Wednesday, August 10, 2011

On writing 'Elohim' with a heh or a kuph; an early, negative assessment of Louis Loewe.

Rabbi M. Torczyner has a post about why he prefers to write "God" as "Gd" (link). I don't agree with him, but I certainly agree with having reasons for doing things.

It reminded me of something in two fascinating letters in איגרות סופרים (Vienna 1929).

Before I get to the letters, let me preface it by explaining that the aforementioned book is a compilation of documents and letters to and from Rabbi Akiva Eger and the Chasam Sofer, as well as some of their children, the two rabbis being the grandfather and great-grandfather of R. Shlomo Sofer, who edited this volume. Dots appear above some of the letters in the book title ('Letters of Writers') showing that the title is allusive to the last names Eger and Sofer -איגרות סופרים- of his ancestors.

The letters are from Rabbi Solomon Hirschel of London to the Chasam Sofer who, incidentally, was the Chasam Sofer's relative by marriage at the time. If you are interested in this complex marital relationship, scroll all the way to the end of the post.[1]

The letters, dated Chanukah 1835 and February of 1836, are to the Chasam Sofer and primarily concern a problem which the rabbi had encountered. What happened was a 25 year old man had shown up in London, called
"אליעזר Dr. Löwy." The young man conducted himself with great piety (והוא כמתחסד ביתר שאת). He knows ten languages, including English. He is reputed to be a big talmid chochom, and claims that he was a candidate for rabbinic positions in Altona and Cassel. Although he had visited the Chief Rabbi a number of times, they had never spoken in learning. Only recently the man's friends had rebuked him, saying that he must visit the Av Beis Din, who would love to discuss Torah with you. So it was that two weeks prior he came, and presented the Chief Rabbi with a pamphlet he'd written, which included pilpulim concerning various Torah topics. When the Chief Rabbi tried to discuss what he'd written, the young man excused himself saying that he had a headache.

After he left he noticed in the pamphlet some biographical information about the young man, and the fact that he received semicha Morenu from the Chasam Sofer. It further stated that he had studied secular subjects in Vienna for three years. Given all that is occurring these days (an allusion to Reform and such), and as he claims to ordained by the Chasam Sofer, he wishes to know what sort of man he is. Was he a proper student? Was he learned and sharp? Can he be trusted that he wrote the pamphlet - as opposed to them being left over from his father's writings? If he is appointed to a position of authority, can he be trusted not to implement reforms? He further explains that it's amazing to see a young man who is so pious, who knows many languages. He therefore asks the Chasam Sofer to tell him what the man is all about. He closes by giving a testimonial of conduct of his own, telling the Chasam Sofer that "Dr. Piner" (i.e., E.M. Pinner) conducted himself entirely appropriately when he was in London, and it would have been better if the Chasam Sofer had left him alone (i.e., instead of knocking him).

Before I get to the second letter, I will point out that"אליעזר Dr. Löwy" is none other than Louis Loewe, who would soon become the secretary and interpreter of Moses Montefiore, accompanying him on his trips to the Middle East and Russia. In addition to writing many scholarly monographs, he also translated Isaac Baer Levinsohn's Effes Damim (against the blood libel) and part of Haham David Nieto's Matteh Dan (as part of the polemic against Reform in England), and eventually he published some of the diaries of Moses Montefiore. In addition, he was the first Principal of Jews' College.

In any case, it doesn't take too much imagination to see that the Chief Rabbi Hirschel wasn't taken by this young man, who acted so piously, was so educated, was cultivating an amazing reputation in London, and wasn't exactly paying a great deal of courtesy and respect to himself, who was almost fifty years his senior.

The second letter in Iggeros Soferim is a response to the Chasam Sofer's reply. Although we do not know exactly what he replied, it is apparent that he basically said there was nothing wrong with Loewe as far as he knew. Not necessarily a ringing endorsement, but certainly if Hirschel was looking for something negative it was not given to him. So in his reply to this letter, he tries again. He zeroes in on the Chasam Sofer's words that he saw nothing bad openly (assuming this is a direct quote - לא נראה ממנו רע בפרהסיא) and asserts that the Chasam Sofer must have decided to be nice and not go into detail about what is bad about Loewe. He continues that it's really bad for a person to act outwardly piously but conceal his negativity in his heart. I'm not exactly sure what to make of what appears next, but it seems that Hirschel took the following as evidence that Loewe was "concealing." He writes that he had been "concealing" his rabbinic diplomas from him, until Loewe's friends convinced him to show them to him. So he saw his semicha from the Chasam Sofer (called עטרת בחורים, presumably because he was unmarried) as well as a התרת הוראה from two others. Apparently he felt the language in these diplomas were over the top, and that perforce such a young man could not be such a great scholar. Furthermore, when Loewe showed him something else he had written - in London - he once again declined to discuss it with him, sort of fumbling with the pages and saying that he wasn't well. Up to this point he has yet to discuss a word of Torah with him.

Apparently Hirschel had found irrefutable evidence of Louis Loewe's deficient piety. Furthermore, writes Hirschel, what does the Chasam Sofer have to say about this? What does he think of the piety of a man who writes אשר חנני אלקים with a ה instead of a ק? Is he not guilty of transgressing the Third Commandment לא תשא?

Apparently Hirschel had also heard rumors, because he then asks the Chasam Sofer to do him a favor and tell him what happened with Loewe and the police in Vienna. Evidently realizing that he sounded like he was in a persecuting mood, if not paranoid, Hirschel then tells the Chasam Sofer not to be concerned that he's going to be hard on Loewe, he will not "repulse him with two hands," because he is not like that. He closes by asking the Chasam Sofer not to write letters for people without researching them thoroughly ("sifting thirteen times," to use the Talmudic idiom as he does).

Anyway, this is the general content of these most curious letters.

Here is a photo of the much-older Loewe (who died in 1888):

[1] Hirschel's daughter Fanny married a grandson of Rabbi Akiva Eger in 1827, although the marriage ended in divorce in 1837. As a grandson of RAE, the husband was therefore also a nephew of Rebbetzin Chasam Sofer, being a daughter of RAE. Thus, upon marriage, Hirschel's daughter became a niece of the Chasam Sofer. Rabbi Hirschel was noted at the time for his prestigious rabbinic post, piety, scholarship, yichus, and wealth, not necessarily in that order, and his was therefore a highly desirable family to marry into (his being the brother of Saul Berlin was evidently not such a black mark).


  1. although the printers of the gemara generally spell it out as in sanhedrin 72a והאלהים אמר רב yet in gittin 13b it is spelled והאלקים

  2. והוא כמתחסד ביתר שאת doesn't mean "he conducted himself with great piety" but "he took great pains to act piously" -- i.e., he vigorously acted the part of a pious person. The reflexive and the "k" give it away; the last two words are sarcastic.

  3. Good point. I was being hasty and imprecise; מתחסד is what they-who-posed-as-opposers called Chasidim, for much the same reason.

  4. I didn't catch the transition and thought you were leading us astray. Suckerpunch.

    Check out Rav Kapah's teshuvot on kuf and kaf in Rav Avraham Hamami's new edition. Primarily pronunciation, but also writing.

    See also Rabbi Cardozo's new post where he spells it with a zero: G0d. Freaky.

    B'Kitzur, there is no prohibition on pronunciation. They were just pronouncing it like the alternate spelling. There's no prohibition on the spelling either. It's just a courtesy so that the daf can still be nimhakim and you can toss it.



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