Outside the Text: Non-Textual Sources of Meaning in Rabbinic Civilization

Cory Rockliff

Just a quick note: Prof. Michael D. Swartz (of Ohio State University), author of Scholastic magic: ritual and revelation in early Jewish mysticism, is delivering a series of lectures at NYU:

“Outside the Text: Non-Textual Sources of Meaning in Rabbinic Civilization”

If you’re like me, you’ve already missed the first lecture, but there are more to come. I can vouch for Dr. Swartz as a lecturer–I took his ‘Ancient Jewish Magic and Mysticism’ class a few years back.


Rabbinic Forgeries? (Part 1)

 Jeremy Meyerowitz

At the Association of Jewish Libraries’ latest New York Metropolitan Area meeting, I gave a presentation regarding a few items of Rabbinic literature that are commonly found in Judaic collections and have had questions raised regarding their authenticity. The intention was to familiarize Judaic librarians with the basic facts of the controversies. I am here presenting a very basic summary of the history of these items together with citations to various sources that discuss the issues involved.

1793 Berlin ed.

She’elot u-Teshuvot Besamim Rosh

In 1793 a book entitled She’elot u-Teshuvot Besamim Rosh was published by Rabbi Shaul Berlin, who was rabbi of Frankfurt-am-Oder and a son of the av bet din of Berlin. This work purported to be a collection of responsa written by various Rishonim, but mainly Rabbi Asher ben Yehiel (the ROSH). According to the title-page, the responsa were gathered together by a Rabbi Yitshak de Molina who had lived in the 1400s or 1500s. According to Rabbi Shaul Berlin’s introduction, Rabbi de Molina found these responsa in a volume in Alexandria and copied them from there. Rabbi Berlin claimed to have found Rabbi de Molina’s copy in Italy, a number of years previously, and copied it. Rabbi Berlin was now publishing the work from his own copy and including his own notes on the work under the title Kasa de-Harsena. The She’elot u-Teshuvot Besamim Rosh quickly aroused accusations of being fraudulent due to some strange opinions found in it, which seemed to conform more to the sensibilities of the early maskilim (with whom Rabbi Berlin was in sympathy) than to the known opinions of ROSH; see Jacobs and Zinberg for some of the statements found in the Besamim Rosh that aroused suspicion. It does seem likely that the work is indeed forged and a document admitting such has been found in the hands of one of Berlin’s friends.

1. Two examples: Responsum 251 puts forth the idea that if the situation would arise that the continued observance of the mitsvot was bringing evil onto the Jewish nation or even merely not contributing any benefit whatsoever – the mitsvot would no longer need to be observed. Responsum 375 involves a situation where the caravan that an important person is traveling with is leaving the city they have encamped in on Shabbat. The person needs to ride a horse on Shabbat in order not to be left behind by his caravan. Once left behind he would need to be supported by charity. To save him from this disgrace the responsum permits him to ride a horse on Shabbat. (This latter responsum is found in the 1793 edition of the work, but has been excised from the 1881 edition).

2. Zinberg, p.198, note 66: “In the copy of Ketav Yosher that is preserved in [Saul Berlin’s friend and collaborator, David] Friedlander’s library is the inscription in Friedlander’s own hand: “This satirical document is from Rabbi Saul of blessed memory, the son of the rabbi, the president of the rabbinic court, our teacher and master, Rabbi Tzevi Hirsch of Berlin, written on the occasion of the persecution of Rabbi Herz Wessely. He is also the author of Besamim Rosh, which he gave out as the work of an ancient gaon.”


Fishman, Talya
“Forging Jewish memory : “Besamim Rosh” and the invention of pre-emancipation Jewish culture” in Jewish History and Jewish Memory [Hanover, N.H. : University Press of New England, 1998], p.70-88

Jacobs, Louis
Theology in the Responsa [Boston : Routledge, 1975], Appendix I, p.347-352

Zinberg, Israel
A History of Jewish Literature [New York : KTAV, 1976], v.8, “The Berlin Haskalah”, p.197-2003

