Monday, March 23, 2009

R. Moshe ben Yitzchak Edri, Sambatyon1 scholar, on the most appropriate languages to translate Hebrew into

Rabbi Moses Edrehi (1774-1842) was born in Morocco and spent several years traveling and living in Europe while, apparently, on the way to settling in the the land of Israel. He wrote several Hebrew works (Yad Moshe, Toras Chaim and Ma'aseh Nisim). Apparently he became quite popular in England, being a very interesting character. The last named work of his, having been printed in Amsterdam in 1817, was translated2 into English and published in London in 1834 as "The Book of Miracles; Being an Important Account of the River Sambatyon in the East." The book was a pet project about a very important issue to him, namely the whereabouts of the Lost Ten Tribes. Bibliophiles will note and appreciate his stated use of the library of Salomon Dubno in Amsterdam.

The book, which was printed with the money raised from subscriptions, begins with several approbations (called "certificates") from non-Jewish and Jewish acquaintances attesting to Edrehi's good character and the interesting content of the work. Below is one from the Spanish-Portugese Chief Rabbi Haham Rafael Meldola (who died in 1828, two years after writing this, which shows how long it took for the book to actually be published).

As indicated, he was a resident of London for years, and became quite well known, to the extent that he and his peculiar manner of speech (a mixture of English, Hebrew, Aramaic, French, Spanish, German [Yiddish?] and Arabic) was parodied in a play-like format printed in the Noctes Ambrosianæ section of the periodical Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine from 1829. Here's a sample:

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As I said, he was quite popular and his accounts of the Ten Tribes and the river Sambatyon made a great splash among an interested public, much to the exasperation of more rationalist elements. A footnote in a book about fairy tales from 1833:

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(The author of this book was an acquaintance; he cites Edrehi for providing a translation for him.)

Or this:

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There you have it. An"extremely orthodox river." This in an English translation of Tseʾenah U-reʾenah, no less!

The book is well worth reading, it is very, very interesting. A 2nd edition was printed in America in 1853, and you can download that version here. At the end is appended his ethical will to his children. It contains the usual exhortations to study Torah, give tzedakah and ma'aser and a command to raise funds for the establishment and maintenance of a yeshiva (not in the modern sense, of course; his vision is for a steady group of at least ten).

One senses that this version, in English, is truncated from the original Hebrew (which I have not seen) because he then goes on to explain what he thinks about translation from Hebrew:
All I have here stated to you is confirmed from
the Holy Text, and various sacred writings; and I
could add much more, but I cannot transfuse the
force and beauty of the original Hebrew into an
English translation. Indeed the sacred tongue can
only be translated, with propriety, into the Spanish
language, which has been used in all the congregations
of the Sphardim from the time of their first
establishment in Spain to the present day, in all
parts of the globe, wherever the Spanish and Portuguese
Jews have been scattered, in Europe, Asia,
Africa, and America. This language is used by
them in all kinds of ceremonies ; and the best Hebrew
authors have written and published in the Spanish
The principal languages into which the Hebrew
can be properly translated are : 1st, Arabic ; 2d,
Spanish; 3d, Italian; 4th, High German; 5th, French.
It is true that Hebrew admits of being rendered into
other languages, so as to have its meaning explained;
but not in so correct a manner as in those languages
I have enumerated. But this is a digression from my
subject, though I thought it necessary to allude to this
matter in case of any criticism upon my translation of
Hebrew into English.
Now that is quirky.

You can read a very positive review of the work here. For more information about him, some of which is quite sad and some of which is highly unfortunate, see here. Apparently after many years of misfortune he achieved his goal and arrived in the Holy Land in 1841.

1 The Sambatyon is a legendary river of rabbinic literature, which is cannot be crossed six days a week due to raging currents which spit up boulders. However, the waters are still every Satruday. Beyond the river Sambatyon live the Lost Ten Tribes of Israel! The connundrum is apparent: neither they nor other Jews (all of whom were assumed to be Sabbath-observant) can cross on Saturday, the only day it would be possible. In legend, the Ten Tribes live a kind of idyllic existence, much like the dreamed-of Messianic future. If you're childhood yeshiva education was like mine, you were taught that such a place definitely exists. The problem is, if you violated Shabbat and crossed it, you'd promptly be tried and stoned.

Josephus has a parallel to the Sabbath River, basing himself on Pliny the Elder, only his is dry six days a week and fills and flows every Shabbat.

In Edrehi's book, he notes that he personally has seen sand timers made of gravel from the Sambatyon--and it doesn't move and it doesn't work on Shabbat!

Last year there was a widely reported hoax about the discovery of a never-encountered Amazon tribe. This blog referred to it as a positive sign regarding the Sambatyon, being that previously unknown corners of the earth are still being discovered (via). That may be, but this lost tribe in the Amazon wasn't really undiscovered.

It is interesting to note that in the late 1830s a group of four young whippersnapper maskilim of Lemberg published two volumes of attacks, called Ha-roeh [The Spectator and Critic of Contemporary Works]
, on the scholarship and religious commitment of the heavyweights of their time (eg, Shir Rapoport, Samuel David Luzzatto, etc.). Among the charges leveled at a scholar (none of the aforementioned) was that he denied the existence of the Sambatyon, contra the Talmud!

While this might sound amazing today, and it might also seem amazing that R. Moshe Edrehi garnered such an interested audience, it should be borne in mind that in the first part of the 19th century the world was not a global village, and Europe had begun making forays into the unexplored corners of the Asia and Africa (we'll not discuss the horror they brought in their wake). Quite literally every week new and amazing things were brought to the attention of the European literary world. New peoples, new customs, new artifacts. Humankind's secrets were being revealed to the West. In volume II of Iggerot Shadal there is a letter from Luzzatto to Abba Isak, an elder Ethiopian Jew, with a list of twelve questions about their heritage and beliefs. It was written in 1849 and is reminiscent of such famous epistles as Shemuel ha-naggid's to Joseph, king of the Khazar Jews. Not quite the way one relates to the remoteness of the world today. Thus, it hardly would have seemed unlikely to many that there really is a Sambatyon.

2 It remains unclear to me if he himself translated it. At the very least, he must have had someone review and edit his text, if the translation was his own.

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