Thursday, October 14, 2010

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High Dutch-speaking Jews, and what light might written Yiddish shed on the provenance of the Samaritan Pentateuch?

Here are two unrelated, but interesting literary excerpts.

The first is from a letter by Joseph Priestley (1733-1804), who was a controversial 18th century British Unitarian theologian who discovered oxygen and soda pop, among many other notable things in a very notable life. Priestley, by the way, moved to the United States after his home was attacked and burned to the ground by a mob on the first anniversary of the Storming of the Bastille (see the Priestley Riots, in which supporters of the American and French Revolutions were attacked).

Priestley happened to have felt that Jews might find his Unitarian beliefs amenable and convert if Unitarian Christianity were presented to them in a friendly way. So it was that he addressed an open letter to the Jews, with which he claimed he wanted to open a discussion with Jews. Apparently he didn't really expect a conversation, but he got one anyway in the form of British Jewish haberdasher David Levi, and a whole series of open pamphlets were exchanged. In any case, his collected letters were published in 1832, and below is an interesting excerpt from one dated January 23, 1788 to a fellow Unitarian minister, Newcome Cappe:

As you can see, he writes that his letters to the Jews don't seem to be producing converts. However, claims he, a "learned Jew of Konigsberg" is translating his letters into Hebrew. Evidently he planned to print them in England, but nothing ever materialized. However, most interesting is that the unnamed learned Jew sent him three volumes of "a periodical work, designed to promote literature among the Jews. It is in Hebrew, with a small part of it in High Dutch." Priestley is talking about none other than Ha-Meassef, the first periodical of the German Haskalah published in Koenigsberg. Apparently it was of no interest to Priestley, so he says, though I have a hunch he couldn't understand it.

"High Dutch," by the way, is a literal English translation (with modified English pronunciation) of hochdeutsch. Since he differentiates from "German" I think he means Yiddish, or more accurately the highly Germanized Judeo-Deutsch spoken by Jews of Germany. In fact, in English literature of the period the Yiddish spoken by Jews is often called "High Dutch," which leads me to the next interesting excerpt.

The following is an excerpt from a 1682 English translation of a critical work on the Bible by Richard Simon. The background concerns the Samaritan Pentateuch. In 1616 the Italian traveler Pietro della Valle brought a copy of the Samaritan Pentateuch which he had acquired in Damascus back to Europe. While it had long been known that the Septuagint must have been translated from a different Hebrew text from the one which was extant, the present existence of a different Hebrew text had never even been suspected (I think?) and it caused a sensation. Not only was the text variant with the seemingly uniform Hebrew textus receptus but it was even written in the archaic paleo-Hebrew alphabet which, was felt, had been used by the Jews prior to the time of Ezra. Thus, suspected (and hoped) many scholars there were good grounds for considering this newly discovered text to be even older than the masoretic text. This was especially felicitous, as Samaritan Hebrew has no vowels which meant that there is indeed an authoritative Pentateuch without pesky points telling you how to read it. Furthermore, in many cases the Samaritan reading agreed with the Septuagint or at least seemed to differ from Jewish exegetical positions implied by the masoretic Hebrew text.

Since the net result was the undermining of the Hebrew textus receptus, naturally proponents of that text sought to discredit the Samaritan. Richard Simon, a French scholar who is credited by some with being one of the earliest to cast doubt on the Mosaic authorship of the Torah, was yet of the opinion that the Samaritan text was inferior to the masoretic. Here he is arguing that the mere fact that the Samaritan text is in ancient Hebrew alphabet is no proof that they preserved the text most accurately, for these same Samaritans write their native Arabic with the very same ancient alphabet, as do several other peoples write their vernacular language in an alphabet which is not their own. Thus, this does not prove that they kept an ancient, perfect copy of Moses's Torah in the correct original script. Rather, it is equally plausible that they kept a corrupt copy, the characters they use proving nothing.

Simon notes as well that the Jews of his own time "often write the high Dutch in Hebrew characters."

Here's an example of "high Dutch in Hebrew characters" from roughly the same period.

Did Moses part the Sea of Weeds? A look at a bowdlerized 19th century Pentateuch.

In 1884 two brothers named Moses - Adolph and Isaac - published their translation of the Pentateuch in Milwaukee. The edition was evidently intended for children, as the title page called it a "school and family edition" (link). It doesn't look like they mentioned that it was somewhat abridged, but naturally this did not escape attention.

