The Explosion of Publishers and Distributors Today for Sefarim Old and New
The Holocaust had recently ended and Harav Elya Meir Bloch, zt”l, had reestablished the Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland, Ohio. As he entered a sefarim store on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, he asked the proprietor if he could buy the sefer Ketzos Hachoshen, a sefer used often by the great lomdim in the yeshivah world.
With a derisive look, the owner climbed a ladder and took a book from a high shelf. After removing a thick layer of dust, he handed it to Rav Elya Meir and declared, “Rebbi, this is the last Ketzos that will ever be sold in America!”
Rav Elya Meir was not discouraged. He replied, “Torah will flourish here in America. And I am certain that when that time comes, there will be more Ketzos Hachoshens sold than there were from the time it was first printed [in 5548/1788] until now.”
It did not take long until that day arrived. The great yeshivos of Europe transplanted to these shores, along with new ones founded in America, blossomed exponentially. Within a short while, the sounds of Torah and the rustling of the pages of sefarim filled the country. Young, American-born bachurim absorbed the shiurim of the remnants of the citadels of Torah in Europe, and the Ketzos and Nesivos came to life once again.
The dingy sefarim stores of old have been supplanted by modern retailers whose shelves are lined with beautiful new sefarim, both classics typeset with new fonts and an abundance of footnotes, as well as offerings of a new generation of marbitzei Torah. Newspapers and signs inform lomdei Torah of the new sefarim introduced each week, and those thirsting for the dvar Hashem purchase them at a brisk pace.
Producing these sefarim involves years of effort and toil on the part of the authors and many months of labor for the publishers who bring them to print. An entire industry dedicated to the typesetting, editing, printing, distributing and marketing of these sefarim has been established to advance the dissemination of the written word of Torah.
A prominent publishing house located in Lakewood, New Jersey, has produced over one hundred kuntreisim (pamphlets) and sefarim over the past decade. Rabbi Hillel Shimon Szimonowitz, a respected talmid chacham from Beth Medrash Govoha, began his career as a member of Talmudo Beyado, a division of BMG that helps encourage and train yungeleit to write chiddushei Torah. This in turn led to joining Machon Mishnas Rav Aharon to help edit Divrei Mishpat of Harav Chaim Auerbach, zt”l (the grandfather of the Imrei Binah).
Shortly thereafter, Rabbi Szimonowitz was approached by Rav Elazar Dovid Weinberger to edit Habanim Tikach Lach, followed by Rabbi Kalman Schreiber, who entrusted him with the full publication of an important family project.
Machon Aleh Zayis was born.
“At this point, I had some experience in typesetting and editing, but I was not yet acquainted with the rest of the printing process,” Rabbi Szimonowitz relates. “I relied heavily on my father, who was familiar with the business, and he guided, advised and encouraged me at every step of the system. After this, I began accepting new projects, eventually establishing a team of 20 people whom I count on to issue quality material.
“Machon Aleh Zayis is a full-service enterprise,” Rabbi Szimonowitz says with pride. “The team we assembled can handle every step of bringing a sefer from manuscript to the sefarim stores. This includes working with the mechaber to fine tune the language so that it reads well and is well understood, choosing a well-suited, high-quality font, typesetting it so that it is aesthetically pleasing and easy to locate the desired subject, proofreading the drafts to eliminate typos and other errors which inevitably creep in, and designing a beautiful cover. Believe it or not, a sefer, as well as a book, is often judged by its cover.”
Over the years, the publishing house has produced an array of sefarim and provides personal service for each job, regardless of size. “Although we work on sefarim containing hundreds of pages,” Rabbi Szimonowitz says, “nevertheless, we take particular interest in small projects, where a mechaber wishes to print his sefer in a limited edition. It is gratifying to assist a yungerman who has toiled for months or even years to print the fruits of his labor.
“Recently, we printed a small kuntres of just 58 pages for someone who was celebrating his son’s bar mitzvah, which we managed to publish in just a few days.”
