Monday, February 28, 2011

The results are in!

Actually they've been in for a few days, but I didn't have the chance to address it yet. Last week I created a poll and asked readers if they felt I explained things properly in my posts. Realizing that some of my readers possess a great deal of technical knowledge, and others less, I want to strike the proper balance and make the blog enjoyable for all kinds of readers. At the same, I also don't want to wholly change the character of the blog.

After one week of polling, 74 people responded. Since stats are boring, I won't break them down specifically (although for a few days you can see the stats on the sidebar), but a little over 50% felt that things are fine as they are, about 20% feel that I should explain things more fully, and 30% feel that something in between would be fine.

These results made me happy. It isn't as if 95% said they have no idea what I'm talking about. If 50% already get it, and 30% would get it a little more if I made the effort, and 20% really could use much more explanation, but took the time to even respond, then I feel this is something I can do - maintain the present character, yet at the same time try to make a few changes which will hopefully inform readers better.

Before I disscuss that, I want to respond to a few specific comments:

Binyamin writes that he voted "yes," and as it stands my posts are too difficult. He gets maybe 25% of it. He believes that I can attract a broader audience and even help educate people if I did a better job. He also feels that most of my post would not be understood properly by 95% of the people who would be inclined to forward them to, so he doesn't.

He is exactly the kind of reader for whom it is worth doing better, and I will try my best. I think it might be a good idea to occasionally do some remedial Jewish history type posts, where I get into the background behind some persons, events or movements, and then I can link to the posts I've already done about these subjects. For example, instead of simply assuming knowledge about Christian Hebraism, I could do a general post about it. Then, a reader can reread the earlier posts, and hopefully get into it more, with newly acquired background.

Jordan suggests that I put in more links to Wikipedia and also translate key Hebrew passages more. Both of these are things I can do. The reason I often don't link to outside sources like Wikipedia - although sometimes I do - is sheer laziness - for me, links involved typing out the HTML. Today I posted about Johann Reuchlin. I don't think I linked to Wikipedia. I think my assumption is that people can just google the name if they want to know more. Yet Jordan is right, because knowing my own browsing habits I can confirm that I might might click a link, but if none is there I won't necessarily search myself. Probably most people are similar, so I will use more hot linking. As for Hebrew translation, that's a good idea as well. I don't like doing translations so much because of pride. The more I translate, the more likely I am to make a mistake and be called on it. Yet it's probably a good idea, good for me, and good for the readers.

Ezzie made a similar suggestion re links.

Aiwac made two suggestions that I am probably not going to adopt, but I would like to at least address them. The first is to reduce the size of pictures. I wonder what browsing platform he is using? To me things look okay, butI would like to hear if readers have problems. I guess I can see how some posts which might have like 10 images, 590 pixels by 1000 all in vertical order can be hard to browse. What do people think about Scribd, which enables embedding an entire document? I've used it from time to time. Do people like it or hate it? This might solve some of Aiwac's problem with regard to discontinuity in a post.

Incidentally, here's a good place to discuss why I love to show pictures of books (not to mention people and things) so much. It's a little quirk of mine. I love typography, I love the look of old books, archaic spellings, etc. I feel like something is added by seeing, even seeing text. I could quote such texts - many sources are easily available in plain text, and I wouldn't even have to type them. I just feel that seeing something as it looked in the original is a lot more charming than text, even though in terms of content it could be identical. Example: in this post I showed a text in English, from 1665, in which the Talmud was spoken of as the eternal law of the Jewish nation all over earth. I could have just typed this author, Clement Barksdale's, words. But as interesting as they are, seeing it as it looks in the book is that much more interesting (to me, maybe). So I'm probably going to take a pass on it. True, I could make thumbnails, but my worry is that many people won't click them.

Secondly, he correctly indicts me for being too wordy. Alas, but I don't know any other way. A few years ago I found some book reports from elementary school, and I had to laugh at my tendency to basically repeat the book. I have always struggled with the ability to summarize properly, and I envy those with this skill. At the same time, I also enjoy being thorough, and sometimes I like to just go all out and try to uncover as much as I can. I also have pride, and sometimes I sort of want to demonstrate that I already knew all the sources, so if I include very much information then it's less likely for someone to point out something I missed. Not a very admirable trait, but the truth is the truth. Secondly, many people have asked me why I don't publish. The reason is because I have this idea that if or when I publish anything it will have to be perfect. No source overlooked, no mistakes, no reference left out. Although I take my blog very seriously, I feel to some degree that it's only a blog. If I make a mistake, so what? If I wasn't comprehensive, so what?

DF says that the blog is a Beis Vaad Lachachamim (a scholar's circle) and that it ought to be too bad if it goes over people's head, including his own. I say that the problem for me is that not enough people comment. I really love comments, even if it's very basic stuff. But all too often I can see that x amount of people read a post, and only one or two, or even no one at all, comments. So I feel that in reality it could be a scholar's circle, but I need people to comment.

Dan Klein says he likes the digressions, and I say that I am not, in fact, as scatterbrained as my tangents and digressions suggest. I simply enjoy the way one thing can lead to another, and I enjoy the fact that sometimes a pearl can turn up in the 12th paragraph of my post on an entirely unrelated topic. So it's like a reward for sticking it out and reading to the end!

Another anon reader says that Wikipedia is not that great. I say that it is a mixed bag, but sometimes can be very good. He also suggest some occasional general topics, like on Italian Jewry, and I say that's a great idea. He also says that he found certain recent remarks of mine on searching beyond Google to be interesting, and I'm glad that he or she noticed. I intend to post more about how to do online research. Yitzy made a similar remark, and I suggest that he email me, as I forgot his email address!

LkwdGuy points out that I have an entire blog dedicated to Artscroll, to which I reply, that I haven't updated in years.

Thanks for participating.

A synopsis of Reuchlin's defense of the Talmud and condemnation of book-burning, with a special emphasis on his exegesis of the Birkhas Ha-minim.

In 1505 a Jew from Cologne named Pfefferkorn converted to Christianity along with his family. He, or according to some, others using his name, immediately began maligning Jews in pamphlets and books. In 1509 he obtained an order from the emperor Maximillian to confiscate and destroy all Hebrew books possessed by the Jews of Cologne and Frankfurt. Upon appeal from the Jews, the emperor agreed to stay the order until the issue could be examined, and in order to do this he solicited opinions from notable Christian scholars.

One of them, Johann Reuchlin, replied in a recommendation in which he concluded that only truly blasphemous Jewish books, such Toledot Yeshu, ought to be destroyed (and Reuchlin writes that even the Jews consider this book apocryphal; furthermore, to his knowledge only this book and one other Jewish book were really blasphemous). However, surely the vast majority of Jewish books contain no blasphemy, or if they do, only a tiny percentage.

What's more, argued Reuchlin, the fact is that no Christians in Germany were in a position to know if these books were actually blasphemous, since they cannot read them. Even Reuchlin, who was already a famous Hebrew scholar, acknowledged that he did not yet possess adequate knowledge of the Talmud. Thus far he had failed to procure a copy for himself, even though he was willing to pay a high price for one. Instead, he only possessed indirect knowledge of its contents based on Christian works written against it. He further argued that to his knowledge only one Jewish convert to Christianity actually possessed any Talmudic knowledge - excluding Pfefferkorn - and that particular convert, who was a rabbi, subsequently reverted to Judaism in Turkey. He points out that if someone wanted to write against mathematicians, but he himself didn't even know basic arithmetic, he would be laughed at.

To the objection that numerous Christian books against the Jews and the Talmud exist, some written by great Christian scholars, one might then argue that even if he personally doesn't know Jewish literature, since it is condemned by so many that he may rely on their negative judgment and adopt that position. Reuchlin responds that firstly, none of these books ever made an orderly case against it, and secondly, to blindly accept their judgment is to violate the common sense principle of listening to both sides of a story. In addition, it also violates canon law, which says that no one is obligated to accept the argument or opinion of any well known commentator, however pious a Christian, as if it were Holy Scripture or canon law itself. So at the very least, an impartial and fair inquiry is called for rather than wholesale comdemnation before the facts are known.

This line of argument, that it would be wrong to condemn a work that one did not understand, was only one of many that he lodged. Other arguments were legal ones, namely that the Jews are subjects of the Holy Roman Empire and entitled to legal protection. Furthermore, the law does not permit forsible confiscation of property. Reuchlin also poses an argument that might be familiar in a similar form from Jewish sources, namely that our ancestors did not ban or condemn these books to flames before, and surely we do not consider ourselves more pious than them.

