Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Some additional notes on the elusive S"T abbreviation. This time "Sefardi Tahor" gets taken more seriously.

Readers know that I occasionally return to the subject of the abbreviation ס"ט, widely believed by the masses to refer to "Sefardi tahor" while seemingly all early evidence does not bear this out. Two kinds of evidence are brought to bear. The first is when the abbreviation is explained it is given to mean something else. The second is empirical: under the assumption that "Sefardi tahor" must be a reference to Sefardic "purity" in the sense of not converting, it is pointed out that the evidence shows that pre-expulsion Sefardic Jews signed their name with ס"ט, even those who lived before the initial wave of persecutions in 1391. Under the assumption that it refers to "pure Spanish lineage," it is pointed out that "mixed breeds" like the Chida used it (his ancestry was Ashkenazic on his mother's side) and that pure Ashkenazim like Chacham Zvi Ashkenazi used it as well. A third thing, which is not evidence, is also brought to bear in such discussions, which is that sefardi tahor really makes no sense. It's arrogant, while the traditional practice was always to add something humbling after one's name. Furthermore, what's so great about being a "pure Sefardi?" In the other sense, of descent from Jews who did not convert, maybe it's still arrogant but perhaps a little more understandable. Ethnic pride exists among Jews, but is hardly considered normative. (Max Weinreich, History of the Yiddish Language pg. A111, writes in a note that in Salonika, "just as in Amsterdam and in Hamburg, the Sephardim considered themselves superior to the Ashkenazim, and the latter charged that the acronym st. (samekh-teth) appended to their signature was a sign of boastfulness." Unfortunately there's no note for the note!)

I would like to offer yet a couple of other pieces of evidence of the first type (an abbreviation explained) and then consider the question of when and how the other interpretation - sefardi tahor - came from. Previously I'd shown how in the 19th century Jews with a living tradition of its use did not understood it to mean sefardi tahor. Here is a page from a 1780 book on rabbinic abbreviations by Gottfried Selig called Compendia Vocum Hebraico-rabbinicarum:

Here's another, from an anonymous manuscript called at the beginning ספר ראשי תיבות, described as (Italian, 18th century).

By the way, many people do not realize that even though shlita is used today as something one writes about others (i.e., a notable rabbi) it really is only a good wish and people used to use it, or a version of it, for themselves. The abbreviation שליט"א stands for שיחיה לימים טובים אמן, and is sometime shortened to שלי"ט, particularly when adding it to one's own name, which would then mean שיחיה לימים טובים. Yes, this is the origin of the Jewish surname "Shalit." Since "שליטא" is also an Aramaic/ Hebrew word referring to rule and authority, I assume that's why this good-wish abbreviation came to be used for notable rabbis (notable rebbetzins get the grammatically appropriate "תליט"א"), and also why it's really not seen as so appropriate to use for oneself.

Nevertheless it is undeniable that we find many people adding שלי"ט to their own names. Furthermore, I once posted the following penmanship doodle in the blank pages of the famous Munich Talmud manuscript:

As you can see, young (?) Uri Yehuda added שליטא after his name, and I don't think he was being arrogant.

Getting back to ס"ט, "sefardi tahor," it is interesting that there is at least one 18th century source discussing it from that point of view. It is in a manuscript by a very prominent 18th century rabbi, R. Pinchas Katzenellenbogen (1690-1760) called יש מנחילין, which wasn't published until 1986 (link). In it, the rabbi recalls his own father R. Moshe (1670-1743; who was rabbi of Fuerth) explaining to him why Chacham Zvi signed his name ס"ט despite being Ashkenazi, and despite the abbreviation meaning sefardi tahor, or Sefardim descended from pure and holy ancestors who never converted.

He recounts a version of the well-known story about how Chacham Zvi's father was almost killed by marauding Cossacks, who spared him out of mercy (yes, that's right). They did not spare many others and he survived for days pretending to be among the dead and scavenging for food at night. In the meantime, his family did not know what had happened to him and his wife was an agunah until witnesses came and claimed to know that he had been killed. She was permitted to remarry - but then her husband returned, very much alive.

The version here takes place in Ofen in 1686, during a period of war between the Ottomans and Austrians. Chacham Zvi's father was captured by the Austrians, but the rumor was that he had been killed. His father-in-law was able to gather testimonies that he had been killed, and he therefore permitted his daughter to remarry, and soon she was engaged. In the meantime, Chacham Zvi's father escaped or was redeemed from his captors, and wandered where he could. He happened to arrive in the city in Bohemia where his wife's soon-to-be second husband lived! To make a long story short, he was able to make himself known and recognized, prevent the wedding and reunite with his wife. Because of this near-brush with impurity (i.e., a married woman marrying another) and the success in preventing it, his son Chacham Zvi would sign his name ס"ט in commemoration of the purity of his ancestry.

Of course this is problematic. Chacham Zvi was already 30 years old when all this occurred, in this version. In addition, the end of the story seems to have forgotten the beginning: R. Pinchas specifically defines it as standing for sefardi tahor, and the problem as being that Chacham Zvi was Ashkenazi. Very strange. Not only that, in the next chapter of the manuscript R. Pinchas (who we recall was born around 1690) adds a fascinating story about how one time in Brody he stayed at the home of R. Nathan, the Chacham Zvi's son. Not only that, two of R. Nathan's brothers (R. David and R. Ephraim) were there as well. And after the the Friday night meal, he asked them if they knew the reason why their father signed his name ס"ט? And they told him that they did not know the reason, for they were small when their father died. So he told them the story, which they had not known! And they said to him, if you had came here only to tell us this story it would have been worth it! (The story begins here and continues for 4 pages.)

