Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Ber of Bolechow on Torah im derech eretz and Humphrey Prideaux

Here's an interesting and well-known, I think, passage in the memoirs of Ber Birkenthal of Bolochow (1723-1805), a person most famed because of his role in the disputations with the Frankists and obviously the memoir itself:

So he's going on explaining how he thinks that the biblical Gehazi established Zoroastrianism, and he was reminded of this because he observed that Hungarian peasants were accustomed to always keep a fire burning. This led to a digression on the dualists (Zoroasters) mentioned in the Talmud, and how he thinks the Hungarians are descended from them, and how the name 'Magyar' is a hint toward that (sounds like Magi - why, you can even spell them the same way in Hebrew as he chose to do). In any event, he says that Gehazi established this dualist religion - but he was called Zoroastrus in the books of the Greeks - and that he saw this idea in gentile books.

Then comes a fascinating digression about a book he read by the Englishman Hunphrey Prideuks [sic], from London, who wrote about Gehazi in the first part of his book. He explains that Prideaux wrote all about the history of the nations which bordered ancient Israel and how all the prophecies were fulfilled. In fact, he translated much of the book into Hebrew, and he hopes with God's help to print it, and it will be very enlightening for the Jewish scholars to read.

He then says that he hopes especially his own descendants would read Prideaux (the 'Englander Hunphrey') in the German translation as well as in his Hebrew translation [my guess is that he enlarged it and included his own notes and rabbinic references], they will learn some great matters, for not only the Holy Scripture, but also many worldy matters were known to him, but not to the Jews - and us Jews are obligated to know all, so in them can be fulfilled the verse from Deut. 4:6, "for this is your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples." Even though this verse was applied by Hazal to our holy Torah, but they did also say that Torah is good with derech eretz, and also it is good for every Jew to be wise and understanding, to know also what the gentiles know. Through this he [=Ber] was been able to at times properly answer their confrontational and negative questions about the Jewish faith and religion, with the replies which he thought of when conversing with nobles and priests, and he found that most of the time his replies were correct and perceived as convincing.

Here's the first part of this passage in the original manuscript published by Wischnitzer:

And for fun, here is the entire passage in the facsimile published in Joseph Geller's fascinating dissertation The Manuscript Version of the Memoirs of Dov Ber Birkenthal (Ber of Bolechew) (Montreal 1989), which meticulously corrected Wischnitzer's transcription errors (no opinion on whether Geller is always right and so on).

By the way, in case you are wondering about his spelling "Hunphrey" (with a nun) my theory is as follows. You can see in the manuscript that the first name was added later or as an afterthought, because it was inserted above the ruled space, on top of his transcription of Prideaux (which is accurate, although it implies that he did not pronounce it "Prido"). So he must not have had the book and didn't check twice, although maybe you'd think he'd have recalled the author's name given that he was engaged in translating his work! In any case, this is probably the edition of Prideaux that Ber was using - link.

Finally, here is a nice post where you can see pictures of his tombstone and read about it.


  1. Maybe Hunphrey is to Humphrey as Zanvil is to Samuel. In other words, maybe this was a typical Yiddish consonant shift.

  2. I'm not sure what you're suggesting. Of course the m/n consonant shift is common, but he was a learned person who knew how to spell. If you look at some Yiddish letters, such as some of the interesting ones by early American Jews published in "Essays in American Jewish History" you'll see people who could write but barely had any idea of how words, especially of Hebrew origin, were spelled and were being purely phonetic. In such a scenario it is easy to see how this consonant shift would occur. But here I think Ber just wasn't being careful. If we're not saying the same thing.



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