Isaac Leeser

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Isaac Leeser
Isaac Leeser.jpg
Born (1806-12-12)December 12, 1806
Neuenkirchen/Rheine, Westphalia (present-day Germany)
Died February 1, 1868(1868-02-01) (aged 61)
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Isaac Leeser (December 12, 1806 – February 1, 1868) was an American, Ashkenazi Jewish lay minister of religion, author, translator, editor, and publisher; pioneer of the Jewish pulpit in the United States, and founder of the Jewish press of America. He produced the first Jewish translation of the Bible into English,[1] as well as editions of the liturgy. He is considered one of the most important American Jewish personalities of the nineteenth century America.

Early life[edit]

Born as Isaak Leeser in Neuenkirchen/Rheine, Westphalia, Isaac Leeser received his education at the primary school of nearby Dülmen and thereupon at a gymnasium in Münster. He was well-grounded in Latin, German, and Hebrew. He also studied the Talmud tractates Moed, Bava Metzia, and portions of Kodashim and Bava Batra under Hebrew masters. At the age of seventeen he emigrated to America, arriving at Richmond, Virginia, in May, 1824. His uncle, Zalma Rehiné, a respected merchant in that city, sent Leeser to a private school but after ten weeks the school closed, and for the next five years Leeser was employed in his uncle's counting-room. Although his circumstances were inhospitable for the growth of his Jewish knowledge, Leeser showed his bent by voluntarily assisting the hazzan to teach religion on Saturdays and Sundays and also by defending Judaism in the public press from time to time when it was assailed.

Elected at Philadelphia[edit]

In 1828, an article in the London Quarterly reflecting on the Jews was answered by Leeser in the columns of the Richmond Whig, and the reply attracted the attention of the Jewish communities of Richmond and Philadelphia. About that time Abraham Israel Keys, hazzan of Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia, died. Leeser was induced to accept the congregation's invitation to serve as his successor. His own view of the situation is given in a letter written by him six years later to Rabbi Solomon Hirschell of London: "Knowing my own want of proper qualification, I would never have consented to serve, if others more fitting in point of standing, information, or other qualities had been here; but this not being the case (as is proved by there being yet two congregations at least in this country without a regular hazzan), I consented to serve."

In August, 1829, Leeser went to Philadelphia with the manuscript of his first book ("The Jews and the Mosaic Law"). He also brought fresh ideas about his new job. Up to that time the role of a hazzan in America had been merely to lead the congregation in Hebrew prayers. There was, however, a new movement in Europe. In Hamburg, Rabbi Gotthold Salomon had broken new ground by delivering a sermon in German. Preaching in German soon became the norm in Reform synagogues, and even some conservative rabbis, such as Isaac Bernays, had begun to deliver sermons in the vernacular. This movement had inspired Leeser, and he hoped to transform the lectern into the pulpit.

On June 2, 1830, Leeser delivered his first English sermon, and thereafter he preached with regularity, though on sufferance only, until June 18, 1843, when the congregation formally accepted the sermon as regular. Leeser's practice of delivering sermons on a regular basis was ultimately adopted by American congregations, and preaching became one of the standard duties of Jewish clergyman.

Publishing[edit]

The scarcity of books concerning the Jewish religion emphasized the fact that there was no American Jewish publisher. Having translated Johlson's Instruction in the Mosaic Religion, Leeser issued in the winter of 1829-30 proposals to publish it and The Jews and the Mosaic Law. When no offers were forthcoming, he became his own publisher.

In 1845, Leeser published a Hebrew-English edition of the Torah in five volumes; the English translation was his own. It was the first such translation in the United States, and it became the standard Bible for English-speaking Jews during the nineteenth century.

Three years later, Leeser published a masoretic Hebrew edition of the Tanakh, Biblia Hebraica, in cooperation with Joseph Jaquett, a local Episcopalian minister. It was the first of its kind to be printed in America.