Noting that besides Pfefferkorn himself, only one other writer had called for torching Jewish books directly, he applies Romans 10:2 to the both of them: they have a "zeal for God, but not according to knowledge." This is a nice bit of irony; the verse speaks of the Jews themselves.

Then, apparently not seriously believing that the attackers of the Talmud were really so pious in the first place, he explains why they never meant to consign the book to the flames: they are like hunters, who chase a deer as it runs through a wheat field, with only its antlers visible. The hunter knows that this isn't any contest. He will get his prey. But the fun is in the chase. He wouldn't be happy if someone were to throw a spear into the deer and kill it before he could hunt it. Similarly, the writers against the Talmud need the Talmud in order to attack it. Where would be their sport if it were burned and disappeared? He then audaciously writes that in reality the worse the Talmud is, all the more reason to preserve it, for it would greatly benefit students to hone their theology against it.

The Recommendation branches into many directions, directly refuting all manner of charges against Jewish literature, including that it is full of nonsense. Reuchlin writes that many ancient disciplines employed metaphor and allegory for quite reasonable concepts. For example, the ancients called wisdom "water." We ourselves call physical desire "harlot." In alchemy, metals are named for the planets. In fact, writes Reuchlin, reading books of alchemy would lead one who doesn't understand the terminology to think they were written by madmen, but these works are perfectly sensible to initiates. So why then isn't the Talmud accorded the same respect? It too is an ancient book and uses all manner of allegory and esoteric terms. In addition, have not the Christians preserved many ancient pre-Christian books that contain more absurdities and even more blaspemy, than the Talmud could possible have?

In any case, his Recommendation seems to have successfully staved off this attack on Jewish books, and the decree was rescinded. For his part, Reuchlin was accused of heresy and suffered a great deal personally for his position in a long controversy. Not surprisingly the 19th century Rabbi Yisrael Lipschutz of Danzig recalled him favorably for all time, in his commentary to Mishnah Avot 3:14 in a lengthy essay called אתם קרויין אדם. Here is his comment, followed by the title page of the 1845 publication:

One interesting digression in his pamphlet is his attempt to refute a calumny against Jewish liturgy on linguistic grounds. Pfefferkorn had written that the Birkhas Ha-minim prayer, which was then known by its initial word Ve-le-meshumadim, "Regarding the apostates," was a direct attack on Christians generally, and the Apostles specifically. Reuchlin considers such words an incendiary attack on the Jews, which could easily be used to incite ignorant people who don't know Hebrew. Here are his comments as they appear in his Augenspiegel, the work in which he published his Recommendation. What follows is the substance of his comments:

He writes that the prayer contains not one word relating to "Baptism" or "Apostles" or "Christians," or the "Roman Empire." The word in question, meshumad, means "to destroy," as in Proverbs 14:11 and Ezekiel 14:8. In this prayer the term means "those who destroy," and the meaning of the prayer is that the Jews are saying "Those who wish to destroy us, let him have no hope that his plot will succeed."

He then puts forth the following argument, which he may or may not have himself believed, which is that no one could possibly think this refers to Christians, since the Christians afford the Jews great freedom and no other people on earth welcomed the Jews as readily as the Christians. This is affirmed in canon and secular law. As I said, one wonders if he really believed this. He may well have, but if not then it is particularly ingenious, since he knew that no Christian leaders, secular or ecclesiastical, would have admitted or believed that they did not treat Jews well, and indeed that is what the law required. Reuchlin further points out that Jews all over the world recite the prayer, even if they live among Muslims or heathens. He writes that the Jews are hated and mistreated more by the heathens than by Christians, so how then could it really refer to Christians? The downfall of the Christians would not result in a happier situation for the Jews, and they know it.

He then analyzes other words in the prayer - "minim" means "all those who do not adhere to the true faith," i.e. Judaism. But, points out Reuchlin, on what basis can we say that this refers to us specifically and no one else? In other words, Reuchlin and all other Christians understand that the Jews believe their religion is the true faith, but that's not the point so long as they're not singling out Christians for attack. The third word, "oyev," or enemies, also cannot refer to us, Reuchlin writes, since as he mentioned earlier both Jews and Christians are fellow subjects of the same Emperor and enjoy the same rights and privileges. Finally, "malchut zedon" or "dominion of pride" does not refer to an earthly kingdom, the Holy Roman Empire, but is a metaphorical term.

Then Reuchlin goes on the attack: saying that as not one word of this prayer can be proven to refer to the apostles or Christians, he says that it is in fact an outrage that Pfefferkorn's calumny was permitted to be printed. All that's left then may be the suspicion that Jews secretly hate Christians in their heart, but who knows what is in a man's heart but the Creator of hearts? Not only that, but even if one Jew were to step forward and confess that this is what he thinks, he can only speak for himself.

Since what immediately follows the passage is so interesting, I'll review it here. Pfefferkorn had related the following damning charge against the Jews. When the Jews are being friendly and say "Welcome to you!" to a Christian (Seid wilkommen) they are in reality making a Hebrew pun and mean "Welcome, you devil!" In other words, Pfefferkorn was suggesting that they are punning on the German word seid and are saying "שֵׁד," or "devil." Reuchlin notes that "seid" is simply not "sched," and any fool can tell that the two words don't sound alike. Such a stupid charge isn't even worthy of the attention already given to it.

Toward the end of his Recommendation he refutes other charges made against the Jews. For example, to the charge that they wrote their literature only to oppose Christianity, he replies that they wrote it for themselves, which I guess is sort of a variant on the Jewish argument that Judaism really doesn't have a lot to say about Christianity even thought in the Christian scheme of things Christianity ought to be very important to Jews. On the contrary, goes the argument. It was Christianity which made Judaism important to Christians, but it doesn't follow that the reverse is true.

Another argument that he refutes is the charge that the reason why Jews do not convert in great numbers is because they are blinded by their own literature. Without rabbinic literature, perhaps they would all convert. Reuchlin maintains that the opposite is the case. It is precisely because of their literature, that if the Christians had capable spokesmen, they would convert. This is, I think, a variant of Maimonides' argument that Christianity is a religious improvement over paganism, for it puts non-Jews under the influence of the Bible. Reuchlin points out that Paul was a student of the rabbis, and this did not prevent him from becoming Christian. Furthermore, some of the greatest Christian scholars (whom he names) were converted Jews, and their Talmudic knowledge served them well.

Finally, he conjectures what could be the result if the Jews' literature were actually destroyed:
1. They might claim that the Christians are afraid of them. He gives the analogy of a duke who challenges a shepherd to a duel, but the duke takes away the shepherd's weapons first, while retaining his own.

2. Perhaps the Jews would create an even stranger literature which is even worse. Essentially, they could recreate the Talmud and tell their children whatever they want to what was in the now-lamented Talmud.

3. They could claim that Christians falsely quoted and misninterpreted the meaning of their literature, and nothing could be shown to prove the Christian position.

4. Forbidden fruit is particularly desirable. This would make the Jews crave their literature all the more, and many would go to Turkey to learn Talmud, and simply return back home with their Talmudic knowledge.

5. Moods and needs change. If the feeling today is to burn the books, what if in the future a need for them were felt? He gives the analogy of a certain Church council which required the Koran, and an example from Roman history where a certain king required a book which he had burned all but for the last three copies, and the result was that he had to pay an exorbitant price for it.

6. If the Jews lacked books, then how can Christians dispute them except on the basis of the Bible which, Reuchlin acknowledged, can be stretched to mean anything? Right now the Jews are limited by the interpretations and arguments of their ancestors, to which the Christians already know how to respond. But lacking the restraint of their books, what will prevent the Jews from endlessly devising interpretations? This would make debate fruitless.

7. Then a very interesting projection: lacking Jews to wrestle with over the meaning of Scripture, we will just argue with ourselves, since the mind never rests. We will awaken old disputes, such as, Was St. Paul married? - which are nonsense.

8. There aren't so many Jews in Germany. So what will be accomplished? There are loads of Jews in Italy and Turkey, and they will still have their books.

9. The Jews will succeed in hiding many books. They will become much more fervent and willing to die as martyrs, which is the natural result of such a persecution. To take the example from Christian history, when Roman emperors persecuted the Christians it may well have resulted in even more Christians, not less. Another historical example: when these persecutions went after books, many heretics wrote new books with pseudepigraphal titles, and the result was the multiplication of heresy and literature confusing the faithful. In his view, all these evils could come of confiscating and destroying the Jews' books.