A review in the Jewish Chronicle called it "bowdlerized" and made fun of its Americanisms.

It's first serious criticism is that this translation omitted the very long section on sacrifices at the beginning of Leviticus! In its understated British way the reviewer notes that not only are sacrifices important in Mosaism, but these chapters contain a lot of important theology concerning confession and atonement. The review did not say how much is missing, but as you can see below, it goes from the first verse in Leviticus, skips seven chapters and resumes with the first verse of Leviticus 8, as if this is the second verse, first chapter, without noting anything is missing:

The review also questions the presence of knights cast into the sea in the Shirat Ha-yam (Song of the Sea; Exodus 15):

and makes fun of Americanisms, at one point suggesting that something in the translation probably isn't even Americanism (how lowbrow can one get?) - but isn't even English.

It also singled out the fact that the Moses Pentateuch speaks of the Sea of Weeds. At first I thought this was hilarious. A typo? Bad pronunciation for Sea of Reeds? Hilarious. But then I did a little digging and learned something new. In the 19th century, recognizing finally that Hebrew Yam Suf does not mean "the Red Sea" (for that we have to thank the Septuagint, but see here where I suggested that the Septuagint was not trying to identify the sea). Today we tend to say "Reed Sea" or "Sea of Reeds" - the former conforms more nicely to the traditional "Red Sea," in my opinion. Yet in the 19th century the translation for Suf was often Weed or Weedy. Thus, many wrote of the Sea of Weeds of the Weedy Sea.

Frankly, I think that's hilarious.

Incidentally, the Artscroll translates "Sea of Reeds," Mendelssohn translated בינזעןזעע, and Luther translated "Schilfmeer," which all mean the same thing.

Hebrew made more European; an innovative punctuation scheme from 1841.

The bottom line - a lot of people have trouble learning to read languages in an unfamiliar alphabet. the optimal time for such learning is childhood.

So it is that many Christians and others, desiring to learn to read Hebrew, consistently complained about the difficulty occasioned by the nekkudot, or points. This occasioned periodic suggestions that the points aren't really necessary, or at least tapped into the existing theological and historical controversies about them.

In 1841 a British minister named William Withers Ewbank identified a further problem and came up with an original solution - his edition of Genesis, called "בראשית · The Book of Genesis, in the original Hebrew without points, but with Stops and Large Initial Letters (edited as an experiment)." That is to say, he felt that the lack of normal (=European) punctuation, as well as the lack of capital letters to indicate proper nouns, made Hebrew more difficult. So his version includes both features. Not only that, he took care to do something which - to my dismay - modern Hebrew never chose to do to this very day: his commas point to the right!

Take a look at the question marks in the story of Cain and Abel:

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Hoffmanns

Here's a really nice photograph of R. David Zvi Hoffmann and his wife Zerline:

Friday, October 08, 2010

In a way, it's sad; a Rosh Chodesh post on the name of the month Marcheshvan.

In 2000 Ari Zivotofsky wrote an article in Jewish Action on the proper etymology of Marcheshvan ("What's the Truth about... "Mar Cheshvan?"). I once posted about it here.

In Cyrus Adler - Selected Letters (ed. by Ira Robinson) we find the following excerpt from a letter from the 20-year old Adler, then an Oriental and Semitics student at Johns Hopkins, dated November 7, 1883 to his rebbe Sabato Morais. He writes:
"Could you give me any references or information concerning the word מרחשון? I think it can be identified with the Assyrian Arax samna which you will recognize as meaning "the eight month."
(Ira Robinson strangely footnotes that Marheshvan is a variant (!!) of the name for the second month of the Jewish year, evidently forgetting that counting from Nisan (הַחֹדֶשׁ הַזֶּה לָכֶם רֹאשׁ חֳדָשִׁים) Marcheshvan is indeed the eight month.)

My guess is that the youthful Adler did not realize that as a Semitics student in all likelihood he already knew more about it than his mentor. If this was fairly cutting edge scholarship in 1883 - it was very old news by 2000! Zivotofsky is hardly to be faulted for pointing out 130-year old news to his audience, which certainly included me, which mostly had never heard or even imagined it. In fact, he is to be congratulated for writing that article.

In 1n 1882 book called בירוסי הכשדי, או, קדמוניות האשורים והבבלים this is discussed by Solomon Rubin (pp. 48-49, 106, and 153):

On second thought, although Adler probably already knew more about Semitics than his mentor, I suppose Morais may have already had this book - he was very learned and well read in the latest scholarship.

