MENAḤEM-MENDL LEFIN (LEVIN) (1749-July 9, 1826)
He was also known by the names Mendl Satanover and Mendl Mikolayever. He was born in Satanov (Sataniv, Satanów) and lived in Kamenets-Podolsk, Ukraine. Already in his youth, he excelled with his proficiency in Talmud and commentators. Also while young, he joined the ranks of the Jewish Enlightenment, which came to Satanov early (Satanov carried on trade with Leipzig and Frankfurt). Lefin was reading books of Jewish medieval philosophy, among them the volume Elim (Palms), a mathematical-philosophical work by Yosef-Shlomo Delmedigo, which thoroughly drew him into knowledge of the outside world. From too much reading, he ruined his eyesight, and in 1780 he traveled to Berlin to undergo treatment with an eye doctor. Lefin spent two years in Berlin. Yitsḥak Satanover, a fellow townsman and also a follower of the Jewish Enlightenment, introduced him to Moses Mendelssohn’s circle, where Lefin befriended the most important figures in the German Jewish Enlightenment. He also became acquainted with a number of German authors. In his Berlin period, he read a great deal, he significantly improved his knowledge of mathematics, physics, and philosophy, he learned European languages, and he became a contributor to the Enlightenment’s Hameasef (The collector) in Berlin. The customary literary style in Hebrew literature at the time was the exalted language of the Bible. Lefin (and with him Yitsḥak Satanover) were the first to write in the language of the Mishna. Lefin placed utility above all else, meaning: to write that which gives the people genuine knowledge and to write such that every person should understand what one intends to say. The series of articles that he published in Hameasef was titled “Igerot ḥokhma” (Letters on wisdom), popular scholarly works written in the form of letters. In 1789 his first book was published in Berlin, Moda levina (Insight into understanding) in two parts: “Igerot ḥokhma” and fragments from Refuat haam (Healing the people), an adapted translation of Tissot’s medical work (Tissot was a Swiss physician of hygiene, but Lefin reworked the text from the German translation). After returning from Berlin, he spent a bit of time in Brody and from there made his way to Mikolajów, a town near Satanov. His wife ran a small store selling earthenware pots there, and as such she engaged in business (they had no children), and Lefin had enough time to devote himself to reading. It was told that, when on one occasion Prince Adam Kazimierz Czartoryski entered her shop and saw on the counter a volume on mathematics, he asked who was reading the book. “My husband,” replied Lefin’s wife. From then on, the prince became his patron and good friend. He provided Lefin with a monthly subsidy for his entire life, and Lefin even saved a little money from this. Czartoryski was a nobleman and under his influence Lefin composed in French the pamphlet: Essai d’un plan de réforme, ayant pour objet d’éclairer la nation juive en Pologne et la redresser par ses moeurs (Essay with a plan of reform, having as its object to enlighten the Jewish people in Poland and to improve their customs). The pamphlet appeared in early 1792 in Warsaw. In the early 1790s, Lefin completed his adapted translation in Refuat haam, which he had begun while resident in Berlin. The book was published in Zolkiev (Żółkiew) in 1794 with an accompanying letter from Mendelssohn and with approbations from well-known rabbis. At the end of the 1790s, he became close to the celebrated Jewish patron Yehoshua Zeitlin. For a certain period of time, Lefin taught Zeitlin’s grandson, Hirsch Peretz (who would later convert to Christianisty and be known as Grigori Peretz, a Decembrist). Yehoshua Zeitlin’s estate in Ustzia (Mohilev district) was a meeting place for intellectuals, with its rich library and a chemical laboratory. Here Lefin prepared his work Ḥeshbon hanefesh (Moral stocktaking), publishing it in Lemberg in either 1908 or 1812, which exerted an immense impact on Jewish youth. Many Jewish communities in Galicia and Podolia created social-ethical groups following the rules outlined in this volume. In 1844 Rabbi Israel Salanter published this book, and Ḥeshbon hanefesh thus became a work of “musar” (morality and etiquette). In 1875 the treatise appeared in five editions. Aside from its educational value, the work is no less of literary value—with its expression and high artistic simplicity. Over the years 1808-1817, Lefin lived in Brody, and over the years 1817-1926 in Tarnopol—both in Galicia. There he made friends and students, among them: Yankev-Shmuel Bik and Yosef Perl (author of Megale tmirin [Revealer of secrets]). In 1809 he published in Lemberg his translation of Joachim Heinrich Campe’s Masaot hayam (The sea journeys), a description of a trip to the northern and southern ice-capped oceans. In Tarnopol Lefin translated anew the first part of the Rambam’s More nevukhim (Guide of the perplexed). The translation was published in Żółkiew in 1831 (the publisher was Rabbi Mordechai Sukhostaver, a well-known follower of the Jewish Enlightenment and a teacher at the Zhitomir rabbinical school). In 1865 Ḥayim Zelig Slonimski published Elon more (Introduction to the Guide), Lefin’s introduction to Rambam’s text. In Lefin’s behest which was preserved in the Perl library in Tarnopol, there is a text in German written by him: Nachlass eines Sonderlings zu Abdera (Estate of an odd character in Abdera [i.e., Brody]); he worked on this text, a manuscript of 248 folio pages, between 1794 and 1823. The work bears a dedicatory heading: “In honor of the Duchess Izabela Czartoryska, in the 1794, in Geneva, on her birthday.” The text consists of a treatment of Kant’s philosophical system of thought. It