Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Mordechai Gumpel Schnaber, Part I.

An interesting 18th century Jewish figure who escaped the attention of no Jewish historians, yet is still not widely known, is a man with a complicated name to get right. The easiest way of referring to him is Mordechai Gumpel Schnaber (1741-1797), although he was also known by various aliases, both in his own time and afterward. Being as he was a לוי, he was known as Levisohn, with all the variants that name can produce (with or without the "h," one or two "s," etc.). In Megillas Sefer (pg. 135) R. Jacob Emden refers to Mordechai Gumpel's grandfather as החסיד המופלג בתורה ר"ג שנאפיר, although in Mordechai Gumpel's own published and private writings it is spelled שנאבר (with a couple of exceptions, where he too spelled it with a פ). However, you can see that R. Emden was not making a mistake. Below is a small sampling of tombstone inscriptions from the late 17th to early 19th centuries:

As you can see, שנאבר seems to be the anomalous spelling.

Incidentally, לעוויסאן is how he spelled the surname Levisohn, by which he was known by non-Jews. In later times he was called "Georg" or "George Levison," although apparently this is an error. Heinz Moshe Graupe notes in his article "Mordechai Shnaber-Levison The Life, Works and Thought of a Haskalah Outsider" that in fact there is no evidence during his life that he was called George. His published writings are signed "G. Levison," but when his name is spelled in full he is called "Gumpertz" or some variant of that. If he was ever known as George, there's no evidence as yet that he was so called during his life time.

Since his name definitely was Mordechai Gumpel, that is how he will be referred to by me hereafter. Born into a rabbinic family in Germany, he somehow became a physician, although according to Graupe there is no record of where and how (Graupe, I think, is the most recent expert to write about him, in the LBIY 1996; he also wrote a widely quoted article about him in the LBI's other journal in 1961). By contrast, in the very interesting and informative introduction to the Sprecher Bar Mitzvah volume מבחר כתבי מו"ה מרדכי גומפל שנאבר הלוי לעוויזאהן ז"ל, it is stated (pg. 4) that his medical studies were conducted through an apprenticeship with a physician associated with the Jewish hospital of Breslau, which had been founded in 1760. Although a very informative footnote explains how such typical studies were conducted, including the possibility of taking anatomy and other classes at the nearby University of Breslau (where Jews could take classes, but not enroll), it gives no reference to show that in fact this is how Mordechai Gumpel became a physician. However, it is a reasonable conjecture given that in his next destination, London, he was as a physician. After his time in London he joined the medical faculty at the University of Upssala in Sweden, where he became a favorite of the king. Eventually he moved to Hamburg where he continued his medical practice, continued to write and publish, and died in 1797.

As a young man he moved to London, apparently under a cloud, for while in Breslau his landlord died, and all possible suspects, including him, were arrested. He was cleared of the charge (he was released, after all), but it came to haunt him again. While in London he apprenticed with two very famous physicians, the Hunter brothers, William and John. In fact, when he eventually published his own medical texts, one German reviewer maintained that the only valuable thing in his book was that he recorded treatments of the Hunters that he had observed.

His presence in London is marked in several ways, but below is an incidental one. A British clergyman, Anselm Bayly, wrote a guide to reading Hebrew without points. In the preface he writes that "the hebrew hath never been totally dead; it is alive to this day in the mouths and understanding of the wise and learned Jews who all over the world can converse with each other, and write in biblical as well as in the rabbinical hebrew. This is a fact* (see here). The asterisk gave the following footnote:

Accuracy aside -- see below for an excerpt from an 1847 Jewish newspaper -- here is the advertisement it refers to:

So we see that in addition to being a doctor, he also accepted or wished to accept pupils to teach the Hebrew language.

Here is the title page to his book on sore throats:

Later in that book there is a list of his already published books.

The Dissertation on the Law and Sciences seems to refer to his מאמר התורה והחכמה, although it has been suggested (hoped?) that it is a separate English essay, or at least a translation of it, but one has never been found.

