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Sketches of Jewish Life in Russia by Chief Rabbi Dr. Lilienthal: Chajim Selig Slonimski, the Mathematician

(Continued from page 34.)


Knowing that the Jewish literature had no works in that line, and that the Russian and Polish Jews had no opportunity to study mathematical works in a foreign tongue, he undertook to write a whole course of mathematics, both the pure and applied, in the Hebrew language. One who knows how many expressions for that science lead to be coined, what solid knowledge of the Hebrew, as well as of mathematics, it requires, will easily divine, in such an idea, the spirit of the man, who possessed a just self-confidence, and the heart, which felt a noble pride to adorn his beloved nationality with the jewels of sciences. He wrote the whole work out in that beautiful Hebrew style, peculiar to so many Russian and Polish Jews. The anxiety with which Selig had been obliged to carry on his studies, held him also back from publishing his works. It was locked up in a trunk; and in the secret hour of night only he stole to his room, to gaze at his manuscript, as a father looks on a favourite child, and improved and augmented it. But nobody would have ever heard of that hidden knowledge, if a kind Providence had not furnished him an opportunity.

His brother sent him for a second time to Grodno. In the hotel, where he alighted, and which  was full of guests, late on Friday afternoon, another family arrived. Sabbath was approaching, and as the other hotels were also full, they steadfastly refused to drive farther, declaring themselves satisfied with the smallest nook. Only a small room was yet unoccupied, but they could only get there through Selig’s room. Against his inclination, for he loved solitude, and feared the inquisitiveness of strangers, they got their quarters.

In the evening the laundress came and brought to Selig his clothing. He opened his trunk to put them in; and, in order to get room for it, laid his manuscript, which he always carried with him, alongside; when he, on a sudden, and to his consternation, found that his clothing had been exchanged. With the anxiety of a poor man who has nothing to spare, and with the thoughtlessness of one who never was much from home, he ran in great haste after the laundress; and, by his return, he saw, to his terror, a stranger rummaging his manuscript.

“What do you look at there?” cried Selig, and rushed at him, to get his papers again, “they are only old papers, which belong to me.”

But the stranger,  a pleasant-looking old man, replied mildly, “What do you fear? Do I look so terrible? Make no objections, and let me see the contents of these papers.” But Selig was afraid to be decried as a “Berliner,” and tried harder yet to get hold of his papers. The old man remained firm, and replied, in a friendly voice, “I do not know why you seek so much mystery. A man of your abilities should rather divulge his great knowledge among his Jewish brethren; and you show a spiritual niggardness which does not harmonize with your knowledge. And I, who am acquainted with all the great men among our Russian Jews, feel now not the least astonishment that I never heard from you. How could it be possible to find out such a strange person? Where do you come from?”

“From Bialystok,” replied Selig, hardly able to recover his equanimity by such kind words.

“From Bialystok!” mused now loudly the old man; “I live in that neighbourhood, and yet I do not recollect to have ever heard of such a rare genius as your writings prove you to be. And where do you live?”

“In Sabludoff,” replied Selig.

“In such a corner,” said the old an, smiling, “vegetates a genius, as I never have found yet among all the Russian Jews; and your name?”

Selig told it. The stranger knew his father, but had never yet heard of the son. 

“No, my friend,” he continued, “you must go to Wilna, where there are a host of learned men, they will help you to get your works published; for there is a Jewish printing office, and you will get easily a publisher for your works. You yourself have no idea yet what great service you will render by it to all your brethren.”

Selig was astonished to hear such encouraging words from a Jew, and asked now for the stranger’s name. He was Eliezer Rosenthal, from Tashinofka, a man, who had had among the Russian Jews the name of a Reformer, a man who tried to raise the Hebrew youth to a higher standard of civilization. When Slonimski heard that highly revered name, he lost his bashfulness, spoke with more ease and confidence, and learned from that Sabbath, which he passed with Rosenthal, that to get perfect, he had to make a closer acquaintance yet with the world and its manifold movements. A visit of several weeks, which he made to Mr. Rosenthal, in Tashinofka, ripened his ideas, and he concluded to get at first the Haskamah הסכמה of eminent Rabbis for his mathematical work, and then to publish it.

But to whom should he apply? Who would not think hard of a young man, who is yet without the חתימת זקן, without a beard, that he had dared to spend his time in the study of other sciences, beyond the Talmud? And what was more yet, that he had already so far advanced in them, that he could be announced to the public at large as an author? He reflected deeply how he could with the least hope of success venture on this first step of publicity, without risking his reputation for orthodoxy, and he then recollected to have heard that the Rabbi of Wilkowick enjoyed the name of a great Talmudist and mathematician, and to his judgment Slonimski therefore resolved to confide himself and his work.

He journeyed to the town where the Rabbi whom he desired to conciliate resided, and after morning prayers he went in the  Beth Hamidrash, where he Rabbi was in the habit of lecturing. On long benches he found sitting the students of the Talmud, whilst at the head, near the Holy Ark, was the place assigned to the Dayanim, who officiated as judges in civil lawsuits. Bashful, and hiding his manuscript work under his coarse cloak, he approached a venerable old man, whom he took for the Rabbi. But he was told, that the Rabbi was in another room, still occupied with his prayers.

Dressed in tallith and tephillin, the old man was reclining on a couch, and before him lay open many a Talmudical work. He looked at the young and beardless intruder, and without offering him the hand of welcome, he asked him coldly what he wanted. Slonimski knew very well, that he could not introduce himself to so eminent, a scholar, without speaking of a difficult passage in the Talmud; and he replied, therefore: “Rabbi, I would like to ask you a Tossephot in Shabbas.”

“And could you not find any body else besides me to answer your queries?” replied the Rabbi, who did not believe in this Talmudical introduction, and divined rightly, that something more was yet to follow. “What else do you want,” he inquired therefore.

“I am a Mechabber,” (author,) replied Selig.

“We have Chibburim (works) enough,” replied the Rabbi, and “we can easily do without the work of men so young as you.”

“Excuse me, Rabbi, I am a Mechabber of a scientific sepher,” said Selig.

“Are you so perfect in the Talmud already, that you can apply your leisure time to other studies?”

“I have written a chibbur on Mathematics, and as you excel in such studies, I would ask for your Haskamah,” replied Selig, handing at the same time his manuscript to the Rabbi.

The Rabbi, who knew something about Mathematics, and the Ptolemean system of Cosmogeny, glanced at it lightly, but the richness of its contents soon attracted his whole attention. A work of such an extensive mathematical knowledge, and handled with such a masterly pen, he had never seen before; he felt how much. above him was that young and beardless man; he offered him now the hand of שלום (welcome) with evident marks of friendship, saying, “Why do you not seat yourself?” He thereupon called to his wife with the words, “I have got a guest to breakfast with me, and bring therefore another cup of coffee,” and he made haste to see still more of the manuscript. The rich Hebrew style, the ease with which the most difficult mathematical formulas were given, the brevity and acuteness of style, which comes right home to a Talmudical spirit, increased his astonishment more and more, and when he heard that he was from Bialystok, he went out in the Beth Hamidrash, where there was a scholar from Bialystok, and said to him: “Only think, there comes a young man, who is מושלם בכל חכמה ומדה (perfect in every wisdom and science). He has written such a Chibbur as I hever saw before. He is from Bialystok, go and see him, he sits there in the other room.”

(To be continued.)