Friday, January 26, 2007

When was the Vilna Gaon first mentioned in print in the English language?

That's what I want to know, and I've been researching it for some time. Here is the earliest I've so far found:

(click to enlarge)

This is from 1824, and is from a book called Missionary Journal and Memoir of the Rev. Joseph Wolf: Missionary to the Jews (nice, huh?).

The search is difficult because---what would he be called? Throughout the 19th century one finds him called many things; Elijah Wilno, Rabbi Elia, Elijah Gaon and more. I'm sure there's something earlier--and I will find it!

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Something about Hebrew abbreviations, abbreviature, rashei tevot

If you're like me, you take ראשי תיבות, and other kinds of Hebrew abbreviations, for granted. רש''י, הנ''ל ,עמו''ש, וא''ת, וגו'י and much, much more. But it is an interesting convention nonetheless, if not necessarily unparalleled.

Apart from simply being interesting, fluency in such abbreviations is necessary for understanding rabbinic literature. So it was that the great Christian Hebraist Johann Buxtorf (the father) wrote De Abbreviaturis Hebraicis (published in 1640) as a key to these mysterious abbreviations.

Below is an interesting excerpt from a little book published in England in 1736 by John Gibbs called An historical account of compendious and swift writing.

The Encyclopedia Judaica has a fine article on Hebrew abbreviations. Here are two interesting excerpts:

Misunderstandings and Misinterpretations

The increasing and inconsistent use of abbreviations has inevitably led to occasional confusion and made the study of Hebrew texts more difficult, a fact recognized in the 16th century by Solomon Luria (Yam shel Shelomo, Hul. 6:6). Misinterpretations have occurred when ambiguous abbreviations were printed in full. In any case, difficulties arise when an abbreviation can be read in more than one way, so that, e.g., in a bibliographical context ד''ו could be read as דפוס ויניציאה (“Printed in Venice), or דפוס וורשא (“Printed in Warsaw”), or דפוס וילנה (“Printed in Vilna”), or דפוס וינה (“Printed in Vienna”). Because of the risk of misrepresentation, no abbreviations may be used in a bill of divorce (Git. 36a and Sh. Ar., EH 126) or other religious documents. Misrepresentations have also occurred in the work of censors and Christian scholars (e.g., three yod's have been taken to denote the trinity. Hebrew abbreviations have been found on Christian amulets, and Christian writers have used kabbalistic methods, such as regarding a complete word as notarikon (e.g., ברא as בן רוח אב). Because of the many obscurities in the Hebrew writings, which Christian scholars were anxious to study, a guide to abbreviations was needed and it was a non-Jew, Johannes Buxtorf the Elder, who produced the pioneer work De Abbreviaturis Hebraicis (1613). The first Jewish work of this kind, by Elijah Levita, concentrated mainly on the masoretic ambiguities; lists of abbreviations were eventually added to Hebrew works and were followed by independent, comprehensive compilations. Of these, the following are the most important: J. Ezekiel, Kethonet Yoseph. A Handbook of Hebrew Abbreviations (Heb.-Eng., 1887); G. H. Haendler, Erkhei ha-Notarikon (1897); M. Heilprin, Ha-Notarikon . . . (1872, 19302); A. Stern, Sefer Rashei Tevot (1926); S. Chajes, Ozar Beduyei ha-Shem (pseudonyms; 1933); S. Ashkenazi and D. Jarden, Ozar Rashei Tevot ... (1965); S. Ashkenazi, Mefa'ne'ah Ne'lamim (1969); A. Steinsalz, Rashei Tevot ve-Kizzurim be-Sifrut ha-Hasidut ve-ha-Kabbalah (1968).
[Ruth P. Lehmann]

