The reason why I point this out is because in two prominent places scholars who knew a great deal about Hirsch severely criticized a third author, who wrote a book about Hirsch, for not only thinking it meant "Letters from the North," but even claimed that Hirsch consciously meant to parallel the Rambam's Iggeret Teiman, or "Letter to Yemen," since תימן, teiman also means "South" in Hebrew.
First of all, what's the hava amina, why would someone think it meant North in the first place? Tzafon is a far more common word than tzafun; in fact, most people would assume the primary meaning of צפון is North. Secondly, "North" makes sense because of the geographical origin of these letters by a young rabbi in Germany (in Norddeutschland, no less).
Here is the title page:
And here is the title page of the 1890 Hebrew translation, where it is pointed tzafon, north:
This edition, translated by Rabbi Moshe Zalman Aaronsohn, contains an approbation by R. Yitzchak Elchanan who writes that he himself encouraged the author to make this translation while Hirsch was yet alive. He writes that Aaronsohn has a letter from him to that effect.
In 1976 Rabbi Noah H. Rosenbloom published his book Tradition in an Age of Reform: the Religious Philosophy of Samson Raphael Hirsch. In a 1o-page review in Tradition, Mordechai Breuer (the eminent historian, not the Masorete) fiercely criticizes the book (and, truth to be told, the author). Breuer, who happened to be a great-grandson of R. Hirsch himself, was qualified to write such a critical review. In addition to being an accomplished historian, he was an expert in German Jewry and Hirsch. I am not, but I decided to focus on one narrow point of his harsh review.
Rosenbloom felt that there were many parallels between Hirsch and Maimonides, and he thought the former consciously modeled himself on the latter. Here is a lengthy quote from the review:
Hirsch, Rosenbloom reveals to us, was driven by an unquenchable ambition to emulate Maimonides, to assume Maimonides's mantle, to become the Maimonides of the modern era (pp. 126, 398). What are the facts underlying this psychoanalysis? Hirsch consciously or subconsciously selected titles and pen names that cannot be explained unless we presuppose this innermost desire to become a second Maimonides. To take only one example out of many: "The Hebrew title of Hirsch's . . . Nineteen Letters . . . - Igrot Tzafon (Letters to the North) - parallels Maimonides's Iggeret Teman (Letter to the South). It suggests that Ben Uziel - Hirsch's pen name - hoped to resolve the religious dilemma for the Jews of the North, a euphemism for Germany in Haskalah literature, just as Ben Maimon - Maimonides - had helped to solve the religious problem of the Jews of the South approximately seven centuries earlier" (p. 125). Very good! Only that there is one little mishap, caused by the annoying habit of Hirsch's to omit supplying vowel points for his Hebrew titles. Hirsch never called his book Igrot Tzafon but Igrot Tzafun (Letters of the Concealed One, i.e., one who conceals his name),11 and it is really a pity to make Rosenbloom's psychoanalytical edifice come tumbling down over just one tiny vowel dot. It would have been pointless to dwell on Rosenbloom's jeux d'esprit at any length had he at least had the good sense to confine them to a footnote. But no! he roams on for pages, including plenty of learned notes (see especially p. 428 n. 41 !), with his pseudonymystic pilpul - "mountains suspended on a hair" which on closer examination turns out to be non-existent.
You always need to look up footnotes. So if you look at number 11, which supports the point that the title means "concealed," not "North," you'll see the following:
11. See M. Cohen, loc. cit., Hirsch's letter to Z.H. May, 8th September 1835."
The loc. cit. refers to "M. Cohen, "Hundert Jahre Neunzehn Briefe," in Jahrbuch fur die Judischen Gemeinden in Schleswig Holstein, Nr. 8, 1936-37, p. 20.
In other words, to know that Iggerot Tzaf_n is TzafUn you'll need to look at a letter of R. Hirsch's which was published 100 years after the book. Okay, Rosenbloom should have looked at a wider amount of literature, including this letter, but perhaps it isn't wrong to say that his error wasn't astounding, unbelievable, ridiculous.
It seems like a reasonable mistake, one which in fact almost required reading the author's mind, if not his private correspondence. Naturally one wished to look up "M. Cohen, "Hundert Jahre Neunzehn Briefe," in Jahrbuch fur die Judischen Gemeinden in Schleswig Holstein, Nr. 8, 1936-37, p. 20. Strangely, the Google oracle turns up only one single result - Breuer's own review in Tradition - for the following search: "Hundert Jahre Neunzehn Briefe" +cohen. Searching for the Jahrbuch itself also reveals that it is a very obscure source.
So I submit that not only before 1936-7 did most people not realize it was "Concealed," as R. Hirsch evidently said in his private letter, but even after 1936-7 most people would not have realized this, and they could be forgiven for it. In fact to me it seems that it is Breuer himself who widely disseminated the true meaning of the title.
Secondly, if most people probably didn't realize the true nature of the title until 1936 (or later) then how did R. Hirsch expect people to realize it? I submit that he did not. He was therefore probably making a pun - it means both "North" AND "Concealed." I did in fact research how people understood the title before Breuer and as far as I can tell NO ONE ever understood it to mean "Concealed," which is possibly the reason why Breuer can only cite a 1936 source for it (even though it is actually an 1835 letter). That said, I do not preclude the possibility that the Hirsch family kept a tradition of what it meant and Breuer was simply citing the only thing he could cite. But if so, the alleged family tradition seems to have been unknown outside of it.
