Haskama Letters – Part I

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By: Rabbi Ari Enkin

A haskama is a letter of approbation, recommendation, or endorsement from a noted rabbinic scholar, which one might receive for a book one has written or for a ruling one has issued. In addition to endorsing the work, a haskama letter might also include further sources, comments, and opinions on what the author has written. The haskama letter is also a method of ensuring that there is no heretical material in the book. A haskama letter from a reputable rabbi assures readers that the contents of the book are consistent with orthodox thought.

Early haskama letters also served as a form of copyright to protect the author or the printer from any unauthorized reproduction. Haskama letters often include significant praise for the book and especially for the author, all of which is intended to increase its appeal to potential purchasers. It is not uncommon for authors and even the publishing houses to plead or negotiate for haskama letters from specific rabbis in order to better appeal to a targeted constituency. For these and other reasons, authors are anxious to secure haskama letters from prominent rabbis, often from as many rabbis as possible. Haskamot are usually written in poetic rabbinic Hebrew, though haskamot in other languages are not uncommon. In the past, many haskamot often included conditions, such as that the haskama is valid “on condition that the printing of this book will be completed within two years” or “on condition that the printer will print the book on white paper with black ink”.

Although not widely known, the practice of securing and publishing haskama letters is not of Jewish origin. It began as a result of influences from the Catholic Church which instituted a requirement for authors of theological works to receive such an endorsement before they could be published. Clergymen, too, were required to receive a similar type of endorsement before they could practice. In this way the Church was able to better monitor what kind of material their followers were being exposed to. It was from here that both approbation and censorship was born. As has been noted:

Neither the Bible nor the Talmud nor the medieval Jewish literature knows of approbations. No prophet ever asked for the consent of any authority to his promulgations, nor any doctor of the Talmud to his opinion, nor any philosopher to his system. Even in the Middle Ages, when the Jewish religion, influenced by its surroundings, assumed more than ever the character of an authoritative religion, it did not, as far as I know, ever occur that any author had the excellence of his halachic work ‘approved’ by a recognized authority. Every literary production had to find the recognition which it merited by its own intrinsic worth. There was no previous approbation, just as little as there was no previous censure” (“Jew. Quart. Rev.,” 1897, p. 175)

It is also suggested that the proliferation of haskama letters was a result of the Papal action of 1553 in the dispute between the publishing houses of Bragadini and Giustiniani which resulted in the burning of the Talmud. The church actually began banning books as early as the 4th century. Once the printing press was invented and offered the world unprecedented access to books, the church was forced to work overtime in its scrutiny of books. For example, Alexander the VI (1501) decreed that one is required to receive a “license” from the Bishop for religious books appearing in Germany. In 1515, at the fifth Lateran Synod, Leo X extended this rule to all Catholic countries with the threat of heavy penalties for non-compliance. The requirement for licenses and haskamot actually worked to the advantage of the Jewish community. This is because Catholic officials would often rely on the rabbinic haskamot to ensure that there was no ‘heretical’ material in the books which would “justify” burning them as the Talmud was so burned. The sefer “Yad Kol Bo” by Rabbi David Lida actually included a haskama from a Catholic clergyman certifying that the book had no heretical material. Rabbi Lida presumably went ahead and allowed such a haskama to be printed in order to save his book from overzealous Christians who might burn it should they be led to believe otherwise.

……to be continued (bibliography to appear at the end of Part II)

About Ari Enkin

Rabbi Ari N. Enkin, a resident of Ramat Beit Shemesh, is a researcher and writer of contemporary halachic issues. He is the author of the “Dalet Amot of Halacha” series (8 volumes), Rabbinic Director of United with Israel and a RA"M at a number of yeshivot. www.rabbienkin.com

28 comments

  1. chukat hagoyim?
    KT

  2. The JQR article concludess: “My remarks are only meant to be suggestive”.

    In the next year’s edition of JQR (p 383 in 1898) the very first haskama ever is shown to be Elia Levita’s Bachur (printed in Rome, 1518) and that haskama’s purpose is to serve as copyright protection, not censorship. The rabbis themselves decided (at the assembly at Ferrara in 1554) that “no new book should be published without the consent of three Rabbis and the Council of the Congregation”

  3. On the topic of haskama, see the haskama for the Steinsaltz Talmud by none other than Rav Moshe Feinstein.

    http://www.olamhaemet.com/?p=1165

  4. i would have reorganized this essay to flow historically. the first paragraph is more relevant to contemporary haskamot but really has nothing do with earlier haskamot. there is nothing necessarily wrong with an ahistorical flow, but this should clear.

    “bibliography to appear at the end of Part II”

    please tell me we will see benayhu’s book on haskamot there

  5. re: please tell me we will see benayhu’s book on haskamot there

    …never heard of it till now.

    Ari Enkin

  6. MiMedinat HaYam

    you forgot to mention that most (good) haskamot are masterpieces in saying (practically) nothing.

    though some add practical halachot / discussions.

    today’s haskamot are often very “political”.

    vaad arba aratzot “codified” the haskama requirement (prob to be covered in part two). i think that was due to a previous incident.

