Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The dangerous path from comet comprehension to Chanuka denial - on Chaim Zelig Slonimsky.

On September 18, 1952 a small article called Communications Officials View World's Fastest Telegraph appeared in the New York Times, pg. 43. "So the Russian, Z. Y. Slonimsky, invented the telegraph before Morse and the Russians also invented 'beisbol,'" quipped "Walter P. Marshall, president of Western Union, yesterday." Demonstrating their new fax machines facsimile transmitter, he continued, "On that machine I can call Stalin 'prevoskhoditelstvo.' - and in the Russian alphabet if he prefers - and get it into Moscow faster than he can say it back. What I call Stalin means 'Excellency' just to make it clear - and is probably as much of an insult as you can heap on an old Bolshevik."

Obviously this is some vintage Cold War ribbing, and apparently Stalin had claimed that a Russian "Z.Y. Slonimsky" had invented the telegraph, taking a page from self-conscious people and cultures everywhere, who claim their own as the inventors or initiators of many significant things. But it wasn't only the New York Times. Here is the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin on August 22, 1952, right above the ad for the Public Dance at the Nat sponsored by the Military Order of Cooties:

What in the world is going on?

The grandson of "Z.Y. Slonimsky" discussed the matter thoroughly in Commentary in 1977 in an article called My Grandfather Invented the Telegraph. Z.Y. Slonimsky is actually Chayim Zelig Slonimsky but, as his grandson reveals, his Russian name was Zinovi Yakovlevich.

Slonimsky (1810-1904) was a scientist, Hebrew scholar and founder andpublisher of the newspaper Hazefirah. More about his interesting biography below.

His grandson, the Russian-American composer Nicolas Slonimsky, noted that in August of 1952 he had read a short letter in the fiercely anti-Communist newspaper the Boston Traveler and "was startled to read" the following:
Personal Post Card
Joseph Stalin,
You say Muscovite Z.Y. Slonimsky invented the telegraph a dozen years before Americans thought of it. That makes you the champ. After all, you invented Slonimsky.
Nicolas thought that if so, Stalin must have invented one quarter of his own genetic material, since Slonismky was his own grandfather. Nicolas recalls the endless stories his mother used to tell him about her father-in-law's genius and also his impracticality. She had indeed told him that he had thought of the idea for the telegraph first, but never bothered patenting it. This was a cautionary tale: "Don't be like that." Nicolas writes that his mother "recited the story in wearisome detail, and with each repetition I could believe it less and less, until I could endure it no longer." "And now this ancient tale that used to irritate me so much in my childhood by its obvious incredibility was endorsed by the Soviet government, backed by the whole awesome machinery of official publicity."

What had happened was, a few days earlier the Associated Press had carried a story from the Russian army newspaper Krasnaya Zveda, which it headlined Moscow Claims Telegraph Credit. In the content of the dispatch itself it downgraded its inflated headline, and discussed the Krasnaya Zveda article which had only claimed that Slonimsky had invented a development in telegraphy, namely multiplexing, or the ability to send multiple transfers simultaneously over a single wire. As evidence it cited a Slonimsky letter dated April 15, 1858, and a paper he published in 1859 explaining the method. By contrast, the American scientists Stirnes and Edison, who are credited with the invention of essentially the same thing, invented their devices only in 1871 and 1874 respectively. So, although of course Moscow was indulging a little in one of those childish "we came up with everything significant first" moments (which our own press enthusiastically mischaracterized), and although Slonimsky didn't invent the telegraph, he did invent a significant improvement to the telegraph and that was the basis of the Slonimsky family legend, which for a brief moment in 1952 became a ping-pong round in the Cold War.

This encouraged Nicolas to "delve further into his hagiography." He recounted another legend from his family oral history, which is equally (or perhaps more) implausible. The story is that when Slonimsky was only a child he was already exceedingly scientifically knowledgeable. When a solar eclipse was set to occur in his native Bialystok, a German team of astronomers had set up shop with their instruments. The people looked on in wonder and without comprehension. One of the astronomers noticed that a boy was watching with such interest, so he engaged him in conversation (which was possible because German spoken simply can be comprehended by a Yiddish speaker).

