Monday, December 28, 2009

Please Help Preserve Jewish Family Trees!

I am pleased to post here about a new genealogy collaboration that will help preserve Jewish genealogy for future generations. and Beit Hatfutsot - the Museum of the Jewish People (Tel Aviv, Israel) are now collaborating in a major new project to preserve Jewish family trees.

Under this partnership, online family trees built on - with the consent of the tree creators (see below) - will be transferred to Beit Hatfutsot for digital safekeeping.

For three decades, Beth Hatfutsoth has been collecting digital information on many topics, all aimed at preserving the history of the Jewish people, including family trees with millions of records. Its multimedia database includes Jewish genealogy, surnames, communities, photographs, film/video and music.


Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Origin of the name "shnayer"

Shnayer is a very common personal name, popular both among Chassidic and non Chassidic Jews[1].

Where does this unusual name come from? Unlike most Jewish male personal names, shnayer is neither biblical nor of yiddish origin. Its etymology is somewhat controversial with Anthroponomasticists disagreeing as to its exact origin.

Shnayer= Two Lights?

I recently came across an interesting article by Yechiel Gumperz in TARBIZ Vol. XXV which discusses the origin of the name Shanyer among others. Gumperz writes:

. Rabbi Shmuel Vidaslow in his book Beth Shmuel on the Even Haezer section of the Shulchal Aruch explains the name's etymology: "when both the paternal and maternal grandparents of the child is named Meir, he shall be called shnei-or". The Maharashal in his commentary yam shel shelomo on tractate Gittin, Chapter 3, article 26 relates an incident that occurred in his family ”a son was born to his grandfather who wanted to name the child Meir after his own father, however the mother wanted to name the child after her father whose name was Yair so they compromised by naming the child shnei or". However the name Shneir predates all of this and its origins are much older. shnayer is not equivalent to senior as shenei-or contains an aleph whereas the Sephardic sinior (Ladino for Moses) does not[2].

Gumperz does not expand on it but rather adds cryptically: "see Shem Hagedolim on the entry Shnayer b. Yehuda".

Indeed Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azulai in Shem Hagedolim likewise relates the aforementioned story of the maharshal but adds:

However It seems that the name shnayer is much older because Rabbi Yonah already quotes from his teacher Rabbi Samuel b. Shnayer. And likewise other Rabbi were named shnayer and therefore they named the aforementioned child shnayer because this name already existed in the world and it (also) alluded to the “two great lights” Meir and Uri[3].

Romance Elements in the Yiddish Language

Max Weinreich

(considered one of the foremost experts on the Yiddish language)
History of the Yiddish language opines that Yiddish arose via a fusion
of Hebrew, Loez (Western Loez is Judeo-French and Southern Loez is
Judeo-Italian) and German.

According to Weinreich, the Ashkenazic community began in what is now
Lorraine, France(referred to as Loter) and absorbed successive waves of
from other parts of France and Italy.

Weinreich also puts forth a possible explanation as to how the
erroneous (in his opinion) etymology for the name
Shnayer may have come about:

The name very old in Loter-Ashkenaz. Toward the end of the eleventh century there lived in Loter, apparently in Worms, an eminent Halachist, R. Shneur son of R. Judah son of R. Baruch. Among the victims of 1096 (the "First Crusade") the name Shneur is found four times in Mainz, once in Cologne, once in Worms. Despite its Hebrew orthographic garb, the name is of Loez derivation. Its proto ancestor is Latin SENIOR (the older). The traditionalization of the orthography came apparently in Ashkenaz, where the coterritorial population spoke no Romanic and the Jews no longer understood the original meaning; the /sen/ could have been conceived as a shin with a shva and a nun, and thereafter the name was interpreted by folk etymology as shne+ur (two lights)[4].

George Jochnowitz writes here:

French Jews fled to what is now Germany. Their language may have survived for a generation or more, but there is no record of it. Instead, we have Isolated words: cholnt from an Old French word meaning hot, related to Spanish caliente and modern French chaud; bentshn, 'to bless', perhaps from French but more likely from Provencal benzir or Italian benedicere; leyenen, which we have already mentioned. Then there are given names: Beyle from belle, meaning 'beautiful', which coexists with the names Sheyne and modern Yafa; Yente, probably from Judeo-Italian yentile, standard Italian gentile, meaning 'noble' and a man's name, Shneyer, from French seigneur meaning 'nobleman' or 'lord'. Nowadays people say Shneyer comes from Hebrew shnai or 'two light', but there never was such a Hebrew name before there was Yiddish.