Rabbi Doniel Neustadt tasked Aleh Zayis with printing a new three-volume edition of Emes L’Yaakov on Shas by Harav Yaakov Kamenetsky, zt”l. Another major project just completed is the publication of Hamesivta – Migdal Hame’ah, a two-volume set of chiddushei Torah of the Roshei Yeshivah, alumni and talmidim of Yeshiva Torah Vodaath over the last century, released in conjunction with the Centennial Dinner which just took place this week. The 1,800 pages include many never-before published chiddushim of the illustrious Roshei Yeshivah who graced Torah Vodaath over the past century.
“We work with people from all walks of life to bring their work to market,” says Rabbi Szimonowitz. “We have expertise in translating Yiddish writings into Hebrew. We have worked with professors who wish to publish scholarly works for academia. But our heart and soul lies in helping individuals spread the light of Torah. Baruch Hashem, we have merited to accomplish a lot, and together with a dozen or so other publishing houses in Lakewood alone, there are numerous chashuve sefarim being printed each year, l’hagdil Torah ul’haadirah!”
Machon Zichron Aharon, under the leadership of Rabbi Yonason Bleier of Monsey, New York, concentrates mostly on printing sefarim of a bygone era. For over 20 years, the Machon has printed over 150 volumes containing the works of over 450 mechabrim. The sefarim released by the Machon include reprints of many of the gedolei ha’acharonim, some of which have never before been published, as well as up-to-date editions of old sefarim that are either no longer available or were in need of a fresh format.
“My zeide, Harav Eliyahu Yehoshua Geldzahler, zt”l, mechaber of the sefarim Kodshei Yehoshua, Emunas Yehoshua and Moadei Yehoshua, strongly encouraged me to be involved in serious learning when I began to seek parnassah for my family,” relates Rabbi Bleier. “While I was living in Eretz Yisrael, my father, an avid learner of Mishnayos, came to visit, and we went to Chevron to visit the kever of the Meleches Shlomo, a major commentator on Mishnayos. Someone heard of our interest and offered me the opportunity to purchase a manuscript of the Meleches Shlomo which had already been printed. A friend commented that instead of collecting kisvei yad, I should be involved in printing them. Thus, I began my work of bringing them from manuscript to market.”
When he was offered access to the notes of the Chessed L’Avraham, the grandfather of the Chida, on the Levush, Rabbi Bleier decided that the proper way to print it was by reprinting the entire Levush, a multi-volume compilation of the early Acharon Harav Mordechai Yaffe. Although the Levush is quoted extensively by the Poskim, the available editions were of old typeset and plagued with errors, which made learning the Levush and the accompanying marginal notes of the Eliyahu Rabbah quite difficult.
“The project took six years to complete,” Rabbi Bleier says. “Rav Yosef Halavan was tasked by the Levush with the printing, and he added his own hagahos. We obtained a set in which the Levush himself crossed out certain words Rav Yosef had added and made other emendations as well. When it was completed, the new edition brought the Levush back to life, and it can now be found in batei medrash worldwide! Subsequently, we have reprinted it many times, and each time we include new corrections and additions that people send to us, as we always try to improve our product.”
Machon Zichron Aharon endeavors to reprint the works of early Acharonim, and one of their major accomplishments is printing the sefarim on Shulchan Aruch that precede the major Poskim found on the side of the Shulchan Aruch. “We are all familiar with the Taz and Magen Avraham, but the Magen Avraham frequently quotes from the Nachalas Tzvi and Ateres Tzvi, [written by] a talmid of the Bach, who lived before him,” Rabbi Bleier informs us. “Of that period, there is also the Olas Shabbos and Olas Tamid. We printed three volumes of the works of these Poskim, which made them available once again to those learning Shulchan Aruch.”
The Machon also reprinted the sefarim of teshuvos that are quoted throughout the Shach, since the Tumim considers anything cited by the Shach as being immutable. “We undertook to reprint these sefarim, which date from the year 5300/1540 through the beginning of the 5400s, or the mid-1600s,” relates Rabbi Bleier. “Each volume we publish contains a biography of the author, correction of errors, additional teshuvos from kisvei yad, and footnotes to guide you to where it is quoted by later authorities. They usually sell out in two to four years, and we then reprint them, together with any improvements that were suggested. We greatly encourage people to send in their corrections, since it is impossible to catch each mistake on our own.”
