Page 109 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 37

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BERNARD R. CRYSTAL and
RUDOLPH ELLENBOGEN
Hebraica andJudaica Collections
at Columbia University
C
o l um b ia
U
n iv e r s it y
,
founded in 1754 by Royal Cha rter from
King George II as King’s College, like o the r eigh teen th century
American colleges stressed the study o f classical languages as a
pa r t o f the curriculum . I t was only natu ra l tha t the study o f
Hebrew should be considered a basic element in the education o f
an American underg radua te . Along with its sister institutions,
several o f the early presidents o f the College were divines who
had an abiding comm itment to the language o f the Bible.
Columbia’s first presiden t, the Reverend Samuel Johnson
(1696-1792), was g rounded in the Scriptures as a youngster by his
grand fa the r. In his autobiography , Johnson recalls his early en ­
coun ter with Hebrew as a fru stra ting experience. Unable to find
ou t the meaning o f several Hebrew words he saw in one o f his
g rand fa th e r ’s books, he asked fo r help, bu t all he could discover
was tha t those strange characters rep resen ted the language o f the
people whose history was recoun ted in the Bible. By the time
Samuel John son became President of King’s College, he was
already well learned in the ancient tongue o f Israel. He instituted
the teaching o f Hebrew at the College because he was o f the
“strong opinion tha t as the Hebrew language was the first lan­
guage taugh t by God himself to mankind, and was really the
mo the r and fountain o f all language and eloquence, so in teach­
ing it would be on many accounts, vastly most advantageous to
begin a learned education . . In o rd e r to fu r th e r the study o f
Hebrew scripture in America, and to expound his theory tha t
Hebrew was the basis o f all learning, he wrote and had published
in 1767
An English and Hebrew Grammar,
o f which a manuscript
copy is among his papers in Columbia’s Rare Book and Manu­
script Library.