I would also add an additional reason why shnayer can't mean "2 lights", because it would be grammatically incorrect. In Hebrew 2 lights would be "shnei orot", ("or" being the singular noun and "orot" being plural).


[1]. particularly Chabad where boys are often named after the founder of the movement, Rabbi Shnayer Zalman of Liadi[photo left]) and the Lithuanian "yeshiva world" ,particularly Lakewood, where boys are often named after Rabbi Shnayer Kotler[photo right]).

[2]. See Gumperz, Yehiel. Keriat Shemot B’yisrael in TARBIZ Vol. XXV April 1956, p. 346

[3]. See Shem Hagedolim p. 128 and Kuntres Achron ibid.

[4]. Weinreich Max, History of the Yiddish Language. p. 399

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Claiming Descent from the Maccabees

The Talmud in tractate Bava Batra 3:1 relates that the Hasmonean dynasty came to a tragic end with the death of the last survivor of Herod’s purges, a young woman whose name is not given.
Herod was a servant of the Hasmoneans, and there was a “little girl” among them upon whom he cast his eyes. One day he heard a voice saying that a servant who should rebel that day would succeed. Then he slew all his superiors except this little girl; and when she saw that he intended to marry her, she ascended to the roof and proclaimed: "If it happen that one shall claim himself descended from the Hasmoneans, be it known that he is a slave[1], for all the Hasmoneans were slain except myself, and I now commit suicide by throwing myself from this roof.

Likewise in tractate Kiddushin 70b:

Whoever says that he is from the household of the Hasmoneans is surely a slave.

The Talmud is unclear as to who the “little girl” was. Some assume that she was Miriam, the daughter of Alexander and Alexandra, both of whom were descended of Alexander Jannai and Shlomit Alexandra (see genealogical chart top right). The problem with this interpretation is that (according to Josephus) the aforementioned Miriam did actually marry Herod and bore him four children: Alexander, Aristobolous, Shlomzion and Cyprus.

The Hasidic thinker Rabbi Zadok of Lublin puts forth a different explanation. In his book Resisei Layla (Paragraph 57) he writes (translation mine):

Even after the death of the young maiden, there remained remnants of the Hasmonean house, however they were forced to go into hiding out of fear. And what the Talmud relates that nothing remained (of the Hasmonean house) means that they hid and disappeared from the public eye. God forfend to say that the seed of those who brought such great salvation to the Jewish people (the Hasomenans), became extinct.

Josephus indeed writes that Herod had to contend with claimants to the Hasmonean throne well into his reign.

Are Descendants of the Hasmoneans Really Slaves?

The Talmudic dictum(?) that Hasmonean descent constitutes tainted ancestry apparently was never taken too seriously. How else to account for numerous families of distinction, throughout Jewish history claiming Hasmonean ancestry (although one may counter that those claims should likewise not be taken seriously, however just the fact that these devout Jews would make such a claim proves my point).

The following are several examples:


The great Jewish historian Flavius Josephus (alleged bust, top) in the opening chapter of his autobiography Vitae, writes:

The family from which I am derived is not an ignoble one, but hath descended all along from the priests; and as nobility among several people is of a different origin, so with us to be of the sacerdotal dignity, is an indication of the splendor of a family. Now, I am not only sprung from a sacerdotal family in general, but from the first of the twenty-four courses; and as among us there is not only a considerable difference between one family of each course and another, I am of the chief family of that first course also; nay, further, by my mother I am of the royal blood; for the children of Asamoneus חשמונאי from whom that family was derived, had both the office of the high priesthood, and the dignity of a king, for a long time together. I will accordingly set down my progenitors in order. My grandfather's father was named Simon, with the addition of Psellus : he lived at the same time with that son of Simon the high priest, who first of all the high priests was named Hyrcanus. This Simon Psellus had nine sons, one of whom was Matthias, called Ephlias: he married the daughter of Jonathan the high priest, which Jonathan was the first of the sons of Asamoneus, who was high priest, and was the brother of Simon the high priest also. This Matthias had a son called Matthias Curtus, and that in the first year of the government of Hyrcanus: his son's name was Joseph, born in the ninth year of the reign of Alexandra: his son Matthias was born in the tenth year of the reign of Archclaus; as was I born to Matthias in the first year of the reign of Caius Caesar.
Josephus considered himself a Pharisee (the antecedents of Rabbinic Judaism). Assuming the "problem" of Hasmonean ancestry was known during the time of Josephus (the Tannaitic period), why would Josephus make such a claim?


