top of page
< Back

Gamaliel Ben Pedahzur and his Prayer Book

Cecil Roth

<plain_text><page sequence="1">?ltgcellante? i. Gamaliel Ben Pedahzur and his Prayer Book The year 1738 witnessed the publication in London of a curious English translation of the Hebrew liturgy. The title was quaint and long-winded: "The Book of Religion, Ceremonies, and Prayers; of the Jews, As Practised in their Synagogues and Families on all Occasions: On their Sabbath and other Holy-Days Throughout the Year. To which is added, A Preface shewing the Intent of the Whole.1 The Contents, and an Index, with the Hebrew Title of each Prayer made English; with many Remarkable Observations and Relations of the Rabbies: All which are what the Modern Jews Religiously observe. Translated immediately from the Hebrew, by Gamaliel Ben Pedahzur, Gent. London: Printed for J. Wilcox, at VirgiVs Head, opposite to the New Church in the Strand. M.dcc.xxxviii." This was not indeed the first attempt at rendering the Hebrew liturgy into English. Almost a century before, John Evelyn had met in Amsterdam a "Burgundian" Jew married to a Kentishwoman, who had shown him the translation he had made for the benefit of his wife. The year after the Whitehall Conference, a certain A(lexander) R(oss), in his View of the Jewish Religion had rendered a few of the occasional prayers: and in the last years of the century, Isaac Abendana enriched his Calendars for 1695 and 1699 with "An Account of our Public Liturgy as at this day established among us, and A Discourse concerning the Jewish Fasts," both accompanied by illustrations from the Prayer Book.2 Neverthe? less, the venture of 1738 was the first integral translation of the Daily 1 Perhaps a misprint for "the whole of the contents" 2 Of. Singer, Marly Translators of the Jewish Liturgy in England in Trans? actions, iii. 39-45.</page><page sequence="2">2 MISCELLANIES. Prayers to be published in English. As such, it must have attracted a good deal of attention from both Jews and Gentiles. A cursory inspection was all that was necessary to convert the interest of the former into indignation, and of the latter into amusement. The first part of the work contained a description of Jewish ceremonies: and the second, a translation into English of the Daily Prayers according to the Ashkenazic rite, neither translation nor English being above reproach. But both parts alike, while purporting to maintain an impartial gravity, utterly distorted the subject by giving an exag? gerated importance to the least attractive minutiae of observance and by undue insistence upon anything of a scrofulous nature. Nothing is omitted which might arouse ridicule or aversion: and the most barbaric shortcomings of translation are inconsequentially ascribed to the "incoherence" of the original. Within a few years, however, Pinto, Alexander, and Levi, had provided fair and adequate substitutes for the libellous attempt of 1738. Gamaliel ben Pedahzur lost his importance: but curiosity has continued to be felt as to his identity from that day to this. Conjectures have been interminable. The name was said to be an early sobriquet of A. Alexander, or of Isaac Nieto himself, in an interval of revolt. No, it must be a certain Menasseh, of whose tribe Gamaliel was prince ?doubtless, Menasseh da Costa. He was a Sephardi, trying to throw ridicule on the Ashkenazim. He was an apostate, endeavouring to discredit Ashkenazi and Sephardi alike. But no definite proof of any sort was brought in support of any of these conjectures. No less an authority than the late Rev. Isidore Harris, in a Jewish Encyclopaedia article which was countersigned by Joseph Jacobs, contented himself by setting the seal of insolubility upon the mystery. Yet the whole discussion was, as a matter of fact, utterly super? fluous excepting as an exercise in literary gymnastics. The enigma, such as it was, had already been solved within twenty years of the publication by a correspondent to the Gentleman's Magazine. Other persons must without doubt have stumbled upon an indication in so obvious and so accessible a source: but the letter has never yet been re-published. It is therefore given here in full.</page><page sequence="3">gamaliel ben pedahzur and his prayer book. 3 "THE GENTLEMAN'S MAGAZINE" Vol. XXVIII (1758) p. 468. October 11, 1758. Mr. Urban, The learned are obliged to Mr. A. R. for his letters in your magazine for August, 1758, p. 369, in which he mentions the Jewish prayers for the dead. It will be very kind in him to mention the title of the Jewish liturgy, and by whom and when and where printed, and of what size. And more kind, if he would translate the whole book into English; perhaps this book is not mentioned by Wolfius in his Biblioih. Hebraea, Vol. 4. For as yet that very learned and most useful writer has not (as I think) printed a catalogue of the Jewish liturgical books, which, perhaps, he or some other learned man will do hereafter. I wish that Wolfius had given us the names of all the printing presses of Hebrew books that ever were in any city, and had given us the exact titles of all the Jewish books in the chronological order in which they have been printed, referring us to the volume and page of his Bib. Hebro?a for an account of the said books. However, such a work will supply matter for the learned Wolfius to make a fifth volume. In the year 1738, Abraham Mears of London, being desirous to have the English entertain a favourable opinion of