Monday, August 15, 2011

Did the "Vilna Gaon's 'rebbe' the Pnei Moshe enroll in a university to study botany?

Here's the abstract: did Rabbi Moshe ben Shimon Margolis (circa 1710-1780) author of the Pne Moshe/ Ma'areh ha-Panim commentary on Talmud Yerushalmi, and reputed rebbe/ tutor of the boy who grew up to be the Vilna Gaon, actually enroll in a course on botany at the University of Frankfurt-an-der-Oder?

Let me explain. Originally the title of this post was going to be "Quasi-factual facts," and it was going to have the following introduction:
As the title indicates, there is a phenomenon of facts that may not be so factual, yet which get repeated so often they become fact. One such example is the following: Rabbi Moshe Margaliot (d. 1780), author of the Pne Moshe commentary on Talmud Yerushalmi and a rebbe/ tutor of the child who would grow up to the Vilna Gaon, enrolled in the University of Frankfurt an der Oder when he was middle aged to study botany so that he could better comprehend the agricultural content of the Jerusalem Talmud!
I'll give the rest of the introduction in a minute, but I want to say here that I thought the evidence was far flimsier than it actually is. After looking into it I am now convinced that it is more probable that he did than that he did not. So I no longer think that this is a good example of a questionable "fact." I continue:

For example, Elchanan Reiner writes:
Apparently Margolis used manuscripts to clarify textual variants and spent no little time in the Department of Botany at the University of Frankfurt an der Oder in order to prepare himself for the composition of his commentary on Seder Zera'im.
(Reiner, Elchanan "Beyond the Realm of the Haskalah - Changing Learning Patters in Jewish Traditional Society," Jahrbuch Des Simon-Dubnow-Instituts VI 2007, pg. 130.)

He gives no source, but likely his sources were either the Encyclopedia Judaica ("In 1779, when he was nearly 70 years of age, his name is found among the students enrolled in the botanical department of the University of Frankfurt on the Oder. ") or one of its sources, Dr. Louis Ginzberg's English introduction to his commentary on the Yerushalmi, which reads as follows:

Since this is a general introduction, he doesn't have footnotes. But the statement is pretty clear-cut:
"We know very little about the life of the great commentator on the Palestinian Talmud. I shall, however, mention one very interesting fact about him. On August 11, 1779, shortly before his death - he must have been about seventy! - he registered under the name of Moses Margelit (in his native country he certainly pronounced his name Margolis!) as a student of botany at the University of Frankfort-on-the-Oder. One is safe in assuming that his eagerness to acquire botanical knowledge was prompted by his desire to be better prepared for the study of the first order of the Palestinian Talmud, which deals chiefly with agricultural laws, for the understanding of which some botanical knowledge is indispensable. For the same reason "the Gaon of Wilna" had spent some time with farmers, for in Poland no opportunity was given to a Jew to register at a University."
There are a lot of assumptions here! But one thing seems clear-cut, given that the exact date of his registration is known.

But how do we know it? And is "Moses Margelit" indeed the 70-year-old author of Pnei Moshe? How do we know that?

Indeed, some sense that nothing is certain here. On page 149 of Heshey Zelcer's Guide to the Jerusalem Talmud, footnote 225 says
"According to the records of the University of Frankfort-on-the-order [sic], on August 11, 1779, an M. Margoliot enrolled as a student. If this is indeed our M. Margoliot then shortly before his death, at the age of about 69, he registered as a student of botany presumably because he hoped thereby to gain a better understanding of the first order of the Palestinian Talmud which deals chiefly with agricultural law."
Presumably the fact rests on the university record. But where is the university record? Obviously it must have been published somewhere, and indeed it has. Ginzberg (and everyone else) most likely saw it in a 1923 article, which I am going to show and excerpt - but through the miracle of modern digitization technology I can first show you the 1923 article's source.