The Perahia ha-Cohen family (some link the Perahias to the Pereiras of Sephardic reknown) were a distinguished family of Rabbis and and scholars in the Balkan Peninsula (particularly in Salonika) . This family prided itself with their pedigree, and traced themselves to the aforementioned Jewish historian Flavius Josephus[2].

The Sephardic historian Michael Molho wrote a monograph on the Perahia family under the title Essai d’une Monographie sur la Famille Pérahia à Thessalonique (Salonica, 1938) that also records this claim and mentions the founder of this branch who came to Salonika from southern Italy in 1502.

This claim is also cited by the historian David Conforte in his book Kore ha‑Dorot, among others.

Some members of this family living closer to our time includes the contemporary Kabbalist Rabbi Chaim Hacohen Perahia, also known as the "Milkman", because he rolls up his sleeves every morning to go milk the cows at his sisters farm see here
See also the accomplished Pianist and Conductor Murray Perahia


The Goldsmids were a family of wealthy Anglo-Jewish bankers and barons.

A.M. Hyamson in A History of the Jews in England records an early family tradition among the Goldsmids claiming “descent from Moses Uri haLevi (1544-1622) who had come to Emden from Poland, the first recognized Ashkenazi rabbi of Amsterdam, brought there by the earliest of the ex-Marrano settlers. But there is a far more distinguished ancestry to which the family more or less lays claim – one however which the Heralds are not as yet prepared to accept – and that is the princely Hasmonean family of Judaea and the Maccabee hero-sons of Mattathias the priest. Rabbi Uri claimed this illustrious ancestry and the Goldsmid family, inheriting the claim, took as its motto Mi Camocha Baelim Adonai, “who is like unto Thee, O Lord, among the Gods”, the basis of the name of Maccabi if an acrostic is accepted.

The descendants of Rabbi Uri haLevi formed several branches, known severally as Moses, Levi, Letteris, as well as Goldsmid. ... The name Goldsmid is supposed to be a kinnui or civil name, the equivalent of Uri. According to Exodus, Bezalel ben Uri was the goldsmith employed in the decoration of the Tabernacle”.

Some Distinguished Members of the Goldsmid Family

*Isaac Lyon Goldsmid was born in London and entered the family firm of Mocatta and Goldsmid bullion brokers to the Bank of England. He became a very successful financier, his estate at death being valued at over £1 million. Throughout his lifetime he used his wealth and status to advance educational, social and religious reform and to pursue Jewish political emancipation, playing a pivotal role in the founding of UCL. Goldsmid abhorred the division of the London Jews into distinct Ashkenazi (German- and Yiddish-speaking) and Sephardi (Spanish and Portuguese) communities. In an attempt to remedy this he was instrumental in founding a distinct “British” synagogue – the West London Synagogue of British Jews, opened on 27 February 1842.

It is also interesting mention that when Theodore Herzl visited England in 1895, he found an instant ally in the person of a wealthy and well- connected Colonel Goldsmid who became an enthusiastic supporter of Herzl's plans.


I came across an additional curious anecdote, this one about a converso family that settled in Brazil which claimed to possess a deed of nobility proving its descent from the Maccabees. A similar claim existed in the family of Joseph Salvador, an eccentric thinker of converso origin who lived in 19th century France [3].


