Eli Levita - 1468-1549
The Commentator of the Hebrew Grammars

of Moses and David Kimhi

In the Jewish Cemetery in Venice, Italy, lies a tomb-stone with a simple epitaph in Hebrew words, with this meaning:

The stone cries from the wall,
And mourns before every passer by
Over this grave -
…our Rabbi who has departed,
and ascended into heaven
Elias is gone to the Lord in a whirlwind!
He who has shed light
on the darkness of grammar
and turned it into light.
He ascended in Shebat,
in the year 309 [=1549].
       And his soul will be preserved among the living

The obvious comparison with the death of the Prophet Elijah (2 Kings Ch. 2) signals the high esteem in which Eli Levita was held by his fellow Jews. But he was not praised by Jews alone.

The great writer of the nineteenth Century, Christian David Ginsburg, summarized the life of Eli Levita in these words:

… the great teacher of cardinals and bishops of the Romish Church, and of the originators and leaders of the reformation, and who may justly be regarded as the reviver of Hebrew learning among Christians at the commencement of the sixteenth century, and as one of the most distinguished promoters of Biblical literature. 60

Gérard Weil, who in 1963 provided a wonderful biography of Levita wrote his own eulogy (translating from the French):

Eli Levita of Germany: Teacher, Grammarian, Masorete, Poet, Translator and minor Minnesinger [German troubadour 12th-14th century], Adventurer in Jewish Literature, Master of Christians… 61
In my own tribute, I place Levita alongside Johannes Reuchlin (or Reuchlin alongside Levita) as the two figures of the Reformation period who combined remarkable skills in Hebrew Literature, most especially Hebrew Grammars, but who were remarkable for reasons entirely apart from their intellects and skills. Both men were people passionately involved in their own faiths: - Reuchlin, a Christian who did not join the Reformation schisms - Levita a practising Jew. But beyond that, both men with the ability to work easily and comfortably with people of differing faith, with a generosity of spirit which allowed both parties to be the beneficiary of the relationship.

One might even say that Reuchlin, by helping Jews, became a better Christian, and Levita, by helping Christians, became a better Jew.

Notice that Levita's involvement in Jewish Literature began and ended with writings of the Kimhi family!

Eli Levita was born in obscurity in the city of Neustadt, near Nuremberg, Germany, in 1468, to Jewish parents. Levita has on occasion used the surname "Bahur". He has also been known as "Elijah ben Asher ha-Levi Ashkenazi".

Little is know of his early life before 1504, except for the fact that Eli was fluent in German as well as Jewish-German (Yiddish). The one significant exception to this silence is witnessed by a copy of David Kimhi's Sefer Hashorashim in the National Library in Vienna which has this autograph:

"The Lord has made the beneficiary of his Grace, his servant, the youngest, the most despicable, the most humble of men, Eli, son of Rabbi Asher the Levite (his memory for a blessing), of the village of Ipsheim."

David Kimhi's Sefer Hashorashim had been published in Naples in 1490. Eli Levita's note is estimated to have been written before 1492. The indication is that Eli, at age of approximately twenty-four, was already on the path to knowledge of Hebrew literature and was already aware of some of the writings of Rabbi David Kimhi. The note leaves the impression that Levita's father was a Rabbi. 62

1504 - teaching in Padua

In 1504 Levita was teaching introductory Hebrew in Padua, a city well-known for its Hebrew studies, located inland from Venice, Italy. The text for his lessons in introductory Hebrew was a manuscript of Moses Kimhi's Mahalak Shebile ha-Daat for which he prepared extensive lecture notes. Levita's students encouraged him to publish his lecture notes.

Levita chose Moses Kimhi's grammar because, concise and clear as it was, it was ideal for teaching students at the introductory level and was good for their memory work. David Kimhi's Sefer Miklol, for which Levita was, many years later, to provide a commentary, was much longer and more involved. David Kimhi's Sefer Hashorashim, which was the lexicon portion of the Sefer Miklol, usually printed separately, was extremely useful to the student who had completed the introductory phase as was able to read the Bible on his own. He could now look up words which puzzled or interested him in the Sefer Hashorashim and find there the word in its biblical setting and context.

I would like to pause to emphasize an amazing historical fact:

The most important grammatical and lexical works by Rabbis which were of assistance to Christians in the Reformation period were written by two Jewish brothers from Narbonne in the 11th century:

INTRODUCTORY: Moses Kimhi's Mahalak Shebile ha-Daat
LEXICON (of assistance while reading the Bible in Hebrew):David Kimhi's Sefer Hashorashim
ADVANCED:David Kimhi's Sefer Miklol

Eli Levita was the person who provided accessibility to Christians for these works of the Kimhis by editing and providing commentaries for each of them.

A Plague broke out in Europe, which was a reoccurrence of a variety of plagues which swept Europe since the Black Death in the 14th century. Blame for the Plague was, as was usual, placed on any strangers or foreigners and especially upon the Jewish Community. The result was that the street upon which the Levita family lived in Padua was sealed off and the Jews were imprisoned.

