Diamonds in the Rough
---Polishing Hebrew Manuscripts
By Debbie Shapiro
"It was an amazing discovery. The manuscript remained hidden for a hundred and fifty years; people knew of its existence, but no one knew where it had disappeared to." I listened in fascination as Rabbi Moshe Buxbaum, executive director of Machon Yerushalayim, the Jerusalem Institute of Talmudic Research, told me the story of how the Ramchal's special collection of five hundred and fifteen prayers to hasten the geulah was discovered and ultimately published. "The manuscript was so chashuv," he continued, "that according to the [Vilna]Gaon's talmid, Rabbi Mendel of Shklov (1750-1827), the Gaon kept the manuscript on his table and davened from it regularly.
"During the hundred and fifty years that the manuscript was missing, people knew of its existence and continued to search for it. Approximately a hundred years ago the rabbonim of Tsfas made an official kol korei asking if anyone knew of its whereabouts.
"Somehow or another, the manuscript found its way to the Minchas Elazor of Munkacs (1871-1936). Although the Rebbe was not aware of the author's identity, he recognized the manuscript's importance and regularly davened from it. In late 1970s, my father, Rabbi Yosef Buxbaum ztz"l, the founder and former executive director of Machon Yerushalayim, received the contents of the Munkacs library from one of the children, which, of course, included this unidentified manuscript.
"One afternoon, Professor Meir Benayahu, a"h, the son of Rav Yitzchak Nissim, zt"l, and an expert in identifying Sefardi manuscripts, stopped in at my father's home. My father told him about this one manuscript – a collection of poignant prayers to hasten the geulah, written in a beautiful Italian script -- that he was unable to identify. Professor Benayahu began examining the manuscript and was so shaken by what he discovered that he had to sit down. He had recognized the Ramchal's very distinguished script, and upon reading the contents, he realized that he was holding a precious treasure in his hands – the manuscript that had been missing for the last one hundred and fifty years!
"Over the next few weeks, many talmidei chachamim and researchers from all shades of Torah-true Judaism came to my father to get a glimpse of this treasure, but none were able to decipher the script. My father then took the manuscript to Rav [Yitzchak] Hutner, zt"l, Rosh Yeshivah of Yeshivas Chaim Berlin in Brooklyn, New Yori, and Nasi of Machon Yerushalayim, who suggested that he bring it to Rabbi Chaim Friedlander, zt"l, the mashgiach of Ponovehz, to see if his chabura of talmidei chachamim, all experts in the writings of the Ramchal, could prepare the manuscript for publication.
"Tisha B'Av afternoon in 5739 , a delivery man appeared at my parent's house with two copies of the newly printed sefarim. Interestingly enough, the Ramchal completed his sefer on Tisha B'Av afternoon 5489 , exactly two hundred and fifty years before. The sefer, Taktu Tefillos (taf-kuf-tes-vov, which, numerically equals 515, the gematria of V'eschanan), a collection of prayers to hasten the geulah, was published in memory of my grandfather, Reb Mordechai Buxbaum, z"l, an attorney and askan, who was at the helm of the battle for Torah-true Yiddishkeit in the early, turbulent years of the Jewish State. Today, the sefer can be found in almost every Jewish library."
@The Last Remaining Rav
"My father viewed his life's work — saving Torah manuscripts from obscurity — as an avodas hakodesh. There are many reasons why very chashuva divrei Torah were never published. Sometimes, the gadol wrote them as notes for himself, without any thought of publishing them. But even if they were written with the intention of being published, reasons from lack of funding to the outbreak of a war could have prevented a sefer from actually reaching the public. It's important to understand that in previous generations publishing was much more complex than it is today. Once a sefer was fully edited and ready to print, it took hundreds of hours to prepare the plates, and at any point something could go wrong that could force the project to be placed on hold indefinitely.
"After the Holocaust, when so many important sefarim and manuscripts were destroyed, my father felt responsible to revive the previous generation's Torah, which he did through searching for the manuscripts and publishing them as sefarim. Through learning the Torah of these gedolim, we are keeping their memories alive for future generations.”
