Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Was Maimonides's last name Sitzel? Of course not.

Below is a great discussion of the problems of library cataloging.

The appendix referred to is, sadly, not online (yet) but is called the 'Appendix to the Report of the Commissioners appointed to inquire into the Constitution and Management of the British Museum.' This report (and appendix) was issued in 1850. Matters concerning Hebrew (excuse me, Oriental) books were written by the Hebraist Christian Heinrich Friedrich Bialoblotzky (1799-1869). The aforementioned Bialloblotzky was referred to by a contemporary as "a converted Polish Jew, of portentous learning and amazing subtlety and minuteness of familiarity with the sacred languages." He was also the translator of The chronicles of Rabbi Joseph ben Joshua ben Meir, the Sphardi in two volumes, the עמק הבכא of Yoseph Hakohen.

As you can see, here he touched upon a very real problem. Many people - and not just Jews and other "Orientals" - were known by a few different names. How do you pick one, how do you make sure there aren't multiple entries for the same person, and how do you avoid embarrassing errors like "Rabbi Moses Bar Maimon Sitzel" (זצ"ל) when dealing with thousands and thousands of books?

The reviewer of the Appendix put the problem into broader context thusly: "In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries people were sadly ashamed of their own vernacular names, and would have them transferred into either Latin or Greek. A certain German whose family inherited the name of Sch warzerd or Black earth, was so ashamed of its barbarism that he had its meaning translated into Greek, and so gave distinction to the name of Melanchthon."

Strangely enough, the ultimate suggestion proposed was to carefully apply a consonant by consonant rendering as best as the English alphabet could support, but "the vowels will be taken in their Italian value." Huh? This would "would decide the question whether we should write Zacut, or Socuto, or Zacuto; Moses, Mose, Mosche, or Mosce; Quimchi or Kimchi ; Mishnah or Meshne."

Who knew bibliography could be so amusing?


  1. I thought his last name was Adler!

  2. As someone who works in a Jewish library, I can confirm that this is still a problem. Our solution is to catalogue the name on the title page, but to set the catalogue so that searches for the variant names will still bring up the book, but it is a far from infallible system.

  3. "Who knew bibliography could be so amusing?"

    I'm sure Lion of Zion knew.

  4. The two libraries have been housed together since at least the early 19th Century, but the King's Library is kept separate- so perhaps the cataloging is different? I doubt it, but it's possible.

    Your post reminded me of this one, which someone linked to on this blog some time ago:


    "If you look for Master Leo Abarbenel, you won't find your man. Your man, in fact, being Yehuda ben Yitzhak Abravanel, also known as Judah Leon Abrabanel, Isaacus Abravanel, or even simply as Leone Ebreo—Leon the Hebrew. Damn those polyonymous Jews."

  5. Ha. It wasn't the polyonymous Jews who decided to call him Leone Ebreo or Isaacus Abravenel, etc.



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