The Printing of Mahalak - 1508 - Pesaro

Levita's secretary or copyist, escaped from the closed off streets with Levita's manuscript of Moses Kimhi's grammar, which was supplemented by the commentary by Levita. He gave the manuscript over to Gershom Soncino, who had in 1507 opened a printing house in Pesaro, a port city on the Adriatic in central Italy. Moses Kimhi's introductory grammar, with an introduction by Benjamin of Rome and the commentary of Eli Levita, was made public in 1508.

The grammar can be found in some major libraries today. For example in the Rare Book Room of the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati it is listed as:

Kimhi, Moses ben Joseph, [Mahalak] … [with an elementary introduction by Benjamin b. Judah Bozechhie, and a commentary by Elijah Levita] [Pesaro, 1508]
An historical irony happened in the publishing of this book, in that nowhere in the grammar was the name of Levita mentioned, even though he had provided, from his lecture notes, all the commentaries which surrounded the grammar. It was assumed that, because the Introduction was expressly that of Benjamin of Rome that this same person had written the commentaries. It was not until 1546, upon the occasion of his publishing a new edition of Moses Kimhi's Mahalak Shebile ha-Daat, that Levita would set the record straight about his own authorship of the commentary portion of the 1508 Pesaro edition.

Moses Kimhi's Mahalak Shebile ha-Daat was published a number of times after this 1508 Pesaro edition, for example: 1519 by Thomas Anshelm, 1520 by J. Böschenstein; 1520 by Phil. Novenianus; and 1520 by Justiniani under the title "Liber viarum". There are indications that it was also printed a number of times between 1509 and 1518.
What was usually printed was only Moses Kimhi's Grammar, with a short introduction and without Levita's commentaries.

Soon after the Plague, came the second disaster. Padua was invaded by Austrian soldiers of the Army of the League of Cambray in 1509. This event marked the first time when Levita lost all his manuscripts and Hebrew writings. Levita would lose all his manuscripts again in Rome, eighteen years later.

From Padua to Rome 1514

Exiled from Padua at age 41 Levita took his family in search of a place to live and work. He had nothing in hand of his work. All he had was his ability with the Hebrew language and a proven record of teaching.

Cardinal Egidio de Viterbo

Jewish cabalistic teachings were in considerable demand among Christians scholars and noblemen, because of a belief that these mystical writings were an important auxiliary to Christian teachings. When Levita visited Rome he introduced himself to Egidio de Viterbo, who was then the General of the Augustinian Order, and was later to be elected Cardinal. Levita did not realize that his renown for Hebrew expertise had preceded him.

Viterbo invited Levita, his wife and family to live with him and to be maintained by him, in order that Levita might open up the cabalistic philosophy to him. Not only did Levita assist Viterbo with cabalistic studies but he was able to pursue his own Hebrew writing and publishing.

1518 - Levita begins his Hebrew publishing

In 1518 Levita published two books:

An introductory grammar, the Bahur, which Levita dedicated to Viterbo. This grammar concerned itself with the nouns and the verbs. For his tables of conjugated verbs, Levita chose the verb pakath [=he visited] rather than the more customary Pa'al [=he did, made]. In this selection of a verb upon which to base his conjugation tables he followed that of Moses Kimhi's Mahalak Shebile ha-Daat. The reason he did this is that the verb Pa'al, with the Ayin as the second radical is not as regular in its forms as a verb like Pakath. As a companion to this book, Levita produced a table of paradigms, of which all examples have since disappeared.

Levita's second work, chronologically published first, was entitled Sefer Haharkavah, which was a companion to the Sefer Bahur, and had the purpose of listing the foreign and compound words found in the Bible.

Then Levita published Pirkei Eliyahu, which was a follow-up on Sefer Bahur, containingfurther grammatical principles. The four items listed above: the Sefer Bahur, the table of paradigms, the Sefer Haharkavah and the Pirkei Eliyahu represent that portion of the extensive work of Levita in Rome which was committed to print.

Levita's situation in Rome allowed him some useful contacts with ancient manuscripts. Cardinal Viterbo had a wonderful library which include Hebrew and Aramaic manuscripts and it was likely that Levita would have access, through Viterbo, to the manuscripts collected by Pope Leo X. Levita engaged himself in significant work on grammatical and lexical work in Aramaic, as well as issues of the Masoretic text of the Bible. Much of this work was to bear fruit much later in life.

The years 1514-1527 in the life of the Levita family appear to have been relatively peaceful and extremely productive, and the relationship between Viterbo and Levita can be held up as one of exemplary cooperation between Viterbo, the Christian and Levita, the Jew.