Similarly, in Abraham Epstein's 1887 book מקדמוניות היהודים there is a great, much more complete discussion, מרחשון ·ארח-שמנא, (beginning on pg. 23):

Of course this was not the discovery of maskilim writing in Hebrew, but was rather the recent findings in Semitic scholarship, bolstered by the decipherment of cuneiform. For example, see this table from an 1869 book by François Lenormant,Manuel d'histoire ancienne de l'Orient jusqu'aux guerres médiques: Assyriens, Babyloniens, Mèdes, Perses. This was not his discovery; I don't think it was news even in 1869. Here is the table in English translation (1871):

One of the sources Epstein cites is Edmund Norris's Assyrian dictionary (1869), which shows the following:

Finally here is some excerpts from an article by Dr. B. Barry Levy which dealt incidentally with the way in which this etymological issue is dealt in two separate books published by Mesorah Publications - Artscroll. I trust the reader will find this interesting, if not debatable:
Rabbi David Feinstein’s The Jewish Calendar

One of the most recent books . . . is Rabbi David Feinstein’s The Jewish Calendar: Its Structure and Laws (2004). It begins with a long list of donors and seems to have some association with the rabbi’s yeshiva. It was issued in a special edition before the formal release, perhaps as part of a fund-raising effort. In any case, the book thanks, among others, Rabbi Nosson Sherman for his extensive assistance, but unlike most other Artscroll volumes, Rabbi Scherman seemingly has not provided its Overview. One does find an Overview (pp. 13-24), but it is not signed, so one must assume that Rabbi Feinstein is its author. Yet, when one compares these pages with the rest of the book, one immediately senses a difference. Much of the book explains how the calendar and related liturgical practices function. It begins with the generic Rosh Hodesh and works through the months in sequence from Tishrei through Elul. The volume is packed with details some people may not know, but much of it is fairly elementary. The Overview is a mix of this type of material and the kind of treatment one finds in many of Rabbi Scherman’s Overviews in other volumes. His mark is there, even if his name is not.

I cannot tell which of these two gentleman (or perhaps one of the other contributors) produced pages 71-74, which are devoted to the month following Tishrei, listed there as “Cheshvan.” The chapter begins by noting that, “The word mar is commonly added to the word Cheshvan, so that the month is called Mar-cheshvan. In the plain sense, this is because the word mar means water, as in ke-mar mi-deli, like a drop of water from a bucket. Because Cheshvan is the beginning of the rainy season in Eretz Yisrael, it was natural to add the word for water to the name of the month.” Isaiah 40:15 is footnoted, as are Even Ha-Ezer 126:7 and Peri Hadash, a.l. This is followed by various explanations of mar as “bitter” and why water, which is needed in this month, might be considered bitter.

The text continues, “Another reason for attaching the prefix mar to Cheshvan is because mar generally means bitter, and this month not only lacks festivals, it also recalls one of the bitterest events in Jewish history.” The explanation refers to the rebellion of Jeroboam, set in this month, which included setting up a competing sanctuary and a celebration at the full moon.

The first of these explanations is designated by the writer as “the plain sense,” which I take to mean the simple, straightforward explanation, the peshat. I beg to differ; both explanations are incorrect. According to the Palestinian Talmud, Rosh Ha-Shanah 1:2, shemot ha-hodashim `alu be-yadam mi-bavel, “the names of the months ascended with them [the returnees at the time of Ezra and Nehemiah] from Babylonia” (as did several other things). This refers to the fact that, in pre-exilic books, the biblical months are usually identified by numbers, while in post-exilic books they appear in the forms familiar from our current calendar: Nisan, Elul, Tishrei, Adar, etc. The point of this talmudic statement is that the returning Israelites brought with them the names of the Babylonian months, and indeed, in Akkadian, the language of Babylonia at that time, the months are called Nisanu, Elulu, Teshritu, Adaru, etc. Except for the –u ending, they are all virtually identical to the Jewish months.

