Two New Articles

I’m happy to report that one article that I wrote and one that I co-wrote appeared this week.

The World of Itinerant Jewish Booksellers” appeared in the latest issue of AJS Perspectives, devoted to travel. It takes a look at the itineraries of three booksellers reconstructed through subscriber lists. All three have been addressed here in the past, but here we zoom out a bit to see the different motives that people have for hitting the road to sell books.

The second article, co-written with Rabbanit Dr. Tova Ganzel, is titled “A Glimpse of Rabbi David Zvi Hoffmann’s Methods as a Decisor of Halakhah” [Hebrew]. It appears in JSIJ. Some of the methods that we used in our research and article are linked directly to the sort of work we do at HaMapah. We address the temporal development of R. Hoffmann as a posek, not the geospatial, but the temporal, it turns out, is very important and provides a great deal of insight into how he viewed himself and how he took on the role of posek relatively late in life. We were also fortunate to have access to many sources that allowed us to date individual responsa within R. Hoffmann’s works with varying degrees of precision. This element has been almost completely absent from earlier treatments of R. Hoffmann’s responsa, and the implications are significant.

Hopefully this will be the first of several articles on R. Hoffmann that Dr. Ganzel and I publish.

What Subscription Lists Tell Us about the Hungarian Yeshiva World

What subscriber lists can tell us about the Hungarian yeshiva world in the years before its annihilation.

When we talk about “the yeshiva world” we most often refer to the yeshivot established in Greater Lithuania in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and their transplants in the US, Israel, and elsewhere beginning in the interwar period. Rarely is there discussion of other yeshivot, and when there is, they are generally given short shrift.

There is no doubt that, structurally, the Lithuanian yeshivot differed from other yeshivot. One salient difference is that many of them functioned independently of the host communities and had their own fundraising networks. I recall learning this from Prof. Shaul Stampfer in the summer of 1999 and finding it to be quite a revelation. But there were, it must be noted, community-based Lithuanian yeshivot as well, most notably the Ramailes Yeshiva in Vilna. But Lithuanian yeshivot are not our topic today.

A number of months ago, I noticed that some books include rosters of yeshiva students within presubscriber lists (prenumeranten). Here’s an example that comes from a book called Shulhan shel Arba, a treatise on proper conduct at the table, composed by Rabbeinu Bahya ben Asher, a disciple of Rashba (late-13th and early-14th century Spain). In 1939, Rabbi Yitzchak Essner, a resident of Presov, (Czecho)slovakia, reprinted the work at Vranov (nad Topľou) with his own commentaries. There are four pages of prenumeranten, including sub-lists from five different Hungarian yeshivot. Here’s the beginning of the list from the yeshiva in Dunaszerdahely:

Student-subscribers in the yeshiva of Dunaszerdahely (Dunajská Streda)

Few outside of those who really study Hungarian Jewish history have even heard of Dunaszerdahely, know that it was the home of R. Yehuda Aszod, or are aware that it was actually home to yeshivot. But it was. A glance at this list (there are 2 or 3 more students on the next page) shows that, contrary to the common understanding, the students were not just local boys, but actually came from fairly far away. Their hometowns are listed, and I have highlighted them in green. Here’s a map of the hometowns:

And this is but a small cross-section of books bought by yeshiva students in Dunaszerdahely. Of the 20 or so books with Hungarian yeshiva subscribers that I have mapped thus far, about 5 have lists from Dunaszerdahely, and there were between 12 and 41 subscribers to each book. (Lest one consider that fluctuation in the size of the yeshiva accounts for the difference, note that the books in question were all printed between 1938 and 1940.) Here’s a look at the hometowns of all subscribers from the yeshiva of Dunaszerdahely. It’s zoomed out a bit to include the one subscriber from Poland and one from Prague:

Hometowns of yeshiva students at Dunaszerdahely

There are about 120 books that have lists of Hungarian yeshiva students (about 2/3 of these were published between 1920 and 1943), and thus far I have encountered about 35 yeshivot, which is a fraction of the 230 yeshivot listed by Rabbi Dr. Armin Friedman in his dissertation on the subject. Some of the yeshivot were tiny, but there were over 300 students at the yeshiva in Munkacs in the early 1940s.