@A Case in Point
The story of Rav Nosson Notta Orlevsky (1873-1961), zt"l, who wrote his responsa from Irkotesk in Eastern Siberia and later from
Moscow where he was rav, is an example of a gadol who was almost completely forgotten until his son brought the manuscripts to and Machon Yerushalayim published them. Israel
While living in Siberia under incredibly harsh conditions, Rav Orlevsky corresponded frequently with the Rogatchover Gaon, Rav Yosef Rosin (1858-1936), zz"l and responded to the many halachic queries sent to him from throughout the Soviet Union. Since it was extremely difficult to attain paper, many of his chiddushim and responsa are written on discarded military paper targets. He would walk several kilometers late at night to the nearest army camp and risk his life to remove the discarded targets from the trash so that he could record his responsa and chiddushei Torah.
In 1931, while still in
Siberia, Rav Orlevsky succeeded in publishing a collection of responsa, Shus Chayei Olam Noeta. To evade the government, he sent the manuscript in 200 separate letters to his relatives in Vilna, where it was published. It received enthusiastic approbations from the Rogatchover Gaon and Rav Chaim Ozer Gradzinsk, zichronam livrachah.
A copy of this rare sefer survived the Holocaust and is preserved in
Israel's National Library, located in . Jerusalem
In addition to Chayei Olam Noeta, Rav Orlevsky authored another five sefarim that he did not manage to have published, which would have been completely forgotten if not for his son, who brought them with him when he immigrated to
. Machon Yerushalayim reprinted the sefer, Shus Chayei Olam Noeta together with Neta Reva'i, which consists of two sections: chiddushim on Shas and responsa. Israel
The responsa gives us a glimpse into life under the Communists. Rav Orlevsky answers such halachic queries as, is it permissible to make a bris milah at night to evade the authorities; whether an esrog smaller than an egg can be used for reciting the brachah on a lulav and esrog; and numerous questions about agunos and keeping Shabbos under the Communists.
Because of the poor quality of the paper, the manuscripts were extremely difficult to read and most probably, if they had not been published when they were, they would have been completely lost to the Torah world. Instead, today's bnei Torah can be inspired by Rav Orlevsky's mesirus nefesh to grow in Torah under incredibly difficult conditions.
@Only Daas Torah Can Decide
I had come to the interview armed with a list of detailed questions about kisvei yad — Hebrew manuscripts. These were questions I envisioned that you, the reader, would have wanted to ask had you been with me. Who decides what should be published? Where are the manuscripts found and how are they identified? But after reading my list of questions, Rabbi Buxbaum responded that he'd "tell me a few stories that will illustrate the answer better than any explanation."
Rabbi Buxbaum begins, "You asked how we decide what should be published. Every sefer has its own story, but the following one illustrates one example of why we decided not to publish a manuscript, even though it was in excellent condition:
"Rav Yair Chaim Bachrach, zt"l (1628-1702) was a descendent of the Maharal of Prague, zt"l, and the Av Beis Din of
. He was most well known for his sefer of responsa on all areas of halachah, Chavas Yair. His grandfather, Rav Avraham Shmuel Bachrach, zt"l, (1585-1615), died after the expulsion from Worms . He had been the Av Beis Din of Worms Worms and a talmid of the Maharal who wrote a drashah sefer on Chumash based on the drashos that the Maharal delivered in , titled Shemen Hama'or. This was never published. Prague
"At the end of the first edition of the Chavas Yair, Rabbi Yair Chaim Bachrach included the introduction to his grandfather's sefer, Shemen Hama'or, in which his grandfather, Rav Avraham Shmuel, writes that he exerted tremendous effort to edit and publish the sefer, but without success, and that he promises tremendous blessings to the person who eventually publishes it. He also warned that the sefer must be properly edited and anything not worthy of printing should be removed from the original manuscript.
