Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Why did Seligmann Baer prepare an edition of the Bible with Franz Delitzsch?

Many thanks to my friend Reuven Brauner who enriched my life by sending over these amazing photos.

Seligmann Baer is a name well-known to Jewish liturgy and masorah buffs (and even many of those who do not know him do not know that they know him, since they still know his siddur Seder Avodat Yisrael). Reuven informed me that not only is he well-known and respected in his hometown of Biebrich, and his birth house marked with a plaque, but his portrait is painted on the wall of a local beer-hall. Part of a series of locals who did well, I guess.

Now that we have seen such an oddity (a very cool one at that) I thought it might be interesting to discuss something unusual about Baer. His edition of Tanakh was produced in collaboration with Franz Delitzsch, each volume including an extensive Latin preface by that great scholar. Baer was a pious Orthodox Jew, and Delitzsch was a pious Christian - but one involved in missionary activity. Here is the title page and the first page of the preface of one volume:

Before I get to that, here is something which I've been waiting for years for the right moment to post. In Delitzsch's Commentary to Isaiah he refers, in an appendix, to Shadal, who had sent him a copy of his own perush to a part of Isaiah. Since Shadal had recently died, Delitzsch took the opportunity of recalling the assistance he was given from him as early as 1836. Nearly twenty five years had elapsed between that period and when Delitzsch wrote him again, and when he did Shadal replied and asked him why he hadn't written for so long? He then asked "Is it because we form different opinions of the עלמה and the ילד ילד לנו of Isaiah?" Shadal continues that if he is a sincere Christian than he is 100 times more dear to him than a Jewish Spinozist.

One can find this letter in Epistolario, Shadal's collected letters in European languages, which was published in 1890. We see that Delitzsch really liked those words.

And here is the part from that letter in Epistolario:

This in turn reminded me of another letter from Shadal. This is an excerpt from an 1856 letter to Heinrich Graetz:

Evidently Graetz had suggested to him that it would be a good idea to print his commentary to Isaiah in square Hebrew letters, rather than the Rashi script which he used. He says:
"You mentioned that I ought to print my commentary in square script, for the ease of the non-Jewish scholars. Is it for the non-Jews that I explicate Isaiah? Goodness, no! My intention is not to distance a man from the faith of his fathers. If a Christian believes that "Behold an alma shall be pregnant" was said about Mary, I do not seek to challenge him. And if the Rationalists say, etc., I also do not mean to debate them. I know there is no fix for them. My only intention is to benefit my people, the ketanim if not the gedolim, in order to accustom them to taste of the sweet honey that are the words of the Prophets, and not to resort to false prophets and the commentaries of unbelievers.

Bless you and yours, Padua, 18 Shevat 5516, 1:00 AM.

Your Friend and Servant,
Back to Baer. Why did he collaborate with Delitzsch? To put it another way, today a Jew who is not Messianic would not produce a Bible with a Christian actively engaged in missionary activity.

I have my speculative reasons, but I also found out what Delitzsch's perspective was. I do not think they contradict one another. So first, here is my contextual speculation. My tentative thought is that Jews act differently when in a position of political power than in a position without such power. In the 19th century in Europe there were philosemites, as well as antisemites. But almost to a man the philosemitic gentiles had a missionary motivation. These were men who weren't merely political liberals, but Hebrew scholars, and scholars of rabbinic texts. It was they who argued against the blood libel, who defended the Talmud from calumny (an example of such a man is Hermann Strack). These scholars came in different flavors, of course. Some were men like Alexander McCaul, who on the one hand wrote a scathing critique of rabbinic Judaism ("Nesivot Olam/ The Old Paths") which was circulated among Jews in Hebrew, Yiddish, German and English. But the same man forthrightly and loudly defended the Jews during the period of the Damascus Blood Libel. On the other hand there were men like Strack and, especially, Delitzsch, who did not criticize Judaism as such, even though they were missionaries. They also endowed Jews and Judaism with grandeur and dignity. There is, for example, a book in which Delitzsch write enraptured about the Hebrew attitude toward color, and he writes without irony about - of all things - the descriptive colors of different kinds of female discharges mentioned in rabbinic literature. See this post.