Incidentally, in case you are wondering if Reuchlin didn't know, or pretended not to know, that meshumad - which is from "to destroy," as he wrote, meant "Apostate" to Jews, here is a Hebrew letter to a Jew, in which he refers to Pfefferkorn as "זה המשמומד כמו שאתם קוראים בלשונכם," or "This meshumad (apostate) as you call him in your language." In case you were wondering, Reuchlin signs הקטון בגוים יוחנניס רוחילין מפורצעם דוקטור "The humblest among the Gentiles, Johannes Reuchlin of Pforzheim, Doctor."

Reuchlin sent this letter to the Pope's doctor, a Provençal Jew named Mazal Tov, known as Bonetto, and it recounts his perspective of the affair. Below is the Hebrew letter as it was published in Gottlieb Friedländer's 1837 Beiträge zur Reformationsgeschichte, followed by an English translation, published in L. Loewe's 1841 translation of Yitzchak Baer Levinsohn's Efes Dammim (A series of conversations at Jerusalem between a patriarch of the Greek Church and a chief rabbi of the Jews, concerning the malicious charge against the Jews of using Christian blood).

Couple of short notes: Reuchlin's Recommendation was published, as mentioned, in his Augenspiegel. This book appeared in 1511. As you recall, he mentioned that he had not been able to personally obtain a copy of the Talmud yet, so he didn't really know what was in it except secondhand. In Dikduke Soferim volume 8 (on Megillah) a Latin letter of Reuchlin is referred to, in which he mentions that in 1512 he succeeded in obtaining a manuscript of the Talmud Yerushalmi.

Secondly, Augenspiegel means ophthalmoscope. Reuchlin used the symbol of eyeglasses on the title page, I suppose, because he meant that he strives to see things clearly.

A graphic depicting the shofar's notes in a Spanish siddur from 1552.

Here's an interesting page from Libro de Oracyones, the Ladino siddur published in Ferrara 1552 by Yom Tob Athias (the Spaniard formerly known as Jeronimo de Vargas).

As you can see, this page contains the order for Shofar blowing on Rosh Hashanah. Most interesting is the graphic depiction of the three kinds of sounds, tekiah, which is one long note, shevarim, which is three shorter notes, and teruah, which is staccato.

H. P. Salomon points out that at this period in time, translators of Judeo-Spanish liturgy used the word "aublacion" for teruah (first word, third line from the bottom), which is a special Spanish word coined by Jews. The very first Jewish translation of the Bible into Castilian ("Spanish"), the 15th century Alba Bible, which was translated by Rabbi Mose Arragel, rendered teruah five separate ways, depending on the context, in five places in the Bible. These terms were aullamiento, aullar, aullaçion, jubilaçion and clamor. Salomon writes that Arragel explained jubilaçion in a glossary appended to the work - "It is a way of blowing trumpets or horns to express joy [and] by making certain sounds and notes." Apparently this term was a preferred Jewish translation for teruah at the time, probably because of its etymological connection with yovel, which was unfamiliar to Christians and therefore required an explanation (cf. Rashi on Lev. 25:10 - ומה שמה יובל שמה על שם תקיעת שופר).

In the 16th century, the translation technique that was prevalent among Spanish exiles was to be hyperliteral and to give one equivalent Spanish word for every shade of meaning a single Hebrew word could have, even if the Spanish word did not carry such meanings. The result was, of course, some very strange translation. In these new translations, aublaçion was used for teruah every time, as in our example. You will not find this word in a dictionary. Salomon says this word combines aullaçion (which comes from aullar, to howl) and jubilaçion whether through conscious or unconscious blending.

See "Meam Loez - The Language Corner" by H.P. Salomon, editor, in The American Sephardi 7-8 1975.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Shabbos, shabbos! in an English literary journal of 1860.

Toward the end of 1859, Marcus Heinrich (or Hyman) Bresslau, former editor of the London Jewish Chronicle, decided to make a go of his own Jewish literary periodical in English. The first issue of המאסף The Hebrew Review and Magazine For Jewish Literature appeared on October 21, in time for Simchas Torah 5620. It called itself a "New Series," since Bresslau viewed it as a continuation of the original Jewish literary periodical Hameasseph, which gave it its Hebrew name, as well as the short-lived גלאד The Hebrew Review and Magazine of Rabbinical Literature, a similar journal published by Morris Raphall in 1834-6, and which Bresslau was himself involved. Both of these periodicals contained many interesting original essays and translations of classic and not so classic material.

In the introduction in the first issue, Bresslau notes that at the time there are three French journals. There are journals in Italy, Russia and Turkey. In America there were four journals, two in English and two in German. Deploring the fact that England could not boast even one Jewish journal, he proposes that this will be remedied. Although it would feature original material, he also planned to feature translations of numerous works, a partial list of which includes portions of:
  • Moreh Nevuchim by Maimonides
  • Chovos Ha-levavos by Rabbi Bachya
  • Menoras Ha-meor by Rabbi Isaac Abohab
  • Binah Le-ittim by Rabbi Azariah Figo
  • Kuzari by Rabbi Judah Halevi
  • Meor Enayim by Rabbi Azariah de Rossi
and so forth. The Review also serialized parts of Zunz's Zur Geschichte und Literatur, as well as the first two parts of Mendelssohn's very interesting introduction to the Torah, the Or Le-nesiva.

In August of 1860 (toward the end of the run of Bresslau's journal) the following witty blurb was printed (presumably written by Bresslau) hoping that Jewish business owners will close their stores entirely on Shabbat in keeping with "resolution number 4 unanimously passed at Mount Sinai." Below is his statement as well as three subsequent replies printed in the journal (over three separate issues, but I put them all together). Two people hoped that these storekeepers will observe the sabbath personally, and not only keep their stores closed:

Lions and lambs.

This 1896 reaction to a suggestion to merge Christmas and Hanukkah into one big, happy American July 4th holiday comes courtesy of a periodical called The Freethinker.

So I got to thinking about lions and lambs.

I remember the first time I heard the following joke, in the pages of the Jerusalem Post, I think, perhaps 10 years ago:
The Biblical Zoo in Jerusalem arranges an exhibit displaying Messianic times, the centerpiece being a cage with a lion and lamb peacefully co-existing. Visitors are amazed, and one in particular decides he simply must find out who is responsible for this miracle. With some inquiries he learns that, of all people, the talented zoo keeper is none other than Henry Kissinger. He seeks out Kissinger and asks, "By God, how do you do it? I've never seen anything like it." And Kissinger answers, in his trademark monotone deadpan: "Every day - a new lamb."
And hilarity ensues.

Since then I saw it written a little differently in Cold War-era memoirs and policy books from the 1970s. This time, instead of a fable about Kissinger and realpolitik, it was presented as an old Russian joke/ parable. Of course it was.

Knowing how these things work, I decided to trace it a little further. It's really quite extraordinary how today a great deal can be accomplished in searching online for the history of aphorisms and jokes in only a few minutes. Of course I wouldn't write a book about it with only a preliminary research, but in no time at all I learned that the joke appears in several stages. In the early 1930s it was used in certain American sources, warning that the United States needs to be militarily ready and alert to the dangers of the world. In the 1950s it is already a parable about the Cold War, by the 60s it is said to be Russian in origin (although in one version, an Israeli visits a zoo in Moscow), and by the early 1970s (pre-Yom Kipper War) it seems to have become a Kissinger joke in Israel, which probably no one found funny. By the late 1970s an American policy insider is using it in his memoir. In a book of humor from 1992, it is about China.

But I found an 1918 telling of the joke in which the zoo keeper is none other than P.T. Barnum. An Irishman is quoted telling the story and then he clarifies that it "'Twas not in a Sunday School lesson, but in Barnum's circus, years ago. Th' trouble was, howiver, that ole man Barnum had t' put in a new lamb ivery marnin'. They laid down togither, all right, but th' lamb was on th' inside."

And then a more genteel telling of the tale, from a 1922 lecture on education by a president of Purdue University:
It is related that, during the heyday of his prosperity and prominence, P. T. Barnum, of lamented circus memory, had under his tents a very wonderful collection of animals. They had been assembled from all climes and all countries. There was the lion, the leopard, the tiger, the bear, the wolf, the fox and many others. This unique animal family also numbered among its members a fine, woolly lamb. One day a group of distinguished visitors came to the circus. It was an important group and Barnum himself acted as an escort through the menagerie. Naturally, the particular animal family was exhibited with high pride. This family represented the finest of the animal kingdom and the results of the highest animal education. Here was proof of what human skill and kindness could accomplish with even the most belligerent of beasts. Concord and peace was the rule of the family. As in every gathering of humans there was one doubter among the distinguished visitors. He inquired of Mr. Barnum how long the animals had lived together in amity. He was informed that the family had been on exhibit for nearly three years. "Do you mean to tell me that that lamb has been a member of this family all this time?" said he to the greatest show man on earth. Mr. Barnum, hesitating for a moment, said with a smile, "Of course, you realize that we are obliged to renew the lamb from time to time." (Laughter).