I would also mention a bizarre reference in Bryan Mark Rigg's book,  "Hitler's Jewish Soldiers". Like most German Jews, Germany's Sephardim naively felt that Nazi persecutions were directed mainly at the hated "ostjuden" (Polish Jews, Ashkenazim) and not against the highly cultured, highly assimilated German Jew. A good example of this is cited on page 14, "Lt.Col. Albert Benary, a half-Jew and well known military writer wrote the Nazi Government: "My family doesn't come out of the eastern ghettos. They came from the west through North Africa and Spain to Germany and certainly picked up non-Jewish blood along the way. However my family is not ashamed of its Jewish blood. We can trace our Jewish blood back to the priestly caste of the Jewish people and out family's motto, battle cry if you will, comes from the Maccabees...I believe I have the right to ask not to be treated as a second class German citizen".


[1]. see here for discussion on the halachic status of Herod's descendants

[2]. Unfortunately, many people tend to confuse Josephus (whose hebrew name was Yosef Ben Matityahu) with another obscure figure Yosef ben Gurion who was his contemporary. The popular medieval work Sefer Yossifon is not the Hebrew version of Josephus History of the Jews (which Josephus-by his own account- did write but has subsequently been lost) but rather a later medieval adaptation. see here and here for a more in depth discussion on this.

In the Venice edition of Yosifon, first published in 1544, there are numerous gushing approbations by leading Italian Rabbis, testifying to the saintliness of the man (whom they evidently thought was Josephus, one of the commanders of the Jewish War) , some went so far as to call him, Yosef Hacohen "Hagadol"(literally, the High Priest)!.

Apparently Italian Jewry took great pride in one of their own sons (after all Josephus was the first famous Italian Jew) and obviously looked at the man from a biased perpective(Ironic, since Josephus adopted the name of his patron[and the Jews' persecutor], Flavius Vespasian Caesar, the father of Titus.). As mentioned, the Perahias too were of southern Italian origin.

First Chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Isaac Herzog wrote a short article of his observations after reading Josephus works. In the article he attempts to address several difficulties, including the question of whether the man should be considered a traitor (he leaves the question open). He also comes to the conclusion that Josephus was no big torah scholar. He was assailed for this by Rabbi Greenwald in the latter's Toledot Hacohanim Hagedolim. see here

Mireille Hadas-Lebel in Flavius Josephus: Eyewitness to Rome's First-Century Conquest of Judaea writes:

Whether Josephus was a traitor or a wise man who tried to salvage the Jewish kingdom is a question that modern historians still argue. In 1937 a group of law students in Antwerp reopened the case of Flavius Josephus, and after a mock trial found him guilty of "treason." In 1941, in the midst of the Second World War, a group of young resistance fighters who were strong supporters of Zionism reacting as French and Jewish patriots accused Josephus of "collaboration." Today, Josephus' works are read more widely in Israel than in any other country. Archaeology, Israel's "national sport," could not do without him.

[3]. See Bodian, Miriam Hebrews of the Portugese Nation; Conversos and Community in early modern Amsterdam p. 89

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Curious Case of Benedict Spinoza

 (photo, used with permission, by Roel Wijnants)

Baruch (Benedict) Spinoza (1632 – 1677) was a Sephardic Jew whose forbears had fled Catholic persecution in Portugal and settled in Amsterdam.

Young Spinoza attended the local Jewish Sephardic school and studied under Rabbis Saul Morteira and Manasseh ben Israel.

His early life was one of hardship and suffering. His mother Chana Deborah died when he was only six. His father, Michael followed her to the grave 12 years later and the family fortune was lost. Spinoza decided to retreat from normal life and devote himself to the study of philosophy.

The Jewish community of Amsterdam did not look with favor on his new enterprise. They held his views to be anathema to normative Judaism (specifically his views on the immortality of the soul) and he was eventually excommunicated (put into herem) as a result. Subsequent to that we find Spinoza living a modest life as a lens grinder and living in a simple apartment owned by the painter Mr. Henryk Von Der Spijk.

Spinoza died at the age of 44 of a lung illness (which may have been caused by his profession which caused him to ingest particles of glass on a daily basis), and was buried in the churchyard of the Nieuwe Kerk in The Hague, or was he?...


