Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Trying to make a ba'al teshuva out of a Christian missionary in Jerusalem, 1823, using Azariah de Rossi's Me'or Enayim.

I recently posted about a conversation between Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Shapira and American missionary Jonas King concerning which printed edition of the Bible is the most accurate. In the following excerpts we have some remarks concerning this same Rabbi Shapira (in some versions this is spelled Sapira, and in other Shfiro), who was a student of R. Chaim of Volozhin and leader of the aliya of 1813. The narrator is Joseph Wolff, a Jewish-born Christian missionary:

As you can see, Wolff writes that Rabbi Shapira desired that he, a Jew, should believe in the Talmudic writings. To that end he gave him a book - namely Azariah de Rossi's Meor Enayim (or at least the section called Imre Binah). Wolff calls him Azariah Adomi after his Hebrew name Azariah min ha-Adomim. We see therefore that Rabbi Shapira

- possessed the book, and
- considered it a fitting book to screw a man's head on straight, so to speak, regarding a way to approach Chazal.

Here's another interesting passage. In this one "Rabbi Isaac ben Shloma," whom one can see from other descriptions is Rabbi Shapira's relatively young son, showed Wolff one of the Rabbah bar bar Hannah stories, concerning the fatty geese. Evidently his intention was to "give . . . an idea of the good things which the Jews shall enjoy, when Messiah shall come." The older rabbis were upset with him for showing Wolff this passage, because undoubtedly he will privately laugh at it. Read the whole passage to see what young Rabbi Isaac replied:

In the next passage, Rabbi Ruben Hasid - he means that he is Chassidic - asked him whether there are any gentiles in England as wise as Jews are, in general. So Wolff replied that an 8-year old boy in England knows more than the most learned Jew of Jerusalem, and that the Jews never produced so great a man as Isaac Newton.

In another passage of Wolff's diaries he mentions that Rabbi Mendel - he means Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Shklov - told him that he holds out hope that he might return to Judaism, and the reasons are that he doesn't play cards or go to the theater, and thirdly, he is a friend of orphans and widows, and the Jews generally. Wolff answered that it his faith in Jesus which causes him to be this way and then "we argued again for some hours."

In another passage he recounts how he asked if he would be permitted to join the tikkun leil shavuot - the overnight recitation of passages from the Torah and Talmud - in the Bet Hamidrash and he was told that he could, provided that he would study Talmud too. Since he could only agree to recite from the Torah, he was not permitted to join the group.

There are other passages concerning the fact that the sign of a cross was used to indicate keri and kesiv in Bibles which he was distributing - a poor choice, Rabbi Shapira noted, even if it was intended "innocently," as Wolff puts it. However, Rabbi Shapira pointed out that these Bibles were full of mistakes, most notably the confusion of the letters ב and כ, as well as the following error: in Isaiah 10:6 the word לםרבה was written למרבה.

Unrelated, but here's a good story. As a good Protestant, Wolff records that there was a certain Polish Jew in Jerusalem who was a very good watchmaker. A Catholic priest ("Pater V.") often had him repair his watch, which the Jew would fix for nothing, and the two were on friendly terms. One time he brought him a watch requiring a complicated repair belonging to another friar, and the Jew refused to repair it, basically saying that he'll make free repairs for him, but not for every priest. Furthermore, the repair is too complicated. Displeased, Pater V. stopped going to him.

As it happens, this priest was, according to Wolff, the only man in Jerusalem with even some semblance of medical knowledge. One day the watchmaker fell seriously ill with fever, and Pater V. was summoned by Wolff himself, who asked him to come treat the sick man, both as a Christian and a priest of Jesus "who knows that by the Gospel that Christ commands us to pardon our debtors." The priest refused, saying that the man offended him. Wolff replied that "Christ pardons our offences." The priest responded that he knew his duty, which evidently was to not come. The man died that night. As Wolff puts it, "Behold the conduct of a Catholic priest, who lives in the convent which is situated upon Mount Cavalry. And that very priest often spends several nights in the Church of the holy sepulchre, kneeling near the tomb of Christ, who prayed on the cross for his murderers, saying, "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do." Wolff finishes this letter, for it was a letter, stating that he hopes it would be printed in the newspapers of Europe "in order that every one might abhor such a church, which nourishes such priests, even in the holy city of Jerusalem." Wolff gives the watchmaker's name as Eliyahu ben Asher.


  1. Another fine post. "Mount Cavalry," however, should be "Calvary." Calvary Hospital in the Bronx is a wonderful institution that, unlike Pater V., provides care to all regardless of religion, including my father a"h in his last days.

  2. Fascinating stuff. I thoroughly enjoyed it!

  3. Dan, you are correct - yet I copied it exactly as written. It's possible that this is Wolff's own mistake, or perhaps just a typographical error.

  4. Joe in Australia8:55 PM, March 17, 2011

    Pater V had a better response, seeing as the watchmaker had done so many favors for him in the past: Jesus may have told his followers to forgive their debtors, but it is nowhere alleged that that he told them to forgive their creditors!

  5. As the researches of Dr Morganstern and others have shown, the interaction between the Perushim and Anglicans in Jerusalem was a) extensive and b) unimaginable today.Good subject for a book! (er, when do I retire??) The year 1840 (5600) was expected see the Messiah (Jewish..) and when he didn't come, two leading Perushim converted to Christianity. Their names were scratched out of the pinkas of the Bikur Cholim hospital (now in danger of being 'scratched out' itself), and the letters "Ym"s" (Yemach sh'mom) scribbled in the margin. See Aryeh Morganstern "meshichiut v'Eretz Yisrael" (I think it is now in English) as well).



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