Monday, June 13, 2011

Some notes about the Vilna Gaon's librarian, or, Math is fun.

In Solomon Maimon's justly-famous autobiography he writes that after teaching himself to read German, and after getting a vague sense of science in traditional books he had the following problem: no science books.
I wished to get an insight into the sciences, not as they are veiled in fables, but in their natural light. I had already, though very imperfectly, learned to read German; but where was I to obtain German books in Lithuania? Fortunately for me I learned that the chief rabbi of a neighbouring town, who in his youth had lived for a while in Germany, and learned the German language there, and made himself in some measure acquainted with the sciences, continued still, though in secret, to work at the sciences, and had a fair library of German books.

I resolved therefore to make a pilgrimage to S___, inorder to see the chief rabbi, and beg of him a few scientific books. I was tolerably accustomed to such journeys, and had gone once thirty miles [the English translator explains that this is equivalent to 150 English miles] on foot to see a Hebrew work of the tenth century on the Peripatetic philosophy. Without therefore troubling myself in the least about travelling expenses or means of conveyance, and without saying a word to my family on the subject, I set out upon the journey to this town in the middle of winter. As soon as I arrived at the place, I went to the chief rabbi, told him my desire, and begged him earnestly for assistance. He was not a little astonished; for, during the thirty one years which had passed since his return from Germany, not a single individual had ever made such a request. He promised to lend me some old German books. The most important among these were an old work on Optics, and Sturm's Physics.

I could not sufficiently express my gratitude to this excellent chief rabbi; I pocketed the few books, and returned home in rapture. After I had studied these books thoroughly, my eyes were all at once opened. I believed that I had found a key to all the secrets of nature, as I now knew the origin of storms, of dew, of rain, and such phenomena. I looked down with pride on all others, who did not yet know these things, laughed at their prejudices and superstitions, and proposed to clear up their ideas on these subjects and to enlighten their understanding.
Although Maimon (b. 1754) obscured most of the names of people and places in his book (for example, he refers to the Maggid of Mezerich as B___ of M____) their identity has long been known. Here too, the identity of this chief rabbi of S___ is known. "S___" is Slonim, and it's chief rabbi was Shimshon ben Mordechai, who is known to have possessed a fabulous library, which was unfortunately destroyed in a fire in 1780 (he was later chief rabbi of Koenigsberg, where he died in 1794).

Solomon Maimon is not the only one to borrow books from the bibliophile rabbi of Slonim - the Vilna Gaon, too, borrowed his books. See here in the book גבורות הארי (Vilna 1870): והיה לו ספרים הרבה עד אין מספר עד שהגרא מווילנא דרש מאתו לשלוח לו איזה ספרים וסיפר לי איש אמונים שראה בעצמו המכתב אשר שלח הגר"א להגאון מוהר"ר שמשון שישלח לו איזה ספרים אך שכח איזה ספרים דרש מאתו

The author continues to relate how the library was lost in the fire, and R. Shimshon eulogized his loss in the synagogue and cried bitter tears.

Here is a brief account of Rabbi Shimshon given by Moses Mendelssohn (Frankfurter) of Hamburg's book Pene Tevel (pg. 246). This author, by the way, was the uncle of R. Samson Rafael Hirsch. He was named Moshe ben Menachem Mendel, so even though his father used the surname Frankfurter, he wrote under the name Moses Mendelssohn in tribute to the original Moses Mendelssohn, who was some decades his senior.

This particular paragraph is part of an essay called רב עם חכם ונבון הגוי הגדול הזה, which is exactly what it sounds like; a list of various rabbis and scholars who combined Torah and secular knowledge in the prior generation, when compared to Mendelssohn and Wessely everyone walked in darkness. But his point is that even in those dreary times, there were scholars who were like sparks of light, including those who esteemed secular knowledge, even if they themselves did not know these subjects well. In case you are wondering, his list begins with R. Yonasan Eybeschutz, followed by R. Yaakov Emden, followed by the Vilna Gaon.

Moses Mendelssohn fleshes out essentially the same account, but he adds the detail that Rabbi Shimshon possessed a priceless manuscript - the unpublished book בשמת בת שלמה by Yasha"r of Candia, who called this book his best work. It was the loss of this book over all the others that he lamented. Mendelssohn adds that Rabbi Shimshon was an ardent misnaged, or opponent of the Chassidim. He adds some derisive words about Chassidism in general, but makes an exception for certain scholars among the Chassidim, in particular R. Shneur Zalman of Lyadi. Of course he does not call R. Shimshon a misnaged. He calls R. Schneur Zalman a misnaged (of the Vilna Gaon).