the Jews, publish'd in English, The booh of Religion, Ceremonies, and Prayers of the Jews, as practised in their Synagogues and Families, which was printed for Mr. Wilcox, at Virgil9s Head, in the Strand, 8vo, 1738. But to conceal himself from the knowledge of the Jews, he called himself, in the title page, Gamaliel ben Pedalizur (sic), Gentleman. This book consists of three parts: I. The first gives an account of the Jewish ceremonies, among which those are mentioned which relate to the sick and dead. II. The second is their Breviary or Common Prayer Book, and contains their prayers; but in it are no prayers for the dead, for this book does not contain their rituale, nor has it their Pontificale; there are no prayers in it concerning their ordinations, consecrations, funerals, marriages, etc. III. The third part is their Kalendar, and gives an account of what lessons are to be read every Sabbath-day and Holy-day throughout the year.</page><page sequence="4">4 miscellanies. The good natur'd translator of these prayers, has favoured the Jews as much as he possibly could in this whole book; I have been told that he is a very modest good man, and that he is converted to the Christian religion. He says, that the translation is as literal as possible, so that it may be useful to beginners in the Hebrew tongue, from which expression I guess that he taught Hebrew in London, and used this book in Hebrew and in English, and so promoted the sale of his English book. He calls this book, A Booh of Prayers, but such is the spiritual pride of the Jews, that they call those books which we Christians would call Prayer Books, The Order of Blessings. Yours, etc., John Clemens, It is unfortunate that this letter does not give any information about the pseudonymous &gt; translator besides his name, and the fact (already sufficiently obvious from internal evidence, and conjectured by more than one investigator) that he was a convert from Judaism: the suggestion that he taught Hebrew as a profession, though likely enough, is insufficiently established. Only very little more may be added from other indications. The family of Mears, or Moers, was among the founders of the Ashkenazic community in London: and already at the commencement of the eighteenth century Samson Moers was reckoned as one of the principal personages in the congregation.3 It was from England, in all probability, that the family spread to the New World, where it is early found settled in New York, Jamaica, and St. Eustatia.4 Abraham Mears must himself have been born in London, or else brought there in his early years: he never mentions any other community, and his English, though not above reproach, does not betray any taint of foreignness. He had some sort of Hebrew education, for otherwise he would not have been in a position to carry out his enterprise: but by the same token it is obvious that he never attained any great proficiency, for his "howlers" are numerous and elementary.5 He became a convert 3 Kaufmann, Rabbi Zevi Ashkenazi and his family in England, ibid., 106, 123: Schudt, J?dische Merckw?rdigkeiten, IV. i. 135. 4 Publications of American Jewish Historical Society, passim. 5 Cf. Singer, ubi supra, pp. 51-3. The translation of the opening words of the sixth verse of Lechah Dodi runs (p. 130), "Do not confound me, nor forsake</page><page sequence="5">GAMALIEL BEN PEDAHZ?R AND HIS PRAYER BOOK. 5 to Christianity, strangely enough without attaining the Rabbinate which is acquired automatically by the generality of such apostates. Subsequently, he went to live in the country, his consequent inability to revise the proof-sheets being his justification for the novel and erratic system of pagination employed and the number of printer's errors.6 In 1758 he was still living, though apparently in obscurity. As far as the sobriquet Gamaliel ben Pedahzur is concerned, it is not likely that it was adopted because there was any connection between the writer and the tribe of Menasseh, nor even out of a sense of comradeship with that Prince's proverbially unfortunate colleague, Shelumiel ben Zurishadai. It is more probable that its reason is to be sought in the Christian legend that Rabban Gamaliel I, grandson of Hillel, who had spoken tolerantly of the new sect and had been the master of the apostle Paul, became subsequently a convert to Christianity. It is for this reason, by the way, that the name Gamaliel is even to-day comparatively popular in Nonconformist circles?as witness the case of Warren Gamaliel Harding, late President of the United States of America. "Ben Pedahzur" was, without doubt, added in the present instance, like the title "Gent," merely to round off the name. The nature and contents of the Book of the Religion, Ceremonies, and Prayers of the Jews have been described more than once, in all of their glaring inaccuracy: notably by the Rev. S. Singer, in his "Early Translations and Translators of the Jewish Liturgy in English,"7 and by Louis Zangwill, in a couple of recent articles.8 Attention has not, however, been drawn hitherto to the importance of the work for the study of the history of the Jews in England. It gives us a reasonably accurate picture of the early days of the Ashkenazic community in me, what are my words, and what are my wonderings": not a single word is rendered correctly! This would rival the blunder in the 1733 edition of Leon of Modernus Bites and Ceremonies of the Jews, where (p. 81) XDH is trans? lated "The father is welcome" K3K "pin ! 