In 1888 an exceedingly dry, telephone-book sort of work was published, called Aeltere Universitäts-Matrikeln: 1649-1811 by Ernst Friedländer. The book is exactly what it sounds like, endless lists of students' registration information in German universities from 1649-1811. The first volume happens to be for the university of Frankfurt a.d. Oder. Here is what you will see on page 477:

Here's what we learn. On August 11, 1779 "Moses Margelit Rubin" enrolled. His course of study was "botan." and his father was "Simon Margelit." His father's residence is Kalvarde, which could well be Kalvarija, Lithuania (which is near Kovno; in fact as close to Kovno as Keidan, where he lived when he tutored the Gra). As for the strange idea that his father's or his nationality is "Italien" (it is in the column "Heimath oder Herkunst," "Home or Descent"), this actually fits well with the Pnei Moshe. In 1765 he had moved to Italy, where he remained for years. It isn't impossible to imagine him putting down Italy in his registration. As for the name "Margelit Rubin," which I don't think he is known as anywhere else, presumably it is an attempt at giving a German version of what is after all a Hebrew word for a surname, מרגלית. Now I know that it still doesn't exactly say "The author of Penei Moshe" nor does it allude to his advanced age. Still, this is a far better than a coincidental same name.

In any case, Rabbi Louis Lewin was the one who called attention to this in a really fascinating article called Die juedischen Studenten an der Universitaet Frankurt a. d. Oder (Jahrbuch der Jüdisch-Literarischen Gesellschaft 15 1923). Based mostly on the aforementioned book, Louis Lewin lists all the Jewish students of the University of Frankfurt a.d. Oder in the 18th century and as much biographical information about them as available.

As far as I'm concerned there is a good chance that this is the Penei Moshe, better than I'd thought. Certainly the weak link is extrapolating his motivations and stating them with certainty, but on the other hand it is doubtful that this 69 year old master of the Jerusalem Talmud registered for botany classes so that he could study tulips and start his own garden. Furthermore, if he died in 1780 then there is no telling how much time, if any, he actually spent there, certainly not enough to say that he "spent no little time in the Department of Botany."

Incidentally, I began looking into this about a year ago, and sort of got sidetracked. At the time, a friend of mine asked "a leading expert on Yerushalmi" and this was his reply:
No, the evidence is definitely not solid, and the critical point is indeed whether the Moshe Marg. mentioned as enrolling at U. of Frank. am Oder is the same as the author of Pnei Moshe.
That sounded pretty convincing to me a year ago, but of course this is an expert on Yerushalmi, not an expert on German university registration records, and I don't know if he even saw the entry.
To me it sounds like he thinks that it simply says the name, but as I have shown it also has the father's name, mentions his place of residence and origin very close to an area of Lithuania where he is known to have lived, and also mentions his Italian collection, although this is unclear. To me this is a more pregnant piece of evidence than a mere name.

There is an article on the Penei Moshe in the Proceedings of the 11th World Congress of Jewish Studies called ר׳ משה מרגלית ופירושו פני משה על התלמוד הירושלמי, by Aviad Hacohen. I haven't seen it. He must discuss this. Maybe he brings additional facts, maybe he concludes differently from me. Although I will probably track down the article to see for myself, I think it's likely that my conclusion will be what it is: a less quasi-factual fact then I thought, and more likely a factual fact. Still, one wishes there was at least one more piece of evidence and I can understand if someone is less persuaded.


  1. Fotheringay-Phipps12:59 PM, August 15, 2011

    I remain skeptical.

    Here he was close to death, and having already written his work on Yerushalmi. Hard to imagine that he had nothing better to do at that time than to enroll in botany courses.

    And all these names are fairly common.

    Still, you never know.

  2. Can it be that Rubin is a form of Rabbin? Alluding to the fact that he was a Rabbi?

  3. That he was close to death doesn't mean that he was in bad health, and that he had already published his work on the Yerushalmi doesn't mean that he felt that his work was finished (admittedly none of this says that this man enrolled to enlarge his knowledge so that he could understand the Talmud).

    I'm not so sure these names are fairly common, especially because the father has the same name. How many people share your exact name and your father's name and come from your exact region? The additional detail about Italy (although admittedly unclear) also makes it more certain. Again, I originally thought it was just the same name, but I see that it's more than that, it's more like a 4-in-1 proof.

  4. Anon, I suppose so, because this whole thing is copied from hand-written records. But it so happens that "Rubin" (Ruby) also makes sense as a German translation of Margelit. There was more than one Jew named מרגלית who, upon converting to Christianity, changed their surname to Margaritha and the like. So its possible or at least conceivable that someone with such a name would feel compelled (or maybe even required) to give some kind of Germanic name. I can see someone looking at the "Rubin" angle as a weak link, but it's not the end of the world, because it works as a translation of מרגלית (and maybe too as "Rabin").

  5. Rav spent 18 months among the shepards to know what a blemish was. A few months in a German university, yekkes and all, couldnt have been so bad.

