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The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia
Letter-Writing and Letter-Writers
The art of conveying information by letter ("miktab," "iggeret," "sefer") was unknown to the Hebrews in the first stages of their history. From the times of the Patriarchs to those of King Saul the Bible mentions only messengers who transmitted orally the communications entrusted to them (comp. Numbers 24:12; Judges 11:13; 1 Samuel 11:9). The first letter recorded is that written by David to Joab and sent by the hand of Uriah (2 Samuel 11:23,25). David and his successors had special secretaries ("soferim.") charged with the writing of letters and circulars; and these secretaries occupied an exalted position in the state. The Kenites living at Jabez were noted for their skill in writing (comp. 1 Chronicles 2:55). As among the Greeks and Romans, it seems to have been customary among the ancient Hebrews to seal a letter sent to a prominent person. To show his slight respect for the prophet's personality, Sanballat sends an open letter to Nehemiah (Nehemiah 6:5).
In Talmudic Times.
With the expansion of commerce in Talmudic times the use of letters became a necessity, and nearly every town had its official letter-writer ( = "libellarius"). The Rabbis forbade a scholar to reside in a city where there was no such functionary (Sanh. 17a). The Talmud has preserved the original text of two letters: one was addressed by the community of Jerusalem to that of Alexandria and refers to the sojourn of Judah ben Ṭabbai in the latter city; the other was sent by Gamaliel I. to the Jews of Upper and Lower Galilee and treated of the intercalation of an additional month in the year (Yer. Ḥag.; Sanh. 11b). Besides letters of information or of friendship, there are traces in the Talmud of consultatory letters dealing with scientific subjects (comp. Ḥul. 95a). To this class belongs that important branch of rabbinical literature which is known by the name "She'elot u-Teshubot" (RESPONSA), and which developedafter the geonic period (see Joel Müler, "Briefe und Responsen in der Vorgaonischen Jüdischen Litteratur," in "Jahresbericht der Lehranstalt für Jüdische Wissenschaft," Berlin, 1886).
Style and Composition.
The epistolary style varied according to the country. In the East it was modeled after that of the Arabs, who exercised care in the elaboration of their letters. The first, often the greater, part of the letter, usually written in rimed prose and adorned with Biblical quotations, formed a kind of introduction in which the writer attributed to his correspondent all the virtues conceivable to the imagination of an Oriental. In western countries expression was more moderate; the use of titles, however, was general, as it still is among the conservative Jews in Russia, Poland, and Galicia. The least important rabbi is addressed as the "Great Gaon," "Great Light," "Wonder of the Generation," "Pillar of Israel," or with similar extravagant epithets. Like the Arabs, the Jews in the Middle Ages neglected to place the date at the head of their letters; in modern times the custom was established of giving, after the formula (="With the help of God"), with which the letter began, the day of the week, the Sabbatical section (sometimes also the day of the month), and the place. "Friday" was usually followed by the abbreviation (= "eve of the holy Sabbath"). The secrecy of letters was assured in the tenth century by R. Gershon (Me'or ha-Golah), who declared under the ban any one who should open without permission a letter not addressed to him.
The most famous letters in Jewish literature—because of both their contents and the prominence of their writers—are: that of Ḥasdai ibn Shaprut to the king of the Chazars; "Iggeret R. Sherira Gaon," on the sequence of tradition and the redaction of the Talmud; the various letters of Maimonides inserted in the "Pe'er ha-Dor"; the letters exchanged between the French rabbis and scholars and those of Spain on the study of philosophy ("Minḥat Ḳena'ot"); "Iggeret al-Tehi ka-Aboteka," addressed by Profiat Duran to En Bonet; the collection of letters on Shabbethai Ẓebi published by Ẓebi Ashkenazi (Ḥakam Ẓebi), Moses Ḥagiz, and Jacob Emden. As a curiosity, mention may be made of the letter addressed by the rabbis of Jerusalem to the alleged descendants of Moses ("Bene Mosheh," Amsterdam, 1731). The most noteworthy letters of modern times are: those of Moses Mendelssohn ("Iggerot RaMaD)," Vienna, 1792); of Naphtali Herz Wessely included in the "Megalleh Ṭamirin" (ib. 1819); of J. Perl written in the style of "Epistolæ Obscurorum Virorum"; "Iggeret YaSHaR," by Isaac Samuel Reggio (ib. 1834); "Iggerot ShaDaL," by Luzzatto (Przemysl, 1883); and "Miktabe YaGeL," by Judah Löb Gordon (Warsaw, 1894).
