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The Research Blog—Hebrew and Jewish Studies


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Delineating Jewish Intercession from Early Modern to 19th Century Europe: Attempts of a Definition—by François Guesnet

By uclhwis, on 14 December 2015

Research seminar, Hebrew and Jewish Studies; Wednesday, 4 November, 4pm

Foster Court, 1st floor, room 112


Abstract: In January 1817, the Jewish army contractor and entrepreneur Elieser Dileon was received by the Russian Tsar Alexander I. A letter sent by Dileon to the Jewish community in Minsk starts with the remarkable exclamation “Today, we have become a people.” This sentence and the detailed description of the negotiation between the representative of the Minsk community, and of Jews in Russia more generally, served as a starting point of this presentation, arguing that the symbolic meaning of Jewish intercession went far beyond the mere negotiation of specific grievances. In my research on shtadlanut, I show that acts of intercession also reflect symbolic interaction of a diasporic community establishing itself in the fabric of a commonwealth: Intercession is constitutio in actu, as the Swiss historian André Holenstein has defined it. I argue that in contexts with considerable legal and constitutional security fr the Jewish community (e.g. medieval Spain or early modern Poland-Lithuania), intercession was integrated into communal policies and institutions. In more precarious contexts (e.g. the Holy Roman Empire of German Nations, or Eastern Europe after the partitions of Poland at the end of the 18th century) intercession became the task of highly positioned, prominent individuals, with a less clear communal mandate. This research project looks into the institutional framework of intercession, the personality of the intercessor, the spaces of intercession as well as the epistemology of intercession, in an attempt to describe the transition of the early modern Jewish community into the more complex and more precarious world of the 19th century.

Medal celebrating in 1748 the successful intervention on behalf of the Prague Jewish community expelled in 1744, a cause célèbre of the mid-18th century

Medal celebrating in 1748 the successful intervention on behalf of the Prague Jewish community expelled in 1744, a cause célèbre of the mid-18th century

Bio: Dr François Guesnet is Reader in Modern Jewish History in the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Studies at University College London. He specializes in the early modern and 19th century history of Eastern European, and more specifically, Polish Jews. Recent publications Der Fremde als Nachbar. Polnische Positionen zur jüdischen Präsenz in Polen. Texte seit 1800 (Suhrkamp-Verlag: Frankfurt am Main 2009), Zwischen Graetz und Dubnow: Jüdische Historiographie in Ostmitteleuropa, Akademische Verlagsanstalt: Leipzig 2009), with Gwenyth Jones Antisemitism in an Era of Transition: The Case of Post-Communist Eastern Central Europe (Frankfurt/Main: Peter Lang Verlag 2014), and with Glenn Dynner Warsaw. The Jewish Metropolis. Studies in Honor of the 75th Birthday of Professor Antony Polonsky (Boston, Leiden: Brill Academic Publishers 2015).

Further Reading: François Guesnet, “Thinking Globally, Acting Locally: Joel Wegmeister and Modern Hasidic Politics in Warsaw,” in: Quest. Issues in Contemporary Jewish History. Journal of Fondazione CDEC 2 (October 2011) URL: www.quest-cdecjournal.it/focus.php?id=222 ; “Agreements between neighbours. The ‘ugody’ as a source on Jewish-Christian relations in early modern Poland,” in: Jewish History 24, 3-4 (2010), 257-270; “The Turkish Cavalry in Swarzedz, or: Jewish Political Culture at the Borderlines of Modern History,” in: Simon-Dubnow-Institute Yearbook 6 (2007), 227-248; “Textures of Intercession: Rescue Efforts for the Jews of Prague, 1744/48,” in: Simon-Dubnow-Institute Yearbook, 4 (2005), 355-375; “Moses Mendelssohns Activities as an Intercessor in the Context of Jewish Political Culture in the Early Modern Period,” [in German] in: Julius H. Schoeps et al. (eds.), Menora. Jahrbuch für deutsch-jüdische Geschichte 2005/2006. Bd. 16: Moses Mendelssohn, die Aufklärung und die Anfänge des deutsch-jüdischen Bürgertums, 115-137; “Politics of Intercession. Speaking up for Jewish Communities in the Premodern Era,” [in German] in: Dan Diner (ed.), Synchrone Welten. Zeitenräume jüdischer Geschichte (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck&Ruprecht 2005), 67-92; “Political Culture in the Early Modern Period – Jewish Intercession in the Wake of the Partitions of Poland,” [in German] in: Simon-Dubnow-Institute Yearbook 1(2002), 235-255.