Antonio Damasio in Looking for Spinoza describes a "pilgrimage" he made to Spinoza's grave site (pictured bottom) thus:

Gates surround the churchyard but they are wide open. There is no cemetery to speak of, only shrubs and grass and moss and muddy lanes amid tall trees. I find the grave much where I thought, in the back part of the yard, behind the church to the south and east, a flat stone at ground level and a vertical tombstone, weathered and unadorned. Besides announcing whose grave it is, the inscription reads Caute! which is Latin for "Be careful!". This is a chilling bit of advice considering Spinoza's remains are not really inside the tomb and that his body was stolen, no one known by whom, sometime after the burial when the corpse lay inside the church [1].

Damasio wonders why Spinoza- who never formally converted to Christianity, was buried in a Christian cemetery. I would also add, moreover, that his excommunication by the Jewish community was motivated in large part by the concern that his ideas, were as offensive to "normative" Christians (even in liberal Holland) as they were to Jews, and it would endanger the limited freedoms that the Jews had achieved in Amsterdam[2] (Spinoza's works also made the Index Librorum Prohibitorum [List of Prohibited Books] by the Roman Catholic Church).

Why is Spinoza, who was born a Jew, buried next to this powerful Protestant church? The answer is as complicated as anything else having to do with Spinoza. He is buried here, perhaps, because having been expelled by his fellow Jews he could be seen as Christian by default; he certainly could not have been buried in the Jewish cemetery Ouderkerk. But he is not really here, perhaps because he never became a proper Christian, Protestant or Catholic, and in the eyes of many he was an atheist. And how fitting it all is. Spinoza's God was neither Jewish nor Christian. Spinoza's God was everywhere, could not be spoken to, did not respond if prayed to, was very much in every particle of the universe, without beginning and without end. Buried and unburied, Jewish and not. Portugese but not really, Dutch but not quite, Spinoza belonged nowhere and everywhere[3].

But before we attempt to decipher who may have been behind the theft of his corpse (stealing bodies from graves is apparently still in vogue, see this piece of recent news), let us examine Spinoza's connection to Judaism.


Steven Smith in Piety, Peace, and the Freedom to Philosophize examines Spinoza's relationship to Judaism and to the notion of Jewish self determination. He writes:

Despite his attack on the ceremonial laws of Judaism as an instrument of worldly well-being, despite his denigration of Moses and the prophets as men of vivid imagination and feeble intellectual powers, Spinoza remains a recognizably and unmistakably Jewish thinker...Spinoza was, in the first place, the first modern thinker to advocate the restitution of Jewish sovereignty and a Jewish state. ...(in Theologico-Political Treatise) we read the following surprising sentence: "If the foundations of their religion did not effeminate their hearts, I would absolutely believe that some day, given the opportunity, they will set up their state again, and that God will choose them anew, so changeable are human affairs".
On the basis of this statement Spinoza has entered the history of Jewish thought as the spiritual ancestor of Zionism and the state of modern Israel. At least this is the way it was read in the last century by Moses Hess and Leon Pinsker and in this century by David ben Gurion. It is on the basis of this passage that Joseph Klausner on the occasion of the 300th anniversary of Spinoza's birth opened his speech at Hebrew University with the call "Baruch Spinoza, you are our brother[4]."

Likewise, Yirmiyahu Yovel in Marrano of Reason writes in a more tempered tone:
Was Spinoza a "closet Zionist"? Perhaps he saw in the renewal of Jewish sovereignty an answer to the anomaly of Jewish existence in the exile. After all, Zionists of three generations regarded him as their forerunner- all on the basis of his somewhat obscure, though moving remarks at the end of the third chapter of the Theologico-Political Treatise. After explaining that the hostility of the gentiles is what preserves the Jews, Spinoza goes on to say:
"The sign of circumcision is, I think, so important that I could persuade myself that it alone would preserve the nation forever. Nay, I would go so far as to believe that if the foundations of their religion have not emasculated their minds, they may even, if occasion offers, so changeable are human affairs, raise up their empire afresh and that God may a second time elect them."

This passage appears in the chapter entitled "Of the Vocation of the Hebrews" which is designed to demolish the entire concept of election (Jews as the "chosen people" j.d.)....he argues that even from the viewpoint of the bible, the election of the Hebrews refers solely to "dominion and physical advantages". This also implies that the election is temporal, not eternal; and while Spinoza as a philosopher recognizes neither, he uses the Bible's own language and authority as a weapon against itself. If the election of the Hebrews is a mere temporal, earthly event, nothing will remain of the idea of eternal transcendent election... All things happen in accordance with the laws of nature- and this is the meaning (and part of the intent) of Spinoza's remark about the return to Zion.

