Haskama Letters – Part II

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By: Rabbi Ari Enkin

Since haskamot were of non-Jewish origin, the practice of acquiring and publishing them was not widely welcomed at first, and a number of prominent sefarim were published without any haskamot. Rabbi Yonatan Eibeshitz, in the introduction to his work “Kreiti U’pleiti”, conveys at great length his opposition to the practice of securing and publishing haskama letters. Among his grievances with haskama letters is that they have become a conduit for flattery and underserved praise for authors which leads to arrogance and falsity. Rabbi Eliezer Papo writes similarly in his Pele Yoetz, s.v. “ga’ava”, that authors who request haskama letters are essentially just seeking honor and praise. It was only after the Shabtai Tzvi disaster and the messianic fever which followed did haskamot become mainstream in order to ensure that a book did not contain any heretical ideas. By the 18th century there was hardly a book that did not feature the customary haskamot. Rabbi Yosef Saul Nathanson wrote over 300 haskama letters in his lifetime.

On June 21, 1554, a convention of Italian rabbis was held at Ferrara, presided over by Rabbi Meir Katzenellenbogen of Padua. They decreed, among other matters, that no Torah book be published without the haskama of at least three rabbis. Anyone who ignored this decree was to be fined and the proceeds were to be put towards charity. The Polish “Council of Four Lands” also banned the publication of any work in Poland without its approval. The first such decree was issued in 1594 and was intended primarily to protect Polish printers from their competitors in other countries, primarily in Italy. The second decree was issued in 1682 and was the result of the Shabtai Tzvi messianic fervor which was rampant then. Similar enactments were made by the Rabbinical Councils of Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Prague and other places. Between 1499 and 1850, 3,662 haskamot were issued, the majority in Eastern Europe. The majority of haskamot issued in the 17th and 18th centuries originated in the centers of Hebrew printing, such as Venice, Amsterdam, and Constantinople.

The first Torah work to contain a haskama letter was the “Agur”, a halacha sefer by Rabbi Yaakov Landau. It read as follows:

I have examined the work submitted to me by the Reverend Jacob Landau, who has produced, under the title ‘Agur,’ a collection of the laws touching the daily ritual and that of the festivals and all that is permitted or prohibited thereon, together with all matters belonging thereunto. It is a work which ‘giveth pleasant words’ concerning the customs and observances and the decisions upon them by expert scholars; and therefore have I set my signature unto ‘these droppings of the honeycomb,’ these words of beauty. Judah, surnamed Messir Leon.

The haskama was signed by a total of seven rabbis. Most haskama letters today follow a similar format and style. At first haskama letters were printed at the end of a book but with the introduction of title pages in the 16th century, haskamot began appearing at the beginning of the book. Interestingly, in the sefer Minhagei Eretz Yisrael (R. Gellis), a much more recent sefer, the haskama letters are at the end of the book rather than at the beginning.

Haskama letters also have a history of being forged and abused. Often their place, date, and even content were intentionally altered to deceive readers. Authors who were unable to secure for themselves a haskama letter from reputable rabbis would simply forge the haskamot along with their accompanying signatures, as did Nechemia Havon in his “Hakolot Yechdalun” (Amsterdam, 1725). Some rabbis, such as Samson Wertheimer, Chief Rabbi of Hungary and Moravia, only issued haskamot to relatives or scholars who were poor. Indeed, even today some haskamot will include a plea that people purchase the book in order to support the author. There have been rabbis in the past who would not issue haskamot to works on Jewish law, as well as rabbis who would only issue a haskama after a world-renowned rabbi has issued one first.

It is not uncommon for rabbis to read little or none of the manuscript of books for which they are issuing a haskama. In fact, many rabbis aren’t even especially qualified to write a haskama on the material they endorse. This situation is actually justifiable, as haskama letters are more often granted in order to endorse the author, rather than the material written. There were also rabbis who used their haskama letter as a platform to disqualify similar works by other authors, as did Rabbi Yechezkel Landau in his haskama to the Prague Pentateuch of 1785.

Bibliography and Sources:

http://www.printingthetalmud.org/flashpaper/28.pdf

http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=1380&letter=B

http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=1669&letter=A#ixzz1FFfuyvzi

http://seforim.blogspot.com/2009/08/some-observations-regarding.html

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

14 comments

  1. >Since haskamot were of non-Jewish origin, the practice of acquiring and publishing them was not widely welcomed at first, and a number of prominent sefarim were published without any haskamot. Rabbi Yonatan Eibeshitz, in the introduction to his work “Kreiti U’pleiti”, conveys at great length his opposition to the practice of securing and publishing haskama letters. Among his grievances with haskama letters is that they have become a conduit for flattery and underserved praise for authors which leads to arrogance and falsity. Rabbi Eliezer Papo writes similarly in his Pele Yoetz, s.v. “ga’ava”, that authors who request haskama letters are essentially just seeking honor and praise. It was only after the Shabtai Tzvi disaster and the messianic fever which followed did haskamot become mainstream in order to ensure that a book did not contain any heretical ideas.

    How can you possibly cite R. Yonasan Eybeschutz and the Pele Yoetz in support of the idea that 1) it took time for haskamos to be widely welcomed and 2) after Sabbetai they became mainstream. You further write that “By the 18th century there was hardly a book that did not feature the customary haskamot.”

    Chronologically these two are early and late 18th century figures.

  2. Also, to translate “האלוף” as Reverend? I realize that the text comes from the Jewish Encyclopedia, but . . . come on.

