The Hebrew textbooks of David Abrahim Lissaur
IN THE SPRING OF 1815, diamond polisher Samuel Mulder and his friend
Mozes Loonstein, two Amsterdam Jews in their early twenties, founded a
Hebrew literary society:'Tongeleth'('The Public Weal'). What started as
a weekly gathering of six enthusiasts soon developed into a prestigious
if small centre of Hebrew learning, with as many as fifty members. Each
Sabbath afternoon and every Sunday and Thursday evening, study groups would
listen to laborious lectures in Hebrew or discuss the recent insights into
Scripture and contemporary Hebrew belles-lettres. Often, a member would
read from Ha-meassef, the organ of the influential Berlin Enlightenment,
that by 1812 had in fact ceased to publish. But whereas the German movement
had been characterized by a strong modernist, even anti-traditionalist
trend, its Amsterdam counterpart displayed a peculiarly Dutch restraint.
When it came to society in general, Tongeleth's young and often well-to-do
members harboured rather more modest ideals. Through their pursuit of the
ethically and aesthetically edifying literature of the Bible, they merely
hoped to advance 'moral improvement and refinement of heart and spirit'.
The almost exclusive stress on the study of the Hebrew language in its purest, biblical form scarcely helped recommend the society beyond its own private circle. In the first anthology, Bikkure Tongeleth, chairman Samuel Mulder complained that 'the surprise that greets a man in this city who practices the rules of grammar seriously is equal only to the wonder of a boy seeing a lion or an elephant for the first time in his life'. Because of the emphasis on Hebrew style rather than on social issues such as the advance of emancipation, Tongeleth's Hebrew rhetoric clearly had its limitations. In 1825 the last anthology, bearing the promising title Peri Tongeleth Part I appeared. Part II was never published.
Modern scholars have characterized the society's literary products as superficial, fossilized, and as a deathblow to Jewish Hebrew studies in the Netherlands. This cannot be said, however, of the linguistic efforts of David Abraham Lissaur, a young teacher of religion and one of Tongeleth's chief grammarians. At society meetings, he was entrusted with the important task of 'solving any linguistic problem that might arise in the course of a session'. His contributions to the Tongeleth anthologies were sparse and their contents far from stimulating. It was not in these tedious moral expositions but in his concise Hebrew grammars and textbooks that his talents shone. They contain no reflections on linguistic methodology per se but were written exclusively from a teacher's perspective. Thus Lissaur had learned from experience that 'a tireless and continuous pursuit of the Holy Scriptures' was the safest way to a thorough knowledge of the holy tongue. At the same time he was deeply concerned that too abrupt a transition from the mere reading to the actual linguistic analysis should not lead to 'a sudden dislike' of learning Hebrew altogether.
In order to guide both teacher and student past these obstacles, he provided a set of complementary textbooks. In 1825 he wrote Reshit yediat Ivrit as an effective introduction to biblical orthography. Parsing could be practised from Mabir be-nittuach ha-millot (1828). Torat lvrit bi-meat yamim - Praktische handleiding tot eene spoedige kennis der Hebreeuwsche tale (1835) contains a systematic treatment of Hebrew grammar, interspersed with exercises that contain dramatic sentences such as: 'Eve, why did you break the Lord's commandments by eating the fruit of the tree as the serpent suggested?' Equally torpid constructions can be found among the Zamenspraken in Lissaur's Hebreeuwsche Nomenclator (1838), a book of conversation that contains an additional glossary to help pupils discuss God and man, vice, virtue and bodily imperfections, in purelv biblical terms.
While, sometime after 1825, Tongeleth began to fade into non-existence, Lissaur's textbooks continued to retain their popularity. In 1828 we read that his books 'have been most favourably reviewed by the most meritorious Dutch periodicals'. The Mahir of 1835 and the Nomenclator could each boast an impressive list of subscribers (84 and 113, respectively). Among these subscribers we find fellow-Hebraists such as Mulder, members of other literary societies and, occasionally, a professor of Christian theology. Representatives from Jewish educational boards throughout the country often ordered several copies at once. Thus, from Steenwijk to Rotterdam and from Rheenen to Hoorn, Jewish pupils acquainted themselves with the holy tongue through Lissaur's linguistic efforts.
I. Maarsen, 'Tongeleth. Een joodsch letterkundig genootschap
uit de XIXde eeuw, De Vrijdagavond. Joodsch Weekblad I/I
(1924) p. 390 - 393, 1/2 (1924) p. 135 - 137, 146 - I48, 199 - 201 (separately
published in 1925).
J. Meijer, Voorvaderlijke vooroordelen. Het joodse type bij Jacob van Lennep 1802 - 1868 (Heemstede 1979) p. 60 - 66 (Diasporade 6).
A. van der Heide, 'Problems of Tongeleth Poetry', Studia Rosenthaliana 19 (1985) p. 264 - 274.