THE PROSELYTE DOTH PROTEST TOO MUCH
By Eli Genauer
I recently acquired an early edition of Abarvanel’s Peirush Al Neviim Rishonim. It was printed in Leipzig in 1686. It was only the second edition of this commentary, following the first edition printed in Pesaro in 1511 by Gershom Soncino.
The publisher of this edition was Mauritium Georgium Weidmannum. The editors were Friedrich Albrecht Christiani, an apostate, and August Pfeiffer, a German Lutheran theologian. It was printed primarily for a Christian reading audience for reasons we shall discuss.
F. A. Christiani, who was the main editor, is described in a publication called “World – Today’s News Christian Views” (March 2, 2002):
“Friedrich Albrecht Christiani is stunned to find himself believing in Christ. The Hamburg resident, educated in the Talmud, says, ‘I was so zealous for my Jewishness that had someone told me then of my prospective conversion, it would have appeared as strange to me as it seems incredible to others.’ But finding himself unable to refute Esdras Edzard's arguments, he decides to go with what his mind, rather than tradition, tells him, and takes the last name "Christiani."”
It seems that later on he returned to Judaism as noted by this entry in the Encyclopedia Judaica:
“He was baptized in 1674 at Strasburg, having formerly borne the name of Baruch as Hazzan at Bruchsal. After having occupied for twenty years the chair of Semitic studies at the University of Leipsic, he retired to Prossnitz, where he returned to Judaism.”
For the purpose of this study, we will assume that he was a practicing Christian when he edited this book by the Abarvanel, as this was before he had returned to Prossnitz.
In studying the cover page of my Leipzig edition, I noticed the following handwritten notation:
The top notation reads עיין דף רמ"ד 2 (“see page 244b”). I do not know who made this notation in the last 300+ years, but I was curious to see what it was all about.
Shlomo Hamelech had died and his son Rechavam took over as king. The people had asked him to relieve some of the burdens placed on them by Shlomo, but instead he told the people that he would deal much more harshly with them than had his father. The people replied that they wanted nothing to do with him as king.
Their reply is reflected in the following pasuk in Melachim Alef 12:16.
טז וַיַּרְא כָּל-יִשְׂרָאֵל, כִּי לֹא-שָׁמַע הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲלֵהֶם, וַיָּשִׁבוּ הָעָם אֶת-הַמֶּלֶךְ דָּבָר לֵאמֹר מַה-לָּנוּ חֵלֶק בְּדָוִד וְלֹא-נַחֲלָה בְּבֶן-יִשַׁי לְאֹהָלֶיךָ יִשְׂרָאֵל, עַתָּה רְאֵה בֵיתְךָ דָּוִד; וַיֵּלֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל, לְאֹהָלָיו
16 And when all of Israel saw that the king had not listened to them, the people answered the king, saying: 'What portion have we in David? Neither have we inheritance in the son of Yishai; to your tents, O Israel; now see to your own house, David.' So Israel departed unto their tents.
Abarvanel cites a Maamar Chazal which explains that the Jews meant as follows:
אין לנו חלק בדוד, זו מלכות שמים. ולא נחלה בבן ישי זו מלכות דוד.לאוהליך ישראל זה בית המקדש אל תקרי לאהליך אלא לאלוקיך
The people stated that they had no portion in the Kingship of Heaven, the Kingship of the House of David, nor of the Beis HaMikdash, which is interpreted to mean that they wanted no part of Hashem.
First let us look at how this section looks in the first edition printed in Pesaro in 1511. Starting on the 3rd line it reads ….. ובפרק כהן גדול אמרו אין לנו חלק בדוד . Clearly there is no editorial note in this edition after the words ובפרק כהן גדול אמרו אין..
It turns out that the quotation is actually from Yalkut Shimoni, Shmuel Aleph 8:26 (and quite similarly in the Midrash Shmuel Chapter 13) but the Abarvanel mistakenly cites “Perek Kohen Gadol” in Maseches Sanhedrin as the source.
This error precipitated Christiani to launch into what can only be termed a “rant”.
You can follow his harangue starting on the first line, inside the parentheses, starting with the abbreviation א"ה
Let me paraphrase what Christiani writes: “So says the editor…It is truly unbelievable what he (Abarvanel) says…..the Rav has made so many mistakes in citing specific sources from the Rabbis….he should be totally embarrassed to cite a source that is not found anywhere close to where he said it was…It is only because he relied on his memory and his mind, which is a conceited and harmful trait….because, setting his honor aside, it is a bold and shamefaced lie to say that this saying is contained in this Perek or in any Perek in Sanhedrin…I have looked high and low for this Maamar Chazal and have found it nowhere …if anyone can find it and bring to a close this terrible error, he will truly be blessed.”
Christiani opens himself up for some criticism by stating that he has searched, “Chipus achar chipus be-gemaros u-midrashim” and was not able to find this Maamar Chazal. And yet we know that it is found both in the Yalkut Shimoni and the Midrash Shmuel, both of which pre-dated Christiani by many centuries. The Jewish Encyclopedia lists Abravanel as the first to quote from Yalkut Shimoni saying, “after the beginning of the 15th century, on the other hand, the work must have been disseminated in foreign countries, for it was used by Spanish scholars of the latter half of that century, Isaac Abravanel being the first to mention it.”