In this Akkadian calendrical system, the month after Teshritu is called M/Warahshamna, m and w being a commonly found phonetic interchange (cf. “purple,” which is ’argaman in Hebrew but ’argevana in Aramaic; also Akkadian Kislimu and Simanu correspond to Kislev and Sivan). Like the numerical designations and the few agriculturally based month names found in early biblical books and unlike most of the later Hebrew month names now in use, in Akkadian the name of this month actually means something; it is a composite of two words, warah or marah, cognate of the Hebrew yerah, “month,” and shamna is cognate of the Hebrew shemini, “eighth.” Following the lead of the Yerushalmi, we can conclude that Marheshvan is actually Akkadian in origin and that it means “the eighth month.” This makes perfect sense, because, in their respective calendars, Tishrei and Teshritu are the seventh months. (Cf. October, which falls at the same time of the year and also means “eighth month” but became the tenth month of the calendar when July and August were added in the middle of the year.)

All of this demonstrates conclusively that mar in the month name is neither the Hebrew word “bitter” nor a word mar meaning “water” (though this is the accepted meaning of the word in the verse cited from Isaiah). Indeed, in this context, mar is not a word at all. Rather it is part of marh-, which means “month”; it is not a prefix but an essential part of the first word of a compound name. It was not added to Cheshvan by some people for a homiletical reason but omitted by some from Marcheshvan, probably for a superstitious reason (to avoid associating the month with bitterness) or perhaps because many of the other month names contain only two syllables. Marheshvan is the correct Hebrew name (actually used on page 118). Over the centuries, the above philological information was lost, and therefore, to some extent, the proper understanding of the passage in the Yerushalmi was lost too.

This is far from the first time the above explanation has been put forward; indeed it is a commonplace for anyone who deals with ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Akkadian, and with the biblical or talmudic calendars, not to mention talmudic archaeology. But a form of learning that shuns all forms of external information not sanctioned by an approved rabbinic writer has its liabilities, and in this case it has allowed clever guesswork and homiletics to replace the simple truth.

The principle of relying on foreign languages for comparative philological purposes was well established among the geonim and subsequent medieval writers but less essential to some later rabbis, who were either less knowledgeable of them or mystically inclined to ignore them. But this principle, though disputed in limited contexts, was challenged only in the context of the Torah and then only by some people. As can be seen from the considerations of many other early writers, this is not an issue with words in later books of the Bible, surely not in rabbinic literature, and Marheshvan does not appear anywhere in the Bible. As far as I am concerned, there is simply no reason not to present the authentic explanation of the name Marheshvan and to sustain the effort in the analogous pursuit of the correct meanings of other biblical and talmudic words, but note the following:

Shemot hadoshaim `alu imanu mi-bavel (PT RH 1:2), Month names ascended with us from Babylonia”: Because initially, according to our original usage, they did not have names. And the reason for this is that initially their numbering system was a memorial to the Egyptian exodus. But when we ascended from Babylonia and the Scripture was fulfilled: “No longer will it be said, ‘By the life of God who caused the Israelites to ascend from the land of Egypt’ but rather ‘By the life of God who caused the Israelites to ascend and brought them from a northern land,’” we returned to calling the months as they were called in the land of Babylonia, to recall that we were there and from there God, Blessed Be He, caused us to ascend, because these names – Nisan, Iyyar, etc. – are Persian.

This passage is taken from Nahmanides’s commentary to Exodus 12:2. Clearly there is nothing heterodox, much less heretical, about my interpretation; indeed, it is based on the Yerushalmi and was suggested in all but its linguistic details by Nahmanides in the thirteenth century. Did the author of these pages perhaps not know this text about the months, or did he prefer the comments found in a later commentary on the Shulhah Arukh to that in Nahmanides’s Torah commentary? If so, why? Why did the editor(s) not offer the alternative? We will return to this issue later. . .
The book on the calendar that carries Rabbi David Feinstein’s name derives Marheshvan from the Hebrew word mar, meaning either “bitter” or “water.” Yet, another Artscroll book by Rabbi David Cohen (Avraham Yagel Yitzhaq Yeranen (2000) pp. 23-24. Almost as important as his statement is his source, Abraham Epstein’s Qadmonyiot Ha-Yehudim, 1957.) not only says what I reported above about the Akkadian etymology of the twelve month names, it actually lists in Hebrew characters the names of all of the Akkadian months and tries to fathom why Marheshvan differs from its Hebrew equivalent more than the others; clearly the Akkadian base of the twelve names is a foregone conclusion for him. But Rabbi Cohen’s Hebrew books do not attract anything like the amount of media hype and market attention given to those of Rabbi Feinstein. Significantly, Rabbi Scherman’s Torah commentary weighs in on the issue as well, and here too one finds the preferred explanation, where he refers specifically to Nahmanides’ position in his commentary to Ex. 12:1: “The currently used names of the months are of Babylonian origin, and came into use among Jews only after the destruction of the First Temple. Those names were retained as a reminder of the redemption from Babylon, which resulted in the building of the Second Temple. (Ramban)”