1525 - Sebastian Münster begins publishing Levita's works in Latin

As his interest and ability with Hebrew grew, Sebastian Münster searched for a master of Hebrew who could be his guide. He was attracted, at first, to the works of Abraham ben Meir de Balmes, but with more familiarity with author's approach, became dissatisfied. During the years (from 1521) in which Münster was teaching in the Franciscan school in Heidelberg, Simon Groninger (Grynaeus) shared his opinion of the writings of de Balmes and introduced Münster to the works of Eli Levita. In Levita, Münster had found his "Master". [note: I will provide a better introduction to the background of Sebastian Münster and also explain that there will be a chapter dedicated to him - Gordon Laird]

Beginning in 1525, Münster began publishing Levita's work, usually in Hebrew and Latin. Münster's significance in bringing Levita to the attention of Christian Hebraists was enormous. This was a strange kind of "collaboration". Münster lived in Heidelberg and then Basel while Levita lived in Padua, Rome, Venice, Constance and Isny, southern Germany. There is no convincing evidence that they ever met in person, spent any extended time together or lived in the same city. Levita and Münster corresponded by letters written in Hebrew, a fact which is witnessed by one letter which has come down to us, published in 1531 with Münster's interpretation of Amos.

In keeping with the theme of the Emergence of the Writings of the Kimhis, it is interesting to note that one of the themes of Levita's letter to Münster was about Moses Kimhi's Mahalak Shebile ha-Daat. Levita realized that Münster was in the process of publishing this book, using as his source Levita's 1508 Pesaro version. Levita was dismayed that Münster would publish this without asking him, as author, review the proofs for errors. Levita remembered many errors in this first edition, some of which he had made because of his more introductory knowledge of Hebrew grammar at the time of writing, and some which the printers had made.

Münster responded with the surprising fact that the book was already published (in 1531), therefore there was no time for any corrections! This fact gives some evidence about the complicated relationship between Levita and Münster which makes it difficult to use the descriptive word "collaboration".

What Münster was willing to do was publish Levita's letter as soon as he could. It happened that he was in process of publishing his commentary on Amos that year (1531), so he added Levita's letter to that publication. Münster continued to publish the works of Levita in Latin and Hebrew, often within one year of their original publication in Hebrew. The works were changed and transformed by the publication, so each work needs to be considered separately, to determine the degree to which Münster's work was faithful to Levita's original. These few paragraphs will serve as a brief introduction to the relationship with Münster, which will be explored in more depth in a later chapter.

The Sack of Rome - 1527

The Levita family's peaceful life in Rome came to a sudden conclusion in 1527, with the "Sack of Rome". May 6, 1527, the troops of Emperor Charles V, which included Spanish and German soldiers, took possession of Rome and pillaged it. The terror of these days cannot be over-dramatized. Levita's family took refuge in Viterbo's grand home, but that too was invaded. The extent of the personal and physical violation of Levita's family is a matter for conjecture. He recounts that his field was laid waste, so that there was no barley and no wheat. It was devastating what happened to his ongoing work, as represented by his manuscripts. All of them were taken from him, and the only bits which could be recovered, Levita picked up, as single pages and notebooks, from the middle of the road.

Putting his few pages of manuscripts in a box, at age 59, Levita set out with some of his family (a son elected to stay behind in Rome) and moved from town to town, looking for their next location to live and to work.

There was a difference, however, between this time of bewilderment and loss, and the experience of Padua, eighteen years prior: Levita had established a reputation, especially through the works published by Münster in Latin and Hebrew. He was well-known in the Jewish and Christian worlds.

1529 in Venice with Daniel Bomberg

In 1529 Levita, at age 61, was welcomed to Venice by the Christian printer, Daniel Bomberg. Daniel Bomberg was born in Antwerp and moved to Venice early in the sixteenth century. In 1515 Bomberg had collaborated with a baptized Jew, Felix Pratensis, to publish a Latin translation of the Psalms. With this book began a career of publishing of Jewish works which was as significant to the history of the printing of Hebrew works as it was extremely demanding of Bomberg's personal fortunes.

The Jewish Ghetto was founded in Venice in, March 29, 1516. The use of the word "ghetto", whose derivation is unsure, seems to have begun there. The separation of Jews off from Christian people, which was exemplified by the Ghetto, was accompanied by a regulation that they must wear a yellow cap. Bomberg sent a petition to the authorities stating that he required four Jews to supervise his printing of Hebrew works. He asked for, and received, exemption for his Jewish employees from both requirements: living in the Ghetto and wearing the yellow caps.

Two of the very significant publications of the Bomberg Press were the first and second Rabbinic Bibles. The first was edited by Felix Pratensis and contained the texts in Hebrew of the Pentateuch, the Prophets and the Writings, arranged in the order of the Hebrew Bible, together with certain Aramaic Targums, and a number of commentaries of the Rabbis.

