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Elias Levita

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(properly ELIJAH the Levite, son of Asher), one of the greatest Jewish scholars of modern times, was born in the latter half of the fifteenth century. Both the year and the place of his birth have been the subject of literary controversy. The former point seems to have been settled by the learned Rossi (see below), who showed that Elias was born in 1471 or 1472, not, as Hirt maintains, in 1469, or, as Nagel undertook to prove, in 1477. The second point is still a point of dispute, both Italians and Germans being desirous to claim this great writer for their country. The chief argument of the former is that Elias, in one of his works, speaks of Italy as "my country" and Venice as "my city;" the chief arguments of the Germans are that Elias, on the title pages of several of his books, calls himself Ashkenazi (אִשְׁכְּנָזַי ), or "the German," and that, according to the express testimony of his friend and pupil, Sebastian Minster (q.v.), he was born at Neustadt, on the Aich, not far from Nuremberg. The margrave of Neustadt expelled Elias, together with several other Jews, from that town. He then went to Italy, lived in several places as teacher of the Hebrew language, especially (from 1504) at Padua, where he lectured on the Hebrew grammar of Moses Kimchi, and wrote a commentary on it. When Padua, in 1509, was captured and plundered, Elias lost all his property and went to Venice, which city, in 1512, he again left for Rome. There he met with a very friendly reception from cardinal Egidio of Viterbo, who even received him and his family into his own house. For many years Elias instructed the cardinal in the Hebrew language, who, in turn, made him better acquainted with the classical languages. Through Egidio, Elias entered into intimate relations with a number of other cardinals and bishops, who so warmly recommended him that he received an honorable call from king Francois I of France, which he, however, declined. When Rome, in 1527, was plundered by the troops of Karl V, Elias again lost his whole property. He again went to Venice, where he remained until 1540, when he accepted a call from Paul Fagius to assist him in the establishment of a new Hebrew printing office, and in the publication of several Hebrew books, at Isny, in Suabia. He remained in Isny until 1547, when he returned to Venice, where he died in 1549. Elias rejected many of the Jewish traditions, and always spoke favorably of the Christians; but he expressly denied that he had secretly become a Christian, and averred that, "thanks to God, he was still a Jew." He was universally esteemed both for his character and his extraordinary scholarship; only some fanatical Jews hated him, as they suspected his fidelity to Judaism. His celebrated works on Hebrew grammar procured him the surname of "the Grammarian" (הִמְּדִקְדֵּק ). His first work was a commentary on the מָהֲלָךְ (Mahalak), or grammar of the rabbi Moses Kimchi, first published by a certain Benjamin who had stolen the MS. (at Pesaro, 1508; frequently reprinted, with a Latin translation by Sebastian Munster, Basel, 1527, 1531; and another by L'Empereur, Leyd. 1631).

This is a different work from his scholia on Kimchi's פֵּתָח דְּבָרִי (Pethach Debaray), or brief grammatical introduction, the text of which had appeared at Naples in 1492, and Levita's scholia on it at Pesara in 1507, and later editions. At Rome he composed a grammar entitled הִבָּחוּר (hab-Bachur, Rome, 1518), and a work on "Composition" הִהִרְכָּבָה, Rome, 1519), in which he treats of the irregular words of the Bible. Both works were translated by Minster (the former first at Basel in 1518, and the latter in 1536). He also wrote a more extensive grammatical treatise in four parts, entitled. פַּרְקֵי אֵַליָּהוּ, "Elijah's Sections" (Soncino, 1520, and later elsewhere; trans. by Munster, Basel, 1527, and later). After his return to Venice he wrote a book on the accents (טוּב טִעִם ) Tezb Taam (Ven. 1538, and other eds.; likewise translated by Minster, Basel, 1539), and, the most celebrated of all his works, a critical book on the Biblical text and its authors (מָסוֹרֶת הִמָּסוֹרֶת),Masoreth ham-Masoreth (Venice, 1538, 1546; Basel, 1539 [with a Latin summary of the work by Munster; Sulzbach, 1769 and 1771]). This work, remarkable alike for literary merit, although it anticipated the judgments of the highest modern criticism on the questions of which it treats, and although it was, in fact, the father of the great Buxtorf and Cappel controversy, which raged round the Hebrew Scriptures for more than a hundred years after Levita's death, had, until recently, never been actually translated either into Latin or any modern language. Nagel translated into Latin the three introductions (Altdorf, 1757-1771); and there is a so-called German translation of Levita's book, published at Halle in 1772, and commonly known as Semler's. But Semler was not really, as indeed he did not profess to be, the translator of Levita. The translation, such as it was, was executed by a young Jewish convert to Christianity of the name of Meyer, and all that Semler did was to supervise and annotate the German rendering. After all, the work was full of errors, and many valuable passages of the original are altogether omitted. A complete and very carefully executed translation into English, together with a critical edition of the original, was in 1867 published by Dr. Ginsburg (The Masoreth ha-Masoreth of Elias Levita, in Hebrew, with an English Translation and Explanatory Notes, London, 1867). Among the works compiled by him at Isny is a Chaldaic-Rabbinical Dictionary (]fm2g2rVt2m, Methurgeman, Isny, 1541; Ven. 1560). Elias also prepared a German translation of the Psalms (Ven. 1545), and was, according to Sabtai, the author of a Hebrew-German novel, Baba. A full list of these and other works of Elias, with their editions, translations, etc., also bibliographical treatises on them and their author, may be found in Furst's Bibliotheca Judaica, 2:239 sq. A valuable biography of Elias is found in Dr. Ginsburg's edition of Masoreth ham-Masoreth, cited above; see also Herzog, Real-Encycl. 3:758; Hoefer, Nouv. Biog. Gin. 15:810; Rossi, Dizionario storico degli Autori Ebrei (German transl. [Hist. Handworterbuch der juid. Schriftsteller] by Dr. Hamberger, Leipz. 1839); Hirt, Oriental. und Exeget. Bibliothek, part 7, Jena, 1755; Wolffi Bibliotheca Hebrea, Hamburg, 1715, 1:153. (A.J.S.)


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Bibliography Information
McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Elias Levita'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/tce/e/elias-levita.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.

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