The German explained what a solar eclipse was, and told him not to be afraid, because after a few minutes the sun would return. After listening to the speech, young Chayim Zelig answered, "I know, but I was wondering how you are going to make any decent observations without a double diffraction lens." Flabbergasted, the astronomer asked him how he knew this. So the boy told him, "Every kid in Bialystok knows this stuff." Nicolas was able to verify that there was a total solar eclipse in and about Bialystok on September 7, 1820 (when his grandfather was 10 years old) but nothing more in the story, even though in the family lore the astronomer sent a report to the Berlin Academy of Sciences.

Here is the grandson's complete article:

Here are two images of Slonimsky. The first is a drawing based on a famous photograph (but I think the drawing is nicer) and the second was probably for some official purpose, since he is sans yarmulke (and to me, a little older):

So no one thinks that I am covering anything up (no pun intended), here is the same photographed used in a vintage Jewish postcard (for the "Chevras Levanon" of Warsaw). Slonimsky was a bonafide celebrity and a hero of sorts, and his san-kippaed visage was probably chosen specifically - but certainly he wore one, although he once shaved his beard before meeting Friedrich Wilhelm IV of Prussia through the kind offices of his friend the great Alexander von Humboldt. Apparently Humboldt was disappointed, because the novelty of a great Jewish scientist was considerably lessened when he was not wearing a full beard and traditional east European garb.

According to the legend of Slonimsky, he was a self-taught mathemetician and scientist, introduced like other youths to the scientific literature in Hebrew that certainly exists but is not exactly a mainstay of the yeshiva curriculum. According to biographers, although he was attracted to the mathematical aspects of Torah learning, like the laws and methods of kiddush ha-chodesh, and received some instruction in math from his grandfather, in reality he didn't really have much exposure to these books until after he married, which was when he was 18 years old. Upon marriage, he moved to the town of Zabdulow. There a friend taught him German, and supplied him with science books. He also learned and mastered Sefer Elim - Ma'ayan Ganim by Yashar of Candia, Shevile de-rakia by R. Eliyahu of Chakim, Tekhunat ha-Shamaim by R. Rafael of Hanover, R. Shimon Waltsch's Neveh Kodesh, and R. Yitzchak Yisraeli's Yesod Olam. (The preceding list is useful if you ever wanted to become an early 19th century math geek maskil.)

He first came to some prominence with a math book called מוסדי חכמה, a piece of a larger manuscript, but a complete guide to algebra in Hebrew, bearing haskamos from the the rabbis of Brisk and Vilna and published in 1834. This was still the era where the Vilna Gaon's interest and approbation of secular studies was alive and influential in Lithuanian rabbinic circles (as a handmaiden, but a valid one, to Torah). The story is told that when he went to request a haskama for this book from R. Avraham Abele, the aforementioned av beis din of Vilna, he found that R. Avraham Abele engaged him in many conversations on mathematical topics before he wrote it for him. Noticing that the rabbi didn't require nearly so much time to test young men for semicha, he asked the rabbi why he had been seemingly putting off the approbation for his book. The answer? He was enjoying the conversations so much he didn't want them to end! Of course critical readers will wonder, assuming this is accurate, if this was the whole story and if he wasn't also being observed and judged in other ways during the course of the week it took for him to receive the haskama.

He really achieved some fame with his next work called כוכבא דשביט, printed in 1835. This book contains no haskamos, and one wonders why. Either Slonimsky didn't ask for one or none was given - but the point of the work was to explain what comets were, as Halley's Comet was expected that year. Those who knew some science obviously had no problems, but the masses were superstitious and the comet was terrifying to them. In 1811 a comet was so visible and so terrifying that it merits its own Wikipedia page. Visible in the sky for 260 nights and with Napoleon on the march, the comet caused great anxiety. Here is an early 19th century drawing of that comet:

Young Slonimsky writes that "we Jews have cloistered ourselves from the sciences for a long time, and the science of comets is unknown to us, except for maybe one in a thousand." I don't know how much credence you can give to the account of the impact it made by one who was only born in 1854, but Judah David Eisenstein wrote about him after his death in 1904, and said that the book was a sensation among yeshiva students who were particularly impressed that the book explained a phenomenon mentioned in the Talmud, the kokhva deshavit, the comet, which the amora Shmuel professed being unable to fully comprehend! (Berachos 58b).
"The book found its way into Beth Hamidrash and the Yeshibah. It was whispered among the youthful students that a star-seer had risen in Israel who had discovered the ways of "Kochba de Shebit." The name was familiar to the students, as it is mentioned in the first treatise of the Talmud; but they could not believe that a mortal man could comprehend the irregular movements of that mysterious and erratic star, since Mar Samuel, to whom "the paths of the heavens were as clear as the pathways of his native town, Nehardaeh, in Babylon," frankly admitted that the comet was something he could not understand. The final appearance of the Halley comet settled in their minds the conviction that there was something in modern science, after all."
Slonimsky would go on to promote math and science among the Jews, win prizes and create inventions. In 1862 he founded the newspaper Hazefirah. Although he made a big stir with some of his views, as an example, he detected a mistake in the Jewish calendar and also claimed that Jews didn't use lunar months until the Babylonian exile, when they also adopted Babylonian month names. . However, he was more or less conservative, definitely observant, and seen by many traditionalists as a builder more so than a destroyer. At least among Misnagdim. Many Chasidim definitely considered him a total heretic.

The Yiddish writer Reuven Brainin (who was born in 1862) writes that his grandfather found him reading Yesode Chochmas Ha-shiur (1866) by Slonimsky and blew up at him, "How did you get this treif-posul?" Brainin replied that it is not "a treif-posul," it's a sefer about mathematics that explains four sugyos in the Gemara. His grandfather replied "Doesn't matter. Slonimsky, yemach shemo, is a great apikores. Anything he writes is poison. Greater minds than yours were snared by him from the straight path."

Brainin replied, "Zeide, if he said that 2 x 2 = 4, isn't that true?"

His grandfather answered, "Sheigetz, when an apikores says that 2 x 2 = 4, it isn't 4."

But he seems to have really hit a live wire at age 80, when he published an article called Mai Chanukah in Hazefirah (28 Kislev 1891). He basically said that the miracle of the oil didn't really happen. He notices that it is absent in sources like the books of Maccabees and Josephus, that the military victory was the real miracle, and furthermore it was public. But how could it be that something seen only by a few in the inner sanctum of the Temple could come to be considered the real miracle of Chanukah? He then points out that the Rambam doesn't mention the miracle of the oil even though he is quoting the Gemara. He only says that they only found one day's worth of pure oil, doesn't mention any miracle, and that they lit from it for 8 days until they could press more olives. He explains this omission with the following conjectural reconstruction. The Hasmoneans only had one day's worth of oil at the time that they wished to rededicate the Temple and publicize or solidify their victory before the masses. But if they had only lit that first night it would have been very distressing to the masses. So they were smart, and divided the oil into eighths. They lit it only at the beginning of every night for eight days. This was the persuma nisa, the publicizing of the miracle of the victory, and it was the time when people were still outside. Then theywould put it out and this continued until they had pure oil to light from and keep it lit the entire night as they were supposed to. He brings further proof and concludes that this is entirely in keeping with the Rambam's view of miracles as not being supernatural.

Boy did this ignite a conflagration. Many who read this were not amused. Several weeks later (Hatzefirah 5 1892) readers informed him that the Chasidim were mobilizing against the publication. In particular Chabad seems to have been very exercised about the article. At least two entire books were written to refute this short article (see here and here), and some defenses as well, with one such defender - an eccentric rabbi best known for being friends with Rav Kook - getting it even worse (see the pamphlet in defense here; he basically maintained that the miracle of the oil is an Aggadah, and thus no different from thousands of other miracles and fantastic tales in the Talmud. In support, he showed how oil is a common metaphor appearing time and again in Aggadah. Therefore, the same way one doesn't take Aggadah literally in general, so too here the miracle story is not literal. In addition, he brought proofs from several traditional sources that the flask of oil itself was understood in metaphorical terms. For example, his own illustrious ancestor, Maharal of Prague, wrote about the 'sod,' or secret, of the oil flask).