“Rav Avraham Shmuel then proceeded to use strong derogatory terms to describe the person who would publish the sefer incorrectly. He concluded by writing that he is confident that the manuscript would remain intact until it was eventually published. Amazingly enough, whereas over time almost all manuscripts are damaged and full of holes, despite the fact that the Shemen Hama'or was written close to four hundred years ago, in fulfillment of the author's promise it remains in mint condition.
"Although my father had the manuscripts for Bereishis and Shemos, the other three chumashim were missing, and the author had stipulated in the introduction that the manuscript must be published in its entirety. Then, around thirty years ago, an elderly Chassidic rebbe came to the Machon to visit my father and handed him the manuscripts for Vayikra, Bamidbar and Devarim, which he most probably inherited.
"Now that my father had the entire manuscript, he really didn't know how to proceed. Although the manuscript was in perfect condition, the author had warned that it must be edited properly – a tremendous responsibility. Someone suggested that my father arrange for ten experienced [Torah] editors to review the sefer before it was sent to print, instead of the usual two, but even so, he was concerned that a mistake might creep in. So he did what he always did in such cases – he asked daas Torah. Both the Steipler, zt"l and Rav Shlomo Zalman Aurbach, zt"l, told him to refrain from publishing the sefer.
@The Makor Chaim
Rabbi Buxbaum continues, "Rav Avraham Shmuel Bachrach's grandson, Rabbi Yair Chaim Bachrach, author of the well known sefer, Chavas Yair, also wrote a collection of halachic rulings called Makor Chaim. Machon Yerushalayim eventually published this sefer both as a separate sefer as well as an appendix to their edition to the Shulchan Aruch. Rav Yair Chaim Bachrach considered this sefer, which was first published by Machon Yerushalayim in 1982 many years after the author passed away, to be his most important contribution to limud Hatorah. It had the approbations of, among other, Rav Mordechai Ziskind Rottenberg, zt"l, the Av Beis Din of Witzenhausen and Posen and commonly known as Maharam Ziskind, and Rav Dovid Oppenheim, zz"l, Av Beis Din of Nikelsburg, author of Nishal Dovid and rosh yeshivah in
“For some reason, most probably lack of funding, this important sefer was never published and thus most of it was lost to the Olam Hatorah. Rabbi Mordechai Banet of Nicholsberg, zt"l, (1751-1829) inserted a section of Rabbi Yair Chaim Bachrach's Makor Chaim into his sefer, Bi'ur Mordechai. Rabbi Ezriel Hildesheimer, zt"l, (1820-1899) the Rav of Berlin's small Orthodox community and head of Berlin's Hildesheimer's Rabbinical Academy, mentioned that he had seen the manuscript but other than these two instances, this important sefer was lost to the Torah world.
"In the 1960s and early 1970s, before people realized the value of old sefarim, Reb Moshe Sheinberger, a sefarim dealer, would import crates of old sefarim and papers from Europe and sell them by weight. In 1972, my father purchased a huge stack of old sefarim and papers from him and discovered an envelope stuffed with papers stuck into one of the books' binding. It was the first thirty pages of the Makor Chaim's manuscript, which he recognized because of the Chavas Yair's distinctive script.
"Although my father was excited y this discovery, he couldn't do anything with it as most of the manuscript was still missing. But when he happened to meet Rav Ovadia Yosef, shlita, he mentioned to him that he had discovered thirty pages of the Makor Chaim. Rav Ovadia Yosef responded, 'Are you talking about the author of the Chavas Yair?' and then proceeded to tell him that Rabbi Zev Wolff Leiter, zt"l (1892-1974), a European gadol who became a Rav in Pittsburgh, mentioned in two of his sefarim, Tzion L'Nefesh Chaya and Mitoroson shel Rishonim, that he had discovered the manuscript of the Makor Chaim that was written by the author of the Chavas Yair, and then proceeded to copy a section of it into these two sefarim.
"My father immediately sent Rabbi Leiter a letter asking for information about the manuscript, but the letter arrived the day after he was niftar. So my father turned to Rabbi Leiter's cousin, Rabbi Moshe Leiter, to find out which libraries Rabbi Leiter frequented and then proceeded to send letters to these libraries asking about the manuscript. One responded in the affirmative, adding that that the manuscript is missing the first thirty pages, of course.