Rabbi Bleier describes another division of his Machon that is involved in printing updated versions of various Midrashim. “Rav Avraham ben HaGra, in Rav Pe’alim, enumerates 80 Midrashim, many of which are not available. To date, we have reprinted over 40 Midrashim, each one with beautiful formatting and footnotes containing sources as well as alternate versions of the text.”
In all his work, Rabbi Bleier has seen hashgachah, as new manuscripts suddenly become available while working on a project. “Hashem provides us with the ability to help spread the Torah of the previous generations, which bnei Torah of our generation are thirsting to absorb.”
Rav Yisrael Wolpin printed his first sefer, Toras Yisrael on Kesubos, three and a half years ago. His son became engaged recently, and he wished to publish his chiddushim on Bava Metzia in conjunction with the chasunah.
“I had been working for three years on preparing these writings for print, and the upcoming wedding gave me the impetus to bring it to fruition. The schedule was tight, but with siyatta diShmaya, the boxes of sefarim were delivered a week before the wedding.”
In the past, it would take months if not years to print a sefer, but with today’s technology, the process is streamlined. If the mechaber types it himself, it reduces not only the time required, but also substantially lowers the cost. After it is laid out on the pages, it can be emailed to Eretz Yisrael, where printing and binding are much less expensive than in America; even with the added cost of shipping, it is far cheaper to print overseas. Transporting the sefarim by ship adds several weeks, though, and air shipment is costly.
“I was nervous that the sefarim would not arrive in time,” admits the mechaber, “but, baruch Hashem, it all worked out in the end. Now, I can redirect my tefillos that the contents of the sefer be accepted by those who learn from it.”
And as the mechaber cradles his newest composition, the passuk of “maasei yadai l’hispa’er” (Yeshayahu 60:21) comes to mind.
Rabbi Yaakov Levitz of Im Hasefer has been distributing sefarim to retailers for over three decades. A warm person with a pleasant disposition, Rabbi Levitz enjoys his part in disseminating Torah by serving as a conduit between the authors and the booksellers. “Most weeks, on average we receive two or three new sefarim, and our annual intake varies between 100 and 150 new selections,” Rabbi Levitz informs us. “Of these, about half are from American talmidei chachamim who worked for years to commit their thoughts to print. Many are regular kollel yungeleit who utilize the process of producing their sefarim as a means of obligating themselves to reach for ever-higher goals in their learning.”
Im Hasefer supplies some 30 stores on a steady basis, and another 70-odd stores contact them intermittently requesting specific sefarim for their clientele. Rabbi Levitz points out that in addition to the stores, he provides many mosdos with an assortment of sefarim they award to their students to encourage them in their limudim. “This engenders a love of sefarim at a young age, and it carries over to adulthood.”
The iconic sign that hung in the Lower East Side still adorns the front window, hovering over tables and shelves filled with thousands of sefarim, both new and old. Reb Moshe and Reb Shlomo Biegeleisen are the third generation selling sefarim in New York, and they welcome customers arriving from near and far in search of the latest publications.
“We receive between 1,500 and 2,000 new sefarim annually,” says Reb Aaron, a fourth generation involved in the family business. “Of these, about 500 are from American mechabrim. The subjects span the gamut of the Torah, including many on Shas, Halachah and drush. The customers are interested in all of these subjects. We have customers who ask us to inform them when any new sefer on a given topic arrives.”
As we speak, Avrohom Heller, an old acquaintance from my yeshivah days, respectfully interrupts our conversation to ask the price of a sefer. “I own over 50 sefarim on inyanei Shabbos,” he replies to my inquiry about his purchase, “and when something new comes out, I come in to check it out. I can’t say I know all of the sefarim I have purchased, but I try to learn from as many as I can.”
Another regular customer inquires about a recently printed sefer by a Sephardic Gadol from hundreds of years ago. “This chassidishe man is interested in this genre, and he is a regular buyer of these sefarim,” Reb Aharon tells me.
A glance at the piles on the tables and the neatly lined shelves reveals a plethora of new tomes, whose mechabrim include Chassidim, Litvaks and Sephardim. The variety of subjects include machshavah, drush, Chassidus, Halachah and lomdus.
And of course, the Ketzos Hachoshen is still a bestseller.