In 1853, Leeser completed his English translation of the entire Tanakh, commonly called The Leeser Bible. In 1857 he issued a second (folio-size) edition of this Bible. A compact size edition (containing a "Notes" section in the back of the book) was printed two years after the quarto edition (which contained footnotes of more extensive notes), as stated in the second to the last paragraph of the Preface of the compact size edition.

Later career[edit]

Leeser retired from Congregation Mikveh Israel in 1850. He did not take office again until 1857, when the newly formed Congregation Beth-El-Emeth in Philadelphia called him, and he remained its leader until his death.

When Leeser commenced his public career, there were approximately 12,000 to 15,000 scattered Jewish individuals and members of congregations in the United States. He helped to mold them into a community in part by the pulpit and in part by the press.

Leeser participated in nearly all the Jewish activities in the United States — examples include the first Jewish day schools, the first Jewish seminary, the first Jewish publication society. The Occident and American Jewish Advocate, Leeser's monthly magazine, acquired an international reputation; Maimonides College, of which he was provost, paved the way for future Jewish seminaries in the United States; the Jewish Publication Society he founded is the predecessor of today's Jewish Publication Society of America; and his translation of the Bible became an authorized version for English-speaking Jews around the world.

Minority Rights Activism[edit]

Leeser was also an influential leader in the cause of minority rights within American democracy, particularly the rights of religious minorities. In the 1840s and 1850s, Leeser used his Occident and American Jewish Advocate to alert the Jewish community to rising threats to their religious freedom. He also allied with other religious minorities, Seventh Day Baptists most notably, to advocate for religious liberty in the face of Sunday laws that banned work and other activities on the so-called Christian Sabbath.[2]

Works[edit]

Leeser published the following works, including his own books, his translations, and books by other authors.

  • Joseph Johlson's Instruction in the Mosaic Religion (translated by Leeser, 1830)
  • The Jews and the Mosaic Law (1833)
  • Discourses (2 volumes, 1837)
  • Portuguese prayers, with Leeser's English translation (6 volumes, 1837)
  • Hebrew Spelling-Book (1838)
  • Catechism (1839)
  • The Claims of the Jews to an Equality of Rights (1841)
  • Discourses (1841)
  • The Occident and American Jewish Advocate, a monthly magazine (1843—1868)
  • The Pentateuch (Hebrew and English) (5 volumes, 1845)
  • Daily Prayers, German Rite, with Leeser's English translation (1848)
  • The Twenty-four books of the Holy Scriptures (The Leeser Bible) (4to, 1853)
  • The Twenty-four books of the Holy Scriptures (The Leeser Bible) (Second edition, 18mo, 1857)
  • Portuguese prayers, with Leeser's English translation (Second edition, 7 volumes, 1857)
  • The Dias Letters (1859)
  • The Inquisition and Judaism (1860)
  • Meditations and Prayers (1864)
  • Grace Aguilar, The Jewish Faith (1864)
  • Grace Aguilar, Spirit of Judaism (1864)
  • Collected Discourses (10 volumes, 1867)
  • Joseph Johlson's Instruction in the Mosaic Religion (translated by Leeser, second edition, 1867)

In addition, Leeser translated Joseph Schwarz's Geography of Palestine and, with Jaquett, published an edition of the Hebrew Bible.

See also[edit]

References[edit]

 This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainJewish Encyclopedia. 1901–1906. 

External links[edit]

Writings and primary sources[edit]

Articles about Isaac Leeser[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ The Leeser translation began with the Torah in 1845, and was completed in 1853. The Jewish School and Family Bible, an Anglo-Jewish translation by A. Benisch, was partially simultaneous with that of Leeser but generally followed his progress: Its first volume (Torah) was published in 1851, and the final volume (Hagiographa) in 1861. Full scans of all the original printings of both translations can be found here.
  2. ^ Volk, Kyle G. (2014). Moral Minorities and the Making of American Democracy. New York: Oxford University Press. pp. 49-68. ISBN 019937192X.