One might imagine that launching a diatribe against a respected Jewish scholar was to be expected of a Meshumad. However, Christiani’s hakdamah to this edition shows a complete other side of him. He writes as follows (starting from the second line with the word od):
Again, let me paraphrase:
“I found in many places where the Rav erred in citing sayings of Chazal by saying that it was in this Masechta and it turned out to be in another one…..The reason for this might be that he relied on his memory or relied on other authors who misquoted the source. It is also possible that he did not have with him his books, as he was exiled from the land of his birth and wandered from place to place with his books being lost…as he himself laments in the foreward to this and in other works.”
Christiani is referring to Don Isaac’s life on the run. He lived in Portugal until 1483 and was forced to flee to Spain at that time leaving behind his books and his wealth. He fled Spain in 1492, again leaving everything behind. He settled in Naples and was forced to flee from there in 1495. He wrote his commentary on Yehoshua, Shoftim and Shmuel in 1483 after he had fled to Spain. He wrote his commentary on Melachim in 1493 after he had fled to Naples. Most ordinary humans would have been satisfied to just survive, but the Abarvanel did much more than that. He continued to write with or without a library, relying on an almost superhuman memory, and was truly one of the creative geniuses of commentary in Jewish history. Christiani seems to acknowledge that in his foreward, but he cannot contain himself later on from lashing out at the Abaravanel. What gives?
I mentioned before that this Leipzig edition was produced by Christians for a Christian audience. It would be helpful to find out what attracted them to Abarvanel. B.Z Netanyahu in his book “Abaravanel, Statesman and Philosopher” (fifth edition, Cornell 1998, pp.252-253) gives several reasons on what made Abarvanel popular with Christian audiences. Among them are:
1. “His lucid and colorful style was preferred to the schematic, sometime illusive language which characterized the works of other Jewish commentators.”
2. “His manysided method of discussion….was preferred….to the terseness of his predecessors..”
3. The audacity he displayed in refuting certain Jewish authorities and the objecitivity with which he treated certain Christian biblical interpretations. ( my paraphrase)
However he concludes with the following statement:
“These, however, were merely contributory causes to Abarvanel’s influence in the Christian world. The main cause from a Christian standpoint, lay not in the positive aspects of Abarvanel’s writings, but rather in their negative ones. More plainly, his influence in Christendom was due to his attack upon Christianity as a whole and its messianic doctrine in particular, and that is why it was in the religious world, even more than in the world of learning, that Abarvanel’s figure loomed large.”
It seems that what Netanyahu is describing is that the Christians had somewhat of a love/hate relationship with Abarvanel. The love portion is displayed in Christiani’s hakdamah where he makes excuses for the Abarvanel, but the hate portion comes to the fore when he digs into the Abarvanel for misquoting a source. It is almost as if he tried to control himself, but in the end, was not able to.
There was another edition of the Abarvanel printed in Hamburg in 1687. It was meant for a Jewish audience and quite clearly did not contain Christiani’s editorial note.
At the end of the seventh line starting with “u-be-pherek”, you can see that the diatribe by the Lepizig editor is missing because the Hamburg edition was copied from the first edition printed in Pesaro in 1511.
The next printed edition of the Abarvanel did not appear until 1956. The title page looks like this:
It states quite empahitically that this edition was researched and edited very carefully according to all the previous editions “by the hands of one of the resident Rabbis of Jerusalem who is great in Torah,” והכל מוגה על צד היותר טוב בעיון רב על ידי אחד הרבנים מתושבי ירושלים גדול בתורה.
This great Torah scholar was not aware that Christiani’s diatribe was written by a Meshumad, or I doubt whether he would have included it in the edition he so carefully researched!
You can see it above starting from the 8th line from the bottom.
The next edition of the Abarvanel was printed between 1989 and 1999 as one of the commnetaries in a Mikraot Gedolot. The title page looks like this:
Here too we find the offensive hagaha ( starting on the 4th line):
We finally find it missing from the latest edition which was printed in 2011. The editor of this latest edition notes that he based his edition “Al pi defus rishon, u-defusim yeshanim”, but not on any kisvei yad of the Abarvanel. Here, the editor cites Midrash Shmuel as the source. While most editions of the Midrash Shmuel do not read exactly the way it is quoted in the Abarvanel, Shlomo Buber in his Cracow 1893 edition notes that in a manuscript of the Medrash Shmuel, the last portion is found אל תקרי לאהליך אלא לאלוקיך.
Finally, I want to mention that Christiani’s edition did receive praise from a noted scholar of the 19th century. This scholar composed an entry on Abarvanel in A Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature, John Kitto ed., 3rd ed., J. B. Lippincott and Co, Philadelphia, 1866.
The end of the entry speaks about which editions of Abarvanel’s various works are recommended by this scholar.
This scholar writes clearly that the best edition of the commentary on the earlier Prophets is the one printed in Leipzig in 1686 and edited by Professor Pfeiffer and F. A. Christiani. This scholar bypasses the first edition printed in Pesaro in 1511, and the Hamburg edition printed in 1687 which included the important commentary of Rabbi Yaakov Fidanque. He signed his name to this entry as C.D.G. He is better known by his full name Christian David Ginsburg, the noted 19th century scholar of the Masoretic corpus of the Tanach. He is described in the Jewish Encyclopedia in part as: “English Masoretic scholar and Christian missionary; born at Warsaw Dec. 25, 1831. He was converted in 1846, and was for a time connected with the Liverpool branch of the London Society's Mission to the Jews, but retired in 1863, devoting himself entirely to literary work.” It seems that in many ways, he followed in the footsteps of F. A. Christiani and perhaps that is why he favored Christiani’s edition of the Abarvanel.