“The Makor Chaim was published in 1982, and the second volume in 1984. Later on, Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Aurbach, zt"l, requested that it be included as an appendix to Machon Yerushalayim's edition of the Shulchan Aruch. Today, this great posek's monumental work is used by rabbonim throughout the world."
I need to mention, as I sit in my study preparing this article for publication, that my husband, Rabbi Dovid Shapiro, an expert on Hebrew manuscripts, and Rabbi Zev Wolff Leiter's grandson, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Leiter, shlita, are editing Rabbi Zev Wolf Leiter's notes on the Rambam, soon to be published as Kvod Hamelech.
France to Poland
"Rabbi Yosef Dovid Sinzheim, zt"l," Rabbi Buxbaum continues, "was Chief Rabbi of France under Napoleon and head of the French 'Sanhedrin.' Although his position obligated him to be heavily involved in French politics, he had an encyclopedic Torah knowledge and spent every possible moment immersed in limud Torah. He published one sefer in his lifetime, Yad Dovid, which is widely used today in learning Shas. The Chasam Sofer eulogized him, saying, ‘He [Rabbi Yosef Dovid Sinzheim] dedicated his life to Torah, completed Shas numerous times and was completely fluent in the sefarim of the Rishonim and Achronim.’
"Over the last thirty five years, Machon Yerushalayim has published another twelve of his sefarim, and there are six more waiting to be published. Each manuscript has its own amazing story of how it was discovered.
"In the 1970s, when we published the first of Rabbi Sinzheim's sefarim, my father, Rabbi Yosef Buxbaum, traveled to
to attend a celebration in honor of the occasion. He struck up a conversation on the plane, and told his fellow passenger that he was traveling to France to celebrate the publication of a new sefer taken from old manuscripts. France
"The other passenger, a movie producer living in
, asked my father why anyone would be interested in old books. My father explained that this is the netzach, the eternity of Am Yisrael, that it binds us with our past, linking us to the giving of Torah at Har Sinai. The man was visibly moved and asked my father if he had every heard of Rabbi Eliyahu Gutmacher, zt"l. Copenhagen
"My father smiled, 'The Greidetzer?' he asked. The other passenger was so impressed that he shouted, 'Bravo!" But my father just laughed and said, 'In the Torah world, everyone knows of him.' Born in 1796, Rabbi Eliyahu Gutmacher was a talmid of Rabbi Akiva Eiger, zt"l. In 1822 he was chosen as rav of
Pleschen, Prussia, now , where he founded a yeshiva in 1839. He later moved to Greiditz, where he became known for his tzidkus and gadlus in Torah. People from throughout the world flocked to him for brachos and aitzos. Poland
"As it turned out, this movie producer who lived in faraway
was the Greiditzer's grandson and several boxes of his grandfather's manuscripts were stored in his basement. Copenhagen
"My father was moved to tears. Here he was, traveling to the impure city of
Paris, conversing with a totally secular Jew from , and there, up in the clouds, he discovered a real Torah treasure. A few months later, the movie producer showed up at Machon Yerushalayim with the boxes of manuscripts. So far, the Machon has published four volumes, which includes many of Rabbi Akiva Eiger's chiddushim as recorded by his prime talmid. The grandson was so moved by the amazing chain of events that he eventually became frum, and has children and grandchildren who are talmidei chachamim. Copenhagen
@A Case of Missing Identity
How do they identify a manuscript's author? Sometimes, like when the author signs his name, its authenticity is checked by comparing it with a different manuscript by the same author. Other times, it's like putting together a giant puzzle.
Rabbi Dovid Shapiro, who has been editing Hebrew manuscripts for close to thirty years, gives some examples to help Hamodia readers understand the challenges — and triumphs – in identifying a manuscript's author.
