Monday, December 31, 2012

Must have been some concert - a night of leining in 1844

This is an ad for a fun night out in Boston, November 12, 1844. As you can see, Mr. Henry Phillips was to be assisted by Miss Stone and put on a real show, featuring Irish songs and a performance of leining, as taught to him by a Polish rabbi, Dr. Herschel. Afterwards he was to prove that the te'amim are ancient, sing Az Yashir, and then some more songs, including one about Robin Hood.


Sunday, December 30, 2012

Bareheaded Polish Jews in traditional garb in a Polish church?

This is the demonstrations to which it refers.

Dr. Yastrow is, of course, Marcus Jastrow. See here about this incident.

From the Israelite.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

On winter birthdays

It was my birthday recently (thank you, thank you) and a friend of mine suggested I post about birthdays.

What better way than to record Rabbi Benjamin of Tudela's 12th century observation of a Christmas celebration in Constantinople?

"There is a place of amusement for the king there called Hippodrome. Each year the king makes a great public celebration there on the birthday of Jesus of Nazareth. All types of people from all over the world appear before the king and his queen, a spellbinding display. They bring lions, bears, leopards, wild donkeys, which combat each other, and also birds, which fight. Nothing like this show can be seen in all the world."

Thursday, December 20, 2012

On King Arthur ballads

Here's an interesting paragraph about King Arthur in Zemach David (Prague 1592), interesting really for the end.
"Arthus: the great king of Angleterra, that is England, who is known of throughout the world. He made a great defeat of the Romans and the Gauls in the year [4]297, that is 537 in the Christian date. This is the Arthus whom they composed ballads about which are still popular today among the German minstrels."

So, any experts in German King Arthur ballads?

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

An English elegy on the death of the much Lamented Death of R. Nosson Adler's rebbe

Here's a fantastic item. This sheet is what it says it is: an elegy printed upon the death of R. David Tevele Schiff, Chief Rabbi of the Duke's Place Synagogue in London. As the post title indicates, R. Tevele Schiff was the rabbi of R. Nosson Adler, who was of course the revered rebbe of the Chasam Sofer.

This ephemeral piece is reproduced from Arthur B. Hyman's A collection of Anglo-Jewish ephemera  in Jewish Historical Studies, Vol. 33, (1992-1994), pp. 97-123:

Lord George Gordon's comment about the meaning of Ben Bag Bag

In the Bristol Journal (Dec. 15, 1787) there appears a piece called Lord George Gordon Turned Jew. It contains an account of his initial interrogation by the apprehending officer, a Mr. MacManus. The account is interesting in its own right - Gordon acted with decorum toward MacManus, but told him that he has no authority over him, or any Jew - but especially one part, which perhaps shows some of the instruction in Judaism that Gordon had heard from whichever Jews it was that he heard it from - it is some lore about converts to Judaism.

That is, Gordon had explained that "Ben Bag Bag" is a notarikon for "Ben Ger, Ben Gera [sic]." Ben Bag Bag is a name that appears in the Mishnah Avot - in fact, is the source for one of its most famous teachings - - and this name certainly does seem like a pseudonym or nickname, rather than the name of an actual person. 

Most commentators have assumed that he was a convert or descended from converts, and some suggested that Bag Bag does stand for "Ben Ger, Ben Giyoret," which is what Gordon says here. (A complementary version is that Ben Heh Heh means the same thing, and perhaps the same person. There are two versions of this, in one these two men are meant to be the same person, the idea is that Heh is the gematriya of Bag = 5.) 

The idea is mentioned in two prominent 18th century sources, both of which were probably fairly popular in Gordon's time, R. Yaakov Emden's commentary on the Mishnah, as well as R. Yechiel Halperin's Seder Ha-dorot, which ascribes it to the Ma'arikh. At first I thought he meant R. Menachem di Lonzano, whose magnum opus Shtei Yadot contains a section called Ma'arikh. However, I think it does not appear in his book at all. I looked it up, and then I looked at another book by that title, and it does indeed appear there. This book was printed in Paris in 1629, and the author was Philip D'aquin. It may be of interest to some that his Ma'arikh Ha-ma'arakhot was dedicated to Cardinal Richelieu of Three Musketeers fame. D'aquin was a Jew named Michael (according to Siftei Yeshenim) or Mordechai according to others, who converted to Christianity and became a professor of Hebrew in Paris; much of his book actually is based on the work of the similar name by Lonzano (see intro to Arukh Hashalem; Kohut says that most of D'aquin's original material is bad. Also see Ohev Ger (p. 133) where Shadal dismisses the book as second rate, saying that it is "only an abridged compendium of the Shorashim by Radak, the Arukh, Meturgeman and Ma'arikh [by Lonzano]." He then points out an error made by Judah Leib Benzeev who conflated the Ma'arikh of Lonzano with this Ma'arikh, by D'aquin, thereby "mixing the holy and the profane." Of course, D'aquin himself wrote that the book consists of gleanings from others - "kolel leket shikcha u-fe'ah" appears on the title page - yet surely he did not credit Lonzano..

