How a 400-Year-Old Commentary on the Book of Ruth Became a 19th-Century Bestseller

In 1891, a commentary on the book of Ruth titled Shoresh Yishai (“The Root of Jesse”) was published in Sighet—the birthplace of Elie Wiesel and a major ḥasidic center in what is now Romania, and was then Hapsburg Hungary. Elli Fischer describes the work:

Shoresh Yishai was composed by Rabbi Shlomo Alkabetz, best known as the author of [the Friday night hymn] L’khah Dodi, and first published in Constantinople in 1561, during the author’s lifetime. The commentary is quite extensive; despite the extreme brevity of the book of Ruth, the first edition of Shoresh Yishai is 191 pages. Alkabetz discusses a wide range of topics, many of which are tangential to the text. Shoresh Yishai was republished in Lublin a few decades later. . . . In the late 1800s, a young man named David Shmuel Katz of Felsöneresznicze, Hungary (now Novoselytsya, Ukraine) decided to reissue the book.

At the time, it was common for publishers and authors to receive orders for a book in advance, known as prenumeranten, to fund its publication. Through careful study Fischer and his colleagues were able to determine some 400 locales—all in the vicinity of the author’s hometown, in what is now the intersection of Slovakia, Romania, Hungary, and Ukraine—from which the prenumeranten originated. The entire list of subscribers takes up a full 30 pages, far more than what could be expected for such a book:

The typesetter . . . writes in a colophon that David Shmuel Katz died before he could complete the work, leaving his wife, Nisl Gitl, a widow, and his four young children orphans. He explains that they have nothing and pleads with “our brothers, the children of Israel” to perform an “act of kindness” and purchase the book. Then there is a letter from the widow, Nisl Gitl.

After her husband’s death, it was her brother, Tzvi Elimelekh Naiman, who undertook to travel . . . to every one-horse town in the countryside . . . to sell his brother-in-law’s book in support of his sister and her four young children. [But the widow’s letter doesn’t] capture the extraordinary response of the thousands of people who transformed this book into a bestseller out of compassion for a widow and four orphans.

It is fitting, Fischer concludes, that the Shoresh Yishai is a commentary on the book of Ruth—traditionally read on the holiday of Shavuot, which begins at sundown this evening—since, according to the Talmud, it was included in the Bible because it is a tale of deeds of lovingkindness.

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More about: Book of Ruth, Books, Hungarian Jewry, Shavuot

Will Tensions Rise between the U.S. and Israel?

Unlike his past many predecessors, President Joe Biden does not have a plan for solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Moreover, his administration has indicated its skepticism about renewing the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. John Bolton nevertheless believes that there could be a collision between the new Benjamin Netanyahu-led Israeli government and the Biden White House:

In possibly his last term, Netanyahu’s top national-security priority will be ending, not simply managing, Iran’s threat. This is infinitely distant from Biden’s Iran policy, which venerates Barrack Obama’s inaugural address: “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

Tehran’s fist is today otherwise occupied, pummeling its own people. Still, it will continue menacing Israel and America unless and until the internal resistance finds ways to fracture the senior levels of Iran’s regular military and the Revolutionary Guards. Netanyahu undoubtedly sees Iran’s growing domestic turmoil as an opportunity for regime change, which Israel and others can facilitate. Simultaneously, Jerusalem can be preparing its military and intelligence services to attack Tehran’s nuclear program, something the White House simply refuses to contemplate seriously. Biden’s obsession with reviving the disastrous 2015 nuclear deal utterly blinds the White House to the potential for a more significant victory.

To make matters worse, Biden has just created a Washington-based position at the State Department, a “special representative for Palestinian affairs,” that has already drawn criticism in Israel both for the new position itself and for the person named to fill it. Advocated as one more step toward “upgrading” U.S. relations with the Palestinian Authority, the new position looks nearly certain to become the locus not of advancing American interests regarding the failed Authority, but of advancing the Authority’s interests within the Biden administration.

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Read more at 19FortyFive

More about: Benjamin Netanyahu, Iran, Joe Biden, U.S.-Israel relationship