Nothing about this thesis requires its avoidance, and Rabbi Scherman obviously was aware of it when he wrote the Torah commentary in 1993, long before this book on the calendar appeared. Dare I suggest that Rabbi Feinstein and the Rabbi Scherman who contributed to the volume on the calendar (minimally as General Editor, but he is thanked for much more) and the other rabbis involved with its production should have read and taken seriously Rabbi Scherman’s Torah commentary or Rabbi Cohen’s essay? Did Rabbi Scherman, editor, forget what Rabbi Scherman, commentator, had written?

There are several ways to explain this inconsistency, but I believe it results from a desire to leave this passage as it was out of respect for his colleague(s) and the belief that the position accepted by Nahmanides and Rabbi Cohen and adopted in his own Torah commentary, as well as Rabbi Feinstein’s, based on the Peri Hadash, are both “Torah” i.e., authoritative rabbinic teachings. Such an assumption gets Rabbi Scherman, editor, off the hook, but only momentarily, because, though this gesture might demonstrate great humility and respect for earlier rabbinic teachings and the contemporary use of them by Rabbi Feinstein, it also highlights a remarkable inability to differentiate between the truth and no longer useful attempts to get at it, perhaps even a lack of desire to pursue it. Though he got it right as author of his own commentary, he got it very wrong as editor.
In short, why should we have to wait more than a century to learn old news? Too bad. But it's never too late.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Where in the world is Robinson Crusoe? On Artscroll's translation of Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin's Oznayim Le-torah.

Insights In the Torah is a five-volume "Chumash with translation and the complete classic commentary of the master Rav and Maggid" Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin (1881-1966). That is, it is the English translation of his אזנים לתורה.

Leviticus 13:46 in Parashas Tazria states that the mezorah (leper) "shall dwell in isolation; he shall be outside the camp." Chazal taught that his affliction is caused by his speaking leshon hara, gossiping about others (Arachin 15b). Rabbi Sorotzkin beautifully comments on the point that this individual receives tzara'as because of his antisocial behavior. He spreads rumors about people because he hates individuals. But this is only initially. His pattern of behavior eventually causes him to hate people generally and to only wish ill for them. So it is only right that he suffers a plague himself. However, through this plague is the very cure with which he can learn to correct his ways. He must face total social isolation by being alone outside the camp. This will cause him to crave human company. Parenthetically, adds Rabbi Sorotzkin, the pain of solitude is brought out most vividly in the book Robinson Crusoe. By being isolated from the community, the mezorah will learn to appreciate the very people he said nasty things about and wish to rejoin them.

Rav Sorotzkin:

So here is the Artscroll translation :

Except actually that's not what the page looks like. The remark about Robinson Crusoe—"I found the agony of solitude described in the book "Robinson Crusoe" where the tale is told of a man who survived a shipwreck by landing upon a small, desolate island without another soul. It described his great difficulties until he was able to find something to eat and drink, and to shelter himself from wild animals. After dwelling for a long time on this island, he began to forget how to speak and almost lost his mind. The writer vividly portrayed the man's longing for another person to speak with."—was added by me. For some reason in the Artscroll "complete classic commentary" that entire paragraph about Robinson Crusoe is missing. Here is what it looks like:

And here is the original commentary in אזנים לתורה:

This is kind of odd. Why would a little paragraph about Robinson Crusoe be removed?

