Wednesday, March 18, 2009

It wasn't only the printers in Warsaw that saw R. Moshe Hefez Gentili as a 100 year old author

I came across the following description of Hebrew writers in Italy from a review of Della illustrazione delle lingue antiche by Cesare Lucchesini, 1819, in an 1828 edition of The Monthly Review. I was pleased to see the depiction of the Chida as "the principal Jewish writer of Italy."

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What really jumped out at me was this: "the Philological Commentary on the Pentateuch, by Moses Chefetz, of Trieste, who began printing it when he was a hundred years of age..."

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(Incidentally, I found a mention of him in an Italian literary journal from 1710 -- here -- it just isn't available for viewing yet.)

This romantic image, of a centenarian author publishing his magnum opus, is not true, of course, but there is a rather interesting reason for it. To find out the reason one should read Dan Rabinowitz's article Yarmulke: A Historic Cover-up?, Hakirah v.4, pp. 221-237, or just continue reading:
The frontispiece of [R. Moshe Hefez Gentili (1663–1711)]'s commentary on the Torah, Melekhet Mahashevet, displayed a portrait of the author . . . (fig 1). Beneath the portrait appeared a legend reading, “Here is Moshe Hefez’s portrait during the year e”t ben m”ea shana.” Translated literally, the final phrase means, “at the time one hundred years old.” With a quick glance at the portrait, one can easily deduce that R. Gentili is not one hundred years old. Rather, the oversized letters and the accompanying quotation marks indicated that the letters’ numerical value should be used and not their literal translation. Based on this, the legend reads, “Here is Moshe Hefez’s portrait during the year [5]470 (1710), forty-six years old.” When the work was published in Venice in 1710, R. Gentili was forty-six years old. While the date of the publication is not readily apparent from the portrait, the author’s lack of a yarmulke is.
In the second edition of the work, a slightly altered portrait of R. Gentili appeared on the frontispiece (fig. 2). This edition, published in Koeningsberg in 1860, boasted a picture of R. Gentili wearing a large yarmulke. The new portrait also displayed an aged R. Gentili, which conforms to a literal reading of the phrase et ben mea shana, at the time one hundred years old. In the second edition, the letters of the legend indicating the year were not enlarged. Remarkably, the printers published a disclaimer in the back of this edition in which they stated that one should not be upset with them for publishing an obviously incorrect legend “this portrait was done at my one hundredth year” as the printers explain, “we have not changed a thing, this is the way the portrait appeared in the original edition.” Since the printers misunderstood the legend of the original portrait, they were forced to age Rabbi Gentili and then print a disclaimer professing their fidelity.
Fig 1

Fig 2

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