The point is, it isn't as if loads of people throughout the years correctly understood it. Rosenbloom was just following the meaning that probably even Breuer himself would have subscribed to except that he had seen the obscure source (or had a tradition, which he himself did not claim). Like I said, although the letter shows that it meant "Concealed" to Hirsch, I am pretty sure it also meant "North," in which case the mountain has a resting place after all.
The next source, which simply follows Breuer and acts as if of course everyone who knows anything knows that it means "Concealed," is Joseph Elias in his annotated edition of the 19 Letters. He writes that "This secretiveness about the author was underlined by the Hebrew title, Iggros Tzafun, Letters of the Concealed One - not Iggros Tzafon, Letters to the North, as misread by Professor Rosenbloom. Here, as elsewhere, he was misled by his thesis that Rabbi S.R. Hirsch was aspiring to the mantle of the Rambam and therefore wrote this work as a counterpart to the latter's Iggeres Teiman."
As an aside, Dayan I. Grunfeld compares the 19 Letters to Maimonides' Guide to the Perplexed in his edition of Horeb - the same edition which Elias goes on to cite in the next few sentences. Again, perhaps Rosenbloom was not so audaciously incompetent after all.
So why is this a Shadal post? Because I noticed an interesting letter in Shadal's Epistolario (his collected letters in Italian, French and Latin) all about the 19 Letters, which also assumes that it meant "Letters from the North." Writing to A. V. Randegger on January 29, 1837, Shadal writes "La da voi procuratami lettura delle letter del Nord (אגרות צפון) mi fece godere alcuni momenti deliziosissimi." In other words, Randegger had sent him some excerpts from the book, and Shadal loved it. He thought it was delicious (his words).
This indicates, once again, that the average reader could be forgiven for thinking it was tzafon since even Shadal, no casual reader of Hebrew, also thought so. Again, not only was Rosenbloom perhaps making a reasonable error, he may well have even been right, if Hirsch was punning as I think he might have been.
I have to say that I came across this letter well before I looked into any of the other stuff, and initially I though "Cool, even the great Shadal could make a mistake," since I "knew" that it was tzafun/ concealed. But then I began thinking, wait, how did I know that? It turned out that I knew it because it was what I had read or heard. And if you trace the source it all seems to go right back to this one letter published 100 years after the book itself was published and Breuer's publicizing the letter in Tradition in 1977.
That said, I will acknowledge that it was after all possible to get the meaning correctly and perhaps some did. But if so, it seems that no one pointed it out. In fact in 1927 another person published a book in Satmar with almost the same name, and it seems that he must have meant "concealed." However he was not anonymous (don't be misled by "Ish Yehudi" on the title page - link).
As for the Shadal letter (pg. 214), here are some excerpts, translated by mi amico Dan Klein:
Now this noble pride, which no Jew feels any more--or if he feels it he tries to hide it so as not to be derided for it and shamed by all--the author of the Letters of the North dares to feel it and dares to make a public profession of it. In my eyes this makes him supremely worthy of being loved and admired; that is, he is supremely loved and admired by me.If I could believe that these letters could make an equal or similar lasting impression on the souls of a good number of contemporaries, and especially young people . . . I would content myself with this deserved tribute of praise . . .But finding the author's principles too incompatible with the spirit of the age to be able to hope for any influence by them on the thought and actions of our contemporaries, I will make no scruple of telling you, since you have asked me, what I think of those principles.The fundamental principles of the Letters of the North are two: one concerns the destiny of Man, the other, that of the Israelite.
At this point Dan summarizes:
Hirsch says the destiny of man is to serve God, but very few actually do. This would seem to indicate a failing on God's part. But even assuming that serving God is merely a high goal that relatively few attain, what does it actually mean? God does not need us to serve him. If it means to obey God, every individual will think that he is obeying God merely by being true to one's own nature and personality [a very 21st century attitude!]. If it means specifically to obey God's revealed commandments, Shadal agrees that this is a worthy goal, but since Revelation is not a natural phenomenon but a supernatural one, we can't speak of man's "natural" destiny to serve God. Besides, such Revelation is not recognized or believed in by everyone, so obedience to it can't be regarded as a universal goal. Shadal goes on to say that he will reserve his thoughts about the "destiny of the Israelite" for another letter (but I wonder if he ever wrote it).
Dan concluded by pointing out to me that "It seems a little odd to me that Shadal chose to harp on one point (correctly or not) when there is so much more to speak about in the Nineteen Letters. But as we know, he liked to call them as he saw them, and if that's what he felt was most important, so be it."
I would reply to Dan that it seems to me that Shadal was not writing about the book, but only excerpts which his correspondent has copied for him. He probably would have had more to say about the book if he had read it. However, it is interesting that in the one letter from Shadal to Hirsch (Iggerot Shadal pg. 1063-64) we see the following salutation:
,לכבוד הרב הגדול, החכם מפואר, היקר בדורו כבן עוזיאל, מן השרידים אשר ה' קורא לנהל את עמו בימי הנסיון כש"ת מהר"ר הירש רועה צאן קדשים בעיר ואם בישראל ניקאלסבורג והגליל נרו יאיר ויזהר בקהל מצדיקי הרבים ככוכבים לעולם ועד
This 1849 letter is not that remarkable, for it is merely a recommendation for his close student L. E. Igel. Igel was a native Galician. Here's an interesting letter by Igel regarding the Italian method of learning (link). Also, see pp. 52b -53a of Lev Ha-ivri about Rabbi Meir Ash's letter severely criticizing the Padua Seminary and Igel's יובל שי in particular.