Interestingly, I have not found such lists for yeshivot in Lithuania – or anywhere else, for that matter. This seems to be a strictly Hungarian phenomenon. It could be that it is a matter of social class. Interwar Hungary (including regions like Slovakia, Transcarpathia, and Transylvania that had been part of Hungary until 1920) was very much middle class. That does not mean that all the students had money, but that enough of them had disposable income to make it worthwhile for an author or agent to sell in the yeshiva.

The yeshivot were also somewhat institutionalized. Each one had a system of gabba’im in charge of various aspects of yeshiva life. The red highlighted text above identifies a student as ג”ר דחמ”ז – gabbai rishon de-hevra mezonot. He was in charge of either organizing meals for students at the homes of local community members or of procuring the food to be served in the yeshiva kitchen. While some yeshivot were linked directly to the rosh yeshiva (often the local rabbi), and followed him if he moved, by the late 1930s, several yeshivot had permanent buildings and several staff members, and so had attained a degree of institutionalization and perceived (though, in hindsight, tragically illusory) permanence.

This post covers much of the ground from my presentation at the AJS conference in Chicago last week. There’s a lot more to investigate and discuss. I’m posting the map from which I took the images above. As you will see, you can filter it by several variables. For example, you can look (better in a separate tab) at a particular book, a particular yeshiva, or a particular town. It includes some 2,000 data points, which is really only the tip of a very large iceberg.

Recent and Upcoming Talks

Back in May we participated in and helped organize a virtual conference that showcased the different projects going on at the eLijah Lab at the Haifa University. The lectures relating to our projects are up on YouTube. Here’s a lecture on the Prenumeranten Project by our lead researcher, Prof. Marcin Wodzinski, with a response by Prof. Avriel Bar-Levav:

Next is a talk by me and Moshe, in which we ask a new set of questions, namely: Why did writers of responsa feel it necessary to include the sorts of metadata that we have been analyzing here? We present some initial ideas and finding, with a response from Dr. Tamara Morsel-Eisenberg:

There are two other lectures that I will be giving in the near future. The first, in a conference celebrating the launch of a fascinating website that documents Jewish cemeteries in Turkey. The free, online conference will take place on October 18-19, and you can register here. My talk will be a basic introduction to the Prenumeranten project.

I’ll also be at AJS this year (whether in-person or virtually), where I will be presenting some initial findings on Hungarian yeshivot based on information culled from subscriber lists. Often, yeshiva students are listed separately, and their hometowns are given – as in this image.

Subscribers to Even Bohan (Mihalovce, 1931) from yeshivot in Mihalovce, Ungvar (Uzhhorod), and Tarne (Trnava)

This offers us snapshots of the size and geographical reach of each yeshiva at a particular moment. Thus far, I have found close to 70 books that include yeshiva students in separate lists. I’m looking forward to seeing what this yields, and already it has me wondering why the Hungarian yeshiva world vanished virtually without a trace while the Lithuanian yeshiva world was largely transplanted in the US and Israel. Perhaps the latter was based on a more independent (and thus portable) institutional model, but perhaps it is because the destruction of the former was gradual, beginning already with the rise of the Soviet Union, while the latter was destroyed swiftly. We will see what sort of results turn up.

I should also mention that we are going through something of a transition as Moshe adjusts to his new full-time position with a large corporation. We will get through it.

Some Notes on Place Name Spellings

Some notes on some recent subscription lists we’ve come across and some comments on odd spellings of place names.

We have been following the “Jewish Miscellanies” blog by Jeffrey Maynard for a while. He consistently posts about the rare and interesting books in his collection, mainly, but not only, of Anglo Judaica. Some of the books in his collection have really interesting Prenumeranten lists.

One such book that he wrote about is “Zecher Ov” by Rev. Hanokh Henikh (Henry) Olivenstein, published in 1916. The author was a “Swiss-army Jew” who served communities in Wales. The subscribers include people from lots of places in the UK and elsewhere, but there’s a remarkable cluster of tiny little hamlets in southern Wales, where he ministered. Most of these places do not appear in Kagan’s index. Here’s a screenshot; you can explore further by typing “Wales” in the “English Name” text box in our Searchable Map.

Since the last update of the map, we’ve identified another place in this list: לאמבאראדאך is Llanbradach, Wales. The only place on the Zecher Ov list that we have not identified is נאוי which is in France (or was in 1916).