At any rate, here is the entry in this book:

Unless his source was Lonzano (and I overlooked it) then his source may have been the abbreviation dictionary by Johann Buxtorf  published in 1613, or some of the Jewish sources to be mentioned below. Here is Buxtorf:

Perhaps the first time it appeared in print was in Zacuto's Sefer Yuchasin, at approximately the end of the 15th century. Zacuto writes in his entry for Ben Heh Heh that he heard that this is the same person as Ben Bag Bag, and the gematriya of Ba"g is Heh, 5. He further identifies Ben Bag Bag with Yochanan Ben Bag Bag, who is mentioned in the Talmud, and says that he heard that Ben Bag Bag means "Ben Ger, Ben Giyoret. Another16th century source, the Midrash Shmuel on Avot, quotes this explanation in the name of  R. Joseph ibn Nahmias (although often this is quoted in the name of the famous "Some Say"). Midrash Shmuel continues and cites the Rashbam, who says it was a pseudonym meant to protect the convert from persecution. which is dismissed by R. Yaakov Emden because he too assumes that Yochanan Ben Bag Bag was the same person (rather than, say, the son of this person or persons using the pseudonym). In addition to the Rashbam, Tosafot Chagigah 9b “Bar Heh Heh Le-Hillel” quotes Some Say as explaining that this mysteriously named person was a convert, and the Heh alludes to the letters Heh added to Abram and Sarai’s names and Ben Bag Bag too apparently because of the gematriya. If memory serves, the Machzor Vitry also mentions the Avraham/Sarah connection to Bar Heh Heh, firmly establishing this in Ashkenazic rabbinic tradition.

Incidentally, this whole matter is also discussed in a learned footnote in an article by Y. S. Spiegel (Yeshurun 10) and in his opinion D'aquin's book is packed with exceedingly strange explanations for roshei tevot. Spiegel also calls attention to the endorsement of D'aquin's book by the Pri Megadim.

Finally, I'd like to call attention to the Tamudic term דיירא בר דיירתא - stranger/convert son of a convert, although I'm not sure of the significance - or lack of - this yet. 

Getting back to Gordon, I do think it is possible that he heard this from one of his Jewish friends, but I also found it to be not exactly common, but not completely obscure, knowledge in non-Jewish sources in the 18th century, so it is also possible that Gordon discovered this out of his own understandable interest in converting to Judaism. The fact that he also relates it to Paul's "Hebrew of the Hebrews," explaining it to mean "Jewish on both sides" as opposed to Hebrew (from one parent) needn't mean that he had not heard this from Jews. I would argue that this is exactly the sort of thing a learned 18th century English Jew would say. 

Here is the whole Gordon article (click or right-click to enlarge and read):

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:

Friday, December 07, 2012

Famous printers

Came across this interesting picture. Here is the Widow and one of the Brothers Romm, Menachem Gavriel, of the Vilna Romms.

A little-known Talmud parody, Tractate Chanukah

At least I think this is not well-known. The reason why, no doubt, is because it is not a traditional Talmud parody - it is not in Aramaic/Hebrew - but rather described, in English. It goes all the way through a Mishnah, the Gemara, the Rosh and the Rema.

It appears in the pages of Abram Samuel Isaacs' book Under the Sabbath Lamp: Stories of Our Time for Old and Young (Philadelphia 1919) (link).

Here is the description of Perek Trendele (dreidel) in Massekhet Chanukkah:

Thursday, December 06, 2012

A gematriya by a Rev. Mr. Hurwitz of Frankfurt who was probably *not* R. Pinchas Horowitz, unfortunately

Here's something very amusing. In 1830 Isaac Leeser translated from German a book of instruction for Jewish children, and he called it Instruction in the Mosaic Religion. Translated From the German of J. Johlson, Teacher of an Israelitish School at Frankford on the Maine (link). The book is in the form of questions and answers and covers the gamut from matters of faith, tradition, and Orach Chaim-type practical law. Compared to the original it's actually quite pale, or, to put it another way, one imagines that the German author perceived a much higher level of learning than Leeser did among his potential audience in the United States. In any case, in a footnote in the section on Tradition, we find the following:

I was excited, as I was pretty sure this gematriya must be referring to something which no less than the author of the Hafla'ah, Rabbi Pinchas Hurwitz, ("The Rev. Chief Rabbi Mr. Hurwitz") had told Johlson (b. 1771), or which Johlson had heard from him indirectly. 

However, whenever possible one should always try to look at the original, and when I did, I realized that Johlson was quoting his son, R. Hirsch Horwiz (original spelling). Probably, anyway. Oh well. 

However, it gets even more interesting because while Johlson does quote R. Hirsch Hurwitz in another place, he does NOT give this gematriya here. Or anywhere in the book. And it isn't like I didn't look at various editions. I looked at the 1819, 1824, 1829 and even 1839 edition. Nothing. Now barring the possibility that I somehow overlooked it - and I looked through the entire book four times over - it seems that Isaac Leeser may have added this in by himself and amazingly ascribed it to the author, Johlson, for his very next note is one signed by himself (L.) in which he explains what a gematriya is. Very curious is all I can say. If you can find it in one of the original books, please do so and let me know.

Here is the one place, as far as I can tell, where Johlson did quote Hurwitz (and in other place, indirectly):

To make matters easier, here is how Leeser translated this footnote:

Finally, for posterity, here is a fascinating footnote by Leeser. The context is, Johlson had asked what is the duty of rabbis? His mildly reformist reply is that they must distinguish between true religion and the accretion of superstition and foolish customs that have been added to the law. In the translation, this continues, and then on the next page Johlson says that the rabbis can abolish customs that assumed the force or law under the principle of Et La'asot - and Leeser gives a lengthy footnote in which he claims to "explain" (rather than contradict) Johlson, about the importance of maintaining Hebrew as a language of the synagogue. Remember, this is 1830:


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