Wednesday, December 12, 2012

A description of the asceticism of yeshiva bochurim at the Pressburg Yeshiva in a Protestant journal from New York in 1842

Isaac Nordheimer (1809-1842) was a 19th century Hebraist, notable today chiefly for having adopted America as his place of domicile. He was also a former student at the Pressburg Yeshiva. As far as I know there is only one account of his life, and this was written upon his death by a friend, Edward Robinson (yes, of Robinson's Arch fame), in the latter's journal the Bibliotheca Sacra and Theological Review. This account was published upon Nordheimer's untimely death due to tuberculosis and, to give an idea of how he was seen as a scholar in his own time, the notice about Nordheimer follows one about another recently departed Hebraist, no less than Gesenius. Of course this does not mean that Robinson considered Nordheimer the equal of Wilhelm Gesenius, but he was seen as worthy of mention in the same breath ("Biographical Notices of Gesenius and Nordheimer").

In any case, in the  biography (link) some aspects of Nordheimer's years at the Pressburg Yeshiva are recorded, told to Robinson by the late scholar. For example, Nordheimer had told him that he made the [nearly 400 mile] journey from his hometown in Bavaria to Pressburg at age 13, partly on foot. Robinson says that the Chatam Sofer took a personal interest in the boy.

There is the following description of what some of the bochurim did to make sure they did not oversleep after staying up late to learn in the Beit Midrash:


  1. פת במלח תאכל ואל הארץ תישן...

    The rumor was that the דברי חיים nailed his Peyos to the wall behind him so when he drifted off, he would be harshly awakened. Don't know whether this is true, but they don't make these things up about anyone living today.

    1. Some rumor that is. Doesn't sound that much his type. The classic version of that story - mentioned in MANY seforim - is about the Maharsha who grew his hair long (there's a portrait of him in the beg. of R' R. Margulies' bio on the Maharsha) to be able to tie the hair to some pegs in a wall to keep him from dowsing off.

      However, the only place I've seen a similar story (actually like the one you quote) is of the Maharsham told over by his grandson in the beg. of the Techeiles Mordechai (newer ed.) who tied his peyos instead.

      Did you ever see this rumor in writing or only heard it?

  2. Totally fascinating. I love the description of the "strength of character" needed "to break away from the the trammels and fetters of his Rabbinic education; from that nightmare of Talmudic absurdity... and learn to move freely and rejoicingly in the fields of free inquiry and scientific investigation". Classy.
    And the biography of Gesenius is equally fascinating! Especially the part on Robinson's view of Gesenius' rationalism:
    "Still more deeply to be regretted, both as it regards himself personally and also his wide-spread influence as an interpreter of the Scriptures, were the defects of his character in a religious respect. In his early years he was thrown by circumstances into the ranks of those who then bore the name of rationalists; and he appears never to have felt a sufficient personal interest in the subject, to give it a subsequent examination, or attempt to disabuse his mind from its early bias".

  3. Although taking the cure at Saratoga didn't help him much, Nordheimer was lucky to be able to stay there at all. About 30 years later, social anti-Semitism had so increased that the richest Jew in America was turned away from a Saratoga hotel.

  4. Ancestor of one of Ontario's most prominent judges?

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