Salomon Maimon.

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admired indeed my skill in this, but rebuked me at the
same time in these words, " You want to become a
painter ? You are to study the Talmud, and become a
rabbi. He who understands the Talmud, understands

This desire and faculty for painting went with me so

An Autobiography. 27

far, that when my father had settled in H , where

there was a manor-house with some beautifully tapestried
rooms, which were constantly unoccupied because the
landlord resided elsewhere, and very seldom visited the
place, I used to steal away from home whenever I could,
to copy the figures on the tapestries. I was found once
in mid-winter half-frozen, standing before the wall, hold-
ing the paper in one hand (for there was no furniture in
this apartment), and with the other hand copying the
figures off the wall. Yet I judge of myself at present,
that, if I had kept to it, I should have become a great,
but not an exact, painter, that is to say, I sketched with
ease the main features of a picture, but had not the
patience to work it out in detail.

My father had in his study a cupboard containing
books. He had forbidden me indeed to read any books
but the Talmud. This, however, was of no avail : as he
was occupied the most of his time with household affairs,
I took advantage of the opportunity thus afforded.
Under the impulse of curiosity I made a raid upon the
cupboard and glanced over all the books. The result
was, that, as I had already a fair knowledge of Hebrew, I
found more pleasure in some of these books than in the
Talmud. And this result was surely natural. Take the
subjects of the Talmud, which, with the exception of
those relating to jurisprudence, are dry and mostly un-
intelligible to a child — the laws of sacrifice, of purifica-
tion, of forbidden meats, of feasts, and so forth — in which


2 8 Solomo7i Maimofi:

the oddest rabbinical conceits are elaborated through
many volumes with the finest dialectic, and the most
absurd questions arc discussed with the highest efforts
of intellectual power ; for example, how many white hairs
may a red cow have, and yet remain a 7'ed cow ; what
sorts of scabs require this or that sort of purification ;
whether a louse or a flea may be killed on the Sabbath,
— the first being allowed, while the second is a deadly
sin ; — whether the slaughter of an animal ought to be
executed at the neck or the tail ; whether the highpriest
put on his shirt or his hose first ; whether the Jabam,
that is, the brother of a man who died childless, being
required by law to marry the widow, is relieved from his
obligation if he falls off a roof and sticks in the mire.
Ohejam satis est ! Compare these glorious disputations,
which are served up to young people and forced on them
even to disgust, with history, in which natural events are
related in an instructive and agreeable manner, with a
knowledge of the world's structure, by which the outlook
into nature is widened, and the vast whole is brought into
a well-ordered system ; surely my preference will be

Tlie most valuable books in the collection were four.
There was a Hebrew chronicle under the title of Ze7nach
David* written by a sensible chief rabbi in Prague,

* That is, The Branch (or Offspring) of David. See Jeremiah
xxiii. 5 ; xxxiii. 15 ; Isaiah xi. i. — Trans.

A?t Autobiography. 29

named Rabbi David Cans. He was also the author of
the astronomical book spoken of in the sequel, and he
had had the honour of being acquainted with Tycho
Brahe, and of making astronomical observations with
him in the Observatory at Copenhagen. There were
besides, a Josephus, which was evidently garbled, and a
History of the Persecutions of the Jews in Spain. But
what attracted me most powerfully was an astronomical
v.ork. In this work a new world was opened to me, and
I gave myself up to the study with the greatest diligence.
Think of a child about seven years of age, in my posi-
tion, with an astronomical work thrown in his way, and
exciting his interest. I had never seen or heard anything
of the first elements of mathematics, and I had no one
to give me any direction in the study : for it is needless
to say, that to my father I dared not even let my curio-
sity in the matter be known, and, apart from that, he was
not in a position to give me any information on the sub-
ject. How must the spirit of a child, thirsting for know-
ledge, have been inflamed by such a discovery ! This
the result will show.