Abbreviations in Jewish Folklore

Many abbreviations were misinterpreted (often quite intentionally) and caused misunderstandings which became part of the Jewish folklore. For example, the Yaknehaz abbreviation in the Passover Haggadah. denoting the order of the benedictions (yayin, kiddush, ner, havdalah, zeman), was understood as the German jag'n Has (“hunt the hare”) and pictures of a hare hunt accompany the relevant passage in the printed Haggadah. Many folk etymologies are based upon the notion that the obscure word is an abbreviation; so, for example, the word afikoman is explained by the Yemenite Haggadah as an abbreviation of egozim (“nuts), perot (“fruits”), yayin (“wine”), keliyyot (“parched grain”), u-vasar (“and meat”), mayim (“water”), nerd (“spices”). The abbreviation of Akum for Oved Kokhavim u-Mazzalot (“worshiper of the stars and constellations”) was interpreted by anti-Semitic propaganda (Rohling) as Oved Christum u-Miryam (“Worshiper of Christ and Mary”).
[David Niv]

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Pamphlet published by the London Bet Din in 1705 about Haham David Nieto

Gil posted here about his publication of a new translation of London's Bevis Marks synagogue Haham David Nieto's Matteh Dan ve-kuzari helek sheni, or second Kuzari, his defense of the Oral Torah published in 1714. (The new version is called The Rabbis' Advocate by R. Meir Levin [Yashar 2007]).

Haham Nieto himself was involved in a controversy in which he was accused of Spinozism by congregants because of a derasha he gave in 1703. In it, he attacked the Deist view that nature was a metaphysical entity separate from God. He noted that "Nature" was a term of fairly recent vintage and that it is only another name for God's providence and therefore God and nature are not separate (that is, it seemed, they are the same).

Appeal was made to the Haham Zevi [Ashkenazi] of Amsterdam, who reviewed the matter and cleared him of the charge. Haham Zevi's reason was that for Haham Nieto God created nature, whereas the view he was accused of, Spinoza's, was that God was nature. After the affair, Haham Nieto emerged unscathed and went on to enjoy 25 more years as the esteemed rabbi in London.

Here you can download a 13 page pamphlet from 1705, which includes the question and answer, published in Spanish and in Hebrew: download

(Note how the Haham Zevi is addressed as "el Eruditissimo, Doctissimo, y Excelentissimo, Senor; H.H.R." [Haham ha-rav] "Zevy Asquenazy.")

First page:

Note: Avakesh uses a picture of Hakham Nieto as his avatar. Maybe he can explain what that's about.

edit: A translation of the teshuva of the Hakham Tsevi in Solomon Freehof's "Treasury of Jewish Responsa":

From the officers and leaders in the London congregation in England, the exalted and upright magnates, officers of the sacred congregation Gates of Heaven, in the great city of London. May God bless them with life and peace forever.

Your treasured letter seeking the word of the Lord for guidance has strengthened me and led me to speak on matters beyond my competence. You ask me regarding a dispute in a subject that I cannot search out. But we are commanded, Seek peace and pursue it. The following is the essence of your question.


The exalted sage, David Nieto, rabbi in the sacred congregation "Gates of Heaven," preached a sermon in the congregation. This is its essence translated from English into our sacred tongue:

"People say (these are the words of Nieto) that I said that God and Nature, and Nature and God, blessed be He, are both the same thing. I did say that, and I will defend and prove it, since David defends the same idea in Psalm 147, as follows: He who covereth the heaven with clouds, who prepareth the rain for the earth, who causeth the mountains to sprout froth grass, etc. But incline your ears to this, O children of Israel, for it is the first principle of our faith: the name 'nature' is only an invention of the later scholars of the last four or five hundred years. It is not found in the words of our older sages. But God causes the wind to blow and the rain to fall, so it is clear that God performs all these actions that the later scholars call 'nature.' There really is no such thing as 'nature.' That thing that they call 'nature' is really God's providence. That is what I mean when I say God and Nature are one. This opinion is right and pious and sacred, and those who do not believe it should be called heretics." (The rest of the question develops Nieto's ideas in his own words.)


I note that the words of the exalted sage (i.e., Nieto) are the same as the words of the KuzariKuzari is in all the usual editions), writes after many premises, as follows: "He, blessed be He, is called 'nature' truly; as is mentioned there, He puts His seal on all created things." This, too, is the opinion of those who give exact attributes to God when they say that God sits and feeds all animals from beasts to insects (a phrase from the Talmud, Shab. 106b). (i.e., Judah Halevi) in the first section no. 76 and no. 77. His commentator, Judah Moscato (16-17th century, Italian preacher and scholar, whose commentary on the

So we (says Ashkenazi) congratulate this sage who preached the sermon, since he knows the opinion of the philosophers who speak of nature. He despised the evil (of their opinion) and chose the good with intelligence (a phrase based upon Isa. 7.15), the sacred words of the holy ones of our people who say that everything comes from God's providence.

