The Orthodox Rabbinate as a Global Network, According to HaMeassef, a Periodical Published in Jerusalem, 1895–1915

Zvi Zohar    Bar Ilan University

Menahem Blondheim    Hebrew University

The Orthodox Rabbinate as a Global Network, According to HaMeassef, a Periodical Published in Jerusalem, 1895–1915

HaMeassef represents a revolutionary turn in both Hebrew journalism and the orthodox rabbinate. It was a platform for rabbinic writing that was of worldwide scope of both contributors and subscribers. Founded in 1895 by the Jerusalemite Sephardic rabbi Ben-Zion Cuenca, the periodical appeared consecutively for 20 years, until the economic and political cataclysms of WW1 undermined its viability and forced its proprietor-editor to give up publication.

A preliminary survey of the periodical’s issues reveals that articles and submissions were received from rabbis from all five continents, some of them well known, others quite obscure. Each monthly issue of HaMeassef included more than 20 textual units, composed by different rabbis. Many of them were responses to articles or comments printed in previous issues of the journal, and the strings of comments and responses relating to earlier posts could continue for several months. Each edition included a variety of rabbinic genres: responsa, novellae, sermons, biblical exegesis, et. al.

HaMeassef thus served as a global network of rabbinic contact and creativity, whose central node was Jerusalem. Study and analysis of this unique periodical can therefore shed light on a wide variety of research topics relating to the rabbinate, to rabbinic writing and cultural creativity, and to Jewish existence as a networked phenomenon on the local, international and global levels.

This project makes possible for the first time an analysis of the religious and ideational interactions between rabbis the world over. It can chart mutual influence and salient characteristics of their ongoing conversations. Are some issues regional while others are global? Do all share common religious views and values, or are there salient local and regional differences? Are the answers to these questions stable over time, or can we see that things change and develop over the course of the 20 years during which HaMeassef appeared?

This unique project of the Da’at HaMakom research center is expected to provide preliminary answers to these key questions. In order to reach significant findings with regard to these and other questions, we intend to employ a combination of quantitative and qualitative tools, that will enable us to portray matters such as:

  1. The geographical extent of rabbinic interactions, revealing inter alia changes over time, the rise and decline of rabbinic centers and developments in the geographical spread of contributors to the journal
  2. The creation of links between individual rabbis from various locals and areas, and how such links developed over time. These links can be placed onto geographical maps that will portray rabbinic conversations and interactions in visual detail.
  3. The centrality of specific topics in rabbinic discourse and debate, and the ways in which such issues wax and wane over time and regions.
  4. A comparison of such issues as reflected in HaMeassef with the salience of these issues in other forms of rabbinic writing (e.g., works of responsa) during the same (or other) period(s) may prove to be of great interest. Such comparison will inter alia enable researchers to see if the very existence and vitality of the journal itself was influential in setting the agenda of rabbinic discourse during these years.
  5. In addition, we hope to be able to trace ways in which issues that began as local problems transformed into matters of worldwide rabbinic concern,  and to identify locations (and rabbis) that were more significant than others in the creation of such international agendas.

The first stage of this project included high quality scanning and digitation of the corpus, jointly funded by Da’at HaMakon and by JPress. At this point in time, it is possible to read the entire journal online and to execute certain searches via the JPress website, here.

In the currently ongoing second stage, Da’at haMakom is preparing a website that will provide researchers with advanced software for analysis of the entire corpus of HaMeassef, and the capabilities of this software will then be upgraded in the project’s third stage.