As I was still a child, and the beds in my father's
house were few, I was allowed to sleep with my old
grandmother, whose bed stood in the above-mentioned
study. As I was obliged during the day to occupy my-
self solely with the study of the Talmud, and durst not
take another book in my hand, I devoted the evenings
to my astronomical inquiries. Accordingly after my

-o Solo f no ft Maim on:

grandmother had gone to bed, I put some fresh wood on
the fire, made for the cupboard, and took out my beloved
astronomical book. My grandmother indeed scolded
me, because it was too cold for the old lady to lie alone
in bed ; but I did not trouble myself about that, and
continued my study till the fire was burnt out.

After I had carried this on for some evenings, I came
to tlie description of the celestial sphere and its imagin-
ary circles, designed for the explanation of astronomical
phenomena. This was represented in the book by a
single figure, in connection with which the author gave
the reader the good advice, that, since the manifold
circles could not be represented in a plane figure except
by straight lines, he should, for the sake of rendering
them more clearly intelligible, make for himself either an
ordinary globe or an ar miliary sphere. I therefore
formed the resolution to make such a sphere out of
twisted rods ; and after I had finished this work, I was
in a position to understand the whole book. But as I
had to take care lest my father should find out how I
had been occupied, I always hid my armillary sphere in
a corner behind the cupboard before I went to bed.

My grandmother, who had on several occasions
observed tliat I was wholly absorbed in my reading, but
now and then lifted my eyes to look at a number of
circles formed of twisted rods laid on one another, fell
into tlie greatest consternation over the matter ; she
believed nothing less than that her grandson had lost his

An Autobiography. 31

'wits. She did not delay, therefore, to tell my father,
and point out to him the place where the magical
instrument was kept. He soon guessed what was the
meaning of this. Accordingly he took the sphere in his
hand, and sent for me. When I came, he asked me,
" What sort of plaything is this ?"

" It is a Kadur* " I replied.

" What does it mean ? " he asked.

I then explained to him the use of all the circles for
the purpose of making the celestial phenomena intelli-
gible. My father, who was a good rabbi indeed, but
had no special talent for science, could not comprehend
all that I endeavoured to make comprehensible. He
was especially puzzled, by the comparison of my
armillary sphere with the figure in the book, to under-
stand how out of straight lines circles should be evolved ;
but one thing he could see, — that I was sure of my
business. He therefore scolded me, it is true, because I
had transgressed his command to meddle with nothing
beyond the Talmud ; but still he felt a secret pleasure,
that his young son, without a guide or previous training,
had been able by himself to master an entire work of
science. And with this the affair came to an end.

The Hebrew word for a globe.

32 Solomo7i Maimon:


Jewish Schools — The Joy of being released from them causes a stiff


My brother Joseph and I were sent to Mir to school.
My brother, who was about twelve years old, was put to
board with a schoohnaster of some repute at that time,
by name Jossel. This man was the terror of all young
people, " the scourge of God ; " he treated those in his
cliarge with unheard of cruelty, flogged them till the
blood came, even for the slightest offence, and not in-
frequently tore off their ears, or beat their eyes out.
When the parents of these unfortunates came to him, and
brought him to task, he struck them with stones or what-
ever else came to hand, and drove them with his slick
out of the house back to their own dwellings, without any
respect of persons. All under his discipline became
either blockheads or good scholars. I, who was then
only seven years old, was sent to another schoolmaster.

An anecdote I must here relate, which shows on the
one side great brotherly love, and on the other may be
viewed as expressing the condition of a child's mind,
that sways between the hope of lightening an evil, and
the fear of increasing it. One day as I came from school,

A?i Autobiography. 33

my eyes were all red with weeping, for which there was
doubtless good cause. My brother observed this, and
asked the reason. At first I showed some hesitation in
answering ; but at last I said, " I weep because we dare
not tell tales out of school." My brother understood
me very well, was extremely indignant at my teacher, and .
was going to read him a lesson on the subject. I begged
him however not to do it, because in all probability the
teacher would take his revenge on me for telling tales
out of school.

