Monday, August 15, 2011

Did the "Vilna Gaon's 'rebbe' the Pnei Moshe enroll in a university to study botany?

Here's the abstract: did Rabbi Moshe ben Shimon Margolis (circa 1710-1780) author of the Pne Moshe/ Ma'areh ha-Panim commentary on Talmud Yerushalmi, and reputed rebbe/ tutor of the boy who grew up to be the Vilna Gaon, actually enroll in a course on botany at the University of Frankfurt-an-der-Oder?

Let me explain. Originally the title of this post was going to be "Quasi-factual facts," and it was going to have the following introduction:
As the title indicates, there is a phenomenon of facts that may not be so factual, yet which get repeated so often they become fact. One such example is the following: Rabbi Moshe Margaliot (d. 1780), author of the Pne Moshe commentary on Talmud Yerushalmi and a rebbe/ tutor of the child who would grow up to the Vilna Gaon, enrolled in the University of Frankfurt an der Oder when he was middle aged to study botany so that he could better comprehend the agricultural content of the Jerusalem Talmud!
I'll give the rest of the introduction in a minute, but I want to say here that I thought the evidence was far flimsier than it actually is. After looking into it I am now convinced that it is more probable that he did than that he did not. So I no longer think that this is a good example of a questionable "fact." I continue:

For example, Elchanan Reiner writes:
Apparently Margolis used manuscripts to clarify textual variants and spent no little time in the Department of Botany at the University of Frankfurt an der Oder in order to prepare himself for the composition of his commentary on Seder Zera'im.
(Reiner, Elchanan "Beyond the Realm of the Haskalah - Changing Learning Patters in Jewish Traditional Society," Jahrbuch Des Simon-Dubnow-Instituts VI 2007, pg. 130.)

He gives no source, but likely his sources were either the Encyclopedia Judaica ("In 1779, when he was nearly 70 years of age, his name is found among the students enrolled in the botanical department of the University of Frankfurt on the Oder. ") or one of its sources, Dr. Louis Ginzberg's English introduction to his commentary on the Yerushalmi, which reads as follows:

Since this is a general introduction, he doesn't have footnotes. But the statement is pretty clear-cut:
"We know very little about the life of the great commentator on the Palestinian Talmud. I shall, however, mention one very interesting fact about him. On August 11, 1779, shortly before his death - he must have been about seventy! - he registered under the name of Moses Margelit (in his native country he certainly pronounced his name Margolis!) as a student of botany at the University of Frankfort-on-the-Oder. One is safe in assuming that his eagerness to acquire botanical knowledge was prompted by his desire to be better prepared for the study of the first order of the Palestinian Talmud, which deals chiefly with agricultural laws, for the understanding of which some botanical knowledge is indispensable. For the same reason "the Gaon of Wilna" had spent some time with farmers, for in Poland no opportunity was given to a Jew to register at a University."
There are a lot of assumptions here! But one thing seems clear-cut, given that the exact date of his registration is known.

But how do we know it? And is "Moses Margelit" indeed the 70-year-old author of Pnei Moshe? How do we know that?

Indeed, some sense that nothing is certain here. On page 149 of Heshey Zelcer's Guide to the Jerusalem Talmud, footnote 225 says
"According to the records of the University of Frankfort-on-the-order [sic], on August 11, 1779, an M. Margoliot enrolled as a student. If this is indeed our M. Margoliot then shortly before his death, at the age of about 69, he registered as a student of botany presumably because he hoped thereby to gain a better understanding of the first order of the Palestinian Talmud which deals chiefly with agricultural law."
Presumably the fact rests on the university record. But where is the university record? Obviously it must have been published somewhere, and indeed it has. Ginzberg (and everyone else) most likely saw it in a 1923 article, which I am going to show and excerpt - but through the miracle of modern digitization technology I can first show you the 1923 article's source.

In 1888 an exceedingly dry, telephone-book sort of work was published, called Aeltere Universitäts-Matrikeln: 1649-1811 by Ernst Friedländer. The book is exactly what it sounds like, endless lists of students' registration information in German universities from 1649-1811. The first volume happens to be for the university of Frankfurt a.d. Oder. Here is what you will see on page 477:

Here's what we learn. On August 11, 1779 "Moses Margelit Rubin" enrolled. His course of study was "botan." and his father was "Simon Margelit." His father's residence is Kalvarde, which could well be Kalvarija, Lithuania (which is near Kovno; in fact as close to Kovno as Keidan, where he lived when he tutored the Gra). As for the strange idea that his father's or his nationality is "Italien" (it is in the column "Heimath oder Herkunst," "Home or Descent"), this actually fits well with the Pnei Moshe. In 1765 he had moved to Italy, where he remained for years. It isn't impossible to imagine him putting down Italy in his registration. As for the name "Margelit Rubin," which I don't think he is known as anywhere else, presumably it is an attempt at giving a German version of what is after all a Hebrew word for a surname, מרגלית. Now I know that it still doesn't exactly say "The author of Penei Moshe" nor does it allude to his advanced age. Still, this is a far better than a coincidental same name.

In any case, Rabbi Louis Lewin was the one who called attention to this in a really fascinating article called Die juedischen Studenten an der Universitaet Frankurt a. d. Oder (Jahrbuch der Jüdisch-Literarischen Gesellschaft 15 1923). Based mostly on the aforementioned book, Louis Lewin lists all the Jewish students of the University of Frankfurt a.d. Oder in the 18th century and as much biographical information about them as available.

As far as I'm concerned there is a good chance that this is the Penei Moshe, better than I'd thought. Certainly the weak link is extrapolating his motivations and stating them with certainty, but on the other hand it is doubtful that this 69 year old master of the Jerusalem Talmud registered for botany classes so that he could study tulips and start his own garden. Furthermore, if he died in 1780 then there is no telling how much time, if any, he actually spent there, certainly not enough to say that he "spent no little time in the Department of Botany."

Incidentally, I began looking into this about a year ago, and sort of got sidetracked. At the time, a friend of mine asked "a leading expert on Yerushalmi" and this was his reply:
No, the evidence is definitely not solid, and the critical point is indeed whether the Moshe Marg. mentioned as enrolling at U. of Frank. am Oder is the same as the author of Pnei Moshe.
That sounded pretty convincing to me a year ago, but of course this is an expert on Yerushalmi, not an expert on German university registration records, and I don't know if he even saw the entry.
To me it sounds like he thinks that it simply says the name, but as I have shown it also has the father's name, mentions his place of residence and origin very close to an area of Lithuania where he is known to have lived, and also mentions his Italian collection, although this is unclear. To me this is a more pregnant piece of evidence than a mere name.

There is an article on the Penei Moshe in the Proceedings of the 11th World Congress of Jewish Studies called ר׳ משה מרגלית ופירושו פני משה על התלמוד הירושלמי, by Aviad Hacohen. I haven't seen it. He must discuss this. Maybe he brings additional facts, maybe he concludes differently from me. Although I will probably track down the article to see for myself, I think it's likely that my conclusion will be what it is: a less quasi-factual fact then I thought, and more likely a factual fact. Still, one wishes there was at least one more piece of evidence and I can understand if someone is less persuaded.