8 Preface, p. iv.-v. One must charitably suppose that his curious reference to the Day of Expiration is due to this! Mr. Lucien Wolf informs me that a second edition of the Ceremonies, definitely more Christian in tendency, was brought out in 1753. There is no copy of this in the British Museum. 7 In Transactions, iii. 8 The New Judaea, June 5th-19th, 1925.</page><page sequence="6">6 MISCELLANIES. London in the first half of the eighteenth century, when it was still overshadowed by its aristocratic Sephardic neighbours. Contrary to what might have been imagined, the heyday of the German Jews had already passed, and the community already followed the Polish variant of the Ashkenazic ritual.9 Yet it seems that one or two Sephardic customs must have penetrated, such as that of the Etz Hayim, or assistance of a child in the ceremony of Gelilah?as far as I know not in vogue in any Ashkenazic community.10 The characteristic ending of the Sabbath services, night and morning, by the singing of Yigdal had already been introduced, possibly from the same source.11 The custom of selling the Mitzvoth prevailed,12 with other similar practices of a nature which can hardly be credited.13 Offerings were of course made: but it is rather surprising to find that as little as a penny was usual.14 A further interesting detail is the fact that the characteristic Anglo-Jewish pronunciation of Hebrew already prevailed. In the margin of the translation, there is printed the transliteration of the opening words of each prayer. This is, surprisingly enough, in the purest cockney: Awdown Owlom, Awbeenue Molheinue, Coddish de Raubonnen, Attah chownen lyodem dawoss: and so on indefinitely. A good deal of light is similarly thrown upon the social life of the London Jewry. They were of course minute in their observance, not merely of the ritual of the Shulchan Aruch, but also of innumerable superstitions, many ridiculous, of which Gamaliel does not fail to make capital.15 If belief in the evil eye prevailed, there were certain old women who made it their business to counteract it by a process of fumigation at a given scale of charges: though, being themselves Ashkenazi, they made the Spanish Jews pay more than the Germans.16 It was unusual for unmarried women to attend at Synagogue, excepting on Simhat 9 Prayers, p. 149: The Jews of Poland, or those who follow their ceremonies which the Jews of England do, they say the following. . . . 10 Ibid, pp. 91, 99. 11 Ibid. pp. 137, 162. 12 Ibid, p. 89. 13 Ceremonies, p. 31. 14 Prayers, p. 98. 15 Ceremonies, pp. 11, 16, 17, 19, 20, 31, 75, etc. 16 Ibid, 77-78.</page><page sequence="7">GAMALIEL BEN PEDAHZTJR AND HIS PRAYER BOOK. 7 Tor ah and Pur im.17 Weddings and betrothals were conducted in full continental style, with feasting and music and dancing spread over several days.18 We are even told something of the menu on such occasions?wine, and drams, with coffee, chocolate and tea for those who liked such new-fangled beverages, and sweetmeats and cakes to eat.19 As for costume: the Jew, like his Gentile neighbour, affected the irksome dignity of a periwig, which Rabbinical regulations per? mitted him to comb out even on the Sabbath.20 The young sparks habitually went about with swords: but on the Sabbath, when they were enjoined to attach a wooden blade to the hilt, the majority preferred to do without.21 If Gamaliel is to be believed (as is frequently not the case) it was the custom to use a sedan-chair as substitute for a coach or horseback on that day.22 Sexual morality does not seem to have been above reproach: but it is to be hoped that it was not so imperfect as our author suggests.23 The state of Hebrew education was low, so that an English translation of the prayer-book was a crying need:24 but Gamaliel was not so striking an exception to the general rule as he himself believed. Every Sabbath afternoon, the poorer class religiously went to bed, outdoing thereby the modern observance of the aphorism that sleep is among the enjoyments of the Sabbath. Visitors to the London Synagogues must have been frequent: as it was largely for their benefit that the work was provided with an index and cast into its actual form: we know, indeed, of the cases of Voltaire some years earlier, and of John Wesley a little time later. But Gamaliel, while speaking calmly of "our Christian ladies" had the impertinence to imagine that his book might be utilised also by those 17 Ibid, 78. 18 Ibid, pp. 22-19 {sic: the pagination is erratic). For an instance of a peculiarly conspicuous contemporary wedding, for which an escort of Grenadier Guards was actually provided, see J. P. Malcolm's Anecdotes of the Manners and Customs of the 18th Century. II. p. 152. 19 Ceremonies, 20, 26. 20 Ibid., pp. 60-1. 21 Ibid., pp. 86-7. *2 Ibid., pp. 85-6. 23 Preface, pp. 4-5. 24 Customs, p. 87.</page><page sequence="8">8 miscellanies. Jews who could not understand the Service in the original. The hope was preposterous: and before many years were passed, English Jews were provided with the first of a long and noble series of translations of their stately liturgy, accompanied (as the present one was not) by the original text. Gamaliel's utility was gone: but he continued to arouse attention by virtue of his pseudonymity. It has been a pleasure to me to deprive the apostate of this last shred of interest. Cecil Roth. Read before the Society, June 8, 1926.</page></plain_text>

bottom of page