Sunday 7 April 2019


Sefer Harkavah by R. Eliyahu Bachur, Venice 1546. In this book, the master Hebrew grammarian explains every foreign word and its conjugation.


R. Eliyahu Halevi Ashkenazi (1468-1549), also known as Elias Levita or Eliyahu Bachur, was a  fascinating but controversial scholar, enigmatic mystic and master grammarian who emerged during the Renaissance.  He was a father of Hebrew grammar. 

As a young child, he showed great interest in Biblical texts and Hebrew grammar – but don’t let that put you off because what he did with that was far from boring.


Born in Germany, he found himself in Padua, Italy, at the beginning of the 1500s teaching Torah to Jewish students. They asked their teacher to write a commentary on Moshe Kimchi’s work ‘Mahalach’.[1] 

This he did and then gave his manuscript to a certain Benjamin Colbo to prepare for printing. However, in what must have been one of the earliest examples of infringement of copyright law, Colbo went ahead and published the work under his own name after mixing up the text with other works.

Sefer haShorashim of Radak with Eliyahu Bachur's handwritten notes to it.
Nonetheless, it became a bestseller and was a very popular textbook for students of the Hebrew language, and it made its way around Europe and enjoyed several reprintings and translations. It was only decades later, under pressure from his friends, that Eliyahu Bachur pointed out that he was the original author and the work was corrected and republished under his name.

This was just the beginning of his writing career and even his plagiarised works proved very popular.

Mahalach with Eliyahu Bachur's commentary


In 1509, Eliyahu Bachur arrived in Rome, penniless after fleeing an attack on Padua, and there he met Cardinal Egidio of Viterbo. He then entered into an unusual deal. The Cardinal would support Bachur and his family for thirteen years provided Bachur would teach him technical Hebrew and Kabbalah.

This is how Eliyahu Bachur describes his first meeting with Cardinal Egidio:

“...I waited upon him at his palace. On seeing me he enquired after my business; and when I told him that I am the grammarian from Germany, and that I devote my whole life to the study of Hebrew philology and the Scriptures...he at once rose from his seat, came towards me, and embraced me, saying ‘Are you forsooth [meaning ‘actually’ in modern English] Elijahu, whose fame has travelled over countries, and whose books are circulated everywhere?
Blessed be the Lord of the Universe for bringing you here, and for our meeting. You must now remain with me; you shall be my teacher, and I will be a father to you. I will maintain you and your family...”[2]

The close relationship between Bachur and Cardinal Egidio developed over the years and became so strong that some years later Bachur dedicated his Sefer haBachur to the Cardinal.

First edition of Sefer haBachur, Rome 1518.

Eliyahu Bachur wrote in his introduction:

“In the year...1517...the Lord stirred up the spirit of a wise man, conversant with all the sciences, and of high dignity, Cardinal Egidio...he was anxious to find out the excellent words and beautiful writings in the books of our sacred language...”[3]


Bachur wrote four grammatical treatises during the thirteen years that he spent with Cardinal Egidio in Rome.

However, in addition to teaching the Cardinal technical Hebrew, Eliyahu Bachur also copied three Kabbalistic works for him – namely Pirush Sefer Yetzira, Sod Raziel and Sefer Chachmat haNefesh.
Soon Bachur began teaching Kabbalah to other non-Jewish nobles as well.

Thus a group of Christian Kabbalists began to emerge in Italy. Cardinal Egidio commissioned Baruch di Benevento to translate the Zohar for him and his colleagues. These Christian Kabbalists were convinced that Jewish mystical writings, especially the Zohar, provided mystical proof that the Christian doctrine was true.

Cardinal Egidio became a great collector of Hebrew manuscripts, many of which are housed today in the Munich Library. The Cardinal was also instrumental in using his influence to try and protect the Jews from planned persecutions.

Cardinal Egidio then began to write his own Kabbalistic works, some to be found today in the Paris National Library.


Bachur was again forced to flee from an Italian city, this time from Rome when it was attacked and captured.

Unfortunately, during the upheaval, he lost parts of one of his manuscripts which he had been working on. This manuscript was a decisive grammatical analysis of the Aramaic Targumim (based on the earliest Targumim of Daniel and Ezra). 

In 1527 he then found himself in Venice, again destitute. There got the job of a proof-reader for Daniel Bomberg, one of the first printing houses to print Jewish books. [See Daniel Bomberg –The Story behind the Tzuras haDaf.]

While in Venice he continued to teach Kabbalah to Christians, including the prominent Bishop of Lavour.[4] The Bishop made it possible for Bachur to complete his Masoretic concordance, Sefer haZichronot, which was twenty years in the making and Bachur dedicated it to the generosity of the Bishop. For some reason, this work was never actually published but remains in manuscript form, also at the Paris National Library. The only sections published were the Introduction and the Dedication, which follows:

Dedication in Sefer haZichronot to the Bishop of Lavour.

 In part, the Dedication reads:

“To his most exalted eminence, my lord, George de Selve, Bishop of is now some years since I began a work which appeared to me as important and very useful to those who study the structure of the sacred language.

