Monday, November 27, 2006

A Bizarre Case of Censoring the Besamim Rosh

In the majority of cases of self-censorship it is fairly easy to surmise why something has been removed. Most typically, it is due to the current writer or publishers either fear of offending their audience or their own ideological sensibilities. Thus, commonly statements, approbations and the like which at the time seemed innocuous, today some may take offense for ideological reasons and thus some people remove them. This, of course, is not to say this justifies such practices but instead is merely to point out the reasons underlying them.

But, it seems there is a very curious case of such self-censorship. This case, where a teshuva [responum] has been removed does not readily conform with the above understanding. Instead, the teshuva in question espouses a rather popular view and while discussing a controversial topic comes out on the traditional side. This case deals with the well known work Besamim Rosh attributed to R. Asher b. Yechiel and claimed to be a forgery. [For more on the history see my earlier post here and upcoming posts.]

Now, to discuss our instance of censorship. One of the more well-known statements against the Besamim Rosh is by R. Avraham Bornstein (Sochaczew Rav) author of the Avnei Nezer and Eglei Tal. His statement was recorded in the book Piskei Teshuvot. The Piskei Teshuvot is a collection of interesting responsa, which have been abridged and notes added by the editor R. Avraham Pietrekovski. It was published in three volumes and included a fourth volume which contained comments from others about the work and was thus titled Divrei Chachamim. In the Divrei Chachamim, R. Nachum Kamikna wrote in to express his puzzlement at R. Pietrekovski's mention, in one of his notes, of the Besamim Rosh. R. Kamikna includes the opinion of R. Bornstein on the entire Besamim Rosh issue.

R. Bornstein writes:
I believe that the person [the author and editor of the Besamim Rosh – R. Saul Berlin] is not one who is worthy of quoting any halakha in his name, any person who has a fear of heaven should not have the book Besamim Rosh in his house . . . I believe the book is worthy to be burnt [even] on Yom Kippur that falls on Shabbat.
Needless to say, this is not a ringing endorsement of the Besamim Rosh. But, in 2001, a reprint of the Piskei Teshuvot was done, with reset type and organized according the Shulhan Arukh's divisions. For some reason, however, this teshuva does not appear. In the earlier editions it was number 5 in Divrei Chachamim in this edition the numbering skips from four to six.

While recently, some have attempted to rehabilitate the Besamim Rosh, most notably in the 1984 reprint, these attempts are not part of the mainstream and it does not appear the Besamim Rosh is any more accepted today than he was previously. This is not to say he is never quoted, only that most are aware of the storied history and the question of whether in fact it is representative of the Rosh. In fact, since 1984 no further attempts to reprint this work have materialized. Thus, in light of this, it is rather odd this particular teshuva has been removed.

In addition to my previous post on the Besamim Rosh, see Moshe Samet, "R. Shaul Berlin's Besamim Rosh: Bibliography, Historiography and Ideology," (Hebrew) Kiryat Sefer 48 (1973): 509-523; and upcoming posts at the Seforim blog.

Divrei Chachamim: Before/After

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