Monday, September 03, 2012

A children's primer for Italian Jewish children

Here is something interesting. Judah Leib Ben Zeev was a formidable Hebraist of the turn of the century era (the century, being the 19th). His Talmud Leshon Ivri taught generations of European Jews grammatical Hebrew. A son of one of the Central European gedolim, R. Mordechai Benet, even highlighted his father's expertise in this book in the treatise he published in eulogy for him, quoting an article in Bikure Haittim, where an anecdote about Ben Zeev and R. Banet is quoted (link).[1]

Talmud Leshon Ivri was for big boys (sadly, probably not for girls, although I'm sure more than a few picked it up and were able to learn something from it over the years) but like all good educators, Ben Zeev also had in mind the little ones. So his output was not confined to higher instructional material like TLI, and works on Bible for advanced scholars, but he also wrote catechisms for small children. One of them was called Beit Hasefer - Mesilat Halimud, in Hebrew and German (in Hebrew letters). This post will concentrate on the Italian translation of this book.

In 1824 an educator named Leon Vita Romanini (also known as Romanin) translated Mesilat Hatalmud for use among Italian schoolchildren. Here is the title page (date of publication is 1825):

The very first page is a haskamah from Rabbi Avraham Eliezer Levi, the chief rabbi of Trieste, who is personally interesting to me as he was one of Shadal's primary teachers, and a correspondent of the Chasam Sofer. His haskamah says that the book is approved because he finds that in content "it is orthodox," and it can be used for instructing Jewish children with profit:

In his preface, Romanini cites the numerous editions of the book,[2] in use in German Jewish schools, as sufficient proof of the success of its new method, which enables students to acquire a good beginner's knowledge of Hebrew in two years. He continues, it not so much for the knowledge contained in this work, although it abounds in it, but because it impresses tender minds about their sacred religion, no less than scientific and literary works. In other words, I think, this is a formidable religious textbook which can hold its own against modern European works, so important for the education of Jewish children.

The book continues with Ben Zeev's Hebrew preface which, interestingly, is untranslated in both the German and Italian edition. I guess it was intended for the teacher. In any case, Ben Zeev writes that after investing his effort in producing Talmud Leshon Ivri and also his Otzar Hashorashim, he turns toward educating children, to teach them proper reading. Although there is no end of books, he found that there was no good work which does this, to simply teach children how to read Hebrew properly. He writes that this is not a small matter, teaching children how to read correctly. And then he goes through the various advantages of this work.

It begins at the beginning:

And explains dagesh, letters which are graphically similar, which sound similar, (thing which, I might add, was never pointed out by the teacher who taught us to read more than 150 years later) and the Rashi letters (Rabinico). In the German version, also added are two more forms of alphabet, which Romanini omits in the Italian edition, because neither script was used by the Italians. Their cursive was basically the same as the Rashi letters:

As you can see, these additional two forms of the alphabet are called by Ben Zeev the "Juedische-Deutsche Druck-Schrift," "the German-Jewish printing script," and the "Juedische Schreibschrift," "the Jewish handwriting."

Following this come many pages of reading exercises illustrating all the principles of proper reading. Next come some reading exercises which use proper texts, a combination of texts from the siddur, and what I think is an original Ben Zeev composition about God, religion, and acting good. Following this are lists of pronouns, and various other categories of Hebrew words, with their translation, numbers and so on. Then come various paragraphs which, I think, the pupil is supposed to be able to translate, with it broken down word by word on the bottom. They are about nature, biology, history, etc. Then there are more pages of religious instruction, a section of proverbs, drawn from various sources including Ben Zeev's own translation of Ben Sira, a few pages of various beautiful extracts from Pirke Avot, and then 10 sentences from the Talmud which in all likelihood would be the first and last Talmud many of these children would ever see.

Interestingly, the Talmudic section is more expansive in the Italian version. Also, not included in the Italian is a section on Greek philosophers (all in Hebrew, of course) which is in the German version. Finally, see the earlier post of mine (link) for a little bit about the 1827 edition (German). Some scholar of the Haskalah might think it is a good idea to compare and contrast these two versions; much material is lacking in the Italian, possibly because Romanin wanted to keep things shorter, or possibly that he wanted to keep things ortodosso. And in 75 years from now, someone can compare and contrast this post and my earlier one, on the two versions of these books, and submit a learned paragraph to some journal.

[1] "He was expert in Talmud and poskim, and all of them according to straight reasoning and true pshat. I heard from those who said he was also expert in astronomy books, Moreh Nevuchim, Kuzari, Ikkarim, Akedat Yitzchak, Chovot Halevavot, until he knew them word for word, and he followed in their example to explain the Bible and sections of Talmud and Midrash according to the method of rigorous investigation. He also had a hand in the Zohar and other kabbalistic books. A reliable person told me that he heard from R. Judah Leib Ben Zeev z"l that one time he came to visit the Rav Hagaon zt"l and discovered that he was also an expert in Hebrew grammar books, and he knew his Talmud Leshon Ivri cover to cover . . . "

[2] He writes this in 1824. In the German version of the book which I linked to above, it is the seventh edition, printed in 1827. So five or six editions must have already existed at the time that the Italian translation was produced.


  1. i love the way he differentiates between syllables that are open and those that are closed by dagesh chazak. i never saw this before. is this his chidush?

  2. "translated Mesilat Hatalmud".

    correc. mesilat "halimud".

  3. Molto interessante!



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