Various guesses, all based on the theme that the inclusion of a reference to Robinson Crusoe is discordant with yeshivish hashkafah:
  • It doesn't seem natural or proper that an authentic Lithuanian rosh yeshiva of the previous generation, the pride of the great Telzer yeshiva, would have even read Robinson Crusoe much less included a reference to it in his Torah commentary.
  • Even if it was not written by himself, but based on oral talks, it doesn't seem right that he should have referenced Robinson Crusoe in an oral talk on the Torah.
  • While not explicitly doing so, he almost seems to recommend reading it.
  • It appears strangely close to the much-maligned Torah U-Madda approach.
  • This is farfetched, but it is interesting that one of Orthodoxy's favorite arch-heretics, the hebraist Eliezer Ben Yehuda, many times cited his having read כור עוני, Yitzhak Romesh's Hebrew translation of Robinson Crusoe, which was secretly shown to Ben Yehuda by his half-maskil rebbe, R. Joseph Blucker (?). See, for example, his autobiographical החלום ושברו. Reading the fine prose of this book helped kindle a love for the Hebrew language within him.
Actually, there were other Hebrew and Yiddish translations of Robinson Crusoe (actually translated from a German translation of the original English), including one from 1820 in which Robinson Crusoe is called Reb Alter-Leib, and his man is Friday is called Shabbos. Rabbi Sorotzkin may have read any of them, besides כור עוני, although it is unlikely that he read the Geschichte fun Reb Alter-Leib version, since he knows it is Robinson Crusoe.

Come to think of it, I wonder if Rabbi Sorotzkin realized that it was fiction? It isn't clear to me from his words that he did, since otherwise what he was saying is that an author of fiction portrayed very clearly a certain type of experience which neither he nor Rabbi Sorotzkin had. Would he really cite the work of someone's imagination as a way in which to understand the Torah? (Yes.)

This is not as strange as it seems. The book is written in first person, and the original title was "The Life and Strange Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner: Who lived eight and twenty Years all alone in an un-inhabited Island on the Coast of America, near the Mouth of the Great River of Oroonoque; Having been cast on Shore by Shipwreck, wherein all the Men perished but himself." Furthermore, the title page promises that it was:

Incidentally, one of the cool things about Google Books is seeing something like this in one of their many 18th century copies of Robinson Crusoe:

It should also be noted that in novels were in very ill repute in the 19th century (and the 18th). They were disliked by pious people of all faiths, and also by many non-pious but serious people. Novels were widely regarded as imagination gone amok, liable to arouse impious and impractical thoughts; a waste of time. Furthermore, very often novels were written as if they were real, using various literary devices to give that impression.

In the Chasam Sofer's ethical will written to his family in 1839 he commands that והבנות יעסקו בספרי אשכנז בגופם שלנו המיוסדים על אגדת חכמ"זל ולא זולת כלל—the girls [in his family] should only read Yiddish books written in Judeo-German type, based on the aggados of Chazal, and nothing else. By the way, the presence of this passage lends a modicum of plausibility (but not enough) to the possibility that his will really did read ובספרי חמד אל תשלחו יד (don't reach your hands for romantic novels) and not ובספרי רמד אל תשלחו יד (don't reach your hands for Mendelssohn's books)—more on this in a future post.

In similar fashion, in Samuel David Luzzatto's autobiography he writes about how he read a French novel called Alexis as a child. In the novel, Alexis is a boy born into nobility who is somehow snatched from his family and ends up living with peasants. One day a gentleman spots him and sees that this peasant boy is holding a copy of Virgil in his hands! Realizing that he is a noble boy, he takes him and restores him to his station. Around this time Shadal had childish cause to be upset at his parents, so having read this book he decided to run away. He did so, skipping school, and taking a philosophy book by Condillac with him. After a few hours of wandering, a kind man decided to question the child wandering around in middle of the day and brought him home to his parents (who didn't realize what happened, since it was lunchtime and he was due home then anyway). He writes that this was the end of his reading novels, and lucky him, because who knows what would have become of him otherwise?

But I digress. Every Hebrew edition of Oznayim Le-Torah has the paragraph about how Robinson Crusoe portrays the agony of solitude. But whatever the reason, the paragraph is missing in the Artscroll translation.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

A practical joke at a circumcision in London circa 1725.

César de Saussure was born in 1705 into a family of exiled French Huguenots in Switzerland. In 1725 he journeyed to England and other parts of Europe. During his years of traveling he wrote many letters to his family. His great-great-grandson's wife translated them and published them in English in 1902 as A foreign view of England in the reigns of George I. & George II.:The letters of Monsieur César de Saussure to his family. These letters were of such interest that they became popular in his lifetime, although they remained unpublished. In her introduction she claims that his letters were loaned to more than 200 people, including Voltaire, and that because of the interest in them he had them bound in a single volume.

Below is an excerpt from Letter XIV. It concerns a prank he played on a young Englishwoman whom, like he, was an interested onlooker at a brit in London. He convinced her that the sandak was going to be circumcised, and she believed him until the baby was brought out:

Monday, October 04, 2010

A British Jew (and Bible) joke from 1823.