This is an attitude toward rabbinic Judaism that is quite different from the antisemites, and even philosemitic missionaries like McCaul. In addition, Delitzch's aforementioned first book was on Hebrew poetry, including modern (i.e. up to 1836) poetry, where he also wrote with much praise and sentiment about the Jews and their talents, and how they eclipsed the scholarly non-Jews in knowledge of Hebrew and the Bible. He also would regularly and respectfully quote his contemporary Malbim in his own commentaries (obviously from a later period), not only earlier Jewish scholars like Radak and Rashi, who were familiar to Christian Hebraists. Also see this post.

In short, he was a special man. In addition, I will say that as far as I can tell Franz Delitzsch was not a sneaky or a deceptive man, nor did he prey on the ignorant Jew. Perhaps this, or some combination of all this, was key. You also see relations and collaboration with missionaries - of a far less respectful and sincere kind - among the leaders of the Perushim in Jerusalem in the early part of the century (before 1840). I've posted about that several times. I would say also that if Jews have more principled policies toward Christian missionaries now, it is with knowing more in hindsight and also that Jews have more friends who are not trying to convert us. In addition, in a manner of speaking Jews simply are less in need of friends today. A paradox - we have more friends and we also don't need every one as much as we did 150 years ago. I'm sure some will dispute this.

I also have in mind a story about the Netziv. It is related in Mekor Baruch that some Jews wanted to give some kind of honor to Daniel Chwolson. Chwolson was the head librarian in the Judaica section of the St. Petersburg library, and a proven friend of the Jews, defender against slander, blood libel, etc. He also happened to be an apostate. It is claimed that he once was asked if he converted out of conviction, and he responded "Yes, out of the conviction that it's better to be chief librarian in Petersburg than a melamed in Shklov" (or some place like that). Whether he was a sincere convert or not I don't know, but it is not impossible that this story arose to explain how come he was such a "good" apostate.

Be that as it may, unlike many other meshumadim, he really was a friend of the Jews. When people wanted to honor him, the Netziv was asked his opinion and replied with a parable. A girl was ill and the physician said the only remedy is for her to eat pork. The girl was reluctant, to say the least. Finally she agreed on condition that even though it is pig, it should be shechted and salted according to all the dinim of shechita. Since they knew it was the only way for her to eat it, they complied. Lo and behold the shochet, while doing the bedika, noticed a she'ela. He brought it to the rav who looked at it and concluded that the particular issue was fine, however, he said "I can't bring myself to say the word "kasher!"

I think that he point of the story is not only that the Netziv was *against* showing honor to Chwolson. The point is that others thought they should show him honor! I don't know who, but I think we can all agree that today few if any Jews would think of showing honor to a famous meshumad!

Thus far my speculation, although it should be pointed out that Baer was not the only non-Christian Jew to assist missionary scholars with Bible work.

In any case, we have an account by Delitzsch about how he came to know and work with Baer. It was printed in the Zeitschrift für die gesammte lutherische Theologie und Kirche, edited by Delitzsch, in 1863.

What he says is that in 1852 Baer's Hebrew work Torat Emet on the cantillation appeared. It included a learned letter from Shadal and a preface from I.M. Jost, who spoke exceedingly highly of Baer's devotion and expertise, and that this small work was only a sample of his much greater research and capabilities. The letter aroused Delitzsch's curiosity, and he sought out Baer. He found that he was indeed a very meritorious scholar, laboring in obscurity, working as a teacher of children, and without a lot of financial remuneration (which makes sense, since it would also explain Baer's foray in publishing popular history books). For twenty years Baer had been accumulating an important library, which cost him the little money he had., and which bought him nothing in return. Delitzsch also found him to be of good character, working lishma as it were, sacrificing himself for a labor of love, to work on God's Word, the Old Testament. They had many fruitful scholarly discussions, and he discovered that this man, Baer, possessed more knowledge in grammar and masorah than any scholar, Jewish or Christian. Since he liked to promote scholars that's just what he did. A student of Delitszch also added, in a memorial to him after he died, that Delitzsch even secured a doctorate for him. Thus, if he is called Dr. Baer (as he often is) it is because of Delitzsch.

