirit has moved me to bring it to print a second time, so that the public may benefit from it.

Title page of Shoresh Yishai, Sighet, 1891

This is the first act of kindness we will encounter. A young man who undertakes to reissue a book for public benefit.

A truly astounding feature of this book is that is contains 30 pages of Prenumeranten (you can see them in Gershom Scholem’s personal copy of the book, but not the Hebrewbooks upload), the most extensive list that we have encountered. Moreover, like Mefa’ane’ah Ne’elamim, the places are not listed alphabetically – and there are about 450 different stops on this journey. Sure enough, the order of places is chronological, allowing us to retrace the routes of the bookseller. On the way, we were able to identify hundreds of places that do not appear in Kagan’s work or that he was unable to identify. In all, we traced out eight different trips, covering over 400 places. (Some places appear twice because the seller’s routes crossed one another. We can imagine that on his return trip to Dej, he experienced [bad rabbi joke redacted].) These places are all concentrated in the “four corners” area where Hungary, Slovakia, Ukraine, and Romania meet. Prior to World War I, this was all Hungary (specifically, “Unterland”). Not even one of these 400+ places is outside of those four contemporary nations. More than that – he came within a kilometer of Galicia, but never crossed the border, nor any international border. (Popout link to the map)

The first stop is the author’s hometown of Novoselytsya, and all of the journeys either start or end in that vicinity. The density here is phenomenal. There were times that we could guess what the next stop would be by simply looking at the map, as our traveler visited nearly every town along the way. The map does not even include “secondary” places. For example, when the traveler visited Khust, he pre-sold copies of the book to eleven students in the yeshiva there, from nine different places. There are hundreds of such “off-route” places mentioned in this list.

This list was a great boon to our project, but we were puzzled. A commentary on the Book of Ruth by Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz is certainly an interesting book, but the massive publicity campaign and the incredible reception of it seem unwarranted nevertheless. The book was selling like hotcakes. Yeshiva students were buying it. Women – who rarely appear as buyers on Prenumeranten lists from this part of the world – were buying it. It made no sense to us.

Then we reached the end of the list and learned the rest of the story. The typesetter – one Yosef Chajales of Buchach – writes in a colophon how David Shmuel Katz died before he could complete the work, leaving his wife, Nisl Gitl, a widow, and his four young children – orphans. He explains how they have nothing and pleads with “our brothers, the children of Israel” to perform an “act of kindness” and purchase the book: “Certainly the merits of the author of the sacred book will protect you.”

Then there is a letter from the widow, Nisl Gitl.

After her husband’s death, it was her brother, Tzvi Elimelekh Naiman, who undertook to travel from town to town, pre-selling the book. She asks that buyers pay full price – not the discounted pre-publication price – so that she can provide for herself and her orphaned children.

Finally, the brother, Tzvi Elimelekh (the name seems to indicate affiliation with the Hasidic court of R. Tzvi Elimelekh Shapira of Dynow, author of Bnei Yisaskhar and numerous other works) reports that he completed the publication thanks to the support of the presubscribers. He then blesses them with all kinds of good wishes.

These letters, however, do not capture the lengths to which the brother went, traveling to every one-horse town in the countryside of Northeast Hungary to sell his brother-in-law’s book in support of his sister and her four young children. Nor do they capture the extraordinary response of the thousands of people who transformed this book into a bestseller out of compassion for a widow and four orphans.

Finally, perhaps this story tells us something about the intersection between book culture and the culture of tzedaka. Had the brother gone from town to town collecting on behalf of his sister and her children, would he have met with as much success? Perhaps, but it is doubtful. Had the publisher or an agent gone from town to town selling only the book, would he have met with as much success? Almost certainly not. A book like this is simply not best-seller material.

But together – the book plus the story of the publisher’s premature death and his needy family – they produced a remarkable wave of compassion. Perhaps it was because their generosity would be recorded for posterity in the list of Prenumeranten. Perhaps they thought that the book would serve as a talisman. Perhaps it was simply the cumulative effect of the two factors – the desire to own the book and the desire to help the needy – that produced this remarkable result. The people listed in this book are indeed worthy heirs of Ruth the Moabitess.

All the Bychkivs

We left the last post off with a question: why did Maharsham write so many responsa (in relative terms) to Bychkiv?

