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Sketches Of Jewish Life In Russia

By Chief Rabbi Dr. Lilienthal

Chajim Selig Slonimski, the Mathematician

Chajim Selig Slonimski was born in the city of Bialystok on  the 10th of March, 1810. His father Jacob was a pedlar in glass-ware, and made barely enough by it to support his numerous family. Selig received a good talmudical education, and at an early age he was already looked upon as a smart boy. After the fashion, peculiar to the Russians and Russian Jews, to unite the children early in wedlock, he married, in his sixteenth year, at Sabladoff, a small town in the neighbourhood of Bialystok. As usually, the father-in-law took the young couple in his house, to pass there the first part of their married life. Selig received also another teacher, Rabbi Hirsh Bashkes, known as an eminent talmudist, to whom the young student had to apply for more knowledge. But as pecuniary matters in his new home were rattler low, and as he himself was already a good scholar in the Talmud, he concluded to quit the Rabbi and to continue his studies by himself. He intended to study the whole work, and with the iron zeal peculiar to him, he began his task. Twenty-five pages were his weekly allowance; and when the chapters were difficult to comprehend, the midnight hour found him up yet, so that Friday’s noon might find the task accomplished. Happy and satisfied, he hurried then to the hath, and the Sabbath hour brought him back to his family, where he repeated, by heart, for himself, all that he had studied during the week. He cared not for mere words, but he meditated on the discussions, the different opinions and views of the Rabbis, and a short time afterwards he was able to repeat, on every Sabbath, the tractates of Sabbath and Erubin, and two years afterwards, he was master of the Sedarim Seraim and Moed.

Many a happy hour had he passed, thus studying in his lonely garret, when it happened that he got hold of the Kiddush Hachodesh of Maimonides. The calculations of the almanac and the astronomical observations captivated his mind, and he was only astonished why the commentators, who follow Maimonides, were wanting for this section; but this only increased his curiosity. He studied, several times, the dissertation; but bare of all mathematical knowledge, he was  unable to master it, and the place and the people he lived with offered him nothing to quench his literary thirst. Solitary and alone, he stood before the hieroglyphics of Maimonides, till Providence took pity on him. Book-pedlars are frequently passing through those small places with their small carts and emaciated animals, and stop before the Batay Hamidrash (high-schools) at the hour of prayer, to offer their wares to the people and to the scholars of the Beth Hamidrash.

Such a book-pedlar passed through Sabladoff. At the hour of mincha our Selig left his room and hastened to prayer. “What Sephorim (books) have you for sale?” he asked the Jew, who showed him among others the תכונת השמים (Astronomy) of Rabbi Raphael Hannover. Selig was happy when he saw the work, and asked for the price, which was considerable, as there was already another bidder for this work, by a man who had the reputation of a mathematician. This made matters worse, as Selig had no money, and he could not bear to see the book in another man’s possession. “Let us barter,” he said, “I give you theספר הברית, which I know is worth three such works, but you must give me the book.” The trade was soon made, and Selig hastened home with his newly-acquired treasure. Night and day found him over his book, and in the short space of ten days he was master of it. Now he went again over the Kiddush Hachodesh, and every thing appeared in another light.

But, alas! man’s joys are of short duration. His astronomical work showed no proofs and gave no causes. It remarked only, that he who has the knowledge of plain and spherical trigonometry will understand it; and where could he find the books, wherefrom take counsel, to advance in his studies? He was alone, and had to return therefore to his rabbinical studies, where he found many a difficult passage, which he could not have solved without astronomical knowledge. He was pleased to exercise his penetrating mind in the solution of such difficulties; and one evening, after having solved stich a passage, he went to the Beth Hamidrash, where he took his place close to the Rabbi. It is the rule to remain, in the winter season, during the time between the evening and night prayers, in the meeting house, where every one occupies his time with some study. Selig opened his Talmud, and showed to the Rabbi the passage in question; but the Rabbi could not explain it in spite of all the trouble he put himself to, till Selig solved it to him by a mathematical law. The old man was astonished, and as they, in such small communities, commonly take a walk after prayer, the Rabbi went to the mathematician of the place, and accosted him thus: “What do you think? Selig is a Baal Techuna, (astronomer.) He showed me to-day a gemara, which had no explanation at all, till he gave me an astonishing good one.” The other, although he knew his mathematical reputation in danger, went to Selig, and found in him a man with whom he could not enter into competition; but he offered him willingly another work, the Naaveh Kodesh of Rabbi Shimon Waltosh, which he had at home, but did not understand.