was left incomplete in manuscript “Maḥkimat peti” (making the simple wise), an anti-Hassidic satire written in Hebrew. Another manuscript in Yiddish, Der ershter khosid (The first Hassid), was lost. From Lefin’s Yiddish translations, the following remain extant: Mishle (Proverbs) (Tarnopol, 1814); and Koyheles (Ecclesiastes), first edition (Odessa, 1873) posthumously. He produced other translations as well (Psalms, Job, Lamentations), but they have all been lost. In one of his letters (to be found in the Perl library), he wrote (in German in the Jewish alphabet): “I now have several manuscripts ready for the press, one translation of the Psalms of Solomon the preacher, of the Book of Job, the lamentations of Jeremiah—all on behalf of the Jewish vernacular next to the German for the importance of writing for the people in the vernacular for culture and enlightenment of the Jewish inhabitants in Poland.” With respect to Yiddish, Lefin made a switch probably after the 1780s, when he was in Berlin, because his Yiddish translation of Ecclesiastes was mentioned in the approbation by the Satanov rabbi to Lefin’s Moda levina, and the approbation was dated 1788. Lefin, though, did not publish his other Tanakh translations into Yiddish for various reasons. One of the reasons was probably the fear of a new explosion (he remembered well the sharp attack on him after the appearance of his Mishle). In his last years, he was practically blind. He died in Tarnopol.
“In his Tanakh translations,” noted M. Viner, “Lefin did something similar to what certain Italian, Dutch, and Flemish painters (even Rembrandt on occasion) did in handling Biblical and evangelical subject matter. They dressed the biblical figures in the clothing of Italian, Dutch, and Flemish farmers, rabble, (and urban) folks…of the times.” Lefin’s greatness lies in his linguistic accomplishments. For the first time, the everyday common language entered the realm of sanctity and lit it up with such genuine beauty and charm: “Velikhe klug iz tsishn vayber di hot isporondzhet ir hoyz un a shlimazlnitse ispostotshet nokh mit ire eygene hent” (The wisest of women—each one built her house, but a foolish one tears it down with her hands. [Proverbs 14.1]); “Azoy hot zikh mir got oprikrit dos lebn vorin siz mir gor nimes farn lebn gantsn inters vi es geyt tsu unter der zun vi aldung iz nor hevl in anumzister klopt” (So I hated life, for I was depressed by all that goes on under the sun, because everything is futile and a vexation of the spirit. [Ecclesiastes 2.17]); “Vos mayne oygn hot zikh nor geglust: hobikh zey nisht far zogt keynerley simkhe hobikh mayn harts nit gizhalevet mayn harts hot fin ale mayn horivanye hanoe gehat in tulkay dos iz geven mayn fin ale horivanye” (Whatever my eyes desired I did not deny them: I did not deprive myself of any kind of joy. Indeed, my heart drew great joy from all my activities, and this was my reward for all my endeavors. [Ecclesiastes 2.10]); “Eyder svet nokh farshtart vern dos zilberne shnidl svet krukhke vern dos gildene krayzl der krug bay der kernitse vet tsi brokhn vern” (Before the silver cord snaps, and the golden bowl is shattered, and the pitcher is broken at the fountain, and the wheel is smashed at the pit. [Ecclesiastes 12.1]) After the publication of Lefin’s Tanakh translations, the Hebrew pedant and Enlightenment adherent Toviya Feder (1760-1817), who had once been Lefin’s student, composed a bitter pamphlet against Lefin. Lefin’s ideological friends and admirers tried to reason with Feder that he not publish the pamphlet. The writer and follower of the Enlightenment Yankev-Shmuel Bik sent Feder his famous letter on the significance and role of vernacular languages and of Yiddish, but none of this helped at all. Feder, it seems, published the pamphlet in 1816 under the title Kol meḥatsetsim (Sound of archers)—the edition that has reached us is the one published by Avraham-Mendel Mohr of 1853—with a lengthy subtitle which would translate as: “a disgrace and a shame is the modern translation of Proverbs which sickens and stinks of it, and whoever sets eyes on this will get something in the eye; it should be cut into pieces and burned, and its name should never again be mentioned. The lengthy document of Reb Mendl Satanover has neither taste nor small, and its goal is to find charm in the eyes of concubines and young girls.” The first printing of the Ecclesiastes translation was carried out by Tsvi Hakohen Raykh and Yehuda Ḥari. In the preface to the volume, it was noted that the manuscript was incomplete and not in order and that the publisher had to complete it and lay out the material as necessary. Ḥari also added in Hebrew his own notes to several passages in Ecclesiastes. In 1930 YIVO brought out a new edition of the Ecclesiastes translation, this time from Lefin’s manuscript, dated 1818-1819 (this manuscript was found by Yisroel Vaynlez [Weinlös] among Lefin’s extant manuscripts). Insofar as is known, there are three specimens of Lefin’s translation of Proverbs throughout the world: one in the British Museum, one that should be in the Asiatic Museum in Leningrad, and one in the library at YIVO in New York which is, incidentally, the only complete specimen in the world. “His translation of Proverbs,” wrote Nokhum Shtif, “was, in the sense of a pure vernacular, a work of epochal proportions.” Lefin also introduced innovations into Yiddish spelling. He brought the written language close to the spoken language. From him, via Y. M. Lifshits, this very principle came to dominate in Yiddish orthography. “He was the first of the Enlightenment authors,” noted Zalmen Reyzen, “to discontinue the use of Germanisms in the literary language and to strive to bring the literary language closer to the vernacular.”