I must now say something of the condition of the 1
Jewish schools in general. The school is commonly a "
small smoky hut, and the children are scattered, some
on benches, some on the bare earth. The master, in a
dirty blouse sitting on the table, holds between his knees
a bowl, in which he grinds tobacco into snuff with a huge
pestle like the club of Hercules, while at the same time
he wields his authority. The ushers give lessons, each
in his own corner, and rule those under their charge
quite as despotically as the master himself. Of the
breakfast, lunch, and other food sent to the school for
the children, these gentlemen keep the largest share for
themselves. Sometimes even the poor youngsters get
nothing at all ; and yet they dare not make any complaint
on the subject, if they will not expose themselves to the
vengeance of these tyrants. Here the children are im-
prisoned from morning to night, and have not an hour

34 Solomoft Maim on :

to themselves, except on Friday and a half-holiday at
the Newmoon.

As far as study is concerned, the reading of Hebrew
at least is pretty regularly learned. On the other hand,
with the mastery of the Hebrew language very seldom is
any progress made. Grammar is not treated in the
school at all, but has to be learnt ex usu, by translation
of the Holy Scriptures, very much as the ordinary man
learns imperfectly the grammar of his mother-tongue by
social intercourse. Moreover there is no dictionary of
the Hebrew language. The children therefore begin at
once with the explanation of the Bible. This is divided
into as many sections as there are weeks in the year, in
order that the Books of Moses, which are read in the
synagogues every Saturday, may be read through in a
year. Accordingly every week some verses from the
begmning of the section proper to the week are explained
in school, and that with every possible grammatical
blunder. Nor can it well be otherwise. For the Hebrew
must be explained by means of the mother-tongue. But
the mother-tongue of the Polish Jews is itself full of
defects and grammatical inaccuracies ; and as a matter
of course therefore also the Hebrew language, which is
learned by its means, must be of the same stamp. The
pupil tlius accjuires just as little knowledge of the
language, as of the contents, of the Bible.

In addition to this the Talmudists have fastened all
sorts of extraordinary conceits on the Bible. The

An Autobiography. 35

if^norant teacher believes with confidence, that the Bible
cannot in reality have any other meaning than that which
these expositions ascribe to it; and the pupil must
follow his teacher's faith, so that the right understanding
of words necessarily becomes lost. For example, in the
first Book of Moses it is said, " Jacob sent messengers
to his brother Esau, etc." Now, the Talmudists were
pleased to give out, that these messengers were angels.
For though the word Malachim in Hebrew denotes
messenger as well as angels, these marvel-mongers pre-
ferred the second signification, because the first contains
nothing marvellous. The pupil therefore holds the
belief firm and fast, that ^Malachim denotes nothing but
angels; and the natural meaning of messengers is for
him wholly lost. A correct knowledge of the Hebrew
language and a sound exegesis can be attained only
gradually by independent study and by reading grammars
and critical commentaries on the Bible, like those of
Rabbi David Kimchi * and Aben Esra; but of these
very few rabbis make use.

* This rabbi belonged to a family of eminent linguists. The
father, Joseph Kimchi, was one of the numerous Jews who were
obliged to flee from Spain to escape the cruel persecutions of the
Mohades about the middle of the twelfth century. He left two
sons who both followed his favourite studies. The elder, Moses,
has the credit of having educated his younger and more illustrious
brother, David, whose Hebrew grammar and dictionary continued
in general use among scholars for centuries. Kimchi is said to
have been powerfully influenced, not only by Maimonides, but also

-6 Solo??JO?i Mavnon:

As the children are doomed in the bloom of youth ta
such an infernal school, it may be easily imagined with
what joy and rapture they look forward to their release.
\Ve, that is, my brother and I, were taken home to the
great feasts ; and it was on a trip of this sort, that the
following incident happened, which in relation to me was
very critical. My mother came once before Whitsuntide
to the town where we were at school, in order to pur-
chase sundry articles required for the house. She then
took us home with her. The release from school, and
the sight of the beauty of nature which at this season
displays its best attire, threw us into such ecstas)', that
we fell upon all sorts of wanton fancies. When we were
not far from home, my brother sprang out of the carriage,
and ran forward on foot. I was going to imitate his
daring leap, but unfortunately had not sufficient strength.
I fell down therefore with violence on the carriage, so
that my legs came between the wheels, and one of these
passed over my left leg, which was thereby pitiably
crushed. I was carried home half-dead. My foot
became cramped, and I was wholly unable to move it.