That turns out to be an easy question to answer. Of the seventeen responsa to Bychkiv, one is addressed to R. Zev Wolf Tirkel, and all the rest are addressed to either R. Fishel Feldman or his son, R. Moshe Yisrael Feldman. He refers to R. Fishel as his “mehutan”, which does not refer specifically to the father of one’s son- or daughter-in-law, but has a broader connotation of someone from a family that married into our family. In the present case, it was Maharsham’s granddaughter, Chantze who married R. Moshe Yisrael. Maharsham apparently took a liking to his grandson-in-law, because he brought him from Bychkiv to Berezhany, where he became a member of the rabbinical court. In all, twelve responsa are addressed to R. Fishel (who died in 1904) and four to R. Moshe Yisrael. R. Moshe Yisrael and Chantze Feldman perished at Auschwitz on May 19, 1944 (26 Iyar, 5704), 74 years ago this week. We mention this because such things should always, always be mentioned.

The thing is, in these seventeen responsa, Maharsham spells “Bychkiv” nine different ways![1] We started looking around to see if anyone had documented all of the variant spellings in Hebrew characters of every place name mentioned in rabbinic writings. It turns out that there are such projects, most notably Sinai Rusinek’s Kima, but they are not working on the same time period. Our relationship with them is complementary; we now help one another out when we can. There are also a number of databases of Jewish communities, but they generally use only one, maximum two, spelling variations. Some of these lists don’t even allow Hebrew characters in their search functions. So identifying all of the places and recording their variant spellings became the most research-intensive part of the project, but its byproduct was that that we might now have the world’s best gazetteer of Hebrew-character European place names: about 700 places, with about 1300 variant spellings.

Why so many different spellings? There are different reasons:

  1. A place can have different names in different languages, and German, Hungarian, Slavic, and Romanian names sometimes sound nothing alike. Pressburg-Pozsony-Bratislava is a bit extreme, but at first glance it’s not easy to see how Oradea Mare, Grosswardein, and Nagyvarad are basically the same name (the name WRD modified by the word for “big”).
  2. There are abbreviations: Mattersdorf (מ”ד), Pressburg (פ”ב), Grosswardein (ג”וו), and so forth.
  3. There are prefixes that sometimes detach. Thus one of the many towns named for St. George might be a variant of George with or without a “Saint” before it, and sometimes with a “S.” Same with prefixes for rivers, or provinces. So the Hungarian “Dunaszerdahely” drops the “Duna” (Danube) in Yiddish. Brest-Litovsk (בריסק דליטא) drops the Litovsk and is known simply as Brest (or Brisk). Even the “Velykyi” of Velykyi Bychkiv is dropped. There are a lot of prefixes and suffixes like this. Sometimes they’re there, and sometimes not.  An example that has all of these issues is Sajószentpéter, Hungary. It has an acronym: ס”פ; separate saint–“סענט פעטער”; abbreviated Saint–“ס. פעטער”; combined with saint–“סענטפעטער”, and added region–“סאיא ס’ פעטער”.
  4. Simply put, there was no standard orthography. Similar consonants and similar vowels were all but interchangeable. It was not deemed necessary in general. Maharsham himself just wrote it how it sounds and produced nine spellings for Bychkiv. And if one were inclined to research how the town is spelled in English, they will find at least that many spellings, many of which are not fit for publication on a child-friendly blog.

Here are a few examples of places with a particularly high number of spellings:

Budapest has the most variants, but only because it was once three different cities (Buda/Ofen, Old Buda/Obuda/Alt Ofen, and Pest). Throw in some abbreviations and the German convention of adding a ה to the end of a word that ends with at ‘t’ sound so that it doesn’t sound like a ‘d’, and voila. This is a bit of a fudge, though, as really we should count this as two places, or even three.

Peremyshliany and Tarnoruda, both in Ukraine, are better examples. Each has 8 or 9 variant spellings on one name. Bychkiv is also in this category (except for that one spelling that includes the county name, giving us the monstrosity of “בוטשקאוומארמארש”. But here we have thirteen spellings. Where are the other four from?

Well, it turns out that Maharsham was not R. Fishel Feldman’s only correspondent, and a look at other responsa addressed to him tell an interesting story, too. There is a good amount of information available on R. Fishel, both genealogical and historical (including a list of all the responsa addressed to him–this is a rabbit-hole that we’re about to jump down). He was a businessman who learned a lot; several of his works were published posthumously by his son Moshe Yisrael. There was no rav of Bychkiv in those days, so R. Fishel (and his father-in-law, R. Yehuda Avraham Aber Rosenberg) was one of the de facto rabbinic leaders in town. R. Fishel corresponded with a variety of Hungarian and Galician rabbis over the years, including . R. Shlomo Drimer (d. 1873); Maharam Schick (YD 246; d. 1879); and a R. Zalman Leib Teitelbaum (the “Yeitiv Lev”; d. 1883).

