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)