In the history of Hebrew printing, this Bible, published in folio version in 1516-17, has to be rated among the most peculiar for a number of reasons:

1. It was printed for Christians, as the editor, Felix Pratensis, (Felice da Prato), born a Jew, had become, through baptism, a Christian
2. It included a most humble and flattering dedication to Pope Leo X
3. Despised by Jews, probably because of the above two reasons, it almost disappeared from history. C. D. Ginsburg, writing in 1897, knew of only two copies extant. I have since located about twenty-two copies. 63
To edit the Second Rabbinic Bible (1524-25), Daniel Bomberg hired Jacob ben Hayyim ibn Adonijah, who would appeal to the Jewish customers as a person of the Jewish faith. This Bible served for Jews the role the Authorized Version of the English Bible served the following generations of English Christians.

Levita's first official contact with Bomberg has to do with this second Rabbinic Bible. Bomberg asks Levita to write a dedicatory poem for this work. In his poem, Levita praises Bomberg, acknowledging that Bomberg was not born in Israel, but in the house of the Gentiles, and describes Bomberg as "uncircumcised in his flesh, but not in his heart, he dedicated himself to the study of the Torah, with all his desire and all his ability". 64

Bomberg hired Levita as a corrector and editor of Hebrew works in the Bomberg Press. The first work assigned to Levita is a new edition of David Kimhi's Sefer Hashorashim, which had been corrected by Isaiah ben Eleazar Parnas, but was revised by Levita. Levita also added a laudatory poem as an epilogue.

In 1533 Daniel Bomberg ran out of money to continue his Hebrew press and went back to Antwerp, apparently to find new capital. Levita was left only with the money he could earn teaching the many students who were asking for his assistance.

1534-35 - Bishop George de Selve

George de Selve, a person from the Roman Catholic Church, entered Levita's life in Venice in a way reminiscent of his previous experience with Cardinal Egidio de Viterbo. Bishop of Lavour, France, de Selve was the Ambassador of Francis I at Venice. He became one of Levita's students, and was soon described by Levita as wise in Hebrew, Greek and Latin. Levita was charmed by de Selve, and told him all about his wanderings and his trouble, most especially about the work that he had started in Rome and how it had been desecrated during the Sack of Rome.

De Selve demanded that Levita show him the few, torn notebooks of his work, at the sight of which De Selve became extremely excited and enthusiastic. He insisted that Levita complete this work and promised, to this end, to pay for any copyists and punctuators, and to cover all the costs involved in Levita finishing the work: his great Masoretic Concordance. Ironically only the Dedication and Introduction was published to this massive work, and those much later. A manuscript of the work, which Levita entitled Sefer Zikroneth, rests today on the shelves of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. De Selve had promised to take the book with him to Paris and have it printed. Due to the pressure of obligations in his Diocese, de Selve did not follow through on his promise.

Levita was beginning to hear Jewish criticism of his close relationships with Christians. One of the main charges was that Christians were simply being armed with Hebrew knowledge so that they could proselytize Jews. In this period there were enough examples of Jews being baptized and becoming tormenters of Jews to give substance to this charge. Levita was accused of going against Biblical injunctions to not share esoteric knowledge with unbelievers.

However, Levita answered these criticisms in a forthright manner. He contrasted the wonderful support he received from Cardinal Gilles de Viterbo, who encouraged him and helped him reach his writing goals, with the lack of support from the Rabbis. He also challenged the way Holy Scripture was being used in arguments against him. He reminded his critics that it is permitted to teach the Gentiles the Seven Noachide Laws (which summarize the minimum moral duties for all men - The Encyclopaedia Judaica lists these laws as: "idolatry, blasphemy, bloodshed, sexual sins, theft and eating from a living animal"). But how can one teach Gentiles these laws without teaching them the Hebrew language? He reminded his detractors of the long Jewish history of the granting of honour to righteous Gentiles. He refers to his Gentile students as examples of good moral character. Levita maintains that there will be a greater benefit to the Jews from his teaching of Hebrew to the Christians, than even the benefit to the Christians.

1538 "Daniel Returns" - Bomberg prints Levita's Masoreth ha-Masoreth

The return of Daniel Bomberg from Antwerp in 1538 was honoured in an unusual way: Levita entitled a printing of the book of Daniel by the Bomberg Press, "Daniel Returns". This had the double meaning: it referred to the Biblical book of Daniel, but it also marked the fact that Daniel Bomberg had returned from Antwerp to take up his duties as publisher of Hebrew works in Venice.

We come to the publication of one of Levita's most famous books, one which occasioned a considerable controversy among Jews, Roman Catholics and Reformers. Bomberg printed this book under Levita's title: Masoreth ha-Masoreth, which title has been translated into English as "the Tradition of Traditions".

Masoreth ha-Masoreth had three main parts, which were preceded by a Notice to the Reader, a Preface and three Introductions. The three parts are called: First Tables, Second Tables and Broken Tables. They all refer to various aspects of the technical terms and the signs of the masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible. Levita sparked controversy with his novel thesis that the vowel signs and accents were not to be regarded as ancient, but relatively modern. In Jewish tradition it had been generally accepted that these signs were added no later than the time of Ezra, and some would have argued for a much earlier date (given to Adam in Paradise; Moses on Sinai or Ezra and the Great Synagogue). Levita maintained that they were invented and placed there by the Massoretes about five hundred years after Christ.