If you will pardon the impudence, I would suggest that the junior college is the new lamb which has been brought into our happy family of education. Just how long the junior college is going to last before it is benevolently absorbed by other institutions, may be considered a fair and open question.
Perhaps in other languages the joke is older - maybe even Russian.

Incidentally, as far as I can tell the aforementioned Rabbi Dr. Krauskopff of Philadelphia didn't really suggest a merger of Judaism and Christianity based on Americanism, with July 4th as the national religious holiday. But he was a big fan of Christmas. You can read his ma'amar on Christmas, delivered on Sunday, Dec. 27, 1891 here. This became sufficiently well known that nearly 20 years later, when New York Jews were accused of waging a war against Christmas in the public schools, several Christian periodicals approvingly cited some of his remarks, omitting, of course all the stuff he said about its pagan origin.

PS I already know that the lion does not lay down with the lamb in the Bible, or in Moscow, or in Jerusalem.

Monday, February 21, 2011

When the rabbis became doctors

Milton Himmelfarb was fond of repeating the following joke: "the Jewish people was healthy until its rabbis became doctors," for he used it in Commentary in a 1957 book review, and recycled it in the same periodical in 1974. (In 1957 the sentence continued: "it also was learned and pious until it began to study Jewish history. Nobody was at fault. The rabbis' becoming doctors did not cause but was caused by the Jewish people's losing its health, and the study of Jewish history did not cause but was caused by the loss of the old learning and piety.") The line, he attributes, to one "wit."

Not long ago I saw someone attribute this quote to the Chasam Sofer, which very clearly seemed fallacious. Someone else suggested that it was really a quote from Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. While I agree that it has some of his style, as a suggestion it suffers from the inability of anyone to show in his writings where he said this.

On the face of it, I suspect that it's an American joke. Henry Illoway, son of pioneering 19th century Bohemian-American Orthodox rabbi Bernhard Illowy, writes the following:
In the early days of which we are speaking [i.e., the 1850s] trained rabbis, graduates of universities, were rare south of Baltimore and west of Philadelphia. The incumbents of the ministerial positions were mainly Hazanim , ex-Shohatim, teachers, young men who had looked in upon a Yeshibah but found the acquisition of knowledge of the Torah too onerous a task, and even laymen who or some reason or other sought these positions rather than follow the vocations they were trained to or take up a peddler's pack as did or had done most of their coreligionists. These gentlemen quickly assumed the Reverend and ere long the Reverend Doctor. Wise with his geniality, generous disposition and eagerness to make friends, adherents, followers, for his cause, was very liberal in bestowing the degree of Doctor (which was not specified) upon the few who were too modest or too timid to assume it themselves. An article reviling orthodoxy and its defenders was sure to be so rewarded.
He footnotes a personal anecdote:
The title [doctor] became so cheapened that a few of the more scholarly men who did not hold the degree would not alone not assume it, but even cast it from them. Thus happening one day, a short time after our arrival in New Orleans, to meet in the street the Rev. James E. Gutheim, the minister of the Portuguese Synagogue, I saluted him and adressed him as Dr. Gutheim. Thereupon he said to me; "Young man! I am plain Mr. Gutheim and no doctor!"
This is from pg. 6 of מלחמות אלהים, the 1914 volume titled in English The Controversial Letters and The Casuistic Decisions of the Late Rabbi Bernard Illowy Ph. D. This book is truly fascinating and I recommend all read it.

Speaking of Wise, conferrer of unearned doctorates according to 19th century Orthodox lore, writing in August of 1867 in his own periodical, the Israelite, of the proposed faculty for the formation of a Maimonides College we see the following:
"Rev. Dr. Bettelheim, Professor of Misnah with commentaries, Shulchan Aruch and Yad Hachasakah." [. . . ] this is enough to rouse suspicion. Who is Rev. Dr. Bettelheim? Can anybody who reads Jewish literature tell us, who is Rev. Dr. Prof. Bettlheim? We read, whatever appears in our field both here or in Europe, still we never heard that name. But aside of this, the gentleman is Professor of the Mishnah "with commentaries." Does anybody read Mishnah without commentaries? The man who added the words "with commentaries" knows nothing about the Mishnah or its commentaries. A professor of Shulchan Aruch and Yad Hachasakah. This is ridiculous enough to figure in some Purim play. The Rev. Dr. and Prof. Bettelheim may rest assured, that nobody on this globe ever could boast such a title, and most likely nobody will ever imitate it. The question is, why does the Rev. Dr. Prof. Bettelheim jump from the Shulchan Aruch to the Yad Hachasakah, when we have to it the compendia of Alfas, Tur, Rosh, Rashaba, besides Ran, Beth Joseph, Kesef Mishnah &c. &c. &c. For the sake of novelty, euphony, and aesthetics, we propose to amend the Rev. doctor's title to read thus: Rev. Dr. Bettelheim, Professor of the Mishnah, Bartenurah, Tosefeth Yom Tob, Shulchan Aruch, Shach, Tur, Meirath Enaim, Rif, Ran, Yad, Kesef Mishnah, &c. Tur, Darke Mosheh, Beth Joseph, Rashbo, Rosh &c. &c. &c. and no Chinese in this world could outdo his titles. For the sake of convenience he might arrange them alphabetically, and to save time he might allow students to call him plainly Prof. . . "
And so it continues. (One more point: Wise's next target is Isaac Leeser, who was appointed a professor of Homiletics, Belles Lettres and Comparative Theology. Wise, who couldn't stand Leeser any more than Leeser could him, says that Leeser is almost as meek and unpretentious as Moses, and he will tell you a dozen times in one minute that "he never made any theological studies, and never frequented a university." See here for the saga of Wise and Leeser, and the question of who did or didn't have semicha (rabbinic ordination) and who did or didn't lie about it.

Before I get back to doctors, it's worth posting the following portraits of the aforementioned Rabbi Illowy (1812-1871), and his wife Kathleen (1815-1892), looking very much like Whistler's Rebbetzin.

The portraits were painted in 1862. In case you ever need to know some arcane trivia to impress persons of quality, you can tell them that the answer to the question, Did any of the Chasam Sofer's musmachim (ordainees) where a ring on his finger? is Yes, Rabbi Illowy.

In case anyone is utterly scandalized that an Orthodox rabbi would wear a ring on his finger, here is Samson Wertheimer's wedding ring from 1690:

Note: this ring has nothing to do with a wedding ceremony. However, such fancy schmancy rings were quite common in his time and place. Wertheimer (1658-1724) was a rabbi and a Court Jew. Very rich, very important, and very learned. Incidentally, the illustration was from the first Encylopedia Judaica. The new one with almost no pictures didn't include it.

In addition to the Doctor situation in American Judaism in the 19th century, from poking around I noticed that the quote seems to have made a bit of a splash in sources beginning with Milton Himmelfarb, and thereafter from the 1960s and 70s - mainly Conservative and Reform Jewish sources, citing an old Orthodox joke. Here are some other examples:

Writing in 1983, Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg said, in an article called In defense of Modernity:
"In the fifties, I changed my name back from Irving to Yitzchak (The Talmud tells: The Jews were liberated from Egypt by merit of not changing their names...You never heard of Abraham, Irving, and Jacob, did you?) I went to Harvard University to get my Ph.D. because every red-blooded American Jewish boy dreamt of going to Harvard and/or marrying a shiksa. After three years there, I wore my kipah publicly (the equivalent of Jews coming out of the closet). And when I received my Ph.D., I insisted on being called Rabbi because the glorification of the doctorate over the Rabbinate was a sign of pathological substitution of outside values for Jewish values. ("When Rabbis became doctors, Judaism became sick."
"Citing Matthew Arnold's principle, let us see how the relationship between individual and society might be formulated for people like us. We are modern, enlightened Jews. Modern, enlightened Jews are those who are not unmodern, unenlightened. The unmodern and unenlightened Jews are those concerning whom we have a tradition, that the Jewish people was healthy before its rabbis became Doctors. Our rabbis are Doctors. For us only polydoxy is orthodox, only orthodoxy is heterodox "(Year book of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, Volume 79 1970 pg. 169).
An old Orthodox Jewish joke: "The Jewish people was healthy, before Rabbis became Doctors." (Himmelfarb again, Commentary 1974)
Again, in Commentary, Jack Wertheimer (1994) quotes a "wag":
"A wag once observed that when rabbis became doctors (of philosophy), the Jewish community got sick. Today, as rabbis become therapists, the community has found itself largely bereft of a superego, in the form of religious leaders willing to articulate what it should and can do."
I have a few other examples, including one from Ismar Schorsch, but they are all basically the same. I did find something that says something very different, yes similar, in 1911. Someone, writing in a British periodical called the Outlook, A weekly review of politics, art, literature, and finance, spoke of "those Rabbis are doctors who prescribe for our Western ailments the petty anachronistic ideas of a Russian ghetto."

