Tuesday, March 06, 2007

R. Avraham ben haGra: A Victim of Plagiarism?

R. Avraham ben haGra: A Victim of Plagiarism?

In several previous posts at the Seforim blog, I have discussed instances of plagiarism and, in this post, I would like to mention one of the more famous instances of plagiarism within Jewish literature. To be clear, the issues of plagiarism under discussion lack any ambiguity, these discussed are limited to when the entire book is republished with the only difference being the authors name at the beginning.

One of the smaller and lesser known Midrashim is one titled Midrash Aggadat Bereishit. This Midrash was originally published in a collection of other small works by R. Menachem de Lonzano titled Shetei Yadot (Venice, 1618).[1]

This Midrash languished in obscurity until 1802, until it was brought to light by R. Avraham, the son of R. Elijah, the Gaon of Vilna.[2] R. Avraham had an intense interest in Midrashic literature and published a bibliography on the topic, entitling the work Rav Pealim.[3] R. Avraham decided to reprint this Midrash in its own edition, although he included other small Midrashim at the end, the focus is on the Aggadat Bereishit. R. Avraham includes an extensive introduction – the subject of a minor critique by R. Matityahu Strashun of Vilna[4] -- where R. Avraham also quotes from his father, R. Elijah, the Gaon of Vilna.

It appears that R. Avraham did too good of a job. Not two years later, in 1804, R. Yaakov b. Naftali Hertz published Midrash Aggadat Bereishit. Now, obviously, the Midrash itself was not copyrighted and both note that they are merely republishing what originally appeared in Lonzano's work, but Hertz's work did not only republish the text of this obscure Midrash, as was common within Vilna rabbinic circles at that time,[5] but Hertz also included with small exception (discussed below) the entirety of R. Avraham's introduction.

There are, to be sure, several additional problems with Hertz's 1804 reprint. On the most basic of levels, the title page is the same as that of R. Avraham's 1802 edition [reprinted below], including the sentence which implies that this is but the second printing and that it hasn't been republished since Lonzano. The title page (in both edition) reads:
נדפס פעם ראשון בעיר ויניציא שנת שע"ח וברוב הימים נתמעטו זו אבידה שאין לה שיעור וחליפין לכן קוי ה' יחליפו כח בהתחדש העטרה ליושנה ונדפס עוד הפעם

This book was first printed in Venice in 1618 and over time this has been lost, a loss which is difficult to quantify, therefore with the help of God who gives strength to the weak, I have renewed this old crown [to its glory] and reprinted it once more.
Obviously, this assertion would be applicable to the first publication after close to two hundred years, not to a volume republishing something which had been published just two years prior.

The second issue of plagiarism, however, is a much bigger one. As mentioned above, R. Avraham didn't just republish the text of Aggadat Bereishit itself; instead, he included an introduction quoting his father, R. Elijah, the Gaon of Vilna. In Hertz's edition the same introduction similarly appears, but with several differences. Instead of ending with R. Avraham’s signature, as it does in the 1802 edition, Hertz’s is unsigned although the introduction is the same. Additionally, R. Avraham, as mentioned above, quotes from his father noting "ושמעתי ממר אבא הגאון," (I have heard from my father the Gaon); as Hertz's father wasn't the Gaon, he needed to change this or otherwise reveal his plagiarism and thus his only says "ושמעתי" ("I have heard").[6]

Finally, there is one additional distinction that is most indicative of the two personalities. R. Avraham finishes his introduction by minimizing his contribution he states
כי לא עשיתי פה מאומה רק קבצתי ברייתות איידי דזוטרא מרכסי' וחברתי לאחד בכרך הזאת

I did not do all that much, rather all I did was gather the small berisot and placed them together in this book.
In Hertz’s edition, however, he decided to edit this sentence – this sentence which implies humbleness – out. Perhaps one can suggest that as Hertz's intention in plagiarizing from R. Avraham was to make it appear he had done something worthwhile, including such a statement would undermine his plan.

To conclude, although one may assume that a plagiarizer would typically steal from someone lesser known to minimize his chances of being found out. This instance demonstrates that no one, even the son of the Vilna Gaon, is immune from this type of behavior.

[1] On R. Menachem de Lonzano, see the bibliography collected in David Loewinger, "Lonzano, Menahem ben Judah de," Encyclopaedia Judaica 13 (2007): 187-188; On his recovery of obscure Midrashic texts, see Isidore Epstein, "Books and Bookmen: A Lost Midrash," London Jewish Chronicle (March 9, 1934), 24.
[2] On R. Avraham, the son of R. Elijah, the Gaon of Vilna, see R. S.Y. Finn, Kiryah Neemanah (Vilna, 1905), 210-221; and, more recently, see R Shlomo Gottesman, "Kuntres Chomat Avraham," Yeshurun 4 (1998): 123-154.
[3] Published posthumously in Warsaw, 1894.
[4] See R. Matityahu Strashun, Mivchar Ketavim (Mossad ha-Rav Kook, 1969), 229-230. On the famed Strashun family of Vilna, see here and, earlier, Zvi Harkavy, "Rabbi Matityahu Strashun," Areshet: An Annual of Hebrew Booklore 3 (1961): 426; and Rabbi Shmuel Strashun mi-Vilna (Jerusalem, 1957).
[5] For an excellent and significant survey of nineteenth century rabbinic scholars who researched and published the Midrashic literature, see Gil S. Perl, "Emek ha-Neziv: A Window into the Intellectual Universe of Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin," (PhD dissertation, Harvard University, 2006), 145-146.
[6] As is too often the case, the individuals who republish works are unaware of the bibliographic history, this case is no exception. In the Warsaw 1866 reprint and photomechanical reproduction (Jerusalem, 2000[!]) with numerous commentaries on this Midrash, the editors reprinted Hertz's 1804 introduction with just the שמעתי with the proper attribution that in fact this comment is from the Vilna Gaon. For a listing of the various editions of this Midrash and commentaries composed on it, see R. Menachem Mendel Kasher, Sari ha-Elef (Jerusalem, 1984), 22-23.


Title page 1802 edition (of R. Avraham)

Title page 1804 edition (R. Yaakov b. Naftali Hertz)

Introduction, 1802 edition (of R. Avraham)

Introduction, 1804 edition (of R. Yaakov b. Naftali Hertz)

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