A Jewish doctor was consulted, who had not indeed
regularly studied and graduated at a university, but had
acquired his medical knowledge merely by serving. with

hy Aben Esra, who preceded him by nearly a century, and who
was one of the most learned scholars, as well as one of the most
versatile authors, of his time. (Jost's Gcschichtc dcs JudcnthtitiiSy
vol. ii., [ip. 419-423; and vol. iii , pp. 30-31). — Trans,

An Autobiography. 37

a physician and reading some medical books in tlie
Polish language, who was nevertheless a very good
practical physician, and effected many successful cures.
He said that at present he was provided with no
medicines, — the nearest apothecary's shop was about
twenty miles* distant, — and consequently he could pre-
scribe nothing in the ordinary method, but that mean-
while a simple domestic remedy might be applied. The
remedy was, to kill a dog and thrust into it the cramped
foot ; this, repeated several times, was to give certain
relief. The prescription was followed with the desired
result, so that after some weeks I was able to use the
foot again, and by degrees I completely recovered.

I think it w^ould not be at all amiss, if medical men
gave more attention to such domestic remedies, which
are used with good results in districts where there are no
regular physicians or apothecaries' shops ; they might
even make special journeys with this end in view. I
know many a case of this sort, which can be in nowise
explained away. This however in passing. I return to
my story.

*That is, about 100 English miles. — Trans.

-8 Solomon Maimofi


My Family is driven into Misery, and an old Servant loses by his
great Faithfulness a Christian Burial.

]\Iv father, wlio, as already mentioned, traded with
Konigsberg in Prussia, had once sliipped in a vessel of
Prince Radzivil's some barrels of salt and herrings which
he had bous;ht there. When he came home and was
going to fetch liis goods, the agent, Schachna, absolutely
refused to let him take them. My father then showed
the bill of lading, which he had got on the shipment of
tlic goods ; but the agent tore it out of his hands, and
threw it into the fire. My father found himself therefore
compelled to carry on a long and costly suit, which he
had to delay till the following year, when he would again
make a journey to Konigsberg. Here he obtained a
certificate from the custom-house, showing that he had
shipped the said goods in a vessel of Prince Radzivil's
under the direction of Herr Schachna. On this certifi-
cate the agent was summoned before the court, but
found it convenient not to make an appearance ; and
my father gained the suit in the first, second, and third
instances. In spite of this, however, as a consequence
of the wretched administration of justice in Poland at

A?i Autobiography. 39

the time, my father had no power to execute this
decision, and therefore from this successful suit he did
not even recover the costs.

To this was added the further result, that by this suit
he made Herr Schachna an enemy who persecuted him
now in every possible way. This the cunning scoundrel
could accomplish very well, as by all sorts of intrigues
he had been appointed by Prince Radzivil steward of all
his estates situated in the district of Mir. He resolved
therefore on my father's ruin, and only waited for a
convenient opportunity to carry out his revenge.

This he found soon ; and indeed a Jew, who was
named after his farm Schwersen, and was known as the
biggest scoundrel in the whole neighbourhood, offered
him a hand. This fellow was an ignoramus, did not
even understand the Jewish language, and made use
therefore of Russian. He occupied himself mainly in
examining the farms in the neighbourhood, and he knew
how to get possession of the most lucrative among them
by offering a higher rent and bribing the steward. With-
out troubling himself in the least about the laws of the
ChazakaJi^^ he drove the old legal farmers from their
possessions, and enriched himself by this means. He
thus lived in wealth and fortune, and in this state
reached an advanced age.

The scoundrel had already for a long time had his eye

* See above, p. 14. — Trans.


Solomon Maiinon

on my grandfather's farm, and waited merely for a
favourable opportunity and a plausible pretext to get
possession of it himself. Unfortunately my granduncle
Jacob, who lived in another village belonging to my
grandfather's farm, had been obliged to become a debtor
of the scoundrel to the amount of about fifty rix-dollars.
As he could not clear off the debt at the time when it
was due, his creditor came with some servants of the
manor, and threatened to seize the cauldron, in which
mv cranduncle's whole wealth consisted. In conster-
nation he loaded a waggon secretly with the cauldron,
drove with all haste to my grandfather's, and, without
letting any of us know, hid it in the adjoining marsh
behind the house. His creditor, however, who followed
on his heels, came to my grandfather's, and made search
all over, but could find the cauldron nowhere. Irritated
at this unsuccessful stroke, and breathing vengeance
against my grandfather who, he believed, had prevented
his success, he rode to the town, carried to the steward
an imposing present, and offered for my grandfather's
farm double the rent, besides an annual voluntary present
to the steward.