Ba dum ching.

This joke was printed in several places, but the one I got it from is from a periodical called The Spirit of the Public Journals.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

We know what Etrogim cost now, but what did they cost historically?

What did an etrog cost about 100 years ago? What about closer to 200 years?

Writing of Sukkot in Egypt in 1888, Elkan Nathan Alder speaks of having to pay "a very European price" for his etrog and lulav, but doesn't say what that is (Jews in Many Lands):

An American source, the 1914 Standard Cyclopedia of Horticulture, edited by Liberty Hyde Bailey, gives $5 to $10 as the price:

What was $5 to $10 in 1914 in today's dollars? There are a few ways to measure that, but very crudely I used some online currency calculators which give a value of about $110 to $220.

A British diplomatic source from the early 1880s says that an etrog could be had for as high as £1 or £2. In today's pounds that should be 75 or 80, which is something like $115 to $125 today (or twice that).

Another source from 1893 gives the same £1 price:

In 1829 a British source claims that they would sell for 2 or 3 guineas, which is like $212 or $318 today. Noting that this is expensive, it reports that about two sets would be found in the synagogue for people who didn't own one to use. Some enterprising businessmen would purchase one and then go around to the homes to allow people to make the blessing and take the lulav and etrog in hand for the sum of 2 to 7 shillings, which comes out to $8 to $27 in today's money. They could go to as many as 20 to 40 houses!

There is no specific reason to doubt this, but it should be borne in mind that the wealth of British Jews was sometimes exaggerated in the British periodicals. For example, in 1802 the very credible Gentleman's Magazine reported that the newly installed British Chief Rabbi Solomon Hirschel's salary was £4000 a year. In today's money that's about £296,000, or about $468,000. This salary is not a gazillion billion dollars a year, but it is only on the outer reaches of possible. While Hirschel actually died a wealthy man, it was not from his salary, which initially was the far more modest sum of £250!

Getting back to Etrogim, although this surveys is crude and only speak of two geographic areas, one gets the sense that Etrogim were very expensive, just as we might have predicted. Although Etrogim can still be had today at those high prices (adjusted), today more than $100 (or $200 or $300) are not the norm. While Etrogim are still pricey for a fruit, clearly they were out of reach of many in those times, while today there are enough imported and at a manageable price so that almost every one with an interest can purchase them. Of course replacing the more modest cost is the social pressure to purchase several sets per household - even for children. So perhaps on balance purchasing Etrogim today turns out to be as expensive, or even more so.

These aren't Jewish pirates, part IV.

On a fabulous blog I found pictures of the actual location drawn by Bernard Picart. Picart's engraving (as seen in part II of my Pirates Series™):

Professor Laura Leibman of the awesomely named Early American Graveyard Rabbit blog took wonderful pictures of the old Spanish-Portuguese graveyard in Amsterdam, the Beth Haim Ouderkerk. Funny times we live in: this cemetery has a web site.

First, as she explains, the building in which the men are seen is a funeral home of sorts (as we conjectured in the comments). It was a "House of Rounds," or Casa de Rodeos or Rodeamentos, as they were (are? hopefully) known. The "Rounds" are the very hakafot! Such a building was where the bodies were prepared for burial (the tahara), and where the circuits around the body took place. Picart drew the interior of the Beth Haim Ouderkerk's Casa de Rodeos, which was built in 1705 and still stands. Here is a photograph taken by Leibman:

Even better, she took a beautiful picture of the plaque itself:

(If you click the image you will see it at a much higher resolution as well as many more details, such as sinks, another inscription, etc.)

Prof. Leibman is quite the connoisseur of old cemeteries and her blog is a must visit. But she also posted many photographs taken in the Jewish Hunt's Bay Cemetery in Jamaica (the subject of the first post in this series). Here are two of her photographs:

The first is the same grave shown in the Flatbush Jewish Journal (original post), and the second is surely one of the other graves in the same cemetery mistakenly presumed to be those of Jewish pirates.

Finally, just to point that the skull imagery was not only used by bewigged Western Sephardic assimilators, here is one from Frankfurt 1740, the same Kehilla Kedosha which the Chasam Sofer would proudly refer to all his life in his signature משה הק' סופר מפפ"דם:


The above image is from a selichos manuscript written in 1740 and used by the Chevra Kadisha of Frankfurt. In the mid 18th century there was a Jewish revival of manuscript writing, and many beautiful hand written and illustrated siddurim and the like date from that era.