The devastation of Rome, however, which took place shortly after it, was the cause of my not finishing it at that time and leaving it incomplete...and I gave up all thought of finishing the work any more.

But God...stirred up your spirit, and put it into your heart, to study the sacred language under me...
You know, my lord, that we one day happened to converse about this work, and that you asked me to show you the disordered portion of it which was still left to me...

You urged me with all your might to undertake the labour of completing it, and you promised to pay the bring it to completion, and did it...
Thus I was encouraged to undertake this great honour...

To you the highest praise is due, for the virtues which you have displayed...both towards God and man. Every one who sees you reveres you, and every one who hears of you speaks highly of you.”[5]


The Sefer haZichronot manuscript was sent to Paris to be published, but, as mentioned was for some unknown reason never published. Nevertheless, this association with France was significant because for over a century prior to this no Jews were permitted on French soil. Charles VI issued a decree in 1394 that “No Jew is to live, or even temporarily to abide, in any part of France.

But now, in the 1500s, things were beginning to change as Christians began discovering something of value to them from an unlikely source within Judaism – Kabbalah. Jewish mysticism was beginning to be regarded as a fascinating enterprise for Christianity as it saw within it notions that resonated with its own belief system. This preoccupation with Kabbalah was so popular that Ginsburg refers to it as a ‘Kabbalistic epidemic.

Yet it was this very ‘epidemic’ that made some influential Christians change their views regarding Jews:

“The Kabbalistic epidemic, however, from which the Pope himself was suffering, the rage for studying Hebrew amongst the highest in the land, and the great demand for Jewish teachers, had now changed the aspect of affairs.”

The ‘aspect of affairs’ had definitely changed because now even those who had condemned Jewish writings in the past (such as Guillaume Haquinet, the father-confessor of Louis XII) were now beginning to promote Jews and Kabbalistic literature.

Eliyahu Bachur was becoming so popular among the Christians that he was even offered a professorship at a French University, which he turned down. The irony was that France was “the very country which, for a hundred and thirty years, had been shut against the Jews, and where, at the time when he received this invitation, not a single Jew was to be found!


Ginsburg offers his views as to why so many Christians during the time of Eliyahu Bachur were so interested in studying Kabbalah:

“...there is more Christianity than Judaism in the Kabbalah...[and it contains][6] proofs of the doctrine of the Trinity, the Incarnation...original sin...the heavenly Jerusalem, the fall of the angels, the order of the angels, purgatory, and hell-fire...

The Kabbalah and Hebrew, as well as Aramaic, the clue to this esoteric doctrine, now became the favourite studies, to the neglect of the classics.

Popes, cardinals, princes, statesmen, warriors, high and low, old and young, were in search for Jewish teachers.”


This state of peaceful exchange between Christians and Jews did not last long because “[t]he orthodox portion of the Hebrew community began to realize that in teaching Christians Hebrew, and in initiating them into the mysteries of the Kabbalah, they were furnishing them with weapons against the Jews.”

To illustrate this point, consider the following ‘before and after’ statements by Luther:
In 1523 Luther wrote:

“Our fools, the popes, bishops...and monks, those coarse asses’-heads, have hitherto proceeded with the Jews in such a fashion, that he who was a Christian might well have decided to become a Jew.

And if I had been a Jew, and had seen the Christian faith governed and taught by such blockheads and dolts, I should sooner have become a hog than a Christian; for they have treated the Jews as though they were dogs and not men.”

Later Luther was to tell his Protestant followers:

“...burn their synagogues, force them to work, and treat them with all unmercifulness.”


In 1538 Bachur published his Massoret haMassoret, which deals with intricate laws of grammar.
Bachur was obviously aware of the waves he was making because, in his introduction to Massoret haMassoret, he denied that he taught non-Jews Kabbalah and claimed he just taught them the fundamentals of the Hebrew language. 

He also made the point that by befriending these Christians, they had protected the Jews from further persecution from the more fanatical elements of the Christian clergy.

The Massoret haMassoret proved to be a very popular book and was republished, reprinted and translated many times within a short period of time.

What follows is an extract of Ginsburg’s translation of Eliyahu Bachur’s Massoret haMassoret. Note Bachur’s technical attention to the details even of the cantillation marks (the tune in which the Torah is read) of the various traditional schools of Torah transmission [See here for more on the Ben Asher school of Mesora]:


Not all of Eliyahu Bachur's Christian associates were open-minded scholars fascinated by accurate Hebrew scriptures and Kabbalah

Some did try and use the knowledge gained from him to convert Jews to Christianity, and many were quite successful. One such person was Pastor Paulus Fagius.

The two became friends and worked together on the Sefer Amana or Book of Belief which was published in both Latin and Hebrew. Bachur was clearly aware of Fagius' agenda, and expressed this by writing: 

הוא מצד אחד ואני מצד אחר 

"He (wrote) from his side and I (wrote) from my side."

According to researcher Dan Yardeni[7], Fagius was unmistakably a missionary intent on using his knowledge against the Jews.