This gentleman, joyous over such an offer, and mind-
ful of the disgrace which my father, a Jew, had brought
upon him, a Polish noble, by the above-mentioned suit,
made on the spot a contract with the scoundrel, by which
he not only gave over to him this farm with all the rights
pertaining to it even before the end of my grandfather's

An Autobiography. 41

lease, but also robbed my grandfather of all he had, —
his barns full of grain, his cattle, etc., — and shared the
plunder with the new farmer.

My grandfather was therefore obliged with his whole
family to quit his dwelling-place in mid-winter, and,
without knowing where he should settle again, to wander
about from place to place. Our departure from this
place was very affecting. The whole neighbourhood
lamented our fate. An old and faithful servant of eighty
years, named Gabriel, who had carried in his arms even
my grandfather as a child, insisted on going with us.
Representations were made to him on the severity of the
season, our unfortunate situation, and the uncertainty in
which we ourselves were placed as to our future destiny.
But it was of no avail. He placed himself on the road
before the gate, by which our waggons had to pass, and
lamented so long that we were obhged to take him up.
He did not however travel with us long : his advanced
age, his grief over our misery, and the severe season gave
him soon the finishing stroke. He died when we had
gone scarcely two or three miles ; and as no Catholic or
Russian community would allow him burial in their
churchyard — he was a Prussian and a Lutheran — he
was buried at our expense in the open field.


Solouwn Maimon:


New Abode, new Misery — The Talmudist.

We wandered about therefore in the country, Uke the
Israelites in the wilderness of Arabia, without knowing
w^here or when we should find a place of rest; At last
we came to a village which belonged to two landlords.
The one part was already leased; but the landlord of the
other could not lease his, because he had still to build a
house. Weary of wandering in winter-time with a whole
family, my grandfather resolved to take a lease of this
house, which was still to be built, along with its appur-
tenances, and meanwhile, till the house was ready, to
make shift as well as he could. Accordingly we were
obliged to take up our quarters in a barn. The other
farmer did all in his power to prevent our settlement in
the place; but it was of no avail. The building was
finished, we took possession, and began to keep house.

Unfortunately however everything went backward here;
nothing would succeed. An addition came to our mis-
fortunes in my mother's illness. Being of a very Uvely
temperament and disposed to a life of activity, she found
here the weariness of having nothing to do. This, with

An Autobiography. 43

her anxiety about the means of subsistence, threw her
into a state of melancholy, which developed at last into
insanity. In this condition she remained for some
months. Everything was tried for her benefit, but
without success. At last my father hit upon the idea of
taking her to a celebrated doctor at Novogrod, who made
a specialty of curing mental disorders.

The method of cure employed by this specialist is
unknown to me, because I was at the time too young to
wish or be able to institute inquiries on the subject ; but
so much I can declare with certainty, that in the case of
my mother, as well as most of his patients afflicted with
the same malady, the treatment was followed with success.
My mother returned home fresh and healthy, and from
that time she never had an attack of the same sort.

Immediately after this I was sent to school at Iwenez,
about fifteen miles from our abode, and here I began to
study the Talmud. The study of the Talmud is the
chief object of a learned education among our people.
Riches, bodily advantages, and talents of every kind
have indeed in their eyes a certain worth, and are
esteemed in proportion ; but nothing stands among
them above the dignity of a good Talmudist. He has
the first claim upon all offices and positions of honour in
the community. If he enters an assembly, — he may be
of any age or rank, — every one rises before him most
respectfully, and the most honourable place is assigned
to him. He is director of the conscience, lawgiver and

44 Solomo?i Maimon:

judge of the common man. He, who does not meet
such a scholar with sufficient respect, is, according to

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Online LibrarySalomon MaimonSolomon Maimon : an autobiography → online text (page 3 of 21)