Although Spinoza's point is strictly philosophical, it has a particular bearing upon current issues of his time. Spinoza is writing only a few years after the upheaval fomented by Shabbetai Sevi, the false Messiah who unleashed a wave of mystical enthusiasm throughout the Jewish diaspora...the effect was particularly fierce in Amsterdam....In Theologico-Political Treatise, Spinoza says, the renewal of the Jewish kingdom is not inevitable but if the return to Zion should take place, it will be because of the immanent laws of nature and not by providence, divine revelation or messianism. For Spinoza, the Jewish vision of redemption is thus not devoid of sense but the content is entirely historical and secular.

This then is the import of Spinoza's Zionist dictum, to which later Zionists clung. They failed to see that Spinoza does not recommend the establishment of a Jewish state; he merely posits it as one of the possibilities offered by secular history.

...still Spinoza clings to several of the deepest motifs in Jewish consciousness-the eternity of Israel, the vision of redemption (understood as political liberation), and the covenant with God as symbolized by circumcision. But true to himself he submits them all to an utterly prosaic, natural and secular interpretation.

Spinoza discloses that at some level of consciousness he views himself too as a Jew-perhaps by deterministic necessity...Thus in generalizing his critique of Jewish history into a message for humanity Spinoza does not commit the kind of "apostasy" or "defection to the enemy" that Jews had seen in converts to Christianity. From that standpoint, too, it is significant that Spinoza refused to convert even while following the Pauline pattern-which he reenacted, in contrast to Paul, on the level of universal reason...

Jewish life in the diaspora is another example of the medieval conception of polity that Spinoza seeks to expunge...Spinoza's ideal state is a single, all-embracing sovereign body, independent of any prescriptive authority, in which the citizen or subject is recognized by virtue of his individual identity rather than any collective quality vested in him....

The logic of Spinoza's analysis seems to favor a quasi-Zionist solution...the Jews must either relinquish all self-rule and disperse as individuals among the gentiles or establish their own political state. This implication may well have attracted Zionists like Ben-Gurion, Nahum Sokolow, and Joseph Klausner.

...was Spinoza then the first secular Jew? What can be said confidently is that Spinoza took the first step in the eventual secularization of Jewish life by examining it empirically as a natural phenomenon...the concept of Jewish national existence, as separate from religion, did not yet exist for him as a defined theoretical concept. Existentially, in his singular life and experience, Spinoza was indeed the harbinger of this idea but he did not articulate it consciously
Jonathan Edelstein wrote an entertaining fictional account about Spinoza's secretary Chacham Saltiel establishing -with the tacit support of his master- a settlement of "rational Jews" in the holy land .


Rabbi Chaim Hirschensohn
translated parts of Spinoza's Ethics into Hebrew. He wrote a commentary on selected portions of it entitled Sources and Spider Webs. In his writings Hirschensohn vacillates between unrestrained criticisms of Spinoza and almost blind reverence. I won't focus here on his criticisms but rather his remarkable defense of Spinoza against charges of atheism and idolatry. In fact Hirschensohn writes: "The nature of Spinoza's faith in God's unity is clearer and more understood and of purer faith than all those who preceded him in the matter"[6].

Hirschensohn came to this conclusion based on the following passage from Ethics:

"No attribute of substance can be truly conceived from which it follows that substance can be divided".

This opinion, writes Hirschensohn, "redeems Spinoza and saves him from the idolater's valley of the dead and puts him in the company of the completely righteous who believe in the absolute philosophic unity of God, for his concept of extension is not at all physical extension" [7].

However Hirschensohn explained that Spinoza's error was in substituting primordial matter for the spiritual God. But this was merely an error on Spinoza's part, rather than heresy, which is why he concludes that the Herem against Spinoza was justified.

I also wish to advocate for Spinoza that he only erred and is not an idolater, for an idolater is one who considers a creative being as divine, but one who says that God is created is a heretic (apikorus) and not an idolater. Spinoza did not consider the primordial matter divine, he only said that God is physical and has extension, and this is not included in the prohibition of idolatry [8].