Yardeni writes: 

"In the introduction to the Hebrew edition Paulus Fagius wrote in Hebrew:

‘The Book of Belief is a goodly and pleasant book which was written by a wise Israelite a few years ago in order to teach and prove quite clearly that the [messianic] belief the Lord the father, his son, and the holy spirit, and other things is entire, correct and without doubt…’. 

We can only imagine how uncomfortable Eliahu Bachur felt in proofreading this book.
Now, as was customary in those days when printers took pride in their work, Paulus Fagius placed a colophon at the end of the books he printed with his printer’s emblem, an elaborate and beautiful woodcut of a tree surrounded by verses, which he regarded as his motto in life. 

Among them was one verse, which appeared with slight variations in most of the books that were printed at Isny:

תקוותי במשיח הנשלח שהוא עתיד לדון חיים ומתים 

‘My hope is in the Messiah who was sent (נשלח) and who will judge the living and dead.’

As stated, ‘The Book of Belief’ appeared in Hebrew, apparently intended for the Jews, and in Latin for the Christians. 

The Latin version ends with the verse cited above, while at the end of the Hebrew version the printer’s emblem appears with a slight difference, which is not immediately discernible:

Latin version on the left, Hebrew version on the right.

תקוותי במשיח הנשלך אשר הוא יבוא לדון את חיים ומתים

‘My hope is in the Messiah who was dismissed (הנשלך) and who will come to judge the living and dead.’

There can be no doubt that this is no printer’s error but a subtle message sent by Eliyahu Bachur in his capacity as the book’s proofreader to his Jewish brethren down the ages, saying: ‘I have not betrayed. You know what I think about this’.”

Yardeni continues:

“I noticed this subtle difference when I examined the books, which are kept in the amazingly well preserved study of Paulus Fagius next to the Church of Saint Nicholas in Isny, where he preached nearly 500 years ago. When I brought it to the attention of the extremely kind priest who escorted me and who now occupies Fagius’s chair, he was very surprised and, I fear, somewhat offended."


There can be no doubt as to the unmatched scholarship of  Eliyahu Bachur and his immense contribution to Hebrew and Aramaic grammar.

His association with, and role of mentor to,  the elite of Christian clergy during the Renaissance is fascinating, to say the least. [8]

According to R. Shlomo Schick (d. 1916), the author of the commentary Torah Sheleima, Bachur was recruited by the Christians who were looking to convert Jews: "They went and found a Jew that was not learned and was prepared to sell his heritage for a bowl of lentils. He was a rasha and has no portion amongst the Jewish People."[9]
R. Shick also suggests that Bachur eventually converted to Christianity.

Yet, many other respected rabbinical authorities have made use of his works. For example, his dictionary entitled Sefer haTishbi, is quoted by the Pri Megaddim (R. Toemim), R. Yaakov Emden and Mesoret haShas (R. Pik). 

Thus, a question that remains to be answered is: was Bachur indeed a betrayer - or can his choices of affiliation be regarded as heroic under the circumstances during the anti-semitic times in which he lived?
He claimed - as we saw in Massoret haMassoret - that he protected his people from dangerous and fanatical elements within the Church. 

But there is another issue as well: Eliyah Bachur claimed, in that same work, that he only taught technical Hebrew to help students better comprehend texts and he denied that he taught Kabbalah to Christians.

This last detail, concerning Kabbalah to Cardinals,  requires further investigation because either the entire historical record is wrong or the version of Massoret haMassoret is inaccurate.


Jewish Encyclopaedia.
Massoreth Ha-Massoreth translated and with Critical and Explanatory Notes by Christian David Ginsburg.
Eliyahu Bachur in Isny, by Dan Yardeni - The Seforim Blog.

[1] Moshe Kimchi was the brother of David Kimchi, knows as the Radak (1160-1235). Their real surname was Maistre Petit.
[2] Massoreth Ha-Massoreth by C D Ginsburg. In 1867, Eliyahu Bachur’s work Massoret haMassoret was translated by a colourful character Christian David Ginsburg (1831-1914).
Seforim Online describes this intricate personality as follows:

“...Christian David Ginsburg himself was a Jewish apostate who originally learned in the Yeshivas of Poland but later converted to Christianity (thus adopting the name Christian) and moved to England. In spite of his personal status his works are still cited and used by many present day talmidei chachamim and serve as an invaluable work towards preserving the massorah of the correct text of Tanach." 

[3] Ibid.  Massoreth Ha-Massoreth.
[4] Also known as George de Selve.
[5] Translation by Christian David Ginsburg.
[6] Parenthesis mine.
[7] Eliyahu Bachur in Isny, by Dan Yardeni - The Seforim Blog.
[8] Teaching Torah to non-Jews was regarded as an infringement of Haggigah 13a, which states: 'A’in mosrin divrei Torah l’akum.' Bachur points out that the word 'mosrin' is used instead of  'melamdim' (teaching).  He suggests that 'mosrin' refers only to matters that require 'mesirah' such as the details of ma’aseh Bereshit, ma’aseh merkavah and Sefer Yetizrah. However, according to him, there is no prohibition to teach other matters to non-Jews. [Massoreth haMassoreth]
Tosafot, though, has a version of the text which does use the term 'melamdim'.
[9] Introduction to Torah Shleima.

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