Monday, June 22, 2009

Maharatz Chajes and Isaak Markus Jost's History; when a period is really a comma...

Shmuel Feiner's highly interesting book Haskalah and History: The Emergence of a Modern Jewish Historical Consciousness (trans. by Chaya Naor and Sondra Silverston) contains a really fascinating anecdote about R. Zwi Hirsch Chajes (pg. 130. In a chapter ironically (? see below) called The Manipulation of History in Nineteenth-Century Galicia, we find the following:

An anecdote about Chajes told by Jacob Bodek reflects how studiously Jost's books were read in Galicia:
Once when I traveled with him to Brody, and we came at night to an inn in the city of Zloczow, I rested upon my bed, reading the eighth volume of a book on the chronicles of the Jews by the great and wise rabbi Mordecai Jost, which I had with me on my journey so that I might read it when the travelers stopped to feed the horses or for an overnight stay. And when Rabbi Chajes saw that book in my hand, he asked me about various interesting matters written about in this book and what I thought of them, and if I did not recall them at that moment, he said to me: But they are written for you in that book, in such and such a volume, on such and such a page, or in such and such a footnote, and he spoke to me of all the first seven volumes which I had read as if they lay open before him, just as the pages of the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmud, and the books of the geonim and the ancients were open before him.262

262 From the biography of Tsevi Hirsch Chajes in the unpaginaged supplement added by J. Bodek to Triebesch, Korot ha'itim (Lemberg, 1851).
The book was previously available at Hebrew Books, but without Bodek's supplement. In its complete form it is now on Google Books (courtesy of Harvard):

Jacob Bodek was one of the famous "Spectators," and he was described elsewhere as one of the "Right-wing disciples of Nachman Krochmal," presumably like his friend R. Chajes (who refers to Bodek in the following manner ]Imre Binah pg. 948 in Kol Sifrei vol. II], ידידי הרבני החכם השלם המופלג מוהר"ר יעקב בודק נ"י, in case you are wondering if Chajes even knew him!). Any way you slice it, this story is amazing. Amazing memory, amazing book for R. Chajes to be so familiar with in this way. Let's just say that Jost's History is not the דורות הראשונים.

However, I was disappointed to see that the excerpt quoted in Feiner's book does not quite say what it claims to say (recognizing here that I have not seen his original Hebrew edition, and this might be a translating error and not a deliberate "manipulation of history").

Here is the quote exactly as it appears in Feiner:

What looks like a period at the end is actually a comma, and the passage continues. See below:

This is even more amazing, and in certain respects more radical. However, it most definitely does not say that Maharatz Chajes knew the eight volumes of Jost's Allgemeine Geschichte des Israelitischen Volkes by heart, down to it's minutest detail, just as he knew the Bavli and Yerushalmi, geonim and ancient authors (although it seems that he did!). Rather, it says that Jost's volumes were committed to memory as if open before him. Period, not comma. Then it continues, and in this manner he knew the Bavli, Yerushalmi, the halachic works of the Rif and the Rambam, as well as the Guide for the Perplexed, the Kuzari, Ramban, Albo's Ikkarim, the Akedah, Abarbanel, all the works of Moses Mendelssohn, which are filled with divine philosophy, in accordance with our Torah, all the contemporary [Wissenschaft des Judentums] books from Germany by Jewish and non-Jewish scholars, whether written in German or French, so long as it pertained to Jewish subjects, as well as all their source material, in short, he knew Hebraische literatur, and all of it was at his disposal to recall.

I do not see these as identical statement at all. Now, don't think a deliberate distortion was in order, as evinced by the continuation of the phrase Bavli and Yerushalmi to encompass also the works of the geonim and ancient scholars. However, to me it looks too much like it is trying to say that he knew Jost like he knew both Talmuds, while it really says that he knew Jost down to it's smallest detail. And also down to the minute details is how he knew both Talmuds, etc. Does anyone else see the semantic difference?

In addition, I am not a fan of the "unpaginated" mode of citation, which makes it that much harder to look the source up yourself. So what if it's unpaginaged? How about this: "twenty-nine pages from the end." That is exactly where you will find it, and it will take you two minutes instead of an hour to find it, as you would with that citation.

(By the way, Bodek recounted the same anecdote a few years later in nearly identical language an early issue of Ha-maggid [January 30, 1857, #9, pg. 33]:


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