Half an hour afterwards  Selig had this book in his possession. It treats on geometry, plain and spherical trigonometry, and stereometry; the book had no plates; but Selig had not the remotest idea that they were wanting, for he made all the figures  himself. The works he had before studied, appeared now clearer to his penetrating mind, and he was, in a short time, such a master of this study, that he made for himself the proofs for the rectangular triangle in the spherical trigonometry, which were omitted in his work. As he passed before from one corner of his garret to another, to find out the dissenting passages in the Talmud, and to solve them if possible, his voice falling and raising, and his hands and arms in continual motion, thus we find him now with the same ardour solving the most difficult geometrical problems, without any one of his family having the least idea of his studies. His wife, a pious good-natured woman, knew nothing except God and her husband. She attended a small retail grocery to support the family, and their cow supplied them with milk and butter. Often, when Selig’s mind was occupied with the hardest problems of trigonometry, his wife would come running in his room, crying, “Selig, the cow is not in the stable, the cowherd has not brought her home, go and look after her.” And the good-natured mathematician had to run through the whole village to look after the runaway cow, and he could speak of good luck when he brought her safely home.

Just at this same time, another Jewish book-pedlar arrived in Sabladoff, who had a Hebrew translation of Euclid by Rabbi Baruch Sclower. He had only the one copy, and asked, therefore, a higher price for it, than Selig was able to pay. He proposed therefore to the pedlar, as it was Thursday already, to let him have the book till Monday morning, and by this time he could let him know if be would buy it or not. But he returned it on Monday; for he had studied it thoroughly by that time.

Such facts seem incredible to those who are unacquainted with the talents of the Russian Jews. A man high in office, to whom I told these particulars, was astonished, and asked me, “How on earth, was he able to go through those studies alone, and without a teacher, if he found not a particular pleasure in it?” But “this particular pleasure” which these Jews have for an independent study, that occupies constantly their mind and sharpens their wits, is the only explanation of all that is wonderful in such a phenomenon. When seven years old, the Jewish boy in Russia begins to study the Talmud. No readers, no manuals are put in his hands; short sentences, spiritual lightenings, mental heiroglyphics, which allow the most manifold explanations, pass the childish spirit; the melammed (teacher) points them out to the child, but does not carry him over the difficulties; to awaken the mind by the seeming paradox, he asks him, pressing, with thumb erect, his other fingers in the palm of his hand, and yelling to the boy his, “Now, now,” the solution of the passages in question. By such an unmethodical method the mind of the child gets used to analyze, or to take up a paradoxical thesis and to solve it, gets used to survey quickly every thema, and to penetrate it with his piercing mind; for he find himself continually thrown upon himself in his studies. We and our age scoff at such a study, should we hear a teacher, in caftan and dirty beard, explain the Talmud to a set of dirty boys in his curious manner and singing voice. But the Russian Jew does not care a straw for forms, for the shell, if he can only get hold of the kernel. He despises school forms, for it is impossible to study the Talmud in any other way than in a loud voice and lively discussion. The spirit may sleep when we study listlessly a work; but it must be awake and at work when we discuss loudly our ideas with a friend. How obtuse will always remain that spirit which, parrot like, knows only to say what is found in books; but must it not open our mind in a high degree, if that which we have learned gives matter for farther study, and by such self-thinking becomes really our own property? In fact, the way the Russian Jew is educated proves clearly, that the appearance of a Slonimski, if the natural abilities are only present, is easily explained; for he remarks himself, very truly, that although no Jew in Russia ever learned to calculate after the usual fashion, yet they are the best calculators. After dinner, or in the hour of relaxation which the melammed allows, the children teach one another the four elementary rules; with the return of the teacher, the mathematical problem is quickly wiped out: and thus, if you give a Jew the most complicated problem, he will try, and twist, till he finds a solution; for the spiritual “help yourself,” which a mathematical study requires, is the most akin to his own habit of thinking, and therefore he prefers it to any other elementary study. I have not the least doubt, that we could find new formulas, if we but knew the way how many a Jew came to the solution of his problem. But let us return to Slonimski.

A young man from Sabladoff, of the name of Waldenberg, was a medical student in Wilna, and returned home during the vacation. Selig showed him the mathematical figures he had made. Waldenberg was astonished, and advised him to study the Shebilay Derakiah of Rabbi Elijahu Heches; he told him, at the same time, that he could only get a very imperfect knowledge of mathematics from Jewish works, and it would be, therefore, necessary for him to study the German works, if he desired to advance. But Selig did not know A from B; how, then, should he study German works? his only trouble was, therefore, at present, to get hold of the above-named book.