Sources: Zalmen Reyzen, Leksikon fun der yidisher literatur un prese (Biographical dictionary of Yiddish literature and press) (Warsaw, 1914); Bal-Dimyon (N. Shtif), in Pinkes (Vilna), publ. B. Kletskin (1912-1913), pp. 313-48; Bal-Makhshoves, in Tsukunft (New York) (January 1922), pp. 51-54; Shmuel Niger, in Tsukunft (May 1922; August 1924); Niger, Di tsveyshprakhikeyt fun unzer literatur (Bilingualism in our literature) (Detroit, 1941), pp. 97, 100; Niger, Dertseylers un romanistn (Storytellers and novelists) (New York, 1946), p. 38; Niger, Habikoret uveayoteha (Criticism and its problems) (Jerusalem, 1957), p. 352; Z. Reyzen, Fun mendelson biz mendele, hantbukh far der geshikhte fun der yidisher haskole-literatur mit reproduktsyes un bilder (From Mendelssohn to Mendele, handbook of the history of the Yiddish Enlightenment literature with reproduced texts and pictures) (Warsaw: Kultur-lige, 1923), pp. 147-79; Reyzen, in Morgn zhurnal (New York) (September 14, 1931); Reyzen, in Yivo-bleter (Vilna) 2 (1931); Joseph Klausner, Historiya shel hasifrut haivrit haḥadasha (History of modern Hebrew literature), vol. 1 (Jerusalem, 1929/1930), pp. 199-225, with a rich bibliography; Y. Vaynlez, in Yivo-bleter 2 (1931); Dr. A. A. Robak, in Yoyvl-bukh fun keneder odler (Jubilee volume for Keneder odler) (Montreal, 1932); Roback, The Story of Yiddish Literature (New York, 1940), see index; Maks Erik, Etyudn tsu der geshikhte fun der haskole (Studies in the history of the Jewish Enlightenment) (Minsk, 1934); Sh. Ginzburg, in Forverts (New York) (January 6, 1935); E. Spivak, in Afn shprakhfront (Kiev) 3-4 (1935); Dr. Y. Tsinberg, Di geshikhte fun der literatur bay yidn (The history of Yiddish literature), vol. 7 (Vilna, 1936), pp. 253-66; Sh. Kats, in Kiryat sefer (Jerusalem) (Nisan [= March-April] 1939), pp. 114-33; Yudel Mark, in Yidishe shprakh (New York) (January-February 1940); M. Viner, Tsu der geshikhte fun der yidisher literatur in 19tn yorhundert (Toward a history of Yiddish literature in the 19th century) (Kiev, 1940); Sh. Lastik, Di yidishe literatur biz di klasiker (Jewish literature until the classics) (Warsaw: Yidish bukh, 1950), pp. 123-30; A. Ben-Or, Toldot hasifrut haivrit (History of Hebrew literature), vol. 1 (Tel Aviv, 1951), pp. 70-71; Sh. Dubnov, Velt-geshikhte fun yidishn folk (World history of the Jewish people), vol. 8 (Buenos Aires, 1956), pp. 277-78, 345-47; R. Mahler, Divre yeme yisrael, dorot aḥaronim (History of the Jewish people in modern times) (Merḥavya, 1956), pp. 71-88, 266-71; Dr. M. Hendl, in Yizker-bukh fun di balukhover kdoyshim (Remembrance volume for the martyrs of Balukhov) (Tel Aviv, 10957), p. 186; Yedies fun yivo (New York) (March 1957), p. 1; Rabbi Nisn Vakdman, in Hadoar (New York) (1958/1959), p. 12; E. R. Malachi, in Hadoar (1958/1959), p. 15; Malachi, in Bitsaron (New York) (Adar-Nisan [= February-April] 1961), pp. 240-42.