Page 74 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 14

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JEWISH BOOK ANNUAL
64
eighteenth century. In addition, it chronicles a keen-sighted travel-
ler’s observations of Jewish life on the eve of the Emancipation.
In our present context let us focus our attention on Azulai’s
original and lasting contribution to Jewish learning, his contribu-
tion to bibliography, a field to which his contemporaries paid scant
attention. His bio-bibliographical dictionary,
Shem ha-Gedolim
,
is a significant foundation-stone of modern Jewish bibliography.
Although originally published almost two centuries ago, its useful-
ness has still not been outlived. The motives that led him to
compile his
Shem ha-Gedolim
are impelling.
A knowledge of bibliography, according to Azulai, is indispen-
sable for the study of Halakhah. “Do not deem it an inconsequen-
tial matter to know the publication date of a book, for quite often
questions and difficulties [of an Halakhic character] are solved in
this way, as you will see from a number of places in
Shem ha-
Gedolim
.” Azulai refers here to the fact that rabbinic writers,
ignorant of the publication dates of books, would raise questions
against various authorities on the basis of books that the latter
could never have consulted, since they lived before these books
were extant.
In addition to date and authorship, the origin of many Halakhic
discussions were to be sought, oddly enough, in corrupted texts.
Azulai’s wide knowledge of manuscript material enabled him to
recognize that many a presumed difficulty in the interpretation of
the Talmud and of later sources had arisen out of faulty readings.
Ingenious procedures were employed to remove such difficulties,
when all that was needed was a correct reading, usually to be
found in a manuscript of the text. Azulai illustrates this point
by actually quoting a few readings to be found in manuscripts of
the Talmud and indicating how they clear up the difficulties which
the printed text present. This belief in bibliography as an aid in
Halakhic discussion became a motivation for the compilation of
his
Shem ha-Gedolim.
To the modern reader of this important handbook, however,
another motive appears for its creation. Its author cherished
profound reverence for scholarship and piety, a reverence evident
on every page of the book. The great luminaries, Rashi,
Maimonides, Joseph Karo and others, were, of course, beyond all
praise. Azulai bestows none upon them. But on lesser lights,
particularly his immediate predecessors and contemporaries, he
lavishes, with true oriental effusion, profuse yet sincere encomia.
The Talmudic dictum that every act of a scholar constitutes
Torah and is worthy of study, found a responsive echo in him who
was a born anecdotist. Every detail of personal life, every story,
no matter how seemingly inconsequential, was grist for his mill