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

May 28, 2020 | Elli Fischer
About the author: Elli Fischer, a rabbi, writer, and translator, is pursuing graduate studies in Jewish history at Tel Aviv University.

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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