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The Poetry of Plagiarism

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(The following is a post by Ann Brener, Hebraic Area Specialist in the Library’s African and Middle Eastern Division.)

Problems about copyright are much in the news these days, and here in the Library of Congress they often seem very real indeed. Not only do many of us face copyright issues on an almost daily basis, but we often walk past the great doors of the Copyright Office itself, a concrete reminder of this vast edifice of law. But as we already know from Ecclesiastes: “there is nothing new under the sun,” and, as it turns out, the vexing problems of copyright are no exception to the rule. These have been with us for a long, long time, and we find some fascinating reminders of this fact on the shelves here in our own Hebraic Section.

Let us look, for example, at “Torat Moshe” (The Teachings of Moses), a commentary on the Pentateuch written by Moses Alshekh (1508-1593), one of the great Jewish scholars who turned Safed, a small town set high above the hills of Galilee, into a thriving center of Jewish learning and mysticism during the second half of the 16th century.

Detail showing Safed in a wall plaque depicting the four Holy Cities in the Holy Land. It was created by an unknown local folk-artist, probably in the 19th century. African and Middle Eastern Division.

Alshekh was one of the few Jews to be known through the ages by the saintly appellation of ha- kadosh (the holy), but even he was not impervious to the indignity of having his words filched. In the preface to his “Torat Moshe,” Alshekh, a popular lecturer and teacher, tells us the reason he decided to have his lectures “inscribed with an iron pen,” or, in other words, published in print: “Many of those who heard my lectures copied them down in ink and then went around from city to city and from town to town, claiming ‘mine, mine’ and selling them to all comers.” In good Talmudic fashion, the disgusted author likened these plagiarists to someone who “butchers a stolen cow he has neither cared for nor tended,” and then sells off the pieces for cash. Here we see Alshekh’s caustic remarks in the first edition of his book, published in the press set up by Doña Reyna Nasi in her palace of Belvedere just outside Constantinople, sometime around 1593.

From the preface of “Torat Moshe” by Moses Alshekh. Belvedere [near Constantinople], ca. 1593. African and Middle Eastern Division.
Another interesting case from around this same time period occurred in Italy, in the city of Padua. We learn about it from “Sefer Dikdukim,” (Book of Grammar) a collection of works on Hebrew grammar published in Venice, 1545, by Daniel Bomberg.

View of Padua byFrederik de Wit, “Theatrum præcipuarum totius Eurupæ urbium tam ichnographicé quam conspicué delineatarum.” Amsterdam, 1695. Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress.

The case concerns Elia Levita (1469-1549), a renowned scholar of Hebrew and, incidentally, the author of the “Bovo Bukh,” a rhymed Yiddish version of a popular Italian romance some scholars call the first Yiddish novel. Now, Renaissance Italy was a time of renewed interest in the classical languages, including Hebrew, and Levita became tutor to some of the most illustrious Christian Hebraists in Renaissance Italy. Books on Hebrew grammar were thus a rather hot commodity in sixteenth-century Italy – just how hot, the following story will demonstrate. The story comes to us in the shape of a poem, and it takes us back to the year 1504, when a young Elia Levita was living in Padua and supporting himself by teaching Hebrew.

The poem by Elia Levita, “Sefer Dikdukim.” Venice: Daniel Bomberg, 1545.
African and Middle Eastern Division.

There in Padua, at the request of his students, Levita wrote a commentary to “Mahalakh Shevili” (“The Path I Walk”), an earlier work of Hebrew grammar by Moses Kimhi (fl. 12th century Provence), and he gave his commentary to a scribe named Benjamin of Rome to copy for him. Then …, but let us listen to Levita himself. His Hebrew poem is most eloquent, and his rhymed couplets make for fun reading:

Levita Poem

We’ll pause here a bit, to sympathize with the defrauded author. There he was in Padua, without even a manuscript to call his own. The scribe he had hired to copy it – one Benjamin [Bosco] of Rome – instead ran off with the manuscript to Pesaro and, in 1508, had it printed there under his own name. To make matters worse, this Benjamin of Rome not only stole the fruit of Levita’s scholarship but actually added mistakes in grammar, lifting them from Leshon Limmudim,(The Language of Learning) an earlier work of Hebrew grammar by David ibn Yahya (1455-1528). The thief, it seems, spared no expense to get the book published; note Levita’s wry comments at the end of line 7. And indeed the commentary was printed, mistakes and all, by none other than Gershom Soncino, that great pioneer of Hebrew printing who surely had no idea that he was dealing with a pirated manuscript.

So, what happened to this pirated edition? Was it panned by the critics, reviled by the discerning public? Not at all. The book in fact sold like hotcakes, going through several editions over the years and even getting translated into Latin by that most famous of Humanists, Sebastian Münster, who printed it in Basel in 1531 and then again in 1536.

To continue the tale of woe:

Levita Poem_Lines20-30

Levita, we thus learn, sought to rise above the insult of the pirated editions and forget they’d ever been printed  - apart from fantasizing about tossing them all into the flames, as he remarks in line 18. And indeed over the years he went on to bigger and better things. But by the mid-1540s his fame was such that many of his admiring friends and students insisted that he set the record straight and claim the commentary as his own. So in 1545 he did just that, setting out a clean version of his text to be printed by Bomberg in Venice, and writing the poem which sets down the whole story in colorful detail. Leaving us amused (since justice, after all, has been served) – and with a new respect for modern copyright law. Long may it live.

Comments (2)

  1. Thank you. I find it so enriching to learn little tidbits like this.

  2. It’s a pleasure to read little-known facts of Jewish history. Thank you for sharing this with us.

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