"I worked on the manuscripts of Rabbi Zalman Sender Kahana Shapiro, zt"l, (1851-1923), a Lithuanian gadol who moved to Yerushalayim at the end of his life. He was Rav in Maltsh and Krinik in
, and Rosh Yeshiva of Anaf Eitz Chaim. Among his talmidim were Rav Aharon Kotler zt"l, Rav Isser Yehudah Unterman, zt"l and Rav Avraham Yaffin, zt"l. His son, Rabbi Avraham Dov Shapiro, zt"l, was the last Rav of Kovno and author of D'var Avraham, which included his father's ha'oros. Rabbi Zalman Sender Kahana Shapiro exchanged chiddushei Torah with many of the gedolim of his generation, and although most of the letters that we found in his collection were signed, some weren't, so we needed to find other ways to identify them. Belarus
"One such letter was obviously an answer to a previous letter, as it referred to a previous discussion and posed questions on Rabbi Zalman Sender's response to the author's original letter. After learning through the material, I recognized it as part of a series of letters between Rabbi Zalman Sender and Rav Itzeleh Ponovitcher, zt"l, that had been published in Vezos Liyehuda, a sefer zikaron put out by the Chevron Yeshiva in 1977, and in the sefer Zecher Yitchak, a collection of Rav Itzeleh's writings. With this missing letter, the entire give-and-take of the divrei Torah that had been published in those sefarim became crystal clear, and, as a result, we were able to understand the sugya properly.
"In another case, although the letter contained a signature, it was extremely difficult to decipher. Someone thought that the last word looked like, 'm'Brisk,' 'from Brisk,' which would make sense since Rav Zalman Sender and Rav Chaim Brisker, zz"l, were first cousins and had learned b'chavrusa together. To me, however, it looked like "Pruzin," the name of a city in Belarus that was home to many famous rabbanim, including Rav Eliyahu Feinstein, commonly known as Rav Elya Pruzner, zt”l, author of Halichos Eliyahu, and grandfather of Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt"l and Rav J. B. Solovetchik, zt"l. Someone mentioned to me that one of Rav Elya Pruzner's descendents was a Jerusalem-based graphologist, and that he owned several of his grandfather's manuscripts. When we compared the handwriting, we saw that they were identical, and even had the same distinctive marks at the corner of each page. We were thus able to identify the letters as belonging to Rav Elya Pruzner.
"We knew that Rav Zalman Sender corresponded regularly with his cousin, Rav Chaim Brisker, but we did not find any of Rav Chaim's letters. I did, however, find one paper by an unidentified author which began exactly like a Torah in Rav Chaim Brisker's sefer, Rabbeinu Chaim Halevi Al HaRambam, although the ending was different. I took the paper to Rav Dovid Solovetchik, shlita, Rosh Yeshivah of Brisk, who said that yes, although it reads like his grandfather's Torah, he's not sure about the handwriting, and asked me to leave him a copy. When I returned a few days later, he told me that he recognized the handwriting. It was that of Rav Chaim's talmid, Rav Yaakov Karlinsky, zt"l, who regularly transcribed Rav Chaim Brisker's Torah for him.
"In the following example, someone brought us a notebook of chiddushei Torah written by two bachurim from Volozhin yeshivah: Rav Dovid Tzvi Hirsch, zt"l), who later married Rav Chaim Berlin's (1832-1912) daughter and became Rav of Manchester, and Rav Meir Noach Levin, who married the daughter of Rav Eliezer Yitchok Fried,Rosh Yeshivah Volozhin, and became Rav of Moscow. At first, we assumed that the notebook contained either their own chiddushim or notes they had taken from shiurim. But when I learned through it, I recognized it as almost a direct quote from the Bais Halevi, authored by Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, zt"l, (1820-1892), as well as some additional material that was never published in the Bais Halevi.
“Upon closer examination it became obvious that the notebook was transcribed from Rav Soloveitchik's original manuscript. The notebook was dated 5625 , which confirmed what we already knew, as that was the year that Rav Solovetchik left Volozhin, so we could assume that his talmidim requested to copy their rebbe's handwritten Torah into their notebook before he took leave of them. The material that had not been published in the Bais Halevi was later published in Machon Yerushalayim's Moriah Torah Journal."