Although I am sure that some would read all this and boil it down to "he did it for money" - and how much money could he have even made? - I think it's not quite as simple as that.


  1. S.,
    Great post (you should however, clean up some of the typos - more than usual; "pray on jews" may have been freudian).
    As for honor to meshumadim, I don't know if I agree with you. It might depend on who he is. It's my understanding (correct me if I'm wrong), e.g., that Lustiger enjoyed a lot of showing of honor by Jews.

  2. Nearly two five years had elapsed

  3. great post.

    just to make it clear, it sounds from the post that he was born in Biebrich, he was actually born in Mosbach (Baden).

    keep it up s., we love you.

  4. Baer beer? Delitzsch-ous!


  5. It seems that many orthodox Jews saw Delitzch as a friend, and a pious one too, as you have written about here before based on an article by Sid Leiman (translating from the writings of R. Leopold Greenwald)

  6. interesting.
    btw, in 1848 leeser published a hebrew bible with joseph jacquet, a philadelphia episcopalian mininster, and earlier solomon henry jackson wrote to a bishop (?) about publishing a translation together. i don't recall any details about their respective partners, but jackson and leeser were staunch anti-missionary fighters i can't beleive they would have collaborated with anyone involved in these activities, no matter how friendly to the jews

    Here I am reading the comments and listening to "B'Ofen Miluli" on the radio (glz on line) and they just made a reference to Seligman Baer's tikun (in connection with the masora regarding writing certain letters). I guess that now glz is "on the main line"

  8. It's a small world after all.

  9. similar to the friendship between kahle & rjjw

  10. Anonymous

    "just to make it clear, it sounds from the post that he was born in Biebrich, he was actually born in Mosbach (Baden)."

    This is incorrect. Mosbach/Baden is a different city Southeast of Frankfurt am Main. Baer had nothing to do with that place.

    Baer's Mosbach was originally an independent village which merged with Biebrich in 1882. In turn, Biebrich was incorporated into Wiesbaden in 1926. See the following map ("plan") from 1819:

    From the "plan", it seems, that the Baer house was located in Mosbach, the best I can make out.

    See this bad Google translation, also:

    "End of the 19th Century, Biebrich on Main next to the largest industrial center in the Rhine-Main area. With the consequent explosion in population growth grew the two communities together in space and Biebrich and Mosbach joined in 1882 the city officially Biebrich-Mosbach together. Symbolically, the new city hall of the church was built exactly to double the former district boundary. Due to the increasingly dominant position Biebrichs the name component Mosbach but disappeared soon afterwards from both the language and designation of the city."

    That should clear up the confusion in names. So, Baer was technically born in Mosbach, but died in Biebrich, and probably never moved an inch.

  11. Reuven Brauner, thanks for the Clarification, very very interesting. just comes to show that you can't rely on wikipedia.

  12. Wonderful post! I noticed a small translation glitch: "And if the Rationalists say, etc., I also do not mean to debate them" should be: "And with the Rationalists as well I also do not mean to debate."

  13. sam spade,

    Was Kahle involved in missionary activity?

    Dan, thanks. Not sure what I was thinking; guess I read it quickly and thought it said א"כ.

  14. SAM:

    "similar to the friendship between kahle & rjjw"

    not quite. rjjw didn't collaborate with kahle on a bible. and who says kahle was well known as a supporter of missionary activities?


    can you clarfiy what delitsz ad baer each contributed to the bible, whose project it was and who was the intended market?

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