Levita's thesis of the late dating of the signs and accents caused great consternation in the Jewish community. The controversy among Protestants and Catholics was remarkable for its heat if not for its light. It suited the Protestants very well to agree with Levita's late dating, because this is what they had asserted all along. They wanted to believe that the pointing of the Hebrew text was arbitrary and even contrary-minded, so that they were free to re-interpret the text in their own way.

The Roman Catholics, on their part, rejoiced that their viewpoint had been supported, that from the time of Christ there had been Jewish tampering with the text, and only the traditional understanding which the Church of Rome provided, could the text be properly understood. The Latin Vulgate, which had its origins in the Septuagint in a period before Christ, and therefore before Jewish tampering with the text, was clearly more reliable. The arguments about Levita's thesis were to continue for centuries.

Levita followed the Masoreth ha-Masoreth with a book of the laws of the accents, in which he ascribed their authorship to the same Masoretes who invested the vocalization points. The book was published by Bomberg under the title: Sefer Tuv Tam (the Book of Good Sense) in 1538.

Within a year of the Bomberg edition of Masoreth ha-Masoreth, Sebastian Münster published his version: Elia Levita, Masoret ham-masoret, which was printed in August, 1539 in Basel by Henricus Petri. Münster retained the division between the first Tables and the Second Tables. The Broken Tables were provided in an appendix to this work. Münster published Elia Levita Tub ta'am in August, 1939 as a companion to Masoreth ha-Masoreth. Along with the Hebrew texts of both books, Münster provided extensive Latin summaries.

In 1539, after printing a few Hebrew works, the Bomberg Press ceased operation for over three years.

Again facing the prospect of unemployment, remarkably, a new challenge arrived on Levita's doorstep in the form of a letter from a Christian Pastor and Reformer: Paul Fagius.

Fagius, born in 1504 in Rheinzabern in the German Palatinate, had in 1537, at age 33, been appointed Protestant Pastor in the small town of Isny, in the agricultural Allgau region of southern Germany.

Fagius was imbued with the Reformation spirit, but also had, with the help of Wolfgang Capito, become deeply involved in the study of the Hebrew language.

Fagius' desire for the knowledge from Hebrew sources was so great that he decided to establish a printing establishment in Isny to print Hebrew works.

This small-town preacher was at the beginning of what was an illustrious and somewhat infamous career. From Isny he became Professor of Hebrew at the University of Strasbourg and then was invited to England by Cramner to become the Regius Professor at Cambridge. He was famous even after his death in 1549: in 1556 his body was exhumed and burned, as punishment for his Protestant teachings, by orders of Mary I, Queen of England. In 1560 his ashes were collected and honorably interred by order of Elizabeth I, Queen of England.

But we meet Fagius at a time when he was much less well-known and controversial. Fagius realized the short-comings in his Hebrew knowledge and knowing of Eli Levita by reputation, invited him to come to Isny to supervise his Hebrew printings.

Levita, a devoted family man, was greatly torn by this invitation. So long after his early days in Germany, Levita had made his permanent home in Venice. He longed to remain in the wonderful climate, having clear memories of his early winters in Germany and the hazards of his trek, over four decades prior, through the Alps to reach Padua. He stated many times that, after so many long absences, he wanted simply to spend his remaining days with his loving wife.

His body reminded him daily that he was seventy-two years of age - an age, after a very productive life, when most everyone would consider retirement to be long overdue.

But there was something about Fagius' invitation which interested and excited Levita. It may have been Fagius' knowledge that Levita had a number of works himself which needed printing and the promise of seeing those finally in print.

Fagius offered Levita a good salary, but apparently no travel funds, because Levita set out by foot for Isny.

The route from Venice to Isny requires a very precarious trip of over 300 kilometres "as the crow flies" for the seventy year old, through hills and mountain passes. Most of the trip would have been in winter conditions, because it seems that he arrived January, 1541. Levita gives a number of impressions of the difficulty of this trip, complete with weather reports. What makes this remarkable story more remarkable is that, while hiking, Levita was dreaming about a Hebrew work he wanted to finish. When he reached an inn for the night he would immediately write the notes he had been turning over in his mind. When he arrived in Isny the work was complete! Levita wrote about this experience:

Indeed when I was on the road, on mountains and hills, in rain and snow, I thought of the words and wrote them on the tablets of my heart and when I came to the inn I opened my traveling bag and took out my book and noted the words which God had placed in my heart. 65
When Levita met Fagius there was instant communion between them. Levita later wrote these tribute to Fagius:
When I arrived here, I tasted his pitcher, and found it full of old wine. Indeed, I had not been told half of his wisdom and knowledge. Many draw from the fountain of his learning; he is a great preacher, and an excellent expositor. He is truly worthy that his people should describe him as we describe our Rabbin Moses Maimonides. For just as we say, 'From Moses the law-giver to Moses [Maimonides] none has arisen like Moses;' so they should say, 'From Paul [the Apostle] to Paul [Fagius] none has arisen like Paul.' 66
There is ample evidence that Fagius reciprocated exactly in his estimation of Levita.