Now, it may well be that the place to look is in Yiddish newspapers, but barring that I came across one source that may actually be the origin, or at least a grandfather, of the quote. It is a passage in Shir's 1845 anti-Reform polemic Tokhakhas Megulah ("Open Rebuke"), of all places.

He writes that the Reformers have diagnosed the Jewish people as sick, and they pose as the physicians who can cure them. He says that what actually occurred is that the Jews became sick in the following manner: earlier doctors - the rabbis - had been prescribing to them a sensitive diet and lifestyle to keep them healthy, namely the commandments and lifestyle of the religious Jew - but the patient was ignoring their prescription. So of course they got sick. Now the Reformers came along posing as physicians and said "The Jews are sick," and asked the patients themselves what will cure them. The patients told them, No kosher food, etc. So the physicians, acting as flatterers (enablers we would call them today) began prescribing the very unhealthy lifestyle the people had been living, ignoring the real advice they had received from the real physicians.

Of much amusement is the fact that Shir (Solomon Judah Rapoport) affixed the following motto to the German portion of his books:

At first I thought, "Shir, who are you? Shir writing poetry?" (I know, the irony.) But then I realized that only the title, Die Religions-Reformer, is Shir's. This is an excerpt from a fable by Herder, printed in 1773. The gist is that an old, blind woman lay sick in her home. The doctors were all taking their time to cure her, and since she was blind, each one took some of the furnishings in the home as "payment." Finally she she was cured, but the house was empty. Then they wanted to bill her, so she told them that despite her newly working eyes - she can't see anything.

What does "chashmal" mean?

I have no idea.

Most people know that חשמל (chashmal), the modern Israeli Hebrew word for electricity, was coined by Yehuda Leib Gordon. His inspiration was Ezekiel 1 and 8 which used this word to explain what the appearance of some kind of brightness was like. What does the word actually mean? The Talmud gives two interpretations (Chagiga 13a-b) חיות אש ממללות and עתים חשות עתים ממללות בשעה שהדיבור יוצא מפי הקב"ה. Both of these are wordplay describing angels of some sort, and their activity. Neither of these are particularly useful as definitions in the sense that unless you've seen חיות אש ממללות then telling us that a brightness looks like them isn't so helpful.

As it turns out, the other etymologies that have been suggested are very similar in terms of how it is believed the word was constructed. The Septuagint translated it ἠλέκτρου (elektron) which was Gordon's inspiration. The Greek word ἠλέκτρου, or elektron, meant "amber," not angels. The Latin Vulgate used the word electrum, which is a kind of metal alloy. This doesn't tell us why these translators understood the word to mean these, but one scholar proposed that חשמל is a compound term constructed from נחש, meaning copper, and מללא, an Aramaic term for gold. On מללא as gold, see Kes. 67a, where Rashi explains it as gold leaf, and Tosafos as gold ore - I was curious how Artscroll would translate it, and they say "gold dust" on the authority of Rashi, but I think they totally misunderstood him. Even though I think the simple sense of his words are "gold leaf," I would be less confident in myself if not for the fact that Rashi translates it into French and he very clearly says "leaf" - פלאל"א. Even an English speaker should be able to figure it out just by how it sounds. But as it turns out, the modern equivalent "feuilles" means "leaf." Dust, or "poussière" is simply not close enough. Soncino gets it right.

In any case, Gordon used chashmal in a brilliantly titled poem, which he completed in 1883, called שְׁנֵי יוֹסֵף בֶן שִׁמְעוֹן, an epic about communal corruption and identity theft. To make a long story short, a really diligent, good Talmudic child prodigy goes to Padua to learn Torah and medicine. In the meantime, a horse thief named Uri pays off a communal official to write a passport for him under the name of the missing student. When the student returns to Russia, he is arrested for a murder committed by Uri, who's been using his name, and sentenced to exile for life in Siberia. In the 5th Canto, Gordon describes the youth's studies in Padua, and correlates all sorts of sciences with traditional terms and concepts. For example, tuma ve-tahara is related to hygiene. The ma'aseh bereshis and ma'aseh merkava are correlated with natural science, and in the course of it he refers to kabbalistic terms which are forces of nature, one of which is chashmalah. Although this would no doubt have escaped the reader, he clarified in a note that he meant electricity - "כוונתי להכוח הטבעי הנקרא עלעקטריציטעט, שכן תרגום היווני של חשמל הוא עלעקטרא," "My intended meaning is the natural energy called electricitat, as in the Septuagint translation of chashmal as elektra." Others, no doubt, have charted the spread of this term thereafter. Gordon himself thought that the term could even be extended in yet another compound wordplay, since חשמל could also be thought of as a compound formed from חש מל, the first meaning "quick" (as in Isaiah 8:1) and the latter stemming from מלה, or word. In other words, quickword, or telephone (or perhaps telegraph). Obviously חשמל was only accepted for electricity.

Since the word appeared after 1883, was the word used in any other sense in modern Hebrew writings before or around the same time? I don't know, but maybe. Here is a short blurb in the November 11, 1887 issue of the American Israelite:

I have a problem here. The Hebrew says אלאל but the transliteration is "hashmal." I don't know where the mistake is, but assuming it's just a Hebrew typography mistake, then the writer of this blurb (probably Isaac Mayer Wise) is saying that some modern Hebrew writers are using chashmal in the sense of spectrum, which makes sense in a roundabout way. The Latin word for the copper-gold alloy mentioned earlier is aurichalcum, a word which is related to aurum, or gold. Perhaps these unnamed Hebraists thought that aurum was related to iris, or rainbow in Latin.

A final note: it's interesting that the word for electricity in modern Arabic was also purloined from the word which formerly meant "amber," and for the exact same reason, albeit a little earlier (and clearly unknown to Gordon). Rifa'a el-Tahtawi (1801-1873) is generally given the credit for expanding a preexisting term for amber to include electricity, because of the Greek ἠλέκτρου which, after all, is where the European forms of the the world electricity came from.

Ultimately there was little rhyme or reason for calling it electricity in the first place, other than the European penchant at the time for writing learned works in Latin. See here for the etymology of "electricity." Since it was an English scientist who in fact coined the term, because of the attractive powers or amber, I suppose he could also have called it ambericus instead of electricus. Francis Bacon is credited with introducing it into English a little later, as electric - he could have used amberic.

A final final note: not surprisingly the fact that the modern Hebrew term comes from the loftiest, most esoteric part of the Jewish tradition, and the fact that Yehuda Leib Gordon was a radical maskil inspired rejection of his term on the part of many traditionalists who do not call electricity chashmal in Hebrew to this day. They call it . . . electricity.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

An unknown portrait of the Vilna Gaon.

This is from page 2 of the Camden News of Camden, Arkansas Saturday, May 15, 1937.

Since someone is going to joke that the Vilna Gaon is not wearing a yarmulke, but the Cardinal is - well, I already beat you to it.

I suppose the authors of this cartoon were aware of the Gra's comment to Orach Chaim 8:2 that אין איסור כלל בראש מגולה לעולם רק לפני הגדולים. The thing is, they knew he was a gaon but they didn't know he was also a chassid; אסור להוציא הזכרה בראש מגולה ג"כ מדת חסידות הוא. Or that he was also one of the gedolim, I guess.

(Yes, Ripley's Believe It Or Not did run something on the Gaon in the 1920s - perhaps 1929 - and yes, this cartoon is probably inspired by it. The reader who knows who he is should know that I still haven't found the original Ripley's, but I will. The text is easily available though, and went something like this:
The Mental Marvel, Elijah, the Gaon, chief Rabbi of Lithuania, possessed such a prodigal memory that he never forgot a book once he read it. Prof. Graetz, noted contemporary historian, states that the Gaon committed to memory 2500 volumes. He knew by heart the Bible, Midrash, Mekilta, Sifre, Tosefta, Seder Olam, the Talmud, the Zohar, the Code, Rashi, Rambam and many other religious texts and could quote any passage at will.
I'm not 100% sure this is exactly the original text, but we'll know when we know. I also didn't try to find the source misunderstood in Graetz. My tentative guess is that the number 2500 refers to roughly the number of pages in the Tamud Bavli. I once read an interesting thing about how Ripley 's researcher - yes, he had a researcher - sat in the NYPL and read all day.)

