A Note on theהסכמות of the חפץ חיים
By Shnayer Leiman
All the comments to the previous posting (“A Note on R. Bezalel Alexandrov’s משכן בצלאל and its Prenumeranten”) are deeply appreciated. It’s what makes the Seforim Blog required reading for anyone interested in serious scholarship. I cannot possibly address all the comments. The references in the notes to the essay address some of the issues raised. To Yisrael Dubitsky’s important comments, one should add that privately owned copies of the two parts of משכן בצלאל are available, at the very least, in New York and Silver Spring, Maryland. Having said that, the fuller editions of משכן בצלאל and ילקוט בצלאל remain rare books. Hopefully, online resources such as Hebrew Books and Otzar Ha-Hokhmah will scan the fuller texts and make them available to all. Lest Yisrael’s comment about YU’s copy of משכן בצלאל be misunderstood by an uninformed reader (“Mishkan Betsalel is available at 4 libraries that reported to OCLC [YU is not one of them]”), rest assured that the Mendel Gottesman Library at YU owns a full edition of משכן בצלאל. The Gottesman Library lists some 200,000 volumes of Judaica on its on-line catalogue, and these are reported to OCLC. Those 200,000 volumes form the basic books necessary for a Jewish Studies research library. But like many Jewish Studies research libraries, YU has many other collections of Judaica, catalogued and uncatalogued. One of those catalogued collections (not on-line) lists the full edition of משכן בצלאל , which, courtesy of the YU librarians, I was able to consult when preparing the essay.
While the focus of the essay was not on הסכמות , since the bulk of the comments focused on the הסכמות of the חפץ חיים , I shall attempt to address that issue, and only briefly.
1. Whether one chooses to recognize the letter of the חפץ חיים as a הסכמה or not, the letter remains one of the three reasons for bringing משכן בצלאל to the attention of the public. Any letter of the חפץ חיים is a treasure. This particular one is published only in משכן בצלאל (and in the secondary sources based upon משכן בצלאל).
2. It should be noted that משכן בצלאל contains three letters of approbation. Aside from the letter of the חפץ חיים, it includes a letter of approbation from R. Avraham Yoffen (1887-1970), Rosh Yeshiva of Nevarodok in Nevarodok, and then of Nevarodok in Bialystok. The letter is dated 13 Tishre 5680 [October 7, 1919] and was written in Minsk. A third letter of approbation, from R. Yitzchak Isaac Eliezer Hirshowitz (1871-1941), then a Resh Mesivta in the Slabodka section of Kovno, is dated 5 Tishre 5680 [September 29, 1919] and was also written in Minsk. (Rabbi Hirshowitz is famous, in part, for publishing an early translation into Hebrew of the teachings of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. His book, מיטב הגיון [Vilna, 1913] was intended for Lithuanian Jewry and carried an enthusiastic הסכמה from R. Chaim Ozer Grodzenski.) The letters of approbation by Rabbis Yoffen and Hirshowitz not only praise R. Bezalel Alexandrov’s learning and piety, they also indicate that both rabbis examined and approved the manuscript of R. Bezalel Alexandrov’s book. All three letters of approbation are printed together immediately following the title page. All three letters are introduced (separately) with the exact same title: מכתב תעודה מהרב הגאון... To consider the last two letters הסכמות ,and the first a private letter that has absolutely nothing to do with the book, seems almost ludicrous. A form-critical analysis leads to the ineluctable conclusion that all three letters of approbation are הסכמות. Moreover, it seems highly unlikely that R. Bezalel Alexandrov, a musar enthusiast, would have placed a letter (by the חפץ חיים) that had absolutely nothing to do with the book, in its הסכמות section and thereby mislead potential buyers and readers of the book. Worse yet, he published the “misleading” letter during the lifetime of the חפץ חיים, and after the חפץ חיים was kind enough to be among the first subscribers to the book! In terms of the nature of the הסכמה by the חפץ חיים, it is paralleled by many others that he wrote in response to specific requests for a הסכמה. He was impeccably honest, and did not want to praise a book he did not read, and was not likely to read. Instead, he showered priestly blessings on the author, מעומקא דלבא.