For the next few years Fagius and Levita collaborated on the publication of many works for the benefit of both Christians and Jews.

The first Hebrew work of Levita which was printed in Isny was the work which he had finished on his hike from Venice to Isny: Tishbi, named for an obvious reference to the Prophet Elijah, who was known as "the Tishbite" (1 Kings 17: 1).

The work was printed in two editions, one entirely in Hebrew, entitled Tishbi, and in Latin and Hebrew under the title Opusculum Recens Hebraicum a Doctissimo Hebroe Eliia Levita Geremano Grammatico… per Paulus Fagium.

In the Latin edition the printer's mark was surrounded by a quotation from the Gospel of Matthew: "Every good tree bears good fruit", in Hebrew and Latin.

The Hebrew edition includes a Jewish message praising God and recounted the year, using the Jewish calendar.

The Latin edition contains this testimonial from Fagius:

…5301 of the creation of the world [per the Jewish calendar], which is the year 1541 since the birth of our Messiah and our Saviour Jesus, that His name be Blessed forever! [also]I have faith in the Messiah Who has been sent and Who will judge the quick and the dead.
Tishbi is a lexicon of 712 words, arranged not by the order of their roots, but simply alphabetical by the order of their Hebrew letters. The words are ones used in ancient Jewish literature, and there are also references to the meaning of the words in German.

In the same year, 1541, in which Tishbi was published, Levita and Fagius published a lexicon of the Aramaic language, under the title Methurgeman ("the Interpreter") "because it interprets the Hebrew in Aramaic, and the Aramaic in Hebrew". 67

Levita's ability to write the Aramaic lexicon owes considerably to the time he spent in Rome with Cardinal Egidio de Viterbo, where he had access to manuscripts of Aramaic Targums. In publishing Methurgeman Levita was making another significant contribution to the world of Jewish literature, since there was only one previous Aramaic Lexicon then available: the Aruch of Rabbi Nathan ben Jechiel (1030-1106).

The next work, written by Levita and published by Fagius was a list of technical Hebrew words, published in a four-column format: Yiddish, Hebrew, Latin (by Fagius) and German. This book, entitled, in Latin, Nomenclatura Hebraica, was published in Isny in 1542. In addition, Levita revised his Bahur, which he had published with the help of Cardinal Egidio de Viterbo in 1518, and Fagius published it in 1542.

Levita's sojourn in Isny was to be short-lived, because of the intervention of the Plague. Wolfgang Capito, the great Hebraist of Strasbourg from whom Fagius had received his introduction to the Hebrew language, succumbed to the Plague. Fagius was asked to take Capito's place at the University of Strasbourg and as Evangelical Pastor. As he was preparing to leave Isny the Plague struck again, this time in the City of Constance, Pastor Johannes Zwick died of the same disease and Fagius' assistance was requested there.

Fagius was faced with a decision: to return to his homeland to take up the important teaching and preaching assignment, or to help the neighbouring Constance in their Christian pastoral needs. He decided to do both: first, to spend a limited time in Constance and then to proceed to Strasbourg.

While at Constance, Fagius founded, with his brother-in-law, another printing establishment. There are conflicting reports as to whether Levita had accompanied Fagius to Constance or remained with his wife and friends in Venice. The evidence for his direct return to Venice seems stronger.

In Constance, Fagius printed a work which is very interesting to our study: the first 10 Psalms with the commentary of Rabbi David Kimhi, under the title: Commentarium Hebraicum Rabbi David Kimhi, in Decem Primos Psalmos Davidicos, published by Paul Fagius, 1544, in Constance. Fagius published the ten Psalms and commentary in Hebrew and Latin. For Psalm 2, Fagius includes the "anti-Christian polemic" portion of David Kimhi's commentary. Levita's participation in the preparation of the Hebrew text for this work is a matter of conjecture. It seems that Levita and Fagius were no longer in the same City when the work was published, although it is also possible that the work was the results of previous collaboration.

It would be wonderful to have insight into the thoughts of Levita at this time, at age 74, having greatly exceeded any reasonable retirement age. Levita's autobiographical comments are richly available in the Prefaces, Introductions and Epilogues to his works, and nowhere else. In the Epilogue to Methurgeman Levita is quoted as saying:

"Seeing that age has overtaken me, that I am very old, that my eyesight grows dimmer every day, and that my strength is fast leaving me, I must retire from the ranks and serve no more. I shall now return to my country which I left, namely, Venice, and die in my town with my aged wife, and no more move my foot from her. She shall close my eyes, and death alone shall henceforth separate me from her. I shall abide there the remaining days of my life, finish the books which I have begun, and then say to the God who created me, 'Take now my life, for it is better than I should die.'" 68
It is hard to believe that these words would serve to usher in one of the most productive periods in Levita's life. His words, "finish the books which I have begun" gives some hint of what was to happen, but it does not diminish Levita prodigious publishing achievements of the last five years of his life.