Here are two advertisements, the first from 1776 and the other from 1779:

His Hebrew work was sufficiently well known that a 1783 attempt to complete Wolf's Bibliotheca Hebraea, with 50 years of material to update, included an entry on him:

In any case, someone from Breslau recognized him in the Great Synagogue of London, and apparently publicly accused him of being a murderer. Chaos ensued, the police were called, and although he protested his innocence and that he had documents to show he was cleared, he was kicked out of the synagogue. In response he published a pamphlet in his own defense, while in turn a representative of the synagogue published another pamphlet under the name "Yehudah." Incidentally, because of this second pamphlet there was some confusion about the reason why he was kicked out/ left the synagogue.

Below is the account of the very interesting 19th century apostate Moses Margoliouth:

As you can see, he espoused the view that this incident was an example of Jewish intolerance for supposedly unacceptable or even heretical views in the מאמר התורה והחכמה. In addition, we learn that he was called רע גומפל "Ra'a Gumpel" (which in itself is strange; perhaps he meant רשע גומפל. Moshe Pelli gives another conjecture in an article on MG in JQR.). Apparently Margoliouth did not lie, but rather misunderstood something he had read. In turn, his statement misled many historians. According to Sprecher the "Yehuda" pamphlet (which is called תשובת הפרושים) only exists today in one copy in the British Library (bound together with MG's תוכחה מגולה, his vindication statement which is available at hebrewbooks.org). So it isn't exactly easy to access. However, in it we find the following background. "Yehudah" accepts that MG murdered his landlord. It is asserted that the wife of the landlord had a reputation for having affairs with Jewish and non-Jewish men. Yehudah assumes that MG was one of them, and that she seduced him on condition that he would kill her husband! In addition, Yehudah adds that he is acquainted with "an old man in the community" who had been friendly with MG, but broke off the friendship when it became clear to him that the latter was lascivious. However, when the alleged old man had initially met MG, through his own son, the latter had informed his old father that MG was great in "תורה והחכמה," that is, he was a great Torah scholar and possessed much secular knowledge. Apparently Margoliouth confused this with the title of MG's work מאמר התורה והחכמה and turned it into a case of Jewish intolerance. Even Cecil Roth fell for this; as Graupe put it, only Moshe Pelli realized that the מאמר התורה והחכמה had no connection whatsoever with his expulsion from the Great Synagogue. Where did he daven afterward, you ask? To the Hambro' Synagogue, of course.

In any case, I will digress for a moment to talk about chocolate. As you can see above in the Margoliouth excerpt, we are told "He was a clever physician, and discovered the use of chocolate." In fact, there is a reason for his association with chocolate, which will become clear, but in the meantime, Graupe writes (f.n. 44) that "Margoliouth goes so far as to call Shnaber-Levison the inventor of chocolate." Perhaps Graupe was misled by the other mistake, but I think Margoliouth did no such thing. He does not claim that MG invented chocolate, but rather that he "discovered the use of chocolate" [for medicinal purposes]. Below are some excerpts from period literature (18th and 19th century, when Margoliouth lived) which show that "the use of chocolate" means for medical reasons, not because it tastes so very good.




From an encyclopedia:

MG developed a medicinal chocolate, which he called Gesundheitsschokolade, frequently advertising it in a journal he started called Die deutsche Gesundheitszeitung. Although Graupe seems to take it at face value that Gesundheitsschokolade was his baby, it seems that not only did this become a generic German word (look it up in a dictionary) but that it was also a term used throughout the 18th century. Rather, it seems that he devised a kind of gesundheitsschokolade. See below:

In any case, in an 1801 critique of the entire medical profession, Garlieb Merkel wrote as follows:

Basically one of his critiques were that physicians preyed on credulous women who were impressed by scholarly language and behavior. As an example, he mentions MG's chocolate. MG is dead, he writes, but his widow sold his recipes and prescriptions to another Jewish physician, a Dr. Meier. The gesundheitsschokolade is mentioned in the 8th and 9th line. (Graupe relates a charming conjecture; when he lectured in Hamburg, someone in the audience informed him that a chocolate company owned by an "S. Meier and Son" still existed, and that the Meier's were supposed to be descendants of baptized Jews. Graupe wonders if it might be possible that these are the same Meiers, and if so, perhaps Mordechai Gumpel's chocolate lives on.)