I have heard but I do not understand the complaints of those who murmur against him. Is it because he said that there is really no such thing as nature, which should include all existence outside of God? Do they consider this a diminution of God, that He works without intermediary? Let them know that those who seek the intermediation of nature for the general management of the world are close to falling over many stumbling blocks. But this is not so with those who believe in God's providence in everything, for wherever they go, they walk securely. Of course if they (the complainers) think that the words of the preacher referred to the detailed facts of nature -- as the heat of fire and the wetness of water -- and they wish to accuse the preacher that he meant to say that the heating or moisture is in itself God, as far as that is concerned there is not a single fool or boor among all the skeptics of the world who would believe that -- let alone a sage among the people of God, who believes in God and His holy Law? All the more then are the words of the preacher clear and definite (when he says) that they (the objects of nature) revolve around the axis of God's general providence, when he says that God alone causes the wind to blow and He causes the rain and dew to fall. From this it is proved that God makes all these things.

Let not the stubborn mocker object, thinking that it is not proper to describe the working of God by the name of nature, and think this is a diminution of His glory. What would they gain by shouting complaints against this preacher? Behold, the great sage, Isaiah Levi (Hurwitz), known for his wisdom and piety, in his famous book, Two Tablets of the Covenant, which is received with love throughout the scattered homes of Israel, wrote at the beginning of his book, in the name of the author of Abodat haKodesh ( Meir Gabbai, 15th century), who was a great and famous Sephardi rabbi and whose books were scattered all through the world, that the reward for those who do God's commandments and the punishment for those who violate them, are all natural rewards and punishments. To this all who have eyes and knowledge in the wisdom of truth agree.

(He continues with this argument:)

So we must congratulate the great sage, David Nieto, for the sermon which he preached, whose purpose it was to warn the whole people not to let their hearts go astray after those philosophers who speak of nature (i.e., as a separate force, as do the Deists), for many stumblings can come from that. He illumined their eyes with his true faith by saying that everything exists through God's providence. So I say to him, may his strength increase. Whoever murmureth against him after seeing my words, I suspect him of sinfulness. Now, although all these things are clear and plain, and do not need further support to refute every complainer, nevertheless, I invited two of the most educated scholars of our city to join me. After discussing the matter, all three of us agreed on the words mentioned above, that they are true and just.

Written here in Altona on the 6th day of the month of Ab, of the year 1705.


Zvi Ashkenazi, S.T.

(The initials S.T. are generally used by the Sephardi scholars in signing their name. They are taken by some to mean Siman Tov, an omen of happiness; others take them to mean Sephardi Tahor, a pure Sephardi, which certainly Ashkenazi could not have used in his own name.)


Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Ravens and Arabians: Hebrew with and without points in English

I came across a fascinating explanation of Hebrew as an unvoweled language and the fucntion of the vowel points (nekkudot). Typically one sees an example like this: typclly n ss n xmpl lk ths.

While helpful, it doesn't really show what Hebrew is like.

This interesting book, The Parchments of the Faith by George Edmands Merrill published in 1894 by the American Baptist Publication Society, does the best job I've ever seen of it because it combined words in English as they would be in Hebrew ("and the ravens" are three words in English, but just one, והערבים, in Hebrew--"nd th rvns" less accurately shows what Hebrew is like than "ndthrvns"). In addition, the vowel letters are formatted the way nekkudot are, dotting the consonants.

Last but not least, the specific example, wherein it is pointed out that והארבים could read ve-ha-arabim, "and the Arabians," as well as ve-ha-orvim, "and the ravens" is quite interesting--but note: although its a great example which shows the usefulness of nekkudot, it is in fact misleading, as "and the Arabians" would be spelled והערבים and not והארבים. D'oh!


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