Living again in Venice, Levita responded to the convivial surroundings with a new burst of vigour and energy. An unfortunate era of substandard printing had come to an end when Daniel Bomberg took charge again of his printing establishment, but in the meantime Bomberg was faced with worthy competition. Mark Anthony Giustiniani had founded a new printing establishment and there was further competition from some smaller shops as well.

In 1545 Levita helped the Bomberg establishment bring out a revised and corrected edition of David Kimhi's Sefer Miklol enriched with Levita's commentary. This book, probably owing to its more obscure and advanced subject matter, had not benefited from the kind of popularity that Sefer Hashorashim had obtained. It shows up very infrequently in early Jewish printed books. Sefer Miklol had been printed in Constantinople in 1532 and possibly once before. A. Guidacerus published it with a Latin translation in 1540 in Paris.

But it remained to the famed Daniel Bomberg, with his master corrector, proof-reader and commentator, Eli Levita, at age 78, to produce the most outstanding version of Sefer Miklol of this era. It was this book, in octavo form, which I laid eyes on in the Sonderlesesaal of the University of Tübingen Library, on December 19, 1973.

In 1546 Levita once again published his Sefer Haharkavah and his Pirkei Eliyahu, both of which had been published for the first time shortly after the 1518 publication of Sefer Bahur.

In the year 1547, Levita had a hand in making public a new version of Sefer Hashorashim. This book had been printed a number of times: in Rome before 1472; in Naples 1490 and 1491 (and possibly 1479), 1529 by Bomberg in Venice and by Soncino in 1530 and 1532-3. Levita had assisted Bomberg in his 1529 publication, providing further correction to the work of Isaiah ben Eleazar Parnas and his laudatory poem in the epilogue.

It appears that Sefer Hashorashim was not printed by Daniel Bomberg, but inexplicably, was printed by his competitor Mark Anthony Giustiniani. Undoubtedly this edition contributed greatly to editions which were printed centuries later of which the Biesenthal and Lebrecht edition of 1847 (Berlin) is an excellent example. The title of this edition gives proper reference to Eli Levita, who would also have added the many references to biblical passages which makes this book useful. The title page reads:

Rabbi Davidis Kimchi
Radicum liber
Hebraeum Bibliorum Lexicon
cum Animadversionibus Eliae Levitae
[Jo. H. R. Biesenthal et F. Lebrecht. Berolini 1847] 69

Levita then brought out four Hebrew grammars, three of which are of passing interest for this study: a grammar by an anonymous author and two treatises of Abraham ibn Ezra. However the remaining grammar I would like to describe with a sense of its timeliness and importance for this study.

In 1546 Levita provided a final revision of Moses Kimhi's Mahalak Shebile Hadaat, the first of his Levita's works which had been printed in Pesaro in 1508. This was the book which had received so much of Levita's care and attention and which contained the notes he had brought from the Padua classroom, but which, on its printed page, made no notice of Levita as author or contributor and which had circulated and had been copied with many errors, much to Levita's chagrin.

At last Levita had his chance to set the record straight. He did this by a poem which he attached to this edition:

When I, Elias Levita, the least in my family
Was, in the days of my manhood.
In the city of Padua in 264 [1504]
I composed this book according to the request of my disciples.
It came to pass, that the plague broke out among the people,
Whereupon every entrance was blocked up in the street where I lived,
So that I too was closed in; then my messenger deceived me.
For I gave him the book to print it for me, and he took it away;
He took it to Pesaro, and spent money in printing it for himself.
This shameful deed appeared a small thing in his eyes.
Most insultingly, he did not mention my name in the book,
But put at the beginning of the Introduction 'R. Benjamin's of Rome,
That all who use it may think he was the author of this Exposition.
He also erroneously added some things from his own cogitations,
And inserted from the 'Language of the Learned,' diverse fragments,
All this without my knowledge, and left in my errors;
For you must know, that I was not so expert then as I am now.
It was thus re-published several times, both by Jews and Christians,
Sold with all its blunders, and nothing is left of the editions…. 70

In the course of this chapter I have omitted reference to a number of Levita's works. For example he wrote secular works in Yiddish, such as his romance novel Paris un' Vienna. He also produced introductory grammars in Yiddish and German.

Eli Levita was nearing the end of his life. His interest in his work did not slow but his ability to accomplish it was failing.