אברמוביץ, צבי יצחק
‫בשמים ראש באספקלריה חסידית
‫ תגים ג-ד (תשלב) 56-58

‫ אסף, דוד
ופרקנו עולה מעלינו
כותרת ראשית 109 (2.1.1985) 28-29 ‬

‫ גוטל, נריה מ.
יחסו של הראיה קוק לספר בשמים ראש
JSIJ – Jewish Studies : an Internet Journal

סמט, משה שרגא
ר’ שאול ברלין וכתביו
‫ קרית ספר מג (תשכח) 429-441 ‬

בשמים ראש של ר’ שאול ברלין :ביבליוגרפיה, היסטוריוגרפיה ואידאולוגיה
‫ קרית ספר מח (תשלג) 509-523 ‬

‫ קטן, יואל
על שות בשמים ראש ומחברו
‫ מספרא לסייפא 44-45 (תשנג) 243-253 ‬

רפאל, שילה
הערות ר’ צבי חיות ור’ אברהם קלוגר לבשמים ראש
סיני עב (תשלג) 376-372

Yiddish books on CD

Leah Bennett 

The Jewish Theological Seminary Library has just received the highly-regarded Sami Rohr Library of Recorded Yiddish Books. Lovers of Yiddish will be able to hear thirty well-known stories by great Yiddish writers, read by native Yiddish speakers.

How this project came about is a very interesting story in itself. Zachary Baker, current curator of Judaica and Hebraica Collections at Stanford, was working at the Jewish Public Library in Montreal during the mid-1980s when a European-born library member, Shmulik Rosenfeld, sought to help his wife. She was losing her eyesight and unable to read the Yiddish literature that she loved for so many years. Rosenfeld gathered together a group of native Yiddish speakers–there was a sizeable community of them in Montreal at that time–to record these stories on tape, which were later transferred to CD. And according to Zachary Baker, “Thus was born the JPL’s Yiddish Talking Books program, which was modeled on similar programs for English-language books offered by the National Library of Canada, the Library of Congress, and other libraries.”

He adds that “it was thrilling to hear the familiar voices of the readers–most of whom are, sadly, no longer with us–and more importantly, to listen to some of the best works of Yiddish literature read out loud in the accents (plural) and cadences of Eastern European Yiddish.”

A complete list of titles in the set is here. They will soon be available; inquire at the circulation desk.

Hert zikh tsu gezunterheit! Mit fargenign!
(Listen in good health! Enjoy!)

Hebräische Typographie im deutschsprachigen Raum

Cory Rockliff


Well, to kick off the blog, and to answer David Kraemer’s $64,000 question, let me mention one online Judaica resource I came across for the first time this year:

Hebräische Typographie im deutschsprachigen Raum (Hebrew Typography in German-Speaking Regions) “focuses on Hebrew typefaces produced and printed in German-speaking regions from the beginning of the 16th century until 1939”; the database in its present state includes 266 typefaces, the earliest being a rather primitive square face from Konrad Pellikan’s De modo legendi et intelligendi Hebraeum (Strassbourg, 1504),¹ the first manual of Hebrew grammar to be published by a Christian.²

The project is headed by Ittai Joseph Tamari, who has written on modern Hebrew typography: among other things, on ‘Frank-Rühl,’ the near-ubiquitous Hebrew font (the Hebrew equivalent of ‘Times New Roman’) and by Heiner Klocke, a computer scientist.

The interface is built around two main views:

The typografische Übersicht allows side-by-side comparisons of Hebrew letterforms; the typefaces can be sorted by style, year, or place of printing. Clicking Detail reveals as much of the alphabet as is extant for a given face, and indicates editions in which the type appears.

The bibliographische Übersicht shows thumbnails of representative pages from books: the set can be limited by genre, year, printer, or place of publication. The Detail view, predictably, leads to more bibliographic information, and larger images, including some of illustrations or ornament.

While the interface is multilingual, all project data are in German and Hebrew. More on the nature of the project, as well as technical notes on its implementation, can be found on the project website (in German, Hebrew, and French; English links seem to be missing at the moment). An interim report, which I have not seen, was issued in 2001.

1. It appeared, apparently without the author’s permission, in Gregor Reisch’s Margarita Philosophica. Cf. Salo Wittmayer Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, 2nd ed., vol. 13 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979), 164.

2. Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2nd ed., s.v. “Pellicanus (Pellikan), Conrad,” and bibliography.