To err is human...

... but one doesn't expect errors in the hallowed 'Encyclopedia Judaica.'

February 23, 2009 21:23
To err is human...

mishneh torah 248.88. (photo credit: Courtesy)

In this Wikipedian age - where the hazards of a surfeit of democracy are plain for all to see with a tap of the "enter" button - it is reassuring to know that there are still reliable sources of accurate information. For example, the encyclopedia. When I was growing up, my parents, who could ill afford it at the time, nevertheless saw to it that I had my very own encyclopedia set at home. To us, the encyclopedia was a near-sacred text, exceeded in veracity only by the Bible itself. "Go look it up in the encyclopedia," I was often told. My faith in encyclopedias was shaken somewhat a few years ago when I discovered an error in a previous edition of the Encyclopedia Judaica (EJ). I was reading about the dispute in the 16th century between two Christian Venetian printers of Hebrew books - Giustiniani and Bragadini. The conflict revolved around the printing of Maimonides's great work, the Mishneh Torah. Rabbi Meir Katzenellenbogen - the Maharam of Padua, as he was and still is known - had edited and written a commentary on the Mishneh Torah, and went to Venice to have it published. He may have tried first to convince Giustiniani, who was well-established and had already published a number of important Hebrew books, to publish his work, but either they couldn't agree to terms or Giustiniani was too preoccupied with printing a full edition of the Babylonian Talmud to divert his attention to the project. So the Maharam went to the recently-established printer Bragadini, who agreed to publish a new edition of the Mishneh Torah with Rabbi Meir's glosses included. The work was published in 1550 and apparently was a great commercial success. This must have rankled Giustiniani because it threatened his preeminence as a printer of Hebrew books in Venice. Giustiniani therefore retaliated by publishing his own edition of the Mishneh Torah in the very same year. Now the Maharam's position was threatened, so he sought relief from the great halachic authority of his day, Rabbi Moshe Isserles, known by the acronym Rama. In a responsum that is still available today and is considered a foundation of Jewish copyright law, he banned Jews from purchasing Giustiniani's Mishneh Torah. Giustiniani, not to be outdone, turned to his "rabbi" - the pope - for help. The matter was discussed in the Vatican and expanded to include the whole subject of Hebrew books and their content as it related to Christianity. Ultimately, in 1553, the pope issued a bull ordering the confiscation and burning of the Talmud. This led to a tragic frenzy of Hebrew book-burning, first in Rome and later throughout Italy. When reading about this incident in the previous edition of the EJ, the encyclopedia stated that Giustiniani's Mishneh Torah did not contain the Maharam of Padua's glosses. The source for this is almost certainly David Amram's informative and entertaining book, The Makers of Hebrew Books in Italy, which is cited in the bibliography of that section in the encyclopedia. However, I recalled at the time that other sources stated equally clearly that Giustiniani did publish the Maharam's glosses, even though he had no agreement with the Maharam to do so. To resolve this discrepancy and verify for myself whether Giustiniani's Mishneh Torah contained the Maharam's commentary, I took myself to the Bodleian Library at Oxford and ordered up the original, magnificent, 450-year old Giustiniani folio volume. And there it was. Perusal of Giustiniani's Mishneh Torah revealed that it did indeed contain the Maharam's commentary. Giustiniani justifies his publication of the Maharam's commentary by claiming he included it only to show the reader how worthless it was. Giustiniani remarks were obviously self-serving, but also wrong on this score; to this day the Maharam's commentary is still printed with many editions of the Mishneh Torah. Inspection of a primary Mishneh Torah source vindicated my suspicion that the EJ was wrong. The author of the section in question had relied on a standard, otherwise well-documented book for the erroneous information, although one would have thought that this author was an "expert" in his field and would know better. Nevertheless, we all make mistakes, and we should not be too quick to render harsh judgment on a single, simple error. As Pope (not the pope) says, "To err is human; to forgive, divine." Indeed, I also made an error at this juncture of the story: I did not report the EJ's error to its editors. RECENTLY I had the opportunity to open the newest electronic edition of the EJ. I wanted to look up the entry on the early Hebrew printer Solomon Alkabez. Before doing so, however, a devilish curiosity overtook me, and I went to see if the error on the Bragadini/Giustiniani imbroglio had been corrected. After all, many people read the EJ, many certainly more expert in this field than I, and, having picked up the error, may have done what I did not do: notify the editors of the EJ so that the latest edition would be corrected. No such luck. The error is still there. Disappointed but undaunted, I then turned to Solomon Alkabez. I already knew (or thought I knew from other sources) that there were two notables named Solomon Alkabez, one the grandfather of the other. Solomon Alkabez the grandfather was a printer who lived in Guadalajara and in 1476 printed Rashi's commentary on the Torah, the first Hebrew book known to be printed in Spain. Solomon Alkabez the grandson, born in about 1505, was a rabbi, kabbalist and mystical poet, who resided in Safed; the family had likely fled Spain as a result of the Inquisition, or left during the expulsion in 1492. The younger Solomon Alkabez is best known as the composer of the beautiful and beloved Sabbath hymn "Lecha Dodi" which is sung as part of the Friday night service in virtually all synagogues around the world. The new EJ entry on Solomon Alkabez describes only the grandson and his achievements. However, there is printed a diagram of the family tree that shows Solomon the grandfather and indicates that he was a printer. Searching further for Alkabez the printer, I went to the entry on Guadalajara. There I found the following: "The earliest-recorded Hebrew printing press in Spain was established in 1482 in Guadalajara by Solomon Alkabez, famous for his poem Lecha Dodi, who produced there in that year the commentary of David Kimchi on the later prophets and the Tur Even Ha'ezer of Jacob b. Asher (1480-82)." I will not quibble over the designation of Kimchi's commentary as the first book emanating from the Alkabez Guadalajara press, even though it is that press was active as early as 1476 and had printed Rashi's commentary on the Torah in that year. A peek at another EJ entry - Incunabula - confirms this. What is striking, however, is that the EJ combined the two Solomon Alkabezes into a single person in its Guadalajara entry even though, in another place in the very same EJ, they are clearly two very distinct people separated by two generations, 1,000 miles and years of historical travail. There is always a kind of delicious impish satisfaction in finding an error in a very serious, highly respected work or person. It feeds one's tenuous ego to show that even the "high and mighty," so to speak, experts and scholarly works, can sometimes get it wrong. Our own errors are then brought into that perspective and are diminished accordingly. But there is something larger and more important here. In this age where information is so easy to come by - just Google it - we may become unwitting receivers and disseminators of wrong information. This can become insidious and sometimes cause great damage. Those of us with academic backgrounds are rightly taught that primary sources are always the best. But they are not always easily accessed. In contrast, the ease and simplicity with which even the most arcane information can be obtained on the Internet tempts even the most careful of scholars. It is also becoming apparent that even the most trusted sources such as the encyclopedia should be treated with a dose of wariness. One thing is certain. I am going to send the publishers of the EJ a copy of this piece. I await the next edition of the EJ. EJ responds: "The editors of EJ2 made every effort to present accurate information. However, in a work of this scope it is inevitable that certain errors will slip by. We will always be happy to receive queries and emendations from our readers, especially one as knowledgeable as Dr. Nuchbacher." The author is a physician now working with a number of Israeli biotech start-ups. He is also preparing a book on the early history of Hebrew printing.

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