Sunday, February 26, 2012

Montefiore is asked to judge the Old Yishuv, 1875.

Here are a few excerpts from a travel diary of Moses Montefiore from his 7th trip to the Holy Land, in Sept. 1875. He was then 90 years old.

The truth is there are a couple of dozen interesting things worth excerpting, but here are three:

1. Here we see him mentioning his receiving an invitation to attend the corner-stone laying ceremony for Meah Shearim "a new row of houses."

2. Here he mentions receiving a delegation from a yeshiva; the delegation consisted of the yeshiva. The yeshiva, which consisted of Turkish Jews, was called Yeshivat Ekhad, because there were 13 members (13 = the gematria of ekhad, which means "one").

3. Finally, here is an account of a demonstration of how well the little girls were learning in their Beis Yaakov school, meant to counter a report to the contrary, which really merits its own post. But see more below.

The English is from "A narrative of a forty days' sojourn in the Holy Land" (London 1875) and the Hebrew from Sippur Moshe Ve-rushalayim (Warsaw 1876). Here's a facsimile of his Hebrew signature, in the Hebrew version:

Alluding to the bad report concerning the Yishuv (which we now call "the Old Yishuv") one of the points raised was that the level of education was very bad; the Sephardim having a very poor level, but far superior to the Ashkenazim, and in both cases, education for girls and women was utterly lacking, with illiteracy in any language being the rule. One point specifically raised was that the Sephardim at least teach [their boys] Hebrew, Arabic, and 'Leshon Espagnol', while the Ashkenazim only teach Hebrew.

In an open letter to Montefiore Rabbis Mayer Auerbach and Samuel Salant attempted to rebut each point of the critique. In the case of this one about education they reply defending the mode of education which, they claim, is identical among Sefardim and Ashkenazim, is rooted from the days of Sinai, and is meant to deeply root principles of the faith. It follows Hazal's order, 'mikra, mishna, gemara,' and essentially needs no defense. However, once these have been imparted, who is against secular studies or languages? They acknowledge that languages and various sciences like astronomy and math are indeed important even for Torah study. They invite Montefiore to see for themselves if the girls are uneducated, and as we saw above that the girls whom Montefiore saw were not!

Here is an excerpt from their letter. I do not publish the entire excerpt, or more of it here, because I want to save it for a future post.


  1. S.
    Nice post. His wife's diary also has important information about the visit. The most prolific information about the visit is probably from MM's "handler" Dr. Loewe (הלוי), who conducted the Hebron census without MM's presence at all.

    Was the school he visited that is noted in the text connected to the school that MM's nephew Haim Guedalia established?

  2. I was somewhat struck by how many Nechamas were among the girls Montefiore met. I was under the impression that it was more of a "modernische" name.

  3. S.
    I looked closer at the R. Salant / Auerbach letter and it (surprisingly) seems to be saying that once a youngster has learned sufficient torah (עד אשר יגדלו ויתחזקו ביראת השם), then it is fine to learn languages and trades (i.e., what is needed for משא ומתן).
    Of course they tie this into religious needs (engineering to consruct mikvaot, etc.) and they say nothing about the yishuv providing such education.
    This is especially interesting for me personally. If you look in the Hebron census, one of the only (ashkenazi) Jews who is described as subsisting from trade (משכרו)is my own ancestor (a healer) who was a landsman of R. Salant's.

  4. correction - from "his trade", i.e. his profession.

  5. The post was eye-opening for me. It shows that limudei kodesh education existed for girls in J'lem in 1875 (Moshe Montefiore mentions that at least 122 girls were presented to him for testing). This is some 50 years before Sarah Shenirer opened her Bais Yaakov schools for girls in Poland - an undertaking that was roundly attacked by most of the rabbinic authorities of the time as too radical an innovation. In the end, educating girls in torah won the day out of strong practical considerations. Girls were required to attend secular schools. If they were not also educated in religious subjects, there was a clear danger of losing them to secular and Gentile influences. This was not the situation in the old Yishuv in J'lem. Yet, they appear to have pioneered torah education for girls. It would be of interest to learn the driving force for such education and why it took so long to be emulated elsewhere.

  6. We also saw on this blog that the concept of daf yomi was around in the 19th century as well. Between that and the Beis Yaakov, Fred is basically pulling the carpet out from under the Agudah.

  7. Well, DY certainly wasn't very popular until Rav Meir Shapiro publicized the idea at the first Agudah convention. Also, what does Beis Yaakov have to do with Agudah?

  8. Did Montefiore write the original in Hebrew, or in English?

  9. English. I don't think he was capable of managing more than a couple of sentences in Hebrew, tops, and may he forgive me if I am mistaken about that. But that's the impression I am under.

    Even the English, it's entirely possible if not probable that his secretary Loewe (about him see here) edited his original manuscript, but that I'm less sure about. I'm sure Montefiore wrote a beautiful English.

  10. But they were diaries, is my point.

  11. Who translated them into Hebrew? Loewe?

  12. He was on the ועד of חברה מקיצי נרדמים, does that say anything about his Hebrew?

  13. Not more than an honorary degree. He was on the board as a figurehead, not because he was a scholar. I would say that based on his background (Italian, Sephardic) if he had had a Jewish education in his youth then he would have probably been able to write a good Hebrew. But he didn't.

  14. But he could have learned Hebrew later in life? I never really thought about the question. (And was he Sephardic, or Italki? His wife, of the Sebagh family, was obviously Sephardic.)

  15. I do not deny he may have been able to understand easy Hebrew, and certainly he could read it. I am saying that I do not think he could write Hebrew, much less translate. I am partly basing this on what I know, and also on something that I (think) I read, but I can't remember. Again, if I'm wrong let someone show me and I'll take it back!

    I am pretty sure he was Sephardi. Most Italian Jews were Sephardic or Ashkenazic. I am not 100% sure, but I am basing this on the facts that his family was from Livorno, which was very Sephardic (and in fact geographically and culturally close to Maghreb). One of his great-grandfathers was named Massoud. On the other hand, the name is Italian. Apparently the earliest known ancestor of his was Leone Montefiore, born in 1605. He made a donation of a paroched to the Sephardic synagogue in Ancona in 1630, so perhaps that is a clue.



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