JOHANNES REUCHLIN OF PFORZHEIM [1455-1522]

Johannes Reuchlin stands out for me as one of the true heroes of the early 16th Century. He was often called "Capnion" as a reference to the name of the Christian character in his cabbalistic book, de verbo mirifico.1
Because Reuchlin found so much for his Christian soul in the Jewish writings which were available to him, and he became convinced that there was a rich treasure for Christians in the Hebrew writings. He was the protagonist on behalf of saving Jewish Literature from being burnt over against the Jacob Hoogstraaten and the Cologne Dominicans. This episode has been called "The Battle of the Books" 1514-1516.

Reuchlin, a Christian Renaissance scholar who had taught the Greek language, obtained the knowledge he required to write this very early Hebrew primer for the Reformers by investigating the grammatical-lexical works of Rabbi David Kimhi and his brother Moses Kimhi.

For a more complete biography of Johannes Reuchlin see:
Encyclopaedia Judaica, Keter Publishing House Ltd., Jerusalem, 1971, volume 14, article "Reuchlin, Johannes"

JOHANNES REUCHLIN'S
DE RUDIMENTIS HEBRAICIS

Published in 1506, Pforzheim, Germany, Thomas Anselm

de rudimentis hebraicis is remarkable in many ways.2 It surprises the reader at the outset. Before the Title Page is a special page with this text: FINIS LIBRI [the end of the book] and a poem in Latin follows (with a musical echo) which has this meaning:

- = § = -

F I N I S  L I B R I

CANON

'you are looking at the end of the book, not the beginning.
This book is not to be read like the others
Hold the front to the left and the back to the right
and the pages from the left to the right
turn to whatever pages and you will see
If from proper Latin, words are translated into Hebrew
They are to be read from the right to the left.'

This poem sets the theme for de rudimentis hebraicis - it is for the reader who is proficient in Latin but has no previous knowledge of Hebrew. It is broken into three books: Book I encompassing a Hebrew lexicon to the letter K, Book II continuing from L to the end of the alphabet and Book III: a grammar and exercise book.
As Reuchlin discusses the Hebrew alphabet he again reminds the reader that the Hebrew letters run from right to left. However as all the instruction is in Latin, running from left to right, Reuchlin has to be quite ingenious to introduce the right to left Hebrew word order into the page. The pages are numbered from the back of the book forward so that the reader is constantly reminded of the difference between Hebrew and Latin.
Book III contains a preface giving Reuchlin's reasons for the study of the Hebrew language and for writing this book, together with a grammar of 70 pages.
Ludwig Geiger,who made a most important and exhaustive analyses of the works of Johannes Reuchlin in the nineteenth century, asserts that de rudimentis hebraicis was based upon the Sefer Miklol of David Kimhi.3 This opinion was shared by William Gesenius, the 'father' of many of the Hebrew grammars of the present day.4
When one compares the lexical portion of de rudimentis hebraicis (i.e. books I and II) to Sefer Hashorashim the resemblance is apparent.
Reuchlin does not state his dependence on Sefer Hashorashim in the text. He mentioned David Kimhi and his commentaries in the earlier portions, but on page 153, for the first time mentioned Sefer Hashorashim ("secundum David kimhi in libro de radicibus".)
Geiger believes the grammar portion (Book III) is based on Sefer Miklol by David Kimhi. I would like to propose that it might equally well have been based on Mahalakh Shevilei ha-Daat by Moses Kimhi, because of its more introductory scope.
De rudimentis hebraicis was aimed at well-educated scholars with no acquaintance with Hebrew. Reuchlin presents and shows the pronunciation of Hebrew letters, indicating that he is assuming no previous exposure with the Hebrew language. Yet the book contains sufficient information to take the diligent reader to a quite advanced stage of Hebrew knowledge: for example, the code given on page 612 to allow very advanced students to read the unpointed rabbinic Hebrew characters.
Reuchlin published de rudimentis hebraicis at his own expense, a venture which was not financially rewarding. 1000 copies were printed in 1506. Reuchlin had 750 copies unsold in 1510!
The copies which were sold provided the single most important grammatical aid to the study of the Hebrew language by Christian reformers in the Reformation period. Both Martin Luther and Ullrich Zwingli studied de rudimentis hebraicis exhaustively.

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
KIMHI SOURCE DOCUMENTS
R. David Kimhi's Sefer Miklol R. Moses Kimhi's Mahalak Shebile De-daat
HEBREW GRAMMARS OF THE REFORMATION
GRAMMARS 1475-1528 Pellican's de modo legendi et intelligendi 1504 Reuchlin's de rudimentis hebraicis 1506
KIMHI WRITINGS PRINTED 1469-1545
Grammars - 1469-1545 Commentaries - 1477-1531 Psalms 1477-1517 1st Rabbinic 1517 Special Page

© copyrighted August 15, 1999, Gordon Laird