  7. Weren’t haskamot also used for fundraising the book’s publication (e.g.by subscription)?

  8. I’m not sure if this this is the place for this, but does anyone have sources for not travelling/flying during the Nine Days? The Shulchan Aruch and MB, as far as I can tell, are silent on the issue (although a Hirhurim post did quote R’ Shlomo Zalman a year or two ago).

  9. Steve-

    See here: https://www.torahmusings.com/2010/07/air-travel-the-nine-days/

    One of my favorites, actually!

    Regards,

    Ari Enkin

  10. Thanks, Ari, but that’s the post I was referring to (a good post, though; it should be one of your favourites 🙂 – and it mentions only R’ Shlomo Zalman. Anything before that? Anybody that says it’s a bubamaisa?

  11. r. enkin:

    meir benayahu, haskamah u-reshut be-defuse venetziyah (mosad bialik?, 1971). its a classic

    (haskamot are also very important to reaseachers because they can be mined for data that shed light on otherwise obscure authors)

  12. I generally don’t take haskamot very seriously since they often say that the writer didn’t read the book (or more than a little bit of it), and I sometimes find things written in a sefer that there is NO WAY the writer of the haskama would agree with.

  13. I just posted about a nice haskamah, which shows that the muskam read the work carefully and even supplied many maare mekomos in the work itself:

    http://onthemainline.blogspot.com/2011/07/shadal-series-3-on-important-role.html

  14. Also of note are those haskamos that sort of knock the book, or condescend to the author or the audience.

  15. Steve, regarding travel during the three weeks, Rav Nahum Eliezer Rabinowitz has a responsa in Siah Nahum, number 33 (page 104). His actual comment on tiyulim/pleasure travel are (my translation): “Regarding tiyul. We haven’t found any prohibition to travel for pleasure (l’tayel) during the three weeks (bein hametzarim), and all year a person must plan with appropriate caution every trip that he does; and we mustn’t innovate new prohibitions from our own opinion. We should also add that one who travels in the Land (of Israel) and becomes attached to it as he should, there is a great value in this of love of the Land; and especially during the three weeks when we should strengthen our belief in the future redemption, it should come speedily.”

    Since Rav Rabinowitz speaks of the three weeks, I suppose he includes the seemingly more severe ‘nine days’.

  16. Thanks, Mordechai. I’ll just have to see it inside to figure out if he’s also talking about sakana issues – that might be what he’s referring to with “plan with appropriate caution every trip.”

  17. Surely the haskama to Moshe Koppel’s “Meta-Halacha” is worthy of mention here. Does anyone have a copy?

  18. I wrote about a couple of non-haskamas here. See the Noda B’Yehuda’s haskama to Wessely’s Yein Levanon here, as mentioned in that post.

  19. No article about Haskama is complete without mentioning Adi Ran’s Masterpiece Haskama

  20. daniel roselaar

    The best non-haskamah appears at the beginning of V’aleihu Lo Yibol (a sefer which is a collection of off-the-cuff responses that R’ SZA gave whilst being walked home from shul). It is a letter from one of R’ SZA’s sons saying that the sefer should not be published.

  21. MiMedinat HaYam

    IH: “Weren’t haskamot also used for fundraising the book’s publication (e.g.by subscription)?”

    actually, the otherway around. many times a haskama will say “i enclose x (currency — name of currency is also interesting)” implying the rov forwarding the $ approves. so its a strategy to get a haskama (and $), without trekking out to the haskama writer, and requesting one.

    2. many haskamot refer to previous publications of the author, not this particular publication.

    as i wrote before, a good haskama is a masterpiece in saying nothing, since the writer often didnt even read the book / manuscript / proofs (they usually say wording equivalent to proofs).

    3. as i posted on the july 2010 post, SA cautions against travel “alone” between hours of 3 and 9 (zmaniot) during 9 days. of course, if you keep this custom, be sure to keep the rest of that siman, cautioning against corporal punishment during the nine days. otherwise permitted rest of the year.

  22. How about a study of the Hakdamah to various seforim? One not only gains an understanding of the intent of the author and his hashkafah, but generally tion , where he learned his rebbes, friends, family members as well as excellent Divrei Torah.

  23. ronnie warburg

    The first haskama on a Jewish sefer was given to the Agur by R. Ya’akov Landa and it was printed in 1490 Subsequently, there was a haskama in 1518 which was given to 3 compositions authored by R. Eliyahu Bachur. The latter dealt with the issur of hassagat gevul.

    To assert that “It is also suggested that the proliferation of haskama letters was a result of the Papal action of 1553 in the dispute between the publishing houses of Bragadini and Giustiniani which resulted in the burning of the Talmud” is undercut by earlier approbation letters. Moreover, to argue that there was outside influence [ i.e. Christian] which propelled the emergence of haskamoth needs to be historially proven. The presence of similar phenomena [ e.g. haskamoth] in two different traditions does not prove influence. Frequently, diverse cultures,religions etc. solve their problems in the same fashion.

  24. Steve-

    Indeed. I personally read the hakdama of almost every sefer. Especially the more recent ones.

    Ari Enkin

  25. “How about a study of the Hakdamah to various seforim?”
    good idea

  26. My family members every time say that I am killing my time here at net, but I know I am getting know-how every day by reading thes nice articles.

  27. fairly helpful stuff, in general I picture this is worthy of a book mark, many thanks

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