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Should I explain things more?

I added a poll to the side bar. Please take the time to answer the poll (once, please).

My question is, are my posts clear enough? Like anyone involved in somewhat technical subjects I take certain points as common knowledge, and don't elucidate them. But it occurs to me that this may alienate some readers, and I want my posts to be more inclusive as well as more understandable, assuming that they are too opaque. I also want to do this without greatly changing the character of my posts (for example, I would like to assume that readers are familiar with the Hebrew alphabet, although if that isn't the case I want to know about it). Should I briefly explain who, let's say, Rabbi Yaakov Emden is whenever his name comes up? Or is the existence of Wikipedia enough?

I know the options in the poll are not really sufficient, so if anyone has anything to add, or specific suggestions, please comment them here in this post. Feel free to do so without signing the usual name you comment under, anonymous is fine. I will take all suggestions seriously.

How a fake Japanese Christian tried to learn Hebrew pronunciation from Jews in the early 18th century.

(Probably) French-born George Psalmanazar (1679?-1763) played a hoax on European society in the very early part of the 18th century, posing as a Formosan, or native of Taiwan, which was then controlled by Japan. Since no Formosan had ever visited Europe, with some careful planning he was able to successfully pull of the hoax for some time. Drawing upon descriptions of the Far East and native cultures in America, as well as some clever and unusual invented customs (as well as inventing a language and alphabet, which he was apparently fluent in) he was the toast of Europe for awhile. For his part, Psalmanazar acted exotic, eating spiced raw meat, and pretending to worship the sun. He dramatically converted to Christianity. He published a very popular book called An Historical and Geographical Description of Formosa, an Island subject to the Emperor of Japan, which went through several editions and translations. The book described a truly exotic society, with floating buildings, the division of the year into 20 months, etc.

From the book itself we can see that some were skeptical. For example, in the Second Preface he lists many objections people made to him, like that his historical account "of Formosa differs yet more from what all others have told us than his Geographical; surely then that must be false that has so many witnesses against it." To this he replies ". . . should I be such a Fool to invent an Alphabet, and a Language, purposely to lessen my own Credit?" In other words, the very fact that much of his account contradicts known accounts should be taken as convincing proof of the genuineness of his.

Here is his alphabet:

Gradually skeptics began to challenge his claims more strenuously, and by 1706 he admitted that he was an impostor. He somehow recovered from this - perhaps because his brilliance was so evident - and had a second life as an essayist and scholar, and an apparently sincerely religious man. He even befriended luminaries like Samuel Johnson. As part of his hoax, he had claimed that the Formosans were cannibals, and because of this he is forever immortalized in Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal, where Swift had recommended that the English solve their Irish problem by causing the Irish poor to sell their babies for food. He refers to
"the famous Pfalmanaazar, a Native of the Island Formosa, who came, from thence to London above twenty Years ago ; and in Conversation told my Friend, that in his Country when any young Person happened to be put to death, the Executioner sold the Carcase to Persons of Quality as a prime Dainty."
Before he died he wrote a memoir, meant to be printed after death, called Memoirs of ** ** , Commonly Known by the Name of George Psalmanazar; a Reputed Native of Formosa. Amazingly, his real name is still unknown, as the asterisks indicate. Keeping in mind that we are not dealing with a man known for being truthful, his memoirs contain much interesting information, such as his description of how he invented his alphabet. There are some particularly interesting passage for us concerning how he taught himself Hebrew, and tried to make out the correct way of pronouncing it by consulting with Jews.

As you can see, he began to frequent synagogues to hear the ba'alei keriah read the Torah. He had assumed they would be perfect masters of reading Hebrew, but to his surprise he learned that there were broadly speaking two European Jewish pronunciations, the Ashkenazic and Sephardic, which he distinguishes as Northern and Southern European. Furthermore, he recognized the influence of the language of the countries they lived in, "and, as it plainly appeared to me, none of them right." He met some Moroccan Jews whose native language was Arabic, and it seemed to him that their pronunciation might be more pure, but when he actually heard the pronunciation he realized that this was certainly not the case.

This convinced him to stick with the rules as he read them, and to his surprise, he found that Southern (Sephardic) Jews could easily understand him, although he could not understand them so well, on account of their conflation of certain consonants.

Most interestingly, he then says that these Jews "murder it" when they write Hebrew in European letters, and as an example he gives no less than the famous אש דת ("esh dath") of Haham David Nieto, who spelled its title "after his Spanish manner of pronouncing" "Es Dat." Apparently Psalmanazar had read Nieto's famous work against Nehemia Hayun, which he quaintly translates as "A Legal Fire," which sounds like a John Grisham novel. Nevertheless, he says that in time he learned to understand Hebrew as these Jews spoke it.

However, as for Northern (Ashkenazi) Jews, he did not succeed in understanding them (or in them understanding him) and required an interpreter, who was comfortable in both pronunciations. Interestingly, he writes that he found the Ashkenazim "more learned and communicative, as well as more fluent and ready as speaking the sacred tongue."

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Aish Das; 'fiery law' as seen by one 18th century English Jewish exegete and others throughout the ages. Being a Review of Delgado's 1789 Torah ed.

In the 18th century a very popular scholarly past time was to plan to revise the Authorised Version - the King James Bible - in accord with scholarly advancements in language and other things, that had been made over 200 years.

One such scholar was an English Jew named Isaac Delgado, who published his New Translation of the Pentateuch Being a Thorough Correction of the Present Translation, Wherever it deviates from the Sense of the Hebrew Expressions, or where it renders obscure the Meaning of the Text ; or, lastly, when it occasions a seeming Contradiction ; Proving the Validity of such Emdendations by Critical Remarks and Illustrations, Grounded on other Instances in Scripture where the like Words of Phrases occur : Together with a Comment on Such Passages as cannot be sufficiently understood by a mere Translation. Being a Work highly useful, and never before attempted (London, 1789).

His qualification is written by him on the title page: "Teacher of the Hebrew language." The subscription lists about 166 names, mostly Jewish, but with a significant percentage of Christians as well. The subscribers are English and Dutch. One interesting entry is the Society of Talmide Sadic in the Hague. There are two or three female subscribers and, interestingly, the name of no rabbi (whom I can identify) appears. There are a few middle to low-level familiar names, but they don't get more famous than Granville Sharp or Levy Alexander. There's no Thomas Jefferson here.

In the introduction he explains why he wrote this work. His reason amounts to a variation of במקום שאין אנשים השתדל להיות איש, or, "in a place without men, strive to be a man." He writes that even though many Bibles promise corrections on the title page, really they only make a few corrections, and usually leave the real difficulties untouched. He is well aware that doing it properly is difficult and, in reality, probably beyond the ability of one person. This may be the reason why others have neglected it. "However," writes Delgado, "I conceive that it is every man's duty, who is a proficient in the Hebrew language, to begin such a work, and proceed, as far as his abilities will permit him, in correcting the several errors in the present translation."

He lists 8 causes of difficulty in translating the Hebrew Bible, one of which I'll give here. He refers to the fact that in Biblical Hebrew it is not uncommon for letters to be transposed in words. For example, both כבש and כשב mean lamb. In Psalm 76:5 - he gives it as verse 4, since it is verse 4 in the KJV - the verse reads נאור אתה אדיר מהררי טרף, which is translated as Thou art more glorious and excellent then the mountaines of pray. Delgado contends that the Hebrew נאור means to say נורא, or "terrible ; for, with what propriety can glory or beauty be compared to mountaints of prey?"

