Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Hillel Noach Magid Steinschneider's Ir Vilna

Hillel Noach Magid Steinschneider's Ir Vilna
by Dan Rabinowitz

Vilna being one of the most important cities in Jewish history has a fair amount written about it. One of the classic works discussing the history and persons of Vilna is that of Hillel Noach Magid Steinschneider's Ir Vilna. This book was originally published in 1900 by the Romm press. This was only the first volume and Steinschneider envisioned publishing a second volume in short time, however, due to financial constraints he was unable to do so. Steinschneider did was not a historian by profession and instead was employed as a stone etcher for burial monuments - hence his surname Steinschneider which means "stone cutter." [1] Although he was not a professional historian, his work on Vilna was universally recognized. He not only write this book on Vilna but was also intimately involved with Shmuel Yosef Fuenn's work on Vilna - Kiryah Ne'emana. Steinschneider gave Fuenn material and eventually, in the second edition, wrote extensive notes. [2]

As for Steinschneider's own work, it was not until 2003 Magnes published the second volume of this work (and included a nice introduction both about Steinschnider and his work). In part, the reason Steinschneider was unable to publish the second volume, was because people were hesitant to purchase just one volume of a multi-volume work. I have heard people make the same comment about the second volume, namely, they don't only want the second of two volumes. But, now this has been remedied as someone has republished the first so both are now in print. (Both are available at Biegeleisen of Boro Park 718-436-1165.)

Aside from the importance of this work for the history of Vilna, there is also something curious in this addition - the publishers introduction. Steinschneider included information about all the important (and lesser important) people in Vilna. In doing so, he includes information [3] which from an Orthodox perspective some would find objectionable. Rather than censor this material out or not reprint this at all, the editors deal with this up front. In the introduction they note that Steinschnider was a maskil and that his writing was influenced by the haskalah. They also note that he included people who others found objectionable. For instance they state that Steinschneider discusses the poet "Abraham Dov Lebensohn (Adam HaKohen)" of whom the Hafetz Hayyim would add ימ"ש (may his name be erased).

But, at the end, the publishers explain they decided that even though there was "פסולת" (lit. chaff) the good content outweighed the bad and therefore they have decided to republish this book.

Of course, this is stark contrast to numerous contemporary instances of either removal of the פסולת or not reprinting books that contain any פסולת at all.

Hillel Noach Magid Steinschneider

[1] See Ir Vilna vol. 2 p. 1.
[2] Id. at 4-7 for how extensive Steinschneider's involvement was.
[3] Although it is the second volume which is more or less dedicated to biographies and history of maskilim the first volume also contains some of that information as well.

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