@The Real Work
Once a manuscript is identified, the real work begins. People erroneously think that editors of kisvei yad are just glorified typists with a talent for deciphering hieroglyphics. But that's just a small – albeit crucial -- part of preparing the manuscript for publication. As a matter of fact, professional typists often type the manuscript before it even reaches the editor's hands, although the editor might refer back to it to check for inconsistencies and passages that were difficult for the typist to read.
What, then, goes into preparing a manuscript for publication?
Rabbi Shapiro: "Even if the author wrote the manuscript with the intention that it be published, for it to be readable, the editor needs to thoroughly familiarize himself with the subject matter so that he can properly add punctuation, sources and subtitles, as well as decipher unconventional roshei teivos. If this is done incorrectly, the meaning can be completely distorted. Although this is not absolutely necessary with familiar sefarim, with previously unpublished sefarim it is imperative. A person glancing at a new sefer to see if there's anything relevant to what he's learning, won't bother spending time trying to understand what the author is saying if it's difficult.
“If the manuscript is unclear or if parts are damaged or torn, it's the editor's responsibility to try to understand what's missing; if not every word, then at least the general idea should be explained in a note. Although there are various techniques to accomplish this, they all require a thorough understanding of the sugya, and what the author is saying, as well as a strong sense of responsibility, especially when working on a halachah sefer.
"It is much more difficult to edit a manuscript that was obviously written for the author's own use, or that we're not sure that it was written with the intent of being published, since the author might have just written his ideas so that he won't forget them before he has time to carefully consider and/or research them. Furthermore, they may be written so concisely that the meaning is obscure. There may be what appear to be errors in quotes or sources. Sometimes we only have the first draft.
"In the letters of Rav Zalman Sender Shapiro, for example, we had correspondence where the final draft of his letter was missing (since he had sent it), but we had the reply and several drafts of his original letter. Each draft put things in a different order and added additional points that were not in the others. We used all the different letters to determine what was written in the final version, and pieced together excerpts from his letters to reflect that.
"Whenever we have a manuscript that was not written with the intent of being published, we must first consider 1) if it should be published altogether 2)how to publish it in a way that is respectful to the author, especially if corrections have to be made, and 3) how to edit it so that it will be understandable to the reader. The editor has to be sure that he understands the material accurately and thoroughly.
“Sometimes explanatory footnotes are necessary, which might include references to other writings of the author or his contemporaries. In addition, the editor adds punctuation, sources and subtitles, as well as deciphering unusual roshei teivos.
"Sometimes we have manuscripts that were written by a talmid in which the talmid either wrote what he heard from his rebbi or copied his rebbi's manuscript. Although it would be a shame not to publish such chashuver material, the editor must be very cautious. Sometimes, when copying from a manuscript, the transcriber didn't understand what he was writing at all, and there are obvious errors. In such a case, after carefully learning the sugiya and the manuscript, the editor reconstructs the material, indicating his changes with brackets or footnotes.
"In all cases the editor has a heavy responsibility to accurately convey the author's intention while balancing the needs of the reader and the kavod of the author. He also has a unique opportunity to become intimately familiar with the author's style, not just his style of writing, but also his method of learning and mehalach machshavah [way of thinking]. While working on a gadol's manuscripts, the editor becomes a talmid of the author. It is a unique opportunity to be meshamesh talmidei chachamim of previous generations."
The French "Sanhedrin"
In 1807 Napoleon organized a "Sanhedrin" with seventy-one rabbis and a nasi as a propaganda play to show his favorable treatment of the Jews.
 Rav Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, 1717-1746
 Yehudah Loew ben Betzalel (1520 –1609)
 Rav of Nicholsberg and all of
. One of the gedolei haposkim and a renowned tzaddik, and held in such high esteem that even the Austrian nobility turned to him for advice. Moravia
 Rabbi Yitzchak Yaakov Rabinowitz (1854-1918)
 Rabbi Chaim Soloveitchik (1853-1918)