Formularies for Letters.
From the sixteenth century Jewish literature was enriched with a number of formularies of Hebrew and Judæo-German letters. The first of this kind was the "Iggeret Shelomim," published at Augsburg in 1534 and republished with a Latin translation by Buxtorf the Younger at Basel in 1603. The characteristic features of this formulary, as of all the others published until 1820, were the stilted and bombastic style, the misuse of Biblical and Talmudical quotations, and the extravagance of the headings of the letters. In the "'Iṭṭur Soferim" (see the list below), for instance, there is such a heading; which, rendered into English, it reads thus: "His [the correspondent's] cheeks are as a bed of spices [Song of Solomon 5:13], a ladder on which angels of God are ascending and descending [Genesis 28:12]. He is of a reliable character; keeps secrets; shows power to Jew and Gentile; he is a righteous man upon whom the world is based." As a model of a business letter, in which the writer has to inform his correspondent that some salt which had been purchased is on the road, the "Ẓaḥut ha-Meliẓah" (see below) gives the following: "And he looked back from behind him and became a pillar of salt on the road," etc. (comp. Genesis 19:26). A new era in letter-writing was inaugurated by Shalom ha-Kohen. In his formula "Ketab Yosher" (see below) he endeavored to do away with the obsolete forms and to cause the young, for whom his formulas are intended, to adopt a modern style of writing. He was followed in this endeavor by many writers of talent who produced formularies of real literary value. The following is a list of formularies published up to the last years of the nineteenth century:
- , anonymous. Augsburg, 1534; Basel, 1603.
- , in Judæo-German, by Judah Löb Liondor. Wilna, 1820, 1844, 1846.
- , in Judæo-German, by Hirsch Liondor. Wilna, 1855.
- , by Mordecai Aaron Günzburg. Wilna, 1844; 2d ed., 1855.
- , by Abraham Israel Kukelstein. Wilna, 1895.
- , by H. Baueli. Wilna, 1866.
- , by Tobias Shapiro. Wilna, 1891.
- , by Shalom ha-Kohen. Vienna, 1820; Wilna, 1858.
- , anonymous. Warsaw, 1869, 1871.
- , by Israel Segal. Sudilkov, 1796.
- , by Moses of Lemberg. Cracow, 1659; Prague, 1705.
- , by Eliakim Mellamed. Amsterdam, 1686.
- , by Eliezer Beër Silbermann. Johannisberg, 1854.
- , in Hebrew and Judæo-German, by Azriel Selig Galin, Warsaw, 1889.
- , by Baer Friedmann. Berdychev, 1890.
- , in Hebrew, Judæo-German, and Russian, by Feigensohn. Wilna, 1882.
- , by Abraham Jacob Paperna. Warsaw, 1884.
- , by M. Letteris. Vienna, 1867.
- , by Israel Beer Riesberg. Warsaw, 1887.
- , in Hebrew and Judæo-German, by S. Neumann. Vienna, 1815, 1834.
- , in Hebrew and Judæo-German, anonymous. Lemberg, 1860.
- , by Israel Busch. Vienna, 1847.
- , by Israel Knöpflemacher. Vienna, 1855.
- , by Emanuel Bondi. Prague, 1857.
- , by Lazar Isaac Shapiro. Warsaw, 1871.
- , by Naphtali Maskileison. Warsaw, 1876.
- , by Abraham Markus Pjurko. Warsaw, 1872.
- , by Paradiesthal. Warsaw, 1853.
- , by David Zamosc. Breslau, 1823.
- , in Hebrew and Russian, by A. J. Paperna. Warsaw, 1874, 1876.
- , by Moses Cohen. Fürth, 1691.
- , by Ẓemaḥ Landau. Wilna, 1830, 1833.
- , by Ẓemaḥ Landau. Wilna, 1835, 1844, 1848.
- , by Tobias Shapiro. Warsaw, 1878.
- , by Moses Landsberg. Hamburg, 1721, and many other editions.
- , by Wolf Buchner. Prague, 1805.
- , by Ḥayyim Wittkind. Warsaw, 1873.
- , by Jacob Lapin. Berlin, 1857.
- , by Mordecai Aaron Günzburg. Wilna, 1835, 1847, 1855; Warsaw, 1837, 1883.
- , by Mendel Dolitzky. Vienna, 1883.
- , anonymous. Frankfort-on-the-Main, 1736.
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Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Letter-Writing and Letter-Writers'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tje/l/letter-writing-and-letter-writers.html. 1901.
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