    >It is not uncommon for rabbis to read little or none of the manuscript of books for which they are issuing a haskama. In fact, many rabbis aren’t even especially qualified to write a haskama on the material they endorse. This situation is actually justifiable, as haskama letters are more often granted in order to endorse the author, rather than the material written.

    Justifiable? What about rabbis who write haskamos without really knowing who they are endorsing?

  3. I will look into the chronoligical discrepancy.

    Thanks,

    Ari Enkin

  4. There is a story, whether apocryphal or not, I don’t know, that Rav. Moshe Feinstein was asked to write an haskama for a sefer of doubtful quality.
    He wrote a few words at the top of a page, then signed his name at the very bottom of the page.
    When asked to explain why he wrote the haskama this way, he replied, in Yiddish, of course, that he was only attempting to distance himself from a “devar sheker.”

  5. My comment from the last post:

    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”

  6. I note the similarity of your paragraph and that of the Jewish Encylopedia:

    A
    On June 21, 1554, a convention of Italian rabbis was held at Ferrara, presided over by Rabbi Meir Katzenellenbogen of Padua. They decreed, among other matters, that no Torah book be published without the haskama of at least three rabbis. Anyone who ignored this decree was to be fined and the proceeds were to be put towards charity.
    B
    On June 21, 1554, a convention of Italian rabbis was held at Ferrara, presided over by R. Meïr Katzenellenbogen of Padua. They resolved, among other matters, that thereafter no Hebrew book, not then printed, should be published without the written approval of three rabbis and the president of the congregation, and that all Jewish purchasers of books printed without such Approbation should be liable to a fine of 25 gold scudi ($24.25), which was to be turned into the Jewish poor-box.

    I also note that you took their translation. If you are going to borrow so heavily, you really need to start learning about appropriate methods of citation and quotation. Many people have complained before about your sloppiness in citing sources, but this is no longer just sloppiness — it is now getting close to outright theft.

  7. The Nodah B’Yehudah wanted to prevent other chumashim from being published? Can you elaborate more on this?

  8. Curious-

    Thank you for this. Yes, as you note, I took it from the Jewish Encyclopedia. I dont suggest in the least that this is my original material — but for the purpsoe of the blog post I felt it adequate to cite the links under “bibliography” as I have done.

    You will be pleased to know that a very professionol editor (whom I pay) goes through my books before they are printed and ensures that all citations follow the required convention and protocol.

    Ari Enkin

  9. Elon-

    As ‘Curious’ points out — the extent of my historical knowledge of this matter goes little further then the referecnes I cited.

    Rav Beryl Wein is the address for more information.

    Ari Enkin

  10. Elon, the issue concerns the Noda Beyehuda’s haskama to the 1785 Prague Pentateuch published by Sussmann Glogau. You can read the haskamah here http://www.hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=22413&pgnum=265

    This Chumash included a partial translation in German, a simpler German than Mendelssohn’s Chumash Netivot Shalom. In fact, Mendelssohn’s name even appears on the title page of the Glogau Chumash, asserting that the translation mostly agrees with him! The Noda Beyehuda’s great objection to that Chumash was that much time would be required to teach the fancy literary language, time taken away from Torah. If we may make a comparison, lehavdil, you can’t just teach native English speaking children Shakespeare. You have to spend time explaining the language. For the Noda Beyehuda this was a totally inappropriate use of a Chumash.

    There is, incidentally, some doubt as to whether the Noda Beyehuda actually wrote the haskamah, or if it was written by R. Elazar Fleckeles, his talmid and fellow signator (the signatures of the entire Prague Beis Din appears on it). Still, there can be little doubt that the sentiments are his, even if the language may technically be R. Fleckeles’s. (I don’t think the issue is resolved.)

  11. Rabbi Enkin,

    I don’t think your citation system for this post was adequate. Why should you be exempt from traditional (and lawful) methods of citation just because you are posting here? If anything, your posts here have a wider audience, are more influential than any book you write, and should be more carefully written and cited. I suggest you talk to both a rabbi and a lawyer familiar with copyright law if you plan on continuing your practices, because those with whom I have spoken would be very concerned about this type of behavior.

    The single most common complaint about your sloppy posts is your citation of sources (either error-filled citations, tendentiously interpreted citations, or lacking citation altogether). Now that we know you also feel it is okay to plagiarize whole paragraphs so long as you cite the source in a bibliography (without a direct in-text citation of the paragraph you are copying!), I think the line must be drawn.

    I don’t mean to sound alarmist, but this is truly outrageous behavior, and if you won’t mend your ways, Gil should remove you from his forum.

  12. Curious-

    Thank you for your comments which I take very seriously. I can assure you that I will pay better attention to this issue effective immediately.

    Ari Enkin

  13. Fotheringay-Phipps

    MZ: “There is a story, whether apocryphal or not, I don’t know, that Rav. Moshe Feinstein was asked to write an haskama for a sefer of doubtful quality. […]”

    As a kid I read this story in an old book of Jewish folklore, and it had the story as being about the Vilna Gaon. I don’t believe it happened with him either (and now that I think about it, I don’t recall seeing any haskamos from the VG).

  14. The Vilna Gaon gave three haskamos in his lifetime. Two of them were given to R’ Aryeh Leib Epstein zt”l of Konigsberg, the author of the sefer hapardes, amongst others. He was an ancestor of the Epstein family (Aruch Hashulchan, more recently R’ Zelig Epstein zt”l) and the Chazon Ish.

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