A Brill Calendar: February 13
Levita and Hebrew
Few disciplines are as solidly vested in the scholarly tradition of Leyden University - and of the publishers & printers serving that institute of academic learning - as study of classical Hebrew.
Given the fact that the very ‘raison d’ être’ of the school was inextricably interwoven with religious debates & deliberations among many Christian denominations - each reading and brandishing Holy Writ for its own purposes - it is hardly surprising that the predominant language in the Bible got special attention. The study of Hebrew was centred in the Faculty of Theology; in abeyance of a Faculty of Linguistics proper.
In Western Europe, north of the Iberian Peninsula and the Alps, the study Hebrew had developed rapidly. When ‘Almae Matres’ started to 'suckle' their scholarly infants during the High Middle Ages, the original languages of God’s Own Book were still inaccessible to most Christians; priests and monks not excepted. The Gideon’s Band of interpreters and translators remedying this ignorance during the ages before Leyden University’s creation remains largely anonymous; it is seldom that one of them is more than a mere name in obscure learned treatises.
A great exception to that circumstance is Elijah Levita (Neustadt an der Aisch, near Neurenberg, February 13 1469 – Venice, January 28 1549), a contemporary of Erasmus. Levita, a Jew within the Ashkenazi branch of the Old People, came to know Italy well; and settled there for good in 1504. In Northern and German lands, hostility against the race who crucified Christ was increasing; with Erasmus being less than lenient towards them and Martin Luther, in his final years, even hating them. Levita’s existence makes him almost a saintly martyr for the sake of learning; it’s a life that had to endure the theft and loss of personal manuscripts. His treatise on Hebrew grammar – later an ever-seller – should thank its survival to 'divine' intervention; ironically it was a Roman-catholic Cardinal, Gilles of Viterbo, who supported its writing & publication.