More recently, Maynard wrote about a volume of R. Meir Dan Plotzki’s Hemdat Yisrael that was published in 1924. The subscribers are from Belgium, England, the US (plus R. Yehuda Leib Graubart in Toronto), and Argentina. It’s a fascinating list that includes many American Orthodox rabbinic and lay leaders. We will have more to say on that in the future, as there are some similar lists.

One interesting feature of this list is the way that some city names are spelled. We have already written how Yiddish place name spellings are phonetic, and so subject to lots of variance, based on dialect. There is also variance based on regional modifiers. For example, if you live in Frankfurt am-Main, you refer to your hometown as Frankfurt. Likewise if you like in Frankfurt an der Oder. In some circumstances, however, you will have to specify which Frankfurt you refer to.

Predictably, there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of places whose names mean, simply, “New City”. This includes anyplace named Neustadt or Nove Mesto or Villanova or Ujhely. Naples and Nablus and Newton fit the pattern, too. So when a Hebrew source mentions ניישטאט or עיר חדש, it can be a challenge to disambiguate.

Fortunately, most such places have an additional modifier. To take an example of a pretty famous place, consider Brisk. Today it is known as Brest, Belarus, and it’s easy to see how Brest and Brisk are cognates. But at various times, it was known officially as Brest-Litovsk. What’s the Litovsk? It simply means “Lithuanian”. So the Russian Brest-Litovsk, the Polish Brześć Litewski, and the Yiddish בריסק דליטא simply specify that the reference is to the Lithuanian Brisk, not a different one. In this case, the other one is Brześć Kujawski, בריסק דקויא, or Brest Kujavsk, in Poland.

[Sidebar: The idea that some people call Satmar “Sakmar” because it otherwise means “St. Mary” is silly. As the Brest/Brisk example illustrates, the t/k shift happens elsewhere, and in no language does Satmar or Satu Mare mean “St. Mary”. Perhaps one will argue that just as religious Jews changed Satmar to Sakmar to avoid invoking St. Mary, they changed Brest to Brisk to avoid naughty thoughts? There are other examples – like Saponta, a town very close to Satmar, which is known in Jewish sources as Spinka. At some point, we will post about all the different places in rabbinic sources that are named for saints and other elements of Christianity.]

We do not realize it, but we often do the same thing. To disambiguate the many Springfields, Salems, and Portlands in the USA, we use the state name. Locally, Springfield is Springfield, but in many cases one will need to specify whether one is referring to Illinois, Massachusetts, the fictional setting for “The Simpsons”, or one of the many other Springfields.

When the person writing out the subscriber lists knows about this, they will account for it and use a format similar to the familiar [City, ST] format. But what if they are not? Funny things happen. Consider this responsum from Maharsham:


The דאלעסטעסקא mentioned here is none other than Dallas, Texas. It got all smushed into one word, which is typical for European place names but not American ones.

That’s just one example, though. In the subscriber list for Hemdat Yisrael, we find no less than six examples:

לואי סווילקי

If you want to try to figure these out on your own, stop reading here. We will ID the places at the end of the post.

One peculiar thing here is that 4 of the 6 examples are from Massachusetts. Massachusetts is better represented on the subscriber list, as there were lots of small Jewish communities there, but that does not explain why 2/3 of these examples are from one state. Disambiguation can perhaps explain one of these examples, though we are doubtful about even that.

I (Elli) think that this reflects a peculiar habit of Massachusettsans to add “Mass” as a sort of suffix to cities in that state. If you heard a Massachusettsan speak and had no geographical knowledge, you might easily conclude that there’s a place called “Woostamass”. The transcriber of the subscription lists can easily have made such mistakes.

Anyhow, the places where city and state are contracted into one word (or two oddly-parsed words) are:
Holyoke, MA
Springfield, MA
Fall River, MA
Malden, MA
Denver, CO
Louisville, KY

If you have another theory, we’d love to hear it!

A JewishGen Webinar on Prenumeranten

Yesterday, I (Elli) gave a Webinar for on Prenumeranten as a historical and genealogical resource. It was a lot of fun, but there’s never enough time. Here is a recording.

