Monday, January 30, 2012

The unwanted Samaritan Pentateuch notes in Bibles distributed in Jerusalem in the 1820s.

Recently I've been posting some interesting material from the journals kept by Joseph Wolff, a Jewish-born missionary active all over Asia in the 1820 - 40s, distributing tracts and Bibles (including Hebrew, Arabic and Persian translations of the New Testament) and engaging infidels in conversation and disputation.

He spent considerable time in the Holy Land in 1822. He writes about a controversy which occurred because of the specific content of the Hebrew Bibles which he was distributing (here we are talking about Tanakh, not the New Testament). The Bibles used a variety of symbols to indicate footnotes, one of which was a cross. In addition, the specific edition he was distributing also included the readings from the Samaritan Pentateuch.

Here's what he writes:

That is, as soon as his shipment of Bibles arrived, a fellow named Abraham ben David (Schleifer, as he writes elsewhere) whom he had converted (or more accurately, was in the early stages) bought 5 copies, and when he tried to distribute them, the cross was seen in the margins, and the people became very angry and flogged him (on the feet!) one time for every piastre he spent. So Abraham returned the Bibles.

He continues, discussing what happened when he met with a rabbi named Joseph ben Wolf, to discuss the Zohar with him. He noticed that a few pages of his copy of one of the Bibles were ripped out, and Joseph told him that an "enthusiastic Jew" (wouldn't it be great if we started calling the kannaim "enthusiastic Jews?") had torn them out because of the cross markings. He continues to relate how a rabbi, Solomon ben Menachem Shapira, substantially critiqued the specific edition of the Bible for its errors. (Read more about this student of R. Chaim Volozhin here.)

Next follows a situation where the aforementioned Abraham Schleifer informed Wolff that the rabbis had declared that the Jews must burn the Bibles, because of the cross marks and the Samaritan text in the notes. As we will see, while the crosses were bothering the masses, the quotation from the Samaritan text seems to have been the chief reason that it bothered the rabbis:

Wolff, alarmed, wrote a Hebrew letter to "Rabbi Iom Toph Danum, Morenu Meyahis and Abraham Hadid" the foremost Sephardic rabbis. He informed them that he would rather the Bibles returned to him than burned. If not, he demanded that they pay for them. He said that he distributed them so that people should learn from them, not burn them. "Woe be to you shepherds of Israel" is how he closes, and adds a postscript that the sign of the cross is simply meant to mark the Keri and Ketib.

The rabbis asked him to meet with them and drink coffee. They addressed him in Spanish and asked him if they could talk in Hebrew, and Wolff replied that they could. One of the rabbis began, explaining that many of the poor Jews are ignorant, and they (the rabbis) are not "bad shepherds" but they have a problem with the notes that print the text of the Samaritan Pentateuch, particularly to Duet. 5 (the Ten Commandments). The rabbi said that the rabbis know full well that the Samaritan version referring to Mt. Gerizim is not in the text, and "that it is not the intention of the English nation to make us believe in the Samaritan Codex." However, he said, only us rabbis know this. There is a fear that the unlearned young people, who might learn Hebrew from this edition, will be led to believe the Samaritan text. Without even mentioning the signs of the cross, he added that New Testaments are simply out of the question.

Wolff's rejoinder is that he received permission from Rabbi Mendel of Shklov to distribute Hebrew Bibles. As for New Testaments, although he vigorously disagrees with them, he said that since he doesn't want them burned he's going to stop giving them away for free, and he signed a paper to that effect.

The rabbis finished the conversation on a conciliatory note, one of them adding that they would be glad to receive Bibles from the English, "but without notes, without comment, without any preface, and without any Latin character." Wolff agrees to this.

At this point Rabbi Mendel arrived, and Wolff says that he asked him if it's true that he granted him permission to distribute Tanakhs, and Rabbi Mendel affirmed it. The other rabbis then explained their position, and Rabbi Mendel conceded it. He did, however, praise the edition of the Prophets and Psalms. They closed by asking him once again not to distribute the New Testament, and he agreed since they would burn them. No doubt he crossed his fingers when he said this (and signed) because "this does not prevent my lending copies of the New Testament to those, who, I am sure, will not burn them."

Although this is not the precise edition of the Bible which he distributed (there are no signs of the cross in it, for example) that edition is based on this one - and here you can see the disputed Samaritan text in the notes:

Finally, here is Wolff, a couple of decades later:


  1. "The rabbis asked him to meet with them and drink coffee. "

    I can just imagine R' Slifkin's reaction when he reads this sentence. -- Phil

  2. enough with the missionary travelogues

  3. What should I post about instead?

  4. more missionary travelogues.

    another anonymous

  5. No, keep posting them! There's something wonderfully intriguing about them.

  6. Thanks. But I also want to hear what the naysayer would prefer instead!

  7. i about a jewish topic? or something a little more believable? it's beyond belief that r' mendel of shklov would agree to have a missionary distribute bibles. if i want bubba maasos, i'll read cis publications

  8. First of all, it's obviously clear that here we are discussing what Wolff wrote, whether it is true or exaggerated or not. That is interesting to me, and others apparently, in its own right. While you're certainly welcome to believe that Wolff and the various other missionaries fantasized their encounters with the Jews (although I can't imagine why here they say they were received with hostility and here with less hostility) I think it's not that simple. As I commented in the other thread, it appears that the Ashkenazim initially allowed the missionaries to achieve a certain degree of closeness with the rabbinic leadership, for the political benefits they could accrue from forging these relationships with European gentiles. You can even see this from the reaction of the Sephardi rabbonim described here. They weren't worried about themselves, but the hamon. If you read carefully, you see that R. Mendel spent a lot of time talking with him. This would be consistent with that and would make sense if he didn't mind Wolff being around for the benefits, but didn't want him talking to the people. He also approved of the distribution of Nevvim and Tehillim, obviously not the New Testament. Sure, subsequent history probably proved that you cannot manage missionaries, who have their own strategies and agenda. After two rabbis converted in 1843 the attitude changed completely. But the later behavior of the rabbonim hardly proves that the earlier is bobba maases.

    However, I thank you for explaining what you meant.

  9. i don't believe Wolff fantasized his encounters. i am doubting his veracity with regard specific conversations. while the first few posts about this topic were (mildly) interesting, i now find it ois-geshpieled. of course, that's my humble opinion; it is, after all, your blog :)

  10. To anyone who posts "anonymous"ly -- Just write a name, real or fake, after your post, so you can be identified. Thanks! -- Phil

  11. I like these Joseph wolf posts. He's an intressante guy. I say also his words have the ring of truth to them.



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