3. If one examines the first page of prenumeranten in משכן בצלאל (posted with the essay), one will notice that the חפץ חיים’s name appears under the general rubric: אלה שמות הפרענומעראנטין דק"ק ווילנא, שליט"א. This seems awkward, since the חפץ חיים lived in Radin, some 85.6 kilometers from Vilna. The names of no other residents of Radin appear on the four- page list of subscribers. Indeed, the likelihood that anyone would attempt to gather subscriptions from the residents of Radin was probably as high as the likelihood of a Jewish book dealer seeking a copy of the first edition of the נועם אלימלך (one of the rarest of Jewish printed books) in the Serengeti in Tanzania. (Berel Kagan has no entry for Radin.) It is well known, however, that the חפץ חיים frequented Vilna in the 1920’s in particular, and often stayed with relatives in Shnipishok (a Vilna suburb), and would meet with R. Chaim Ozer Grodzenski in order to address the needs of כלל ישראל. Similarly, R. Bezalel Alexandrov was not a resident of Vilna. He was there in 1923 for one purpose only (staying at the home of one of the Vilna subscribers, Shmuel Melamed, at 39 Breite Gass), in order to publish his book. And the letter of the חפץ חיים was written in 1923! It seems likely that the two met in Vilna in 1923 and R. Bezalel asked for a הסכמה, and received the letter he printed at the start of משכן בצלאל.
4. It should be noted that the author of מאיר עיני ישראל (cited in note 7 of the essay), in a chapter entitled “הסכמות מרן החפץ חיים זצ"ל לספרי מחברי תקופתו,” includes the הסכמה by the חפץ חיים given to R. Bezalel Alexandrov’s משכן בצלאל. Also, מפעל הביבליוגרפיה lists 3 “הסכמות” for משכן בצלאל. It did not imagine that one of the letters was a personal letter unrelated to the book being published.
5. Ultimately the issue is one of definition. What is the definition of a הסכמה ? Or to phrase it another way: what elements must be present in a הסכמה in order for it to be recognized as a legitimate הסכמה? Here are some possibilities. (I will not bring proofs or disproofs for any of these definitions; in fact, these – and many more – have been suggested as possibilities by leading rabbis throughout the generations.)
1. A הסכמה is a legal document by an authorized rabbi that provides copyright protection for the author of a ספר. A הסכמה without such a provision is not a הסכמה.
2. A הסכמה must be written by an authorized rabbi and he must attest to the integrity of the author and to the integrity of the ספר being published . If the הסכמה lacks the one or the other, it is not a הסכמה.
3. The הסכמה must be written by an authorized rabbi and he needs only to attest to the integrity of the author. Nothing else is significant.
4. A הסכמה is a promotional document, signed by an authorized rabbi, and necessary for sales. The content of letter is of little consequence.
Whichever definition one chooses, a host of questions will remain to be answered. Who is an authorized rabbi? What if the author of the book, an authorized rabbi, writes the הסכמה for himself? Can a father write a הסכמה for a son? What shall we do with the many הסכמות that do not fit any of the definitions listed above? Thus, there are censored הסכמות, forged הסכמות, reluctant הסכמות, הסכמות written under duress, and retracted הסכמות, just to list a few of the many categories. Even aside from these questions, many great rabbis (in all periods) refused to seek הסכמות, and published their books without them. Some stated unequivocally (about their books): מעשיך יקרבוך ומעשיך ירחקוך .
In sum, given the uncertain (and changing) definitions of the term הסכמה through the ages, I cannot speak with confidence that I know precisely, in every case, what is and what isn’t a הסכמה. And I certainly have no monopoly on wisdom. Nonetheless, for the reasons listed above, I am persuaded that R. Bezalel Alexandrov asked the חפץ חיים for a הסכמה in 1923, and printed the one he received. Readers will have to decide for themselves the precise status of the חפץ חיים’s letter printed at the beginning of משכן בצלאל. But whatever they decide, they need to bear in mind the variety of definitions of הסכמה through the ages, they need to examine all the evidence, and they need to realize that their conclusion will be only one opinion among many others, and not necessarily the correct one.