Speaking of the book בשמת בת שלמה, in his מצרף לחכמה Yashar refers to it in the following way:
ואין שום רב או אב שמגיד לתלמידו או לבנו כל מה שבלבו ככמו אלה הענינים ותהי אמת נעדרת אבל אני נשבעתי שבספר בשמת לא אשא פנים לשום אדם ואגלה דעתי בכל דרוש ואם שגיתי ה הטוב יכפר בעד

There's no rabbi or father who tells his student or son all that is in his heart, so the complete truth is compromised. But I swear that in my book Bosmat I will hide nothing and reveal my views; if I make a mistake, God will atone for me.
Mendelssohn's essay was translated from the German original, which was serialized in the literary supplement to the Orient in 1848. Here is the paragraph about R. Shimshon, from the Literaturblatt des Orients 9 pg. 124, where the essay is called Mendelssohn's und Wessely's Zeit:

As you can see, Mendelssohn also writes that Rabbi Shimshon was an expert in geometry, astronomy and chess-playing. He also makes reference to R. Shimshon's haskamah which was printed in the Hebrew translation of the first six parts of Euclid. This refers to the 1780 Hague edition of Rabbi Baruch Schick of Shklov. This edition is well known because it contains Schick's famous statement that the Vilna Gaon told him, in January of 1778, that:

When he was in Vilna, he writes, he met the Gaon and he heard from his holy mouth that to the extent that one lacks in understanding the sciences, he will lack 100 measures in understanding the Torah, because the Torah and science are intertwined. He gave a parable of a man who is constipated, and so he sees all food as abhorrent. He also writes that the Gaon charged him to translate all he could of the sciences into Hebrew in order to stop them (i.e., the gentiles) from viewing the Jews as devoid of knowledge, and for promoting knowledge among the Jews themselves.

There is much more to discuss about this statement, but we must move on. In any case, in this book (Euclid's Elements) there are approbations from the rabbi of Hague, where the book was printed, and the rabbis of Amsterdam, as to be expected, but also one from the aforementioned R. Shimshon of Slonim.

Here is how it begins, with a historical note "explaining" to the reader that Euclid was a contemporary of Mordechai and Esther:

He goes on to continue with the same theme which Schick deals and attributes to the Gaon, the idea that the gentiles see the Jews as devoid of knowledge, and such books can remedy this, can show that the Hebrew language can handle these subjects, and enhance the standing and reputation of the Jews as a wise people. This was before Nobel prizes, you see.

Incidentally, I found a copy of the book for sale. This book store blames the lack of the original plates in this book on "orthodox readers."
First Hebrew translation of Euclid's Elements. With the three folding mathematical plates in facsimile, as usual, since orthodox readers, studying in hiding, used to tear them off lest they be accused of reading forbidden literature. Institutional stamps on title. Text unusually clean and crisp. Rare.
This is nonsense. I mean, maybe it's true that some books were defaced by "orthodox readers," but any "orthodox reader" of this book was already reading Euclid. A much better explanation is that foldout plates in 230 year old books are often missing because 230 years is a very long time and like all valuable things, books attract vandals and thieves.

Here's an example of one of the missing pages in that copy:

Also of interest are Schick's other writings, such as דרך ישרה (Hague 1779), which included a medical lexicon, translating the Latin terms to Hebrew. For example, if you ever wondered how one would say anorexia or flatulence in the 18th century in Hebrew, simply flip to page 22 of this book:

The purpose of this section, and similar works, is to enhance the Hebrew language's potential. The fact that such activity was occurring in the 18th century (and indeed had occurred throughout all the centuries) calls into question the notion that modern Hebrew is an impious artifact of the 19th century.


  1. Is there any information on what בשמת בת שלמה was about?

  2. Yes, but only vaguely. It's described as an encylopedic work dealing with various sciences, math and metaphysical questions. I think there may be one or two quotations from it in other works, but I don't remmember.

  3. The Basemath books sounds really keen. No extant manucripts of it, then?

  4. "on foot to see a Hebrew work of the tenth century on the Peripatetic philosophy."

    Is that a joke? :-)

    I don't get the constipation story.

  5. >Is that a joke? :-)

    No! It may be an exaggeration, it may be an error on the date of the work he meant, it may even have been a lie - but it was certainly no joke.

    As for the Gra's parable, I agree that it's not so accessible. But I believe his point is that food is good for you even if you feel disgusted by it because of the stuffed feeling of being constipated. So too the chochmas - even if it disgusts a man, it's only because of how he feels, not because they're not good for you.

  6. I think you should update the wikipedia article on Delmedigo as it makes no mention of Bosmas.

  7. I don't really do Wikipedia very much. You can update it. :-)

  8. By "joke," I meant the idea of walking on *foot* to get a book on the *peripatetic* school.


    Thank you! Try the veal!

  9. Eep. Sorry. Don't get the veal reference. Sounds like Monty Python. ;-)

  10. In the account of his stay in Mezritch he also mentions Z_ of H_ and M_ of R_. Have these been identified?
    My guess is Zusya of Hanipoli and Mendel of Riminov.

  11. That's the stereotype of what comics say at the end of their act: "Thank you! I'll be here all week! Try the veal! Tip your waiters!"

  12. At the end of the quote from the Pne Tevel there is a statement about chassidim that is not complimentary. But I guess in those days Chabad was OK as the Alter Rebbe (The Rav) is given some high praise. Is this unique to this writer or are there other german/maskil writers with the same view.

  13. For more on the mathematical writings of Solomon Maimon in a recently identified manuscript, keep an eye on the new blog of the national Library of Israel to begin publication next month (hopefully)

  14. Mendel, Chabad definitely had the best reputation as being the least objectionable type of Chassidus (pretty ironic considering nowadays, huh?). I'll look into it more and see if I can find some other primary sources.



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