He knew that the druggist, Michael Sabluvofski, in Bialystok, had an extensive Jewish library; he went, therefore, to see him. He had not the courage, to ask in plain words for such a book, for fear to be taken for a Berliner (sectarian. The Polish Jews call every body who studies another book than the Talmud, a Berliner; because Mendelssohn of Berlin prepared the way for the study of other sciences by the translation of the Pentateuch.) After a long and circuitous talk, where he spoke about all the works he had studied, he asked him if he had none of those Sephorim? Sabluvofski replied, that he possessed such books; but the Shebilay Derakinh was such a rare and scarce work, that he did not like to lend it away. “I give you the Alphasi* as pledge that I will return it quickly,” said Selig; “but do not refuse me the study of such a book.” Sabluvofski then handed it to him. On his journey home, he ran already over the pages of the rare work, and on his arrival, we soon find him closeted over its perusal. Two weeks sufficed to study it through, and with heartfelt thanks he returned it to the owner, who, encouraged by such a persevering zeal, gave him now the כללי החשבון of R. David Friesenhansen. For the first time in his life, Selig learned from this book, that there was a science called algebra. He perceived that there must exist a close connexion between it and his geometry: but he knew of no Hebrew work which could give him a clew. Sabluvofski, who was now convinced of the rare qualities, the high genius, and the great zeal of the young man, proposed to him to study German works, and introduced him, therefore, to the architect of the place, with whom they hoped to find such works. The man had nothing but Euler’s Algebra, and smiled when he saw the young man with his black eyes, who did not understand an A, fix his whole attention on the calculations. Selig received the book, from which he had to study his spelling and his algebra. Sabluvofski put over the German letters the corresponding ones of the Hebrew alphabet, and in two days Selig was able to read. He hastened back to Sabluvofski, where he passed half an hour over one page; but yet, in the two weeks he had finished both volumes. The logical firmness in the conclusions, the certainty of the mathematical problems, the methodical progress suited his spirit, and when his family believed that he walked to and fro in his garret, to learn a few tractates of the Talmud, he repeated in the same twang now the contents of the two volumes of mathematics.

* A great, voluminous Rabbinical work [by Yitzchak Al Fasi—lmb].

Being now able to read German works, he went, as soon as he returned to Bialystok, to all the Jewish book-pedlars for such books. In the street he met such a travelling bibliophile, who had Mennig’s Cursus of Mathematics, in four volumes, for sale. It contains the differential and integral calculus, optics, statics and hydrostatics. Selig bought the work and took it home. For the first time he owned a German work; and he had to fear to lose his reputation as a pious Talmudist if it should be discovered. He hid it therefore on the top of his bedstead, where among others the bread, the butter and several utensils were placed. The busy housewife soon found it out: and, alarmed, she asked him for the use of those טרפה פסול? “Nothing,” he replied; “it is paper, to wrap on the butter which you sell.”

Another hiding-place was soon found out, and, by stealth, when nobody saw him, he continued his mathematical studies with unabated zeal; and, in the short space of two months, he had finished the ponderous work. He had enriched it by many a marginal note, had found some mistakes and misprints, and begun to feel himself master of his subject. In the short space of eighteen months he had learned it all, although the fear to be discovered had robbed him of many a precious hour. Thus he could never study during the month of Elul and Tishri, as the days of repentance kept him continually employed, and in the Succah he was unable to take hold of such a book. But now another misfortune appeared. The three years, during which time his father-in-law had engaged to support him and his family, were passed, and being without means, and without any business, dreary prospects were before him.

Nothing remained for him than to accept the place of bookkeeper with his brother, who owned a glass manufactory, some forty miles from Bialystok, deep in the woods. For a year and a half every hope of progress was taken from him. He saw no book, no new work, and occupied the few hours which were left him from the pressure of business, with the rehearsal of what he had learned already. The world was wanting, to apply his knowledge; he knew nothing else than his mathematics and his Talmud, and so he applied his mathematics to the Talmud. Thus he took the midrash of the Sidra Noah, where the Rabbis are in dispute on the verse ואל אמה תכלנה מלמעלה, and calculated after hydrostatic laws, how many foot water the ark of Noah drew.

At length some change took place, and he was sent on business to Grodno. There he heard that a Jewish stationer wanted to sell his old stock of goods by weight. Selig went to him and told him that he was willing to pay more for some books, if he would give him the choice. Selig looked several times over the whole stock, till he found the mathematical works of Abel Berrias in eighteen volumes. The bargain was soon made, and he hastened home. There he dared not to tell any body of his newly-acquired treasure, and in the deep hour of night only was he able to pursue his beloved studies; but he felt in himself now, that he had mastered his branch of science.

(To be continued)