He blames the "many seeming contradictions and absurdities" on translators not paying attention to the 8 rules. He defends the Masoretic text, writing that if after consulting all the commentators he still cannot explain something, he will leave it unexplained rather than
"avail [him]self of that pernicious method of supposing an error in Scripture, committed by transcribers after the compilation of the Bible by Ezra and his synod, who faithfully handed it down to us as they found it, without venturing to alter a single letter, and was since preserved by the Massorites as pure as they received it, which will be proved by my observations on Joshua chap. xxi. ver 36. And it is worthy of notice, that all over the world, wherever there is a congregation of Jews, there is not any material difference in their Hebrew Bibles. But, to pretend to correct the original Hebrew by the different readings found in manuscripts lodged in private hands, which may have received many alterations by being copied from other manuscripts, (in which some annotations, having been interlined, may have been introduced into the text,) I think it prophane, as it would give us a spurious copy, instead of a divine narrative. However, I cannot deny that there are some apparent errors in Scripture, but am firmly persuaded that they have been so ab origine, I mean before the compilation of the Bible by Ezra, and not committed since by transcribers : but this refers only to the rest of the Bible, exclusive of the Pentateuch, which was written by Moses; - therefore I cannot admit of any error in it : besides, they are kept in the synagogues to be read weekly ; and every copy is carefully examined, that there be not a letter too much nor any missing in it ; and, if an error is found at the time of its being read, it is laid aside, and another is taken out, and the first is given to a scribe to correct it : so that it seems to me almost impossible that there should be any error in it : whereas, the other parts of the Bible, we do not know to a certainty who wrote them ; for, several of those books were certainly not written by those whose names they bear."
To me this lengthy paragraph almost reads like he had really only wanted to write that he believes the Masoretic text is sound, but passion would not allow him to rest his pen. It is a lengthy polemic against Benjamin Kennicott, and the tendencies he represented. He continues in this vein, arguing that even though he agrees that in the biblical books besides for the Pentateuch there may be errors, but only errors from before the time of Ezra, nevertheless he is not even sure that they were mistakes. Rather, he inclines to think that they were purposely introduced into the text to indicate certain information apart for what the text itself says, even if with the passage of so much time we may not be able to know what extraneous information was intended.

He then goes on to contradict himself by supplying a possible example of what he meant from the Pentateuch, Gen. 23:1, where the term חַיֵּי שָׂרָה, "the life of Sarah," appears at the beginning and end of the verse. He explains that this seemingly insignificant repetition might be intended to convey other information, such as Isaac's age when sacrificed, and the date of Rebecca's birth, since these two seemingly unrelated events were related in the prior chapter. If this is so, the verse can be understood in the following way: "Then (referring to the two events) the life of Sara was an hundred years, (of course, Isaac was ten years old, and Rebecca was then born,) and twenty-seven years (more) were the years of the life of Sara." If so, then the first "life of Sarah" refers to her age at 100, and the latter "life of Sarah" refers to her whole life, aged 127 years. This is an interesting interpretation in its own right, somewhat reminiscent of a traditional Jewish interpretation which also sees the binding of Isaac and Rebecca's birth as simultaneous events. However, traditionally Sarah also died then. This meant that Isaac was 37 years old at the time of the binding, which is difficult, as is the idea that he was 37 years older than Rebecca, whom he married. Yet in Delgado's interesting and somewhat ingenious interpretation, Isaac was only 10 years old at the binding, and only 10 years older than Rebecca. However, in his view Sarah lived another 27 years, and it seems fairly clear that she was dead already when Isaac married If you ask me, it is hard to explain why Isaac waited to marry Rebecca until she was 27 (and he was 37). However, if you look at the text closely, you'll notice that Abraham remarries Keturah in the chapter after Isaac marries Rebecca. Did Delgado think that Sarah was still alive when Isaac married? If you thought he clarifies any of this in the body of the book proper, you'd be mistaken. However, I think I can prove he did think Sarah was still alive. In a complicated calculation he explains that Isaac had been married already 20 years in the year 2086, when his sons were born, and that Abraham died in 2121 aged 175. That means Isaac married in 2066, when Abraham was 120. That means Sarah was then 110. So she has 17 more years alive. What a pity, since Sarah missed the birth of Esau and Jacob by only three years. This means then that according to Delgado, what actually happened was that 20 year old Isaac married 10 year old Rebecca.

Finally, recall that his interesting example doesn't explain the errors which he admits can be found all over the Bible, apart for the Pentateuch, and which may be explained as hinting at additional information.

Readers will note that he promised to give an explanation for why and how he contends that the Masoretic text was transmitted very exactly in his note to Joshua 21:36. Unfortunately this was the only book he produced, so I have no idea what he intended to say, although it obviously has to do with the two verses missing here in the Masoretic text, which appeared in some Hebrew texts and in the KJV, following the Septuagint.

Here is the Radak, printed in the 2nd Rabbinic Bible. As you can see, he points out that although these verses are paralleled in 1 Chronicles 6:63-64, the Masorah omits it here:

Readers who are interested should know these verses are simply missing in the Aleppo Codex and other Masoretic sources. The 2nd Rabbinic Bible omits them as well. To this day, some Hebrew Bibles print them at the bottom, or in parentheses, but all follow the Masorah and maintain that they do not really belong here. By contrast, Christian Bibles generally print the verses. See the end of this post for a note in one such edition.[1] Getting back to Delgado, at the very end he writes that he wishes to print three more volumes, which will contain the entire Hebrew Bible. He claims it is already written, just waiting subscribers and the press. If so, then his observations on this verse might exist in manuscript somewhere. Just saying.

Now, his book isn't really a new translation per se. Instead, it lists the "Old Translation" in a parallel column with the "New Translation." The New gives a verse of phrase where he differs from the KJV, with the differences printed in italics. Below the two columns is a section called Observations, where he explains and justifies his proposed translation. For example, in the very first verse, he gives the Original as In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. His New Translation is In the beginning God produced the heavens and the earth. We see two changes. The first is to render heaven in the plural, and the second is to change created to produced. His Observations is a little philological and a little philosophical. He explain that the word ברא signify the production of something which only has the appearance of being. As an example, he notes (claims) that evil is not an actual thing, but the absence of goodness, just as darkness is the absence of light. Yet Isaiah 45:7 expresses this negative existence in terms of ברא, or God's producing evil (and darkness). Since the heavens and earth were not created until the second day, it must mean that whatever it is that God did here, it was not created. Rather, he produced the heavens and earth. Delgado does not note that he changes heaven to heavens, but he is simply rendering the Hebrew shamayim into a plural in English, which is perhaps justifiable.

To me, a far more interesting example is found way at the end. Deuteronomy 33:2 in the Hebrew contains a big obscurity, namely אשדת למו, which the Masorah breaks into the words אש דת למו, or a "fiery law unto them." Were the keri not "esh das" then presumably the unpointed אשדת would be read "ashedos," which is a fine biblical Hebrew word, meaning slope, or perhaps waterfall (derived from אשדה). Indeed, many modern Bibles translate here according to the kesiv אשדת.

An additional problem is that דת is a word which only appears in the late biblical books, and appears to be Persian. Thus, the keri actually raises the question of how, if the Torah is the oldest books in the Bible, it contains a word which otherwise does not occur in the Torah, and doesn't even occur until the very last books.

In any case, before I get to Delgado, here is an appropriate moment to quote Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan in his The Living Torah (New York/ Jerusalem, 1979), who translated it as "From the holy myriads, He brought the fire of a religion to them from His right hand." His note indicates that he is translating according to Rashi and Ibn Ezra. He gives several other renderings: "Fire becomes law" (Hirsch), "a law of fire" (Ramban), or "a Torah of light" (Saadia). Artscroll, incidentally, translates "a fiery Torah," and speaks in its silence by not even gently calling attention to what Kaplan does forthrightly, namely the following:
"Some see eshdath as a single word, indicating a waterfall as in Numbers 21:15, above 3:17 (Eliahu Levitas [! sic]; cf. Ibn Janach who rejects this), and hence, "from His right hand a waterfall to them." He also offers three additional interpretations, the Targum, Septuagint and Abarbanel.
First of all, when I first read this it blew my mind. Not that Kaplan called Eliyahu Levita "Levitas," but that he claims that he - Rabbi Eliyahu Bachur - interpreted it as one word. That's amazing. Could there be a Jewish exegete (or, really, Hebraist) in the 16th century who openly maintained that the pshat in the word was according to the kesiv and not the keri? Furthermore, why didn't I already know it? You'd think this would be famous.

