An example of a haskamah from Nivḥar me-ḥaruts: Kitsur sefer ha-‘ikarim (Żółkiew, 1722). (YIVO)

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An approbation or haskamah (Heb., lit., “agreement” or “approval”; pl., haskamot) is an endorsement or expression of approval of the contents of a book intended for publication, usually placed near the beginning of the text. The practice of publishing haskamot arose from diverse and sometimes overlapping motivations notably as a consequence of efforts by Italian Jewish communal governments to avoid conflict with the church. There were independent motivations as well. Thus, some early haskamot sought to establish a form of copyright protecting the author or the printer. Haskamot endorsed and praised books and their authors, which increased their appeal to potential purchasers. Present from the beginning of printing in Eastern Europe, haskamot were the fruit of negotiations involving printers, authors, and endorsers.

The Council of Four Lands twice enacted rules banning the publication of any work in Polish lands without its approval. The first such edict was issued in 1594 and was intended primarily to protect Polish printers from their competition in other lands, chiefly in the Italian territories. The second was issued in 1682 and was likely a reflection of unease regarding the spread of texts popularizing Kabbalah, and with publications by Sabbatians in particular. Thus a third motivation for approbations was to prevent the publication of works deemed heretical or unsuitable for wide circulation. And finally, the endorsement of publication in the form of a haskamah by a prestigious scholar enhanced the prestige of a work and presumably was intended to increase demand for it.

Rabbinic scholars in the early modern period discussed the application of Jewish law to the printing and circulation of books, and these discussions were sometimes reflected in the texts of approbations. One subject concerned the analogy between prohibitions on trespassing on property (Heb., hasagat gevul) and those applicable to the reprinting of books. Approbations themselves were sometimes the subject of debate, with respect to the unauthorized application of an approbation written for one book being applied to other works by the same author, and also concerning the rights of the author’s heirs. Although the granting of approbations continues to this day, some authorities in the nineteenth century disapproved of the practice altogether, such as Mosheh Sofer (Ḥatam Sofer). Through approbations it is possible to learn much about the state of the art of printing: for example, the comments on the printer Shemu’el ben Yisakhar Ber Segal, in the approbations to his editions of Shivḥe ha-Besht (1816) and the third volume of the Mishneh Torah (1817), both published in Berdichev.

Approbations can be examined to determine the existence of links of various kinds between the scholars who provided them and the authors of the works in question, as well as between the approvers and the printers. Sometimes the results of such research are surprising. For example, the assumption that there was a rigid separation between Hasidim and their opponents is belied when we learn that in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the endorsements of both the Hasidic leader Levi Yitsḥak of Barditshev and the Misnaged Ḥayim of Volozhin, disciple of the Vilna Gaon, are found in a number of works. The same is true with respect to the Hasidic leader Yisra’el the Magid of Kozhenits and a number of prominent non-Hasidic scholars. Ḥayim Halberstam, the Sandzer rebbe, signed approbations that appeared alongside those of Yosef Sha’ul Natanson, the halakhic decisor and rabbi of Lwów.

In fact, Natanson was the single greatest granter of approbations for books in Eastern Europe: he wrote about 300 haskamot. These approvals reflected his careful reading of the works in question—usually books on halakhah—and often included his reservations and comments. As a result, Natanson became known as sar ha-maskim—“prince of the approvers,” a pun on the term sar ha-mashkim, “chief butler,” which appears in the story of Joseph in Genesis.

It was not uncommon, however, for others who provided approbations to read the works they were approving only cursorily or not at all. Thus, Yeḥezkel Landau gave an approbation to Yen Levanon (1775) by Naftali Herts Wessely; the work contains hints of the author’s future career as a leader of the Haskalah. By contrast, Yisra’el of Kozhenits provided approbations for books, often neglected and long out of print, whose publications he initiated. He was responsible, for example, for the reprinting of works by Yehudah Leib ben Betsal’el (Maharal).

Approbations were sometimes counterfeited. Some maskilim attached invented haskamot to their works in an effort to deceive the credulous. Yitsḥak of Satanów was a maskil known for attaching forged approbations to his works.

Suggested Reading

Zeev Gries, “Rabi Yisra’el ben Shabetai mi-Koz’nits u-ferushav ‘al masekhet Avot,” in Tsadikim ve-anshe ma‘aseh: Meḥkarim be-ḥasidut Polin, ed. Rachel Elior, Israel Bartal, and Chone Shmeruk (Jerusalem, 1994), see pp. 128, 130–131; Zeev Gries, The Book in the Jewish World, 1700–1900 (Oxford, 2007); Israel Halpern, Yehudim ve-yahadut be-Mizraḥ Eropah (Jerusalem, 1968), see pp. 78–107; Naḥum Rakover, Zekhut ha-yotsrim ba-mekorot ha-yehudiyim (Jerusalem, 1991), see pp. 150–153, 163–198, 203–213, 238–244, 257–261, 277–278, 287–288, 331–336, 342–383; Shaul Stampfer, “Rabi Ḥayim mi-Voloz’in ve-haskamotav,” ‘Ale sefer 4 (1977): 165–167.



Translated from Hebrew by Jeffrey Green