We have not (yet) found any responsa addressed to R. Fishel between 1883 (at the latest) and 1896. The responsa he received from Maharsham are not dated (except for one, from the late summer of 1897), but they all refer to him as “mehutani.” Chantze was born in 1877, so her grandfather’s correspondence with her father-in-law, which began after her wedding, could not have begun too much before the dated responsum in 1897. There are two responsa to R. Fishel in Responsa Harei Besamim of R. Aryeh Leibush Horowitz (d. 1909), the rabbi of Stryi and a “competitor” of Maharsham who did not manage to “clear his neighborhood.” These are dated to the month of Sivan in 1896 and 1897–the latter is two months before the date responsum from Maharsham. One of these responsa has a new variant spelling of Bychkiv. That brings us to ten.

It is worth noting that R. Fishel shifted his allegiance from R. Aryeh Leibush of Stryi to Maharsham around the time that his son married the latter’s granddaughter. Authority is accumulated in any number of ways, including family allegiances and fealties (or, from the other side, through strategic shiddukhim).

There are two other responsa written to R. Fishel in the summer of 1902. Both concern the dilemma about whether to accept a grant from a government fund for Jewish institutions that was administered by non-Orthodox Congress (or “Neolog”) communal leaders. One responsum appears in R. Yehuda Greenwald’s Zikhron Yehuda (where we find variant #11), and the other in R. Eliezer Deutsch’s Pri Ha-sadeh. The issue of cooperating with non-Orthodox bodies was characteristic of Hungary, but not Galicia, which did not experience the schism that Hungary did. It made sense for R. Fishel to consult the Hungarian rabbis on this specific issue, even if most of his questions were sent to his mehutan, Maharsham.

The last two variants are from 1909, when Bychkiv finally got an official Hebrew spelling, albeit under tragic circumstances. A young married man with no children had contracted typhus. On Hoshana Rabba, on the eve of a 3-day yom tov, he sensed that he was dying. He feared not for his life, but for his wife. His only brother was 4 years old, and his death would have chained his wife to the boy for nine of her prime years, until the lad came of age and could perform halitzah. He therefore decided to give his wife a get, to prevent her becoming an agunah. The problem was that no get had ever been written in Bychkiv before, so there was no accepted spelling.

In Bychkiv at the time was Rabbi Alter Shaul Pfeffer, a young Torah scholar about 35 years of age who was living with his wealthy in-laws so he could devote himself to Torah study. He was later known for his expertise in the laws of gittin, as can be seen from his three volumes of responsa, Avnei Zikaron, but at this point his status as a halakhist was not cemented. Indeed, perhaps this is where he “made his bones”. He hastily arranged the get on that Hoshana Rabba, and by the end of the three days of yom tov, the afflicted young man indeed no longer had the mental capacity to grant a get.

R. Pfeffer was not satisfied that he had saved this woman from being an agunah. Pre-empting anyone who might question his authority to issue a get, he wrote a long responsum explaining how he reached his decision about the proper spelling of Bychkiv and sent it to several leading rabbis. They all validated the get, though some of them had other ideas about how the name should be spelled going forward. In all, 25 pages of the first volume R. Alter Pfeffer’s Avnei Zikaron are devoted to the spelling of Bychkiv!

A handwritten responsum of R. Alter Shaul Pfeffer on a matter of gittin (from Kedem Auctions)
A handwritten responsum of R. Alter Shaul Pfeffer on a matter of gittin (from Kedem Auctions)

The last responsum was written by R. Pfeffer after he had moved to New York, where he headed the Beit Midrash Hagadol Anshei Ungarin and Kehilat Anshei Marmoros, to the new (and official, finally) rabbi of Bychkiv, reviewing the entire episode and the subsequent correspondence so that gittin could continue to be written in Bychkiv. His summary should not surprise us:

The Bychkiver Get
The first get of Bychkiv, by R. Alter Shaul Pfeffer

Each rabbi had a different idea about how to spell Bychkiv. R. Pfeffer insists, though, that nothing, not a single letter, should be changed from his suggestion (which was to have the full name as it was called by the local Jews–גרוס ביטשקיב/Gross Bychkiv–and the Hungarian name used by the authorities like the post office–נאד באטשקא/Nagy Boczko).

So here we have the twelfth and thirteenth (and final) variations of how to spell the name of this place–not including the hypotheticals that R. Pfeffer entertained, which would have added a whole bunch more!

[1] Two personal points about Bychkiv. The first is that my (Elli’s) great-great grandparents, Shmuel and Henye Fischer, lived in Bychkiv. Here is a link to a picture of Henye’s gravestone, which calls her “the wife of R. Shmuel Fischer of Bychkiv.” My wife and I have toyed with claiming the titles of Bychkiver Rebbe and Rebbetzin.

The second is that two unforgettable professors in Yeshiva University’s Computer Science department (of which I am an alum), Prof. Michael Breban and the late Prof. Aizik Leibovich, lived in Bychkiv. There’s more to that story, too. Perhaps another time.

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