Thursday, August 18, 2011

Inadvertently blaming Wessely's sister, who "was no Rachel Morpurgo," for someone else's plagiarism of an unfortunately mismatched tombstone acrostic.

J.L. Wittkower published a book called Agudath Perachim "Blüthenstrauch," an "Anthology of German and Hebrew Poems of Mind and Heart" (Altona 1880). Actually, it's quite charming. The copy on Google Books has a dedicatory inscription showing that someone had given this particular copy to their cousin "als מתנה," as a gift. These are the things that breathe life into books:

One section of the book includes 40 gravestone inscriptions of rabbis and scholars from the Altona cemetery. For example, to name those probably most recognizable to readers, it contains the tombstone inscriptions of R. Meshulam Zalman Mirels, R. Yechezkel Katzenellenbogen, R. Yonasan Eybeschutz, R. Yaakov Emden, R.Mordechai Gumpel Schnaber, R. Rafael Kohen, R. Mendel Frankfurter, R. Yaakov Ettlinger and R. Isaac Bernays. The only non-notable name inscription is #38, which is included because it is the oldest one in the cemetery, dating to 5381/ 1721. You can well imagine how edifying it is to sit in a comfortable chair and read grave inscriptions.

The one which this post deals is #39, the grave of Naphtali Herz Wessely, which is actually in the Sephardic cemetery of Altona - in a special section for Ashkenazim! -, as the footnote clarifies. The footnote includes other interesting information. First, here is the inscription (which is actually a composite that I made, since it is on two pages in the book):

Actually, here is the grave itself, courtesy of Mr. Sebastian Panwitz (link):

As you can see from the inscription, the poem is actually an acrostic which reads יצחק - Yitzchak! (יצחק עזאל, actually, or יצחק עוזיאל if you include the second letter in the words עוד and זיוי, as you are surely supposed to.) What gives?

It's hard to truly find something new to write about, and this has been noted several times before, possibly first in an 1868 article in the Joodsch-Letterkundige Bijdragen called "Het grafschrift van N.H. Wessely," and most recently and most comprehensively in "Hamburgs Sephardic Hebrew Epitaphic Poems" by Marian and Ramon F. Sarraga in Jewish Studies Quarterly 12 (2005) pp. 366-69. They explain that this was a recycled poem. Written in the 17th century by Joseph Franco Serrano in honor of Rabbi Isaac Uziel (d. 1622), one of the most prominent personalities buried in the Beth Haim cemetery in Amsterdam. The poem was included in David Levi (Miguel) de Barrios' 1683 book Triumpho del Govierno Popular in the section called Vida de Ishac Huziel. The poem was also printed by Jellinek in the Lit. des Orients 8 #18 pg. 276 - 77 (link). It's always good to look at different versions of the same thing, very edifying. Jellinek incidentally interprets the acrostic, the hidden "Uziel" slightly different from me, but I am right.

In the case of Wessely, some say that Abraham Meldola one who "composed" it, that is, who is responsible for its reuse on the grave and that he actually claimed credit for it, that is, he plagiarized it (he was a putative student of Wessely, who printed a Hebrew/ German dirge for Wessely called קול הצירים תחת השיר/ Eine hebra¨ische Trauer-Rede . . . (Altona 1805). I haven't seen his book, but the Sarragas say that although his book does say Dessen Grabschrift verfertiget durch Denselben ("[Wessely's] epitaph prepared by the same person" (i.e., Meldola) its possible that he only meant to take credit for the German version of the poem included in his pamphlet. But even if so, he also did not write where he got it from, so I guess that counts as plagiarism. Pretty wild when you consider that the blasted acrostic just keeps on spelling "Yitzchak Uziel," no matter how you slice it, although of course the letters are not engraved in a larger font. Interestingly enough, in the version of the epitaph printed in the Sarragas article, which comes from Meldola, there is a tiny difference from the version printed by Wittkower. Wittkower has המשורר האלקי, while Meldola printed המשורר האלדי. I guess Meldola should know since he prepared it for the grave! As it happens, if you view the photo of the faded gravestone at its highest resolution, and play with the contrasts in Photoshop you can see that האלדי is absolutely correct.

Meldola says he prepared it. No doubt he did. But naturally others had additional details. In Wittkower's footnote he makes note of the problematic acrostic "Yitzchak" - he didn't realize it also says "Uziel" - and he says that it really bothered him. Was this the lot of author of Shire Tiferet ? Is this a proper memorial for this נותן אמרי שפר? Was "Yitzchak" someone's idea of a joke?

So he says that he inquired and eventually an old man, who was reliable, explained the riddle to him. He told him that it was Wessely's sister who endeavored to make sure that some Hebrew verse would appear on his tombstone, and suffice it to say, she was no Rachel Morpurgo! Not getting anywhere with the versifying herself, she must have found this written somewhere, didn't recognize it as an acrostic and ordered it engraved on the stone of her expert poet brother. Wittkower says this account is קרוב הוא לוודאי, "almost certainly what happened." Actually it's possible that this is the truth, only Wittkower's old man didn't know where she got the text. She got it from Meldola, who messed up.

Finally, the Sarragas inadvertently revealed another error on Meldola's part. He didn't realize that the poem contains another acrostic. They printed the following vocalized version from a 1768 manuscript by Isaac Belinfante.

As you can see, the way he wrote it the second column forms "
ונבע בכבד." Although they feel it may be a coincidence, there's no such thing as a coincidence, right?

Those who do not know what זצ"ל Hartwig Wessely המשורר האלדי מוהרר נפתלי הירץ וויזל המכונה looked like, here he is, looking very much like he belongs on money:


  1. The use of acrostics on matzevos is still a current practice among the "yekkes," to judge from some gravestones at Cedar Park Beth El Cemetery in Paramus, NJ, the final resting place of many Washington Heights residents.

  2. You can say the same thing about Chassidim. And, I guess, others probably as well.

    In the article I referenced most heavily in this post they say (claim?) that the latest original acrostic in the Altona cemetery dates to 1801 (that is, when the man died - the deceased having written his own acrostic poem). They say that after this time it seems that the art had died, and everything is recycled. I guess I should have pointed that out in the post.

  3. Hi
    I have an original copy of Agudath Perachim. I would like to know more about the author - Wittkower. Where was he born ? When ?
    Did he write this book in German and translated into Hebrew or vice-versa ?
    I must admit that his wisdom and humor are outstanding, at least when red in Hebrew.
    Just note this one (Free translation)
    The author:
    "my book I'll publish - so be it
    But my name I will omit"
    The critic:
    "You better let all people look
    At your name but not your book"
    Please !
    send me any link or info !
    Elisha Freund



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