Very strange. That said, it is conceivable that the point is that Chacham Zvi took it in a non-literal sense and only adopted an existing, well-known abbreviation referring to the purity of one's ancestry. Of course all the other evidence, that those who used it meant "sofo tov" or some variation cannot be ignored. Still, we have a unique piece of testimony from the 18th century that it means sefardi tahor, and this proves that, at least in Poland, people thought that it's what it means.

In all likelihood the simple explanation is that it did not stand for sefardi tahor and the reason Chacham Tzvi used such a Sefardi cultural affectation was because it was yet another of the several Sefardic influences upon him. First, he grew up in Ofen. Although this city was mostly Ashkenazic, there was a powerful Sefardic influence in this Ottoman-controlled city (Ofen is Buda in Hungary). Secondly, he was educated in the Sefardic yeshivos of Salonica. Third, his son R. Yaakov Emden writes that he possessed responsa manuscripts written by his father in his youth. He did not publish them, he says, in part because they were written in the Sefardic script and difficult for him to read - וגם הכתב היא ספרדית ובקושי אוכל לקרותן.

I thought it would be interesting to show the sefardi tahor version as it is nicely explained by Mendel Mohr in Hamaggid Year 7 #8 February 19, 1863, pg. 62.

As you can see, he actually accuses someone else of stealing his explanation that s"t means sefard[sic] tahor. I think it's worth pointing out that Mendel Mohr was from Lvov, and the fellow he accuses was in Zolkiew. These are both in Galicia. The story where R. Pinchas Katzenellenbogen tells Chacham Zvi's three sons what s"t means as used by their father? That occurred in Brody - in Galicia. The visiting sons of Chacham Zvi? They were from Lvov (Lemberg), same as Mendel Mohr more than 100 years later.


  1. I'm trying to think of the Top Ten most common topics in OnTheMainLine posts:

    1. Mé Raglayim
    2. Engliſh-language Hebraica from before 1910
    3. S"T
    4. Early Hebrew printed books
    5. 20th- or 21st-century Yeshivish books (or pamphlets, cards, whatever printed material) which turn out not to toe the party line as much as we might have expected. Or, alternatively, which do toe the party line, but lie in order to do so.
    6. Old teaching materials of Hebrew
    7. Pronunciations of Aben/Ibn Rebbi/Ribbi/Rabbi

  2. If you're keeping score.

    8. Christian Hebraism
    9. British Chief Rabbis
    10. Shadal

    Looks sort of silly when you list it like this.


  3. I have seen the aleph of shlita expanded as aruchim as well.

  4. S. -- why does it look silly?

  5. Maybe I'm being pedantic, or just missing something, but why is it gramatically correct to change the shin to a tav for Rebbetzins? Shouldn't it start with a shin either way? It seems like more of an artificial feminization by someone who thought shlita looked strange next to a woman's name.

  6. Joe in Australia11:53 PM, May 24, 2011

    Thanks for the explanation of the Aramaic version of Shlita. Do you have any idea whether people actually distinguished between "shali"t" and "shlit"a" depending on the person they were applying it to?

  7. Mar Gavriel, I don't know. It just does.

    MDJ, thanks.

    David, you're right. I should not have written "grammatically." Like you said, it likely is only because "shlita" somehow seems like it goes with a man's name.

    Joe in Australia, I can't say for sure. If there is any distinction, it seems to me that shali"t was more something which people added after their own name, but even in this I'm not sure if there was any real distinction.

  8. Can't speak for Uri, but I know when I was in seventh grade adding a pseudo-pompous Shlita to doodles I made on the top of my notebook would be exactly the sort of thing I'd do, especially if I thought no one else would read it and I was trying to see how well I could write various letters.

  9. A Muppet, yes indeed, but because of the absence of other honorifics... Of course he could have not completed the doodling. Still, it's pretty remarkable that someone should have been practicing his handwriting on the blank pages of what turns out to be the most significant manuscript of the Talmud that there is.

  10. Etymologists tell us that we're to be very wary of acronym explanations for words. Doesn't it make a lot more sense that the name "Shalit" comes from, well, the word "shalit?"

  11. Nachum, you read enough title pages and haskamos in old seforim and you see that shali"t was a common enough appendage to a name. Same deal with kat"z and others. Although it's true that the " are not *only* used for acronyms (they could also be used for any foreign name or word, for example - I have an example where מיימון is constantly written as מיימ"ון - they also *are* used for acronyms. In this case Occam's Razor is with me. As I said in my post, "shlit"a" - and by extension "shali"t" - also evokes the word or concept of leadership. But they are acronyms.

  12. see here http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=16085&st=&pgnum=610 for a שלאי"ט written during the lifetime of the Alter Rebbe the Ba'al Hatanya (AKA The Rav, or does this blog use it only for R. J.B. Soloveichik ). This would seem to indicate no difference between shlita and shalit. It would be interesting to find out when shlita became formalized for Rebbes and "big" rabbonim vs. the plain sheyiche.

  13. There was supposed to be a smiley after my comment about the Rav. No disrespect intended.

  14. No offense taken. L'maaseh while I love all gedolei Yisrael and the events of their lives, I'm not really much of a "Rav" guy. No offense against him and those who are. :-)

    That's a beautiful ksav. Thanks for pointing it out.



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