For example, a picture of this rabbi (Samuel Alexandrov) was distributed with the caption "Picture of a known heretic, a famous heretic of our generation, aid of the chief heretic" i.e., Slonimsky. (Of course the Hebrew used three separate terms for heretic.) Some felt that Slonimsky had been imprudent, even if he had been correct. All in all, it's probably not something an 80 year old man wanted to bring into his life even though he probably should have realized that this particular Chanukah present wouldn't generate many thank you notes.

Here's the original article:

For a taste of the nitty-gritty of the polemics around Mai Chanukah, see Geulah Bat-Yehuda's article "Rabbi Shemuel Aleksandrov" in Sinai.

Yes, there's always more to say.


  1. I remember hearing once that one answer that was given to the Beis Yosef's kashe was that the Maccabees divided the oil into eight parts so that each night a miracle happened and it lit the whole night. I have no clue where it's from but I wonder if there is a connection to Slonimsky.

  2. Very sharp. It wouldn't surprise me if this answer is connected or was generated from some of the discussion which took place over this article.

  3. Your link to כוכבא דשביט leads instead to מוסדי חכמה

  4. Oh well. Corrected, thanks.

  5. S

    Its the other way around


    second paragraph


  6. Thanks. I didn't remember that the BY himself (or whomever yesh lomar is) says this.

    Like Zeke said, maybe Slonimsky was inspired by the Beis Yosef.

  7. S

    Speaking of the BY in the discussion in your previous posting, there was some comments about the Rambam's attitude to Arabic. Being brought up in the Yeshivah world the only reference I was aware of is the first Kesef Mishnah
    יסוד היסודות ועמוד החכמות לידע שיש שם מצוי ראשון. מלת שם שכתב כאן רבינו אינו מורה על מקום שהוא יתעלה אין לו מקום אבל מלת שם פה היא כפ"א רפה בלשון ישמעאל. ודומה לזה מ"ש בפרק ג' מהלכות תשובה. ג' הם הנקראים אפיקורוסים האומר שאין שם נבואה כלל ואין שם מדע. ובפרק ה' מהלכות תעניות יש שם ימים וכו'. ועוד יש לפרש פה מלת שם לומר שהוא יתעלה נמצא בכל מקום כדכתיב מלא כל הארץ כבודו:

    Is this a generally accepted position?


  8. Interesting post, as always.

    "In particular Chabad seems to have been very exercised about the article."

    I think that should be "excited" rather than "exercised" - and could you provide some examples of Chabad opposition specifically? Where any of the authors of the volumes you linked to associated with Chabad?

  9. Joe Samuel, thanks.

    I'm pretty sure I meant "exercised."

    A third pamphlet, which I did not link to, was Emunat Hakhamim by Rabbi Dovber Yehuda Leib Ginzberg, who was a Chabad Chassid, and wrote it at the behest of the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Since it was really directed at Alexandrov, which is where the dispute spread, I didn't mention it. I don't know for sure, but I'm guessing that one of the major problems was the Alexandrov used the writings of the second Chabad rebbe in support of his contention that the oil is metaphorical. Thus the expected outrage over the issue was magnified in their case.

  10. Fred, you rock. Just wanted to say that.

  11. Thanks, Nachum. I bet it was the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, right?

  12. Huh? I don't get the reference. I meant this post.

  13. Not just the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, but the Military Order of Cooties.

  14. >Huh? I don't get the reference. I meant this post.

    Just a joke. I cited the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin in this post.

    I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

  15. Another important Jewish inventor - this one purportedly invented an early, commercially successful adding machine:


  16. Funny seeing the name Branin here; printed this out to read over shabbos. My grandmother's maiden name was Branin. Very uncommon. Hve found many of R. Brainin's books.



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