Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A 19th century Protestant Semitics professor's Goral ha-gra (bibliomancy); also, uncovering a Shapira fraudulent Hebrew manuscript.

Cyrus Adler writes in his autobiography of an offer extended to him in 1890 to be Commissioner to the World's Columbian Exposition (a precursor to the World's Fair) to Turkey, Persia, Egypt, Tunis and Morocco. The purpose of the trip would be to secure items for exhibition from these exotic lands.

Although greatly excited ("I had never crossed the ocean; I had never been further away from home than Chicago.") he had some misgivings, especially as his mother and uncle were nervous about it, though proud.

He discussed it with his teacher and colleague, famed German scholar of Semitics at Johns Hopkins university Paul Haupt, who thought it was an excellent idea ("though an orientalist he had never been to the east"). Adler raised another issue: a 20-year old that he knew had asked him if he could join him, at his own expense, as a secretary. Adler's first thought was the added responsibility. So
Haupt had a Hebrew Bible lying on his desk. He opened it at random, and there on the page he pointed out to me the passage: "Two are better than one," so that decided the question."
Cyrus Adler, I Have Considered the Days (New York, 1941), pg.75.

The book is filled with many interesting reminiscences. For example, he writes (pg. 36) of his unmasking another Shapira forgery when he was 18 or 19 years old. Two years later he had the opportunity to tell about it to William Dwight Whitney, a great Sanskrit scholar:
There was a famous collector and seller of books and manuscripts by the name of Shapiro, who lived in Jerusalem. A Philadelphian named Macaulay had purchased from Shapiro four or five Hebrew rolls written on leather, which were exhibited in the Philadelphia Library. I heard about these and went to see them. They seemed of great age, were mottled here and there with a green substance which looked like mold, and bore a label which said they were several thousand years old, together with a letter by the great New Testament Greek scholar, Tischendorf of Leipzig, testifying to their genuineness. I had not at the time seen many Hebrew manuscripts -- the one that I saw most frequently was the Scroll of the Law in the Synagogue. I had seen a few that belonged to my cousin, Mayer Sulzberger, and particularly a fragment of a biblical manuscript in the handwriting of Menahem Recanati, about which I wrote a paper that was published by William R. Harper in his Hebraica -- my first published paper. To get back, however, to the leather rolls, the writing looked to me rather late, very regular, and very much as though it had been influenced by printing, and I had my doubts of its antiquity. I went to the chemist Dr. Henry Leffman, who died just at the end of 1930, told him about it, and asked him to go down with me to the Library with a microscope and anything else that was necessary, for I wanted to know what those green spots were. He examined them very carefully and said they were not mold, but had been produced by dropping acid on the leather; he showed me under the microscope how these spots radiated out from a center. My uncle's business place was on Third Street near Callowhill in those days, and most of the neighborhood was occupied by the leather business. I went to one of the leather merchants and asked him to go with me to the Library in order to determine whether the leather was old. It was colored very brown, apparently with age. We were allowed to take one of the rolls out of the case and with the help of an attendant held it up to the light. The expert informed me that the leather was artificially colored. When I asked how he knew it, he showed me the evidence of it in what is known as the "butcher cuts," since no person is ever skillful enough to take off the hide of an animal evenly, and these thin places occur in all hides. At all events I told this story to Professor Whitney. He became greatly excited and told me that I must make this statement before the American Philological Association. I demurred, but he explained the importance of the matter in this way:

It seems that the previous year Dr. Isaac Hollister Hall, a Syriac scholar and one of the curators in the Department of Sculpture of the Metropolitan Museum in New York, had published a paper on these scrolls, declaring them to be genuine and of great antiquity. Professor Whitney thought that their fraudulent character would soon be determined, and he did not want this done by a European scholar to shame the Americans. American scholarship was not so well established in those days and the scholars were a little sensitive. Besides, Whitney had been engaged in a great controversy with Max Muller of Oxford. So in my twenty-first year I was elected a member of the American Philological Association, and from notes which I made on a train on the back of an envelope, read the paper. It was received with mixed feelings. Doctor Hall, who was present, never quite forgave me. But Professor Francis A. March of Lafayette, the distinguished Anglo-Saxon scholar, particularly praised my method of investigation, and indicating the advantage of being practical even in scholarship, said: "Now, if you'd been a German, instead of getting a chemist and a leather merchant, you would have read the articles in the Encyclopedia on Chemistry and Leather." I think it was the praise of these older men, men famous in their day, that really encouraged me to go on with my philological studies."
How interesting! Here is Cyrus Adler's remarks, which he had read off an envelope:

As you can see, this doesn't match in all details Adler's recollections in his old age. (The 'mold' was white, rather than green, etc.) It should be noted that this book was essentially dictated by a Septuganarian Adler to his daughter while under doctor's orders to lay flat on his back for two hours each morning.

Naturally I wished to see Isaac H. Hall's paper on these scrolls, declaring them to be genuine and of great antiquity. To my surprise, no such paper seems to exist. Instead, in May 1884 (fully two months before Adler delivered his findings to the American Philological Association) Hall said and published the following to the American Oriental Society:

For more on the more famous Shapira forgery see here.

Finally, another excerpt: Adler had been born in Arkansas in 1863. His father died when he was 3, and the following year all the money he had left his family was lost on Black Friday of 1867. So it was under these unfortunate circumstances that in 1869 his mother took the family to Philadelphia, the city of her birth, to be with her relatives. Adler writes (pg. 9):
It was here that I first me a child of Polish-Jewish origin and acquired a knowledge of the dialectic pronunciation of Hebrew which I never forgot. It was just before Passover, and this little child said to me: "Do you have 'cider'? that being their pronunciation of the word seder (the home service for the Passover), to which I responded: "No, we use raisin wine."


  1. Just to be super nitpicky (for those readers who might not know -- I'm sure S. does know), the goral haGra is more complicated than just opening a book at random. A bunch of "sevens" is involved.
    However, I did enjoy reading that story!

    (The cider/seder story reminds me of the shaver/shofar story!)


  2. raz's "ish tzadik hayyah" bio of the zadik of yerushalayim r aryeh levin discuses how its done. the amsterdam chumash of 1700's is used.



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