Prenumeranten in Pittsburgh

Last week, I had the privilege of speaking with Rabbi Daniel Yolkut of Congregation Poale Zedeck about the Prenumeranten Project, among other topics, in his virtual “Coffee Room”. It was a great fun. I come on at about the 8 minute mark, but it’s worth listening to Rabbi Yolkut from the beginning.

The material I discuss here, particularly the discussion of Rav Hayim Tzvi Mannheimer’s Eyn Ha-Bedolah and its fascinating prenumeranten from dozens of small towns in the Pittsburgh region.

Reception of the Vilna Gaon in Central Europe

When and how did the Vilna Gaon’s reputation spread beyond Lithuania to other parts of the Jewish world? Subscriber lists can offer some intriguing clues.

One of the most interest aspects of studying Prenumeranten is how it can shed light on so many other areas of Jewish and general history, sometimes in unforeseen ways. For example, it can take us deep into the process of how books and their authors were received.

One of the most influential figures in modern Jewish history is undoubtedly R. Eliyahu of Vilna (1720-1797), better known as the Gr”a or the Vilna Gaon. Monograph after monograph details the uniqueness of this once-in-a-millennium mind who left no area of Torah on which he did not comment.

He was also somewhat reclusive; he was cloistered in a kloyz (I’m aware of the redundancy), interacted with a small group of elite students, and published very little in his lifetime. It was his disciples who published his work in the decades after his death.

One of the questions that has engaged scholars recently is the reception of the Gr”a outside of Lithuania. Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Brodt is working on a project tracing the Vilna Gaon’s reception in Galicia. He has also studied the role of the popular halakhic code Hayei Adam in the diffusion of the Gr”a’s teachings, of other works on the Gr”a’s reputation as a saint and genius, and on the publication of the Gr”a’s works between his death and the year 1820.

It is this last topic that overlaps with our studies. A key figure in the spread of the Vilna Gaon’s work is undoubtedly Rabbi Shimon Oppenheim (also known as R. Shimon [of] Kremnau or R. Shimon Klein). He authored several of his own halakhic works and served as a dayan (rabbinical court judge) in Pest, Hungary, for over 50 years until his death in 1851 at the age of 98.

In the early 1810s, R. Oppenheim published six of the Vilna Gaon’s books within five years: The commentary on the Book of Yonah and on the aggadic tales of Rabbah bar bar Hanah (1810); a commentary on Shir HaShirim and Habakkuk (1811); a commentary on Mishnah Taharot (1812); novellae on the halakhot of niddah (1812); a commentary on the Hagaddah (1813), and a commentary on Mishlei (1814). All of these books were printed in Prague and approved by the famed censor, Karl Fischer.

Four of the books have subscriber lists, and they are of the type that traces the movements of the author or agent. For the most part, he visited the same places all four times, though there are some interesting differences. I have not yet started to dig into those differences or systematically look for the recurrence of names in the different lists, though many names repeat.

It is interesting to me that R. Oppenheim selected a broad range of the Vilna Gaon’s works for publication: Commentaries on halakhah and aggadah, on Scripture, Mishnah, and Talmud, on familiar texts like the Haggadah and Yonah as well as more esoteric topics like the halakhot of niddah, Taharot, and cryptic aggadot. None of the works it particularly long. The sense is that R. Oppenheim wanted to blitz the market with a variety of works by the Gaon and give readers the sense that he was indeed a sui generis figure.

The maps, presented below, are color-coded by region: Bohemia, Moravia, and Hungary. This division is made by the author himself. Non-numbered places are “indirect”, that is, they are listed with another town, not among the places that the author visited. (For example, “R. Ephraim of Town X” is listed with the subscribers of Town Y). I would like to take this opportunity to thank Mr. David Kraus of Prague for his assistance in identifying some of these places.

For the sake of comparison, here are a couple of other books with subscriber lists published around the same time and place. The first is R. Yonah Landsofer’s Kanfei Yonah, published in Prague in 1812:

Next is R. David Friesenhausen’s Mosdot Tevel (Vienna, 1820), a Hebrew translation of key works of astronomy and geometry:

Finally, here’s R. Hirsch Brode of Kittsee’s collection of sermons, Shnei Ofarim:

This is all very preliminary, but interesting enough, I think, to bring to public attention at this stage already. Over the next few days, I’ll be posting a whole bunch of prenumeranten maps that I’ve made over the past few months.