Don't let the chocolate mislead you. MG was no quack. He was a good 18th century physician. Sprecher published an account by him where he removed a parasite from a child with the use of a microscope. Not being a medical historian, I'll trust the judgments of others, who have concluded that he had new ideas and his science was of his time. Speaking of parasites, MG also explained the Talmudic story of the gnat which entered Titus's brain, only to grow into a pigeon-like creature in the following way: the parasite was tiny. But the rabbis examined it under a microscrope of their own invention, and it seemed as large as a bird.

In Dr. Sprecher's book we find a highly interesting account of an incident which almost certainly didn't happen the way MG records. MG relates that when a fire totally devastated the walled-off Frankfurt Jewish ghetto in the early 18th century, the residents turned to the communal leaders to obtain a שכירת רשות which would allow them construct an eruv. The authorities took the dual approach of 1) charging an exorbitant sum of money for the privilege and 2) accusing the Jews of somehow using the requested שכירת רשות to aid the French who were laying siege to Frankfurt at the time. Desperate to demonstrate that an eruv is just a string, they turned to none other than Johann Andreas Eisenmenger (post forthcoming) who in fact supported their contention as correct. Now, while it is true that Eisenmenger is best remembered by Jews as a צורר היהודים, this is theoretically possible. Although E's reputation for antisemitism is not at all undeserved, in his infamous work he also doubted that Jews used the blood of Christians to bake matzah. Furthermore, there can be little doubt that his view was shaped by how he understood Jewish texts, and there would be no reason on his part to lie. Most likely he viewed the idea of an eruv as an outrageously silly thing, but that doesn't mean that it isn't what the Jews say it is! However, Sprecher notes that E. died in 1704, while the Frankfurt fire occurred in 1711. So unless the true facts are buried in this account, it doesn't appear to have happened. Still, it's a great story, isn't it?

Incidentally, in his vindication pamphlet he writes the following:

As you can see, he appears to be claiming that his two illustrious rabbeim, R. David Frankel and R. Jonathan Eybeschutz, ordained him as rabbi at age 14!

Not impossible, but highly unlikely. On the other hand, how would he think to pass of a lie in such a context? Sprecher says he thinks it's undoubtedly an exaggeration; Graupe writes that other historians, such as Cecil Roth, assume he had in fact been granted מורנו הרב status at that age, but for him it is unclear. Graupe notes that sometimes he is addressed this way by others, but that may be for reasons of etiquette. There can be little doubt that MG possessed the knowledge and learning for the title, but he seems to have always referred to himself as "הרופה," "Physician." This tells me nothing, because it seems likely that a practicing physician in the 18th century, especially a Jewish one, would have been quite proud to call himself הרופה. To me it seems most likely that he had exaggerated, and had really achieved the degree of חבר at that age. Since he was writing in poetic style, no doubt his readers would have understood that. Another piece of evidence to consider is that Moses Mendelssohn related that R. Jonathan Eybeschutz withheld מורנו ordination from him because he was at the time yet unmarried. Although in 1755 it is possible that 14-year old MG might have married, in fact he remained a bachelor until he was in his 30s, so it seems impossible that R. Jonathan would have ordained him then simply because he was unmarried, without even considering the question of whether he was qualified.

In February 1847 a column appeared in the Jewish Chronicle giving a list of important Jewish persons and events which happened in the month of February. The list was translated from Zunz, but see the translator's wry comment about the Jewish knowledge of Hebrew in the England of his time:

In 1861 the following query was published in the same periodical:

Here's a review of his Essay on the Blood, from 1776:

And one from 1778:

Here's a bibliography of his medical writings from 1842:

Some info from his will:

Two views of his tombstone, taken 60 years apart:

Part II will deal with some of his teachings and his thought and the question of whether he is to be considered a maskil, or if indeed that is even a meaningful question.


  1. Most enlightening--but what ever happened to part II?

  2. Great question.

    I pretty much said I'd do a second one, hoping that if I didn't get around to it that someone would remind that I'm supposed to. And that would be you. So thank you.



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