We have access to two letters which, while not from the hand of Eli, refer to him. Cornelius Adelkind, with whom Levita worked correcting Hebrew works, wrote two letters to a mutual acquaintance in Rome, the noted Christian scholar, Andrea Masio. Adelkind's second letter, dated June 11, 1547 is a reply to Masio's, and included this phrase:

First, know that I have given your dutiful greetings to Rabbi Elijah Levita who is anxious to see you before he is gathered to his fathers; know that his is very old, ill and failing mentally. 71
Eli Levita died January 5, 1549, a fact which is attested to, in the equivalent Hebrew calendar date: the year 309, the 6 Shebat, having lived, what for many people would have been three lives, when we consider the adventure, the times of peril and his accomplishments.

I would like to summarize his life with this brief overview:

1468  - Levita born in Neustadt, near Nuremberg
1492 (age 24) - autobiographical note in Sefer Hashorashim
1504 (age 36) - taught Hebrew in Padua, Italy, using Moses Kimhi's grammar
1507 (age 39) - Plague and Sacking of Padua. His manuscript sent for printing. Levita loses many manuscripts
1508 (age 40) - Pesaro - Soncino prints Moses Kimhi's Grammar without credit to Levita
1514 (age 46) - Invited to live with Egidio de Viterbo who later became Cardinal
1518 (age 50) - Hebrew publishing in Rome: Bahur, Sefer Haharkavah, Pirkei Eliyahu, Table of paradigms
1525 (age 57) - Münster begins extensive printing of Levita's works
1527 (age 59) - Sack of Rome - Levita loses all his work
1529 (age 61) - Daniel Bomberg hires Levita in Venice. In 1534 returns to Antwerp for more capital
1534 (age 66) - Bishop George de Selve of France becomes Patron for Levita's work
1538 (age 70) - Bomberg returns from Antwerp and published Levita's Masoreth ha-Masoreth. In 1539 Bomberg stops his press.
1540 (age 72) - Levita hikes through the Alps to Isny
1541 (age 73) - Fagius published Levita's Tishbi (712 Hebrew words) and Methugeman (Aramaic Lexicon) in Isny
1542 (age 74) - Fagius publishes Levita's Nomenclatura Hebraica and Bahur
1545 (age 77) - Bomberg publishes Levita's revision of Radak's Sefer Miklol
1546 (age 78) - Giustiniani publishes Levita's revision of Radak's Sefer Hashorashim
1546 (age 78) - Bomberg publishes Moses Kimhi's grammar with 3 others.
1549 (age 81) - January 5, Eli Levita dies in Venice

It is not possible to over-estimate the role and influence of Eli Levita upon the study of the Hebrew language in the Reformation. It is also very clear that his grammatical works highlighted the works of Moses and David Kimhi, both in his earliest days and at the end of his life.

I would like to focus on another aspect at this time: his steadfastness in his Jewish faith. Amram reminds us that it was very common for those involved in the printing of Hebrew and Christian books to change faith: Christians often turned to Judaism and Jews were often baptized and became Christians. 72

For example the first Rabbinic Bible (1517) was edited by a baptized Jew, Felix Pratensis. The second Rabbinic Bible (1524-25) was edited by Jacob ben Hayyim ibn Adonijah, also late in life, converted to Christianity. It is possible, although not certain that Cornelius Adelkind, with whom Levita edited many works in Venice, converted to Christianity. With the increasingly harsh laws against Jews working in the printing field there were distinct advantages for Jews to become Christians.

It is certain that two of Levita's grandsons became Christians. One of then, baptized as Vittorio Eliano, became an ecclesiastical censor of Hebrew books. 73

Eli Levita, on the other hand, who worked closely with Christians, to mutual advantage, and in some cases lived with them, remained an observant Jew. Consider his close working relationships with Christians: living with Cardinal Viterbo, his collaboration with Daniel Bomberg, having Bishop George de Selve as Patron of his works, and his fraternal relationship with Paul Fagius. He maintained these relationships amid frequent and public criticisms from his fellow Jews. His relationship with Sebastian Münster is not so neatly summarized, as an upcoming chapter devoted to Münster will attest.

Levita was the beneficiary of an enormous gift of God's Grace, which in turn, he translated into personal graciousness, even in the most adverse of circumstances. I will cherish the memory of Eli Levita: his courage, his wisdom, his faithfulness to Judaism, his love of family, his persistence against all odds, and ultimately his faith in God to help him complete his calling.

Updated: September 8, 2003

Questions or comments E-Mail: gordonlaird@canada.com

"The Kimhis and the Reformers"
Introductory Remarks
I.    The Kimhi Family - the emergence of their writings in the Reformation
II.   Transmission of the writings of the Kimhis in the Middle Ages
III.    Martin Luther's Use of Hebrew
IV Eli Levita - Interpreter of Kimhi Grammars
Reference Notes
R. David Kimhi's Sefer Miklol R. Moses Kimhi's Mahalak Shebile De-daat
GRAMMARS 1475-1528 Pellican's de modo legendi et intelligendi 1504 Reuchlin's de rudimentis hebraicis 1506
Grammars - 1469-1545 Commentaries - 1477-1531 Psalms 1477-1517 1st Rabbinic 1517 Special Page

© copyrighted August 15, 1999, Gordon Laird