Not a Pirate, part III, with additional info about attitudes of Sephardic Jews toward their brethren burned at the stake.

Pardon my absence. :-)

As an extension of my post I doubt he's a pirate, part II: Charity delivers from death! (part II of this post) I add some additional details.

The second post depicted a scene from the very famous 18th century book about the rituals, customs and costumes of various religions, Bernard and Picart's Religious Ceremonies and Customs of All the Peoples of the World. In that post the point was to show skull imagery used by Jews as a reminder of mortality, a well known motif of the time period which had nothing to do with pirates.

The actual image showed Dutch Sephardic Jews performing hakafot or seven circuits around a coffin. Rabbi Leone Modena mentions this custom in his Riti without giving a reason:

Interestingly enough, although there were already two separate English translations of Modena's Riti (Edmund Chilmead's in 1650 and Simon Ockley's in 1707), the English version of Bernard and Picart's work included yet a third translation.

Trachtenberg, in his Jewish Magic and Superstition, after describing the magical powers of circles writes: "it is interesting that in the Orient the general practice at a funeral is for the mourners actually to encircle the coffin seven times, reciting the "anti-demonic psalm." Similarly the late custom among East-European Jews (which also prevails in the Orient) for the bride to walk around her groom under the wedding canopy three, or seven times, was probably originally intended to keep off the demons who were waiting to pounce upon them." But alas, he just says it, and doesn't give a source or much beyond a "similarly" and a "probably originally." Although he mentions the "anti-demonic psalm" (which is Psalm 91) that is not the ritual I have seen.

The prayers recited during this ritual are found in a fascinating siddur published in New York 1826.

Nary a demon nor a Psalm 91 to be found. Of course it is possible that in other rituals this psalm was recited, but I bet Trachtenberg was conflating it with the Ashkenazic custom of stopping seven times during a funeral procession. Incidentally, the translator of this siddur, Solomon Henry Jackson, produced the first Jewish newspaper in America. In 1823 he published The Jew, which came out in 24 monthly issues. The purpose of this paper was to counter and refute the American Society for Meliorating the Condition of the Jews. Eleazar Samuel Lazarus, who was responsible for the Hebrew text of this siddur, was the poet Emma Lazarus's grandfather.

Since we are discussing Spanish-Portuguese Jewish liturgy, here seems an appropriate place to post some images from Alexander Alexander's siddur, published in London in 1773. Horrifyingly, it includes the following Prayer For Martyrdom (השכבת השרופים על קדוש השם), for burned victims of autos de fé.

Immediately following this prayer for those burned at the stake is . . . Birkhat Ha-mazon (Grace After Meals).

Talya Fishman notes (Shaking the Pillars of Exile, pg. 57) that "Many conversos who had escaped the wrath of the Inquisition and relocated to safe havens suffered from what we might describe as "survivor's guilt." They had saved their lives by dissembling, while others, less fortunate, were burned at the stake."

She goes on to describe their "need . . . to lionize the victims." Such former conversos idealized martyrdom as the highest religious ideal. For some reason she then switches to Iberian exiles in general, and footnotes R. Yosef Karo's desire to be burned at the stake, like Solomon Molcho had been. Here is one of the famous passages in Maggid Mesharim (זאת הברכה), where the Mishnah tells him that he will be burned at the stake:

"I will make you worthy to be publicly burned in Eretz Yisrael, to sanctify my name in public, and be a burnt offering on my altar. Your sweet smell like incense will rise before me and your ashes will be piled on my altar. . . Your name will be remembered in synagogues and Batei Midrashot . . . You will be worthy to sanctify my name in public, just as my chosen one Shlomo, who was called Molcho, was worthy. . ."

In case anyone thinks that the Mishnah is being harsh on him, note the very end: "I am the Mishnah speaking with your mouth, I kiss you with kisses of love and I embrace you."

Thus for the prayer for martyrdom and the strong Sephardic feelings regarding the executions by fire.

This post has gotten to long, so the hakafot themselves and more skull imagery will come in yet a fourth post. Also see this earlier post (Nobody Expects the Spanish Inqusition - in the late 18th century the autos de fe were no less fresh in the mind's of Sephardic Jews than the Holocaust is today).
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