Is it possible that members of the Jewish community or perhaps one of his admirers (or maybe even extended family) decided to remove his body from the church and give him a proper Jewish burial somewhere? I would venture to say yes, but we will probably never know for sure (the mysterious disappearance of Spinoza's corpse conjures up the story of another Jewish bachelor whose body mysteriously disappeared from his tomb about 1500 years earlier. Not for naught did Gilles Deleuze refer to Spinoza as "the Christ of philosophers"....., see Ben Atlas's post here).

Interestingly enough, the German philosopher Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi in a letter to Moses Mendelssohn writes: "perhaps we will live to see the day when a dispute will arise over the corpse of Spinoza, like that over the corpse of Moses between the archangel and satan...." (Jacobi is here referring to a passage in The New Testament, see here )

And indeed like Moses "no man knows his (true) burial place until this day"....

Yirmiyahu Yovel writes:

...I was interested to note on a visit to the newly reopened Jewish Museum in Amsterdam, that without fanfare, Spinoza has been readmitted by his erstwhile community. In a section devoted to "Jewish Identity", the has a text explaining that for many centuries, being Jewish had entailed belonging to the Orthodox Jewish community; but ever since the act of civil equality (1796), granting political emancipation to the Dutch Jews"every Jewish person could decide what expression to give to her or her Jewishness" ....the text is illustrated by an impressive gallery of Jewish the very end the severe and distinguished face of Rabbi Isaac Aboab, one of the signatories of Spinoza's ban. So finally the banned dissenter and the banning Rabbi end up together in this minor pantheon of Jewish diversity. What better way for the Amsterdam Jewish community to readmit Spinoza, not by a declamatory gesture like lifiting the ban, but by recognizing, with good historical sense, the new situation which Spinoza's own case had anticipated and tragically embodied[9].


Amadeo Modigliani (1884-1920) was a famous Italian Jewish artist born in Livorno (Leghorn) into a Sephardic family. He was a tragic figure who struggled with drugs and alcohol throughout his life and ended up dying destitute and emaciated in Paris. Modigliano was born into a family of means but his family went bankrupt shortly after his birth. He also, strangely enough, claimed descent from Benedict Spinoza through his mother Eugenia Garsin. All the biographies of Modigliani mention this "fact", which makes it apparent that Modigliani prided himself with his supposed pedigree. There is only one problem with this claim. All the biographical sources regarding Spinoza's life expressly state that Spinoza never married or had any children (although the aforementioned fictional account of Spinoza's life by Edelstein has him marrying and starting a family) .

It's also interesting to add what Modigliani's close friend and fellow artist, Jacques Lipchitz said about his relationship to his faith. While Modigliani's work -unlike Chagall for instance- does not reflect his roots, he was a man aware (and perhaps even proud) of his heritage

"Modigliani was not a physically strong man," he wrote, "yet one day in a cafe, he attacked all by himself a gang of royalists, who in France are known for their soldierly courage. He wanted to fight them because he heard them speaking against the Jews in a dirty way. Modigliani was naturally conscious of his Jewishness and could not bear any unfair criticism of a whole people [10]."


[1]. Damasio, Antonio R. Looking for Spinoza: joy, sorrow, and the feeling brain p. 19

[2]. Another "tortured soul" Uriel Acosta (1585-1640) preceded Spinoza and met with a similar fate; he was placed in Cherem by the Sephardic community of Amsterdam for his views against both Judaism and Christianit. Acosta eventually committed suicide out of isolation and humiliation.

[3] Damasio, p. 22

[4] Bagley, Paul J. Piety, peace, and the freedom to philosophize p. 205
[5] Yovel, Yirmiyahu. Spinoza and Other Heretics: The Marrano of Reason pp.190-204

[6] cited in Schwartz, Dov Fascination and rejection: Religious Zionist attitudes toward Spinoza, Journal of Israeli History,(1993) p. 166

[7] Ibid

[8] Yovel, p. 167

[9] Yovel, p. 204

[10] Lipchitz, Jacques Amedeo Modigliani (1884-1920) p.7

Labels: , , , ,

free counters