Now, I knew that Shadal takes the only liberty he allowed himself with the Torah, to occasionally interpret it against the Masorah, and he gives this precise explanation. He translates this word "pendice," or "slope." In his Hebrew commentary he explains that "from the right" refers to the slope of the mountain, which Moshe was standing upon right then - Nebo. He goes on to explain why it is from the right, namely because Sinai, Seir, and Paran are all to the south of Nebo, and the south is termed "yamin," or right, in biblical Hebrew. He explains that he rejects the explanation that Moshe was referring to Sinai, rather than Nebo, because then the verse would not have begun with "mi-sinai ba," but "al Sinai," so therefore the verse was not speaking of the Revelation at Sinai, and it certainly is not referring to God's right side. He then explains why he also cannot translate according to the keri: the word das is not Hebrew, or even Aramaic - it's Persian. Furthermore, in his view, the cantillation does not support the keri. Although he does not say it, he obviously feels that the keri is a kind of Midrashic explanation, and not really the Torah's intent. When you compound that with the problem that the presence of a Persian word has unattractive implications for the Mosaic authorship of this verse, he rightly - according to the situation in which he finds himself - translates and interprets according to the kesiv.

But this is a 19th century explanation. Did any Jew suggest it in the 16th? So, again, I was astonished to learn that Levita should interpret it the same way. After searching his books, in expected and unexpected places, and after inquiring of a very expert scholar, I concluded that Kaplan is mistaken. My guess is that he meant Shadal. I think he confused them because Shadal is closely identified with the famous position of Levita (Bachur) that the vowels and accents were written down very late, in fact after the compilation of the Talmud. But I digress.


2.17.2011 Important update regarding the above, please see end of post.


How does Delgado interpret this verse?

As you can see, he translates it as "a constant fire," on the authority of Ibn Ezra. Delgado notes that das does not mean law (or Torah) in Hebrew, although he errs - though understandably - in seeing it as having that meaning in Chaldee, or Aramaic. Ibn Ezra explained that das comes from omedes, that is, the fire is omedes tamid, or burning constantly. To be sure, Ibn Ezra initially interprets the words as referring to the Torah, which was given amidst fire and thunder.

I think what you see here is kind of a transitional type of interpretation. Traditionalist, but not entirely. Delgado knows that das as Torah is unlikely. Yet he will not interpret against the Masorah, so he latched onto an alternate explanation which is sort of traditional, yet does not require him to explain das as law. It should be noted that in the late 18th century there was a scholarly rebellion against explaining this according to the keri, a fiery law (the KJV originally read "a fierie Law.") For example, embodying both tendencies which Delgado opposed, Kennicott in 1753 had devoted several very interesting pages to the difficulty of this phrase, remarking that the verses are "remarkably unintelligible." He therefore suggests "the following Correction:"

As you can see, אשדת למו has disappeared, no more אשדת and no more אש דת. Instead we see אש אור, and he translates it as "a fire shone forth" (among other emendations). Kennicott also claims that the word das is Chaldee, and that frankly the phrase esh das really doesn't make much sense. He further notes that in verse 4. the word torah is used. In addition, neither the Septuagint nor the Peshitta translate it this way. He then gives parallel parts of Scripture where light is streaming from the hand of God. Finally, he builds his case with Samaritan text. First he notes that in some manuscripts the word is written דות, (this is of interest - he downplays it, but the point is that in the Samaritan texts the word is separated into אש דת, according to the keri of the Masoretic text). Secondly, he cites the Samaritan Targum which translates the phrase as מימינה נור אורה גון, which for his purposes is the same as he wants to translate it. How to tease the Hebrew אור out of נור אורה, which after all means fire and light, same as אש? In other words, how to show that this isn't only an interpetive translation, but can be shown to stem from an original uncorrupted Hebrew text? The key is דות, which he contends is not just an odd error, but a very special one. There is no way to explain that extra vav, except as follows: it is a remnant of the original, uncorrupted word which was אור. However, the first and third letters were corrupted. The tav is very similar to resh in the (Jewish!) Hebrew alphabet, which can plausibly explain the substitution of at least one of these letters. Thus, esh or lamo.

By the way, how should we understand these Samaritan manuscripts which write דות? In my opinion, very simply. The Samaritan text has no nekudos, and if das is a unique word in the Jewish Torah, at least it appears in other books in the Bible, meaning law. The Samaritans have no other books, thus they do not have the word das in their Bible, except for right here. How are Samaritans supposed to understand אש דת? Well, we have the Samaritan Targum mentioned by Kennicott. That's one way. Another way is אשדת, as one word (even though it is separated into two in their text, at least according to Kennicott and Blayney). Since they have no points, the insertion of a vav hints that it should be read ashdos, or אשדות. Thus, in my opinion, these variant Samaritan texts are interpreting themselves, to mean slope.

In a letter written early in 1773 to a like-minded contemporary, Moses Mendelssohn alluded to Kennicott with this very example, as typical of the decadence of biblical emendation in his time.
"Who is supposed to buy a rabbinic commentary in our clever age, when every student of Hebrew is permitted to change the text at will? If . . . [another example] seems incomprehensible, an English reviser is immediately at hand who reads [an emendation], and rabbinic skills are no longer needed. Is 'esh dat lamo difficult to explain? No problem. Read 'or instead of dat and everything is clear. I do not know where this audacity will end." (Translation by Alexander Altmann on pg. 286 of his Mendelssohn biography.)
Mendelssohn continues by saying that one must allow a fashion to run its course, for novelty is alluring. Eventually people will lose their taste for it, and then they may be led back to the path of sound reason. Here is his letter, from the 5th volume of his Gessamalte Schriften:

Not surprisingly, in his own version of the Bible, Mendelssohn translates esh das as Feuerslutreligion (פייארסגלוטרעליגאָן ; isn't German gorgeous?).

A contemporary and sometime correspondent of Mendelssohn, the Bible scholar Michaelis, translated as "Rechten Wassergüsse," or a waterfall to his right:

Incidentally, in my opinion Michaelis got carried away with the fact that the word ashedos could mean waterfall, but over here, does it? Which waterfall? It's beautiful poetry, but so is esh das, a fiery law.

Incidentally, the following is a very interesting treatment, written by Ignaz Goldziher and his teacher Heymann Steinthal. In the English translation of their work, "Mythology among the Hebrews and its historical development," we find the following:
"If the reading esh dath in the Blessing of Moses v. 2 is correct, the word dath points to a society accessible to Persian words; and the passage in Deut. XXXII. 39, where the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead is mentioned as a recognised article of faith, confirms this impression."
This book was written in refutation of bible critics, particularly Renan, who had denied the existence of Hebrew mythology. What do you mean we had no mythology? asked this work. I'll give you mythology! Secondly, although I am not sure this is intended, it perfectly illustrates the problem Shadal had with interpreting it as two separate words. Goldizher and Steinthal spell it out clearly. "If" the reading is correct then "the word dath points to a society accessible to Persian words." They do not say it, but if the reading is not correct, then it doesn't point to it at all. (Goldziher may not have really believed the Torah was written by Moshe, but he definitely knew how to observe Tisha B'av; see here.)

Finally, the 2009 paper jointly published by Richard Steiner and Sid Z. Leiman, The Lost Meaning of Deuteronomy 33:2 as Preserved in the Palestinian Targum of the Decalogue, must be mentioned. In this paper it is argued that esh dat (whether together or separate) is the correct original reading, but never meant a fiery law. This, rather, was the midrashic interpretation. The argument is that דת is a contraction of דאת, an archaic term meaning "flew." Thus the original peshat was "fire flew," and this had become forgotten when "דת was midrashically identified with the homonymous Aramaic loanword of Iranian origin meaning 'law.'

[1] The aforementioned note on Joshua 21:36-37, from the "Keil and Delitzsch Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament":
Note: R. Jacob ben Chajim has omitted Joshua 21:36 and Joshua 21:37 from his Rabbinical Bible of the year 1525 as spurious, upon the authority of Kimchi and the larger Masora; but upon insufficient grounds, as these verses are to be found in many good MSS and old editions of an earlier date than 1525, as well as in all the ancient versions, and could not possibly have been wanting from the very first, since the Merarites received twelve towns, which included the four that belonged to Reuben. In those MSS in which they are wanting, the omission was, no doubt, a copyist's error, occasioned by the homoioteleuton (see de Rossi variae lect. ad loc., and J. H. Michaelis' Note to his Hebrew Bible).

2.17.2011 Important update: Moshe Maimon informs me that I overlooked a very important source - Levita's notes to Kimchi's Shorashim! This is from the 1547 edition:

As you can see, he does indeed say - or rather imply - that the word is really "ashdos." This is his explanation for why the Radak (Kimchi) did not cite Deut. 33:2 as a source for the word das.

Thus, I was mistaken and Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan correctly points to him. It would seem then that R. Eliyahu Bachur understood that "esh das" is really Midrashic, and if he is right, so did the Radak - the other possibility simply being that the Radak would understandably only write words written in the Bible, and "esh das" is only read. Perhaps this is all he meant as well.


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