Home page The Occident and American Jewish Advocate Jews in the Civil War Jews in the Wild West History of Palestine The Occident Virtual Library


An Apology for the Study of Hebrew and Rabbinical Literature.*


* “An Apology for the study of Hebrew and Rabbinical Literature. By the Rev. Alex. M'Caul, D.D., Professor of Hebrew and Rabbinical Literature, in King’s College, London. London: Wertheim, Aldine Chambers, Paternoster-row. 1844.”

We extract the subjoined from the Jewish Intelligence, with whose character our readers are acquainted, as an evidence that Christians think the knowledge of the Hebrew all-important. How strangely this compares with the endeavours of some modern Jews to banish the Hebrew from our public worship! Will not the comparison bring the mantle of shame to their cheeks, and cause them to hesitate before they proceed in their unholy work of destruction? Ed. Oc.

“It may seem strange indeed that the study of that sacred tongue which was spoken by patriarchs and prophets should require an ‘Apology.’ Shall a son apologize for wishing to read the letter received from a beloved father in the original—in the very words employed by his parent? Surely every expression, and every phrase, in such a communication must be considered valuable, and be treated with affection and respect. Those who cannot read themselves must indeed be greatly indebted to kind friends, who will take the trouble to render the intelligence thus received, accessible to those most concerned in it; but if it be possible for the son to read his own letter, we should not think him either dutiful or affectionate, if he leave it to strangers, to communicate that information which was addressed to himself. But as it regards our Father in heaven, we have been content to hear through an interpreter; and while anxious to hold intercourse with the poets and wise men of antiquity, and to hear them discourse in their own tongue, have thought it sufficient if we could gather the substance of the message delivered by prophets and taught by apostles, without knowing in what particular terms they expressed themselves.

“We have forgotten that, to use the words of Dr. Jelf, ‘Greek and Hebrew are the two keys with which, by the aid of God's Holy Spirit, we may open the ark wherein is laid up the whole covenant of God.’

“And, as Dr. M’Caul has well observed,—

“ ‘Hebrew is the language in which the Almighty spake to Moses and Isaiah, and all the glorious company of the prophets. Who is there that remembers this who does not desire to utter the very sound, and penetrate into all the accuracies of signification, perceptible only in the original? It is not only true of the Hebrew original, as of that of every other book, that there is sometimes a beauty, a force, and propriety in the Hebrew, which is lost in the best translation; but it is certain that he, who reads Moses and the Prophets in a version, reads them at second-hand—that he suffers an inconvenience, similar in kind, but infintely greater in degree, to that which must be felt by him, who is obliged to receive an important communication through the medium of an interpreter. He cannot tell whether, in the transmission, it may not have been weakened, misrepresented, changed, if not wilfully corrupted, and, the more vital the interest concerned, the greater and more painful must be his doubts and an anxiety. The Hebrew verity, as it is well called by ancient writers, is that which was revealed by the Almighty. To it, therefore, must be the final appeal in all matters to be proved by the testimony of Moses and the prophets. The man who is ignorant of Hebrew can but imperfectly investigate the mind of the spirit as revealed in the Old Testament.’ (Apology, pp. 12, 13.)

“In studying the sacred original the Rabbinical writers may be consulted with the greatest advantage:—

“ ‘Jewish commentators have done good service in clearing away difficulties, and in reconciling apparent contradictions in the Old Testament Scriptures. Masters of the cognate dialects, they led the way in the harmonic study of the Semitic languages. It is true, that in the history of ancient Gentile nations, and in geography, the rabbies are deficient, but this cannot detract from their value as transmitters of the Jewish tradition respecting the meaning of words, and frequently of the sense of passages. Their familiarity with the language, in which they spoke and wrote as in their mother-tongue, and which has never been equalled by any Gentile student, their knowledge of the letter of Scripture, which they appear to have known by heart, their ready memory making them living concordances, and their proverbial acuteness, give their commentaries a value which the greatest Hebrew scholars of every nation have been ready to acknowledge. Nor is it merely in exegesis that the writings of the rabbies are profitable. In controversy with their modern disciples, with the Socinians, and all others who deny the Christian interpretation of the prophecies, they render most important assistance, as appears abundantly in the works of Maius, Hulsius, Wagenseil, Edzard, Allix, Pearson, and that great host of writers who have followed from Raymond Martin to Archbishop Magee.’ (Apology, p. 10.)

“Dr. M’Caul illustrates the importance of cultivating an acquaintance with the Hebrew text very forcibly, by mentioning some of the serious mistakes made by the ancient fathers, who were contented with referring to versions instead of the original.

“It is surely high time that the study of Hebrew should become common among us, for—

“When men believe that time is made and given by God for the study of his Word, the Old Testament as well as the New, and that the language of Moses and Isaiah is at least as useful to an interpreter of their writings, as that of Voltaire or Schiller, or Goldoni or Cervantes, or an acquaintance with Ovid and Anacreon, or a knowledge of the Differential Calculus, a time and a place will be found for this study also. There can be no doubt that the acquirement of every species of learning, and of every branch of science is desirable to him, who ought in nothing to be inferior, but practically to demonstrate that theology is not the province of the ignorant or the imbecile. When men are convinced that the study of Hebrew ought not to form the only exception, it also will be cultivated.’ ” (Apology, p, 19.)