  6. Really great post.
    Aviad HaCohen is aware of the 1923 article and discusses PM's traveling around the world. (IMHO, this also supports the University thesis. This is not a ghetto yid.) HaCohen mentions several theories to explain the travels, tsad hashave: acquisition of knowledge.
    HaCohen quotes passages from the Yerushalmi perush where you can see that PM was in Italy, and Livorno in particular.
    He mentions Ginzburg's comments about the botany course, but remains skeptical, like the opinion of S. himself "mei'ikarei," even though PM was cosmopolitan.
    S.: You should see Ginzburg's Hebrew on page קכה and the footnote 34 there. He discusses the issue more in depth and ties PM's interest in manuscripts with the botany course. Always check Ginzburg's Hebrew version, which is longer, although there are things in the English which are not in the Hebrew! This was removed from Hebrewbooks apparently.

  7. I was just alerted to a source on page 9 of Prof Felicks' intro to Yerushalmi Shevi'it.

    There he accepts as fact that PM took the course BEFORE writing his perush, but that his teachers could not help him much to understand the nature and agriculture of the land of Israel.

    It could be that the botany professors were interested in PM's knowledge as well, even with a beard.

  8. Thanks Zohar, especially the reference in Ginzberg. I'm not sure why I didn't think of looking at it in the first place, but I guess it's because a few days ago I happened to be reading an article/ speech by Eli Ginzberg, where he mentions that he played a role in convincing his father to include a Yerushalmi introduction in English, and in fact he helped him write it.

    I am not a fan of translating the names of journals, by the way. To the extent that I'd have to spend 10 seconds thinking about what he means by "ספר השנה של החברה לספרות ישראל" that is a waste of my time.

    Interesting, he interprets Rubin as "Rabin."

    I already downloaded it from hebrewbooks. I can't catch everything, but I've got quite a few things which were removed.

    If I'm not mistaken one of the volumes was published in Livorno (which was already a big publishing place in Italy).

    Felix obviously didn't investigate it at all, for if he did he would have seen the year.

    Another thought which occurred to me is that perhaps he wanted access to a university library. Re the beard, although I was being a little facetious, note that I mentioned the students, not the professors.

    There's no doubt that he was not a ghetto yid; actually, many of the big rabbis of the time were quite cosmopolitan, in a manner of speaking. It seems like all of Europe, Western, Central and even Eastern, was their playground, moving all over the place.

  9. Eli Ginzburg wrote the biography "Keeper of the Faith" -- very interesting.
    I strongly recommend that everyone read both of these introductions to the Yerushalmi. Just start with the language easiest to you.
    Names of journals: A couple of years ago I was confounded by Liberman's הצופה האנגלי. I thought that this must refer to some English language version of the newspaper in a literary supplement. I went looking everywhere but couldn't find anything. He was just referring to JQR. הצופה הצרפתי is REJ.
    I heard that this was probably deleted from Hebrewbooks because of copyright issues, not censorship.
    I know you were being facetious about the beard, so was I.
    I doubt that PM just wanted access. Why botany? But it's possible.
    What's important is that PM did in fact try something, even though acc to Felix later, it was a lost cause. Those of us who have much more reason to believe that we can succeed with these methods can learn mussar.

  10. Keeper of the Faith is indeed interesting. His son stressed, as he did even more stridently in his lecture, that his father's great disappointment in him was his estrangement from the Talmud, his inability to understand it. He writes that other than that they were extremely close! Which sounds funny.

    Good example re journal names. Hebrew purism is cute, but not when it's a pain in the tuchus. Conversely, I absolutely loathe when English books translate Hebrew titles and don't give you the Hebrew equivalent. Yes, I can almost always figure it out, but don't waste my time.

    I actually thought that all the Lieberman, Ginzberg, etc. stuff would disappear because of the JTS, but then they let hbooks scan dozens of books and 1500 manuscripts. I dunno.

    Although it's still impossible to determine with 100% certainty if it was even him, and if it was what the motivation was, going with the narrative, it is indeed mussar.

  11. I love seeing the Bebrew titles transalted. One doesnt realize how weird these titles are until he sees them in english translation. Wasnt it Disraeli's father who got all hot and bothered over a book called "the Bones of Joseph", because it gave no clue as to the book's contents? Fair criticism if you think about it, or even if you dont think about it.
    Think I recall seeing an article on the subject of titles by Dr. S. Shechter, but could be wrong.

  12. Re weird, true. But if you think about it, many normal idiomatic expressions in English are weird. Schechter did indeed write such an article.



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