Page 112 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 27

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E L I J AH LE V I T A
On the 500th Anniversary of His Birth
B
y
W
e rn e r
W
e inberg
F
req u en tly
in biographies of Levita, the concept of epigonism
is introduced in connection with his work. His importance,
we are given to understand, must be sought in what he collected
of the findings of greater men before him. He also — and this
is seldom omitted — had a flair for presenting the old material
very effectively, but he did not add much new substance.
Let it first be said that if Levita had been nothing but an
epigone, his gathering the Hebrew linguistic harvest of a mil-
lenium before his time — a harvest still useful half a millenium
after him — would constitute no small achievement. However,
it is untrue that he did not enlarge our store of knowledge. His
strikingly new and basic insights are not numerous, but who
among the giants from Saadia to David Kimhi originated more
than one or two real “breakthroughs” in Hebrew linguistics?
Levita made at least one fundamental discovery: the Tiberian
vowel system was just that — Tiberian and late. It was not re­
vealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai; it was not introduced by Ezra and
the Men of the Great Synagogue; it was post-talmudic. The
repercussions flowing from this bold declaration did not subside
for centuries. As for the rest, there is not a dearth of less spec­
tacular firsts in Levita’s many-faceted work.
Levita’s biography can be pieced together from autobiograph­
ical passages in his writings. His life and work have been recorded
a number of times, perhaps most thoroughly by Christian David
Ginsburg in the introduction to his edition of Levita’s
Masoret
Hamasoret
(London, 1867). There are lacunae and differences
of opinion among biographers, but all agree that his was a very
productive and very eventful life.
First, concerning his different names: Levita is of course the
Latinization of Halevi, corresponding to Elijah for Eliyahu. He
also called himself Ashkenazi (Germanus), Medakdek, Bahur,
and Tishbi. The first of these reflects his German descent from
the vantage point of his adopted Italy. ‘Grammarian’ is the short­
est denominator for his wide range of work. ‘Bahur’ still has
some biographers speculating — did he derive this from his gram­
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