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 Fels√∂neresznicze, 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.