A haskama is a letter of approbation, recommendation or endorsement from a noted rabbinic scholar that one might receive for a book one has written or for a ruling one has issued. In addition to endorsing the work, a haskama letter might also include further sources, comments, and opinions on what the author has written. The haskama letter is also a method of ensuring that there is no heretical material in the book. A haskama letter from a reputable rabbi assures readers that the contents of the book are consistent with Orthodox thought.
Early haskama letters also served as a form of copyright to protect the author or the printer from any unauthorized reproduction. Haskama letters often include significant praise for the book and especially for the author, all of which is intended to increase the book’s appeal to potential purchasers. Even today, it is not uncommon for authors and even publishing houses to plead or negotiate for haskama letters from specific rabbis in order to better appeal to a targeted constituency. For these and other reasons, authors are anxious to secure haskama letters from prominent rabbis, often from as many rabbis as possible. Haskamot are usually written in poetic rabbinic Hebrew, though haskamot in other languages are not uncommon.
It is not widely known that the practice of securing and publishing haskama letters originated with the Catholic Church. The Church instituted a requirement for authors of theological works to receive an endorsement before they could be published. Clergymen were also required to receive a similar type of endorsement before they could practice. In this way, the Church was able to better monitor what kind of material their followers were being exposed to.
It has also been suggested that haskama letters proliferated as a result of a papal action of 1553 in the dispute between the publishing houses of Bragadini and Giustiniani, which resulted in the burning of the Talmud. The Church actually began banning books as early as the fourth century. Once the printing press was invented and offered the world unprecedented access to books, the Church was forced to work overtime in its scrutiny of books. For example, Alexander VI (1431-1503) decreed that one must receive a “license” from the bishop for religious books appearing in Germany. In 1515, at the Fifth Lateran Council, Leo X extended this rule to all Catholic countries with the threat of heavy penalties for noncompliance. The requirement for licenses and haskamot actually worked to the advantage of the Jewish community. This is because Catholic officials would often rely on the rabbinic haskamot to ensure that there was no “heretical” material in the books that would “justify” burning them as the Talmud had been burned. The sefer Yad Kol Bo by Rabbi David Lida actually included a haskama from a Catholic clergyman certifying that the book had no heretical material. Rabbi Lida presumably allowed such a haskama to be printed in order to save his book from overzealous Christians who might burn it should they be led to believe otherwise.
Since haskamot were of non-Jewish origin, the practice of acquiring and publishing them was not widely welcomed at first, and a number of prominent sefarim were published without any haskamot. Rabbi Yonatan Eibeshitz, in the introduction to his work Kreiti U’pleiti, conveys at great length his opposition to the practice of securing and publishing haskama letters. Among his grievances with haskama letters is that they have become a conduit for flattery and underserved praise for authors, leading to arrogance and falsity. Rabbi Eliezer Papo writes similarly in his Pele Yoetz (s.v. “Ga’ava”) that authors who request haskama letters are essentially just seeking honor and praise.
Only after the Shabtai Tzvi disaster and the messianic fever that followed did haskamot truly become mainstream, in order to ensure that a book does not contain any heretical ideas. By the eighteenth century, there was hardly a book that did not feature the customary haskamot. Rabbi Yosef Shaul Nathanson wrote over 300 haskama letters in his lifetime. The Vilna Gaon gave only three haskamot in his lifetime. Two of them were given to Rabbi Aryeh Leib Epstein of Konigsberg, the author of the Sefer Hapardes and other works.
On June 21, 1554, a convention of Italian rabbis was held at Ferrara, presided over by Rabbi Meir Katzenellenbogen of Padua. They decreed, among other matters, that no Torah book be published without the haskama of at least three rabbis. Anyone who ignored this decree was to be fined and the proceeds donated to charity. The Polish Council of Four Lands also banned the publication of any work in Poland without its approval. The first such decree was issued in 1594 and was intended primarily to protect Polish printers from their competitors in other countries, mainly in Italy. The second decree was issued in 1682 and was the result of the Shabtai Tzvi messianic fervor, which was then rampant. Similar enactments were made by the rabbinical councils of Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Prague and other places. Between 1499 and 1850, some 3,660 haskamot were issued, the majority in eastern Europe. The majority of haskamot issued in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries originated in the centers of Hebrew printing, such as Venice, Amsterdam and Constantinople.
Haskama letters also have a history of being forged and abused. Often their place, date, and even content were intentionally altered to deceive readers. Authors who were unable to secure for themselves a haskama letter from reputable rabbis would simply forge the haskamot along with their accompanying signatures, as did Nechemia Havon in his Hakolot Yechdalun (Amsterdam, 1725). Some rabbis, such as Samson Wertheimer, chief rabbi of Hungary and Moravia, only issued haskamot to relatives or scholars who were poor. Indeed, even today some haskamot will include a plea that people purchase the book in order to support the author.
It is not uncommon for rabbis to read little or none of the manuscript of books for which they are issuing a haskama. In fact, many rabbis aren’t even especially qualified to write a haskama on the material they endorse. This situation is justifiable since haskama letters are more often granted in order to endorse the author rather than the material written. There were also rabbis who used their haskama letters as platforms to disqualify similar works by other authors, as did Rabbi Yechezkel Landau in his haskama to the Prague Pentateuch of 1785.