Scribal Culture and the Making of the Septuagint—by James Aitken

By uclhwis, on 2 December 2015

Please join us for this lecture:

Research seminar, Hebrew and Jewish Studies; Wednesday, 16 December, 4pm

Foster Court, 1st floor, room 132


Abstract: The Septuagint Pentateuch is to be understood not only as a resource for understanding the Hebrew Bible but as an important witness to Judaism in the third to second centuries BCE. To appreciate this Greek translation we should understand the neglected place of the text within the scribal cultural tradition of the time. It can be seen that through comparison of the translation technique with evidence of Greek scribal practice in Egypt, and through examination of the role that Greek had for all religious groups there, that the Jewish translators can be placed in a social class within Egypt. This has implications for how we understand features in the translation and how we understand the place of Jews within Ptolemaic Egypt.


Bio: James Aitken specialises in second temple Judaism and in the Greek and Hebrew languages, and more recently has focused upon the Septuagint. He pays particular attention to the language of the Septuagint and to the evidence offered by inscriptions and papyri as a means of recovering the social history of the text. Recent publications include No Stone Unturned: Greek Inscriptions and Septuagint Vocabulary (CSHB; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2014), The T&T Clark Companion to the Septuagint (London: T&T Clark, 2015), and The Jewish-Greek Tradition in Antiquity and the Byzantine Empire (ed. with James Carleton Paget; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).


Further reading: Technical papers relevant to today’s seminar are (all on his academia.edu page): ‘The Significance of Rhetoric in the Greek Pentateuch,’ in J.K. Aitken, K.J. Dell, and B.A. Mastin (eds), On Stone and Scroll (BZAW 420; Berlin: de Gruyter, 2011), 507–21; ‘The Language of the Septuagint and Jewish Greek Identity’, in James K. Aitken and James Carleton Paget (eds.), The Jewish-Greek Tradition in Antiquity and the Byzantine Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 120-34; and, ‘The Septuagint and Egyptian Translation Methods’, in M. Maiser & M. van der Meer (eds), XV Congress of the International Organization for Septuagint and Cognate Studies, Munich 2013 (Atlanta, Ga.: SBL Press, forthcoming).

A natural yet providential tongue: Moses Mendelssohn on Hebrew as a language of action—by Avi Lifschitz (UCL)

By uclhwis, on 27 November 2015


Please join us for this lecture:

Institute of Historical Research (IHR) Jewish history seminar; Monday, 30  November 2015, 5:15 pm;

Professor Olga Crisp Room 102, 1st floor, IHR, North Block, Senate House

How did Moses Mendelssohn reconcile a naturalistic theory of language, advocating the contingent development of all tongues, with the belief that Hebrew was a divine language that did not change ever since its inception? The seeming contradiction was resolved by employing the contemporary notion of the language of action – a primordial means of communication, where gesture and melody were as significant as words. Mendelssohn’s view of Hebrew as the language closest to this idiom was accompanied by his suggestion that the Jewish ceremonial law is a living script which can be properly understood only through oral instruction. He employed both ideas to counter the notions that the Hebrew vowel points were a late invention and that some loci in the Hebrew Bible had been subject to textual corruption. For Mendelssohn, the allegedly supernatural aspects of spoken Hebrew could be naturalised through constant and lively human conversation across the ages. The appropriation of contemporary critiques of the arbitrariness of language allowed Mendelssohn to forge an original synthesis that could simultaneously accommodate naturalism and providentialism.

Why Medieval Jewish Liturgy is not Dull—by Prof. Stefan Reif

By uclhwis, on 27 November 2015

In a PowerPoint presentation entitled “Why Medieval Jewish Liturgy is not Dull” (18.11.2015), Professor Stefan Reif, Emeritus Professor of Medieval Hebrew Studies and Fellow of St John’s College, in the University of Cambridge, discussed eight manuscript fragments of Jewish liturgy from the eleventh and twelfth centuries discovered among the literary treasures of the Cambridge Genizah Collections. He explained how their contents could be analysed for the manner in which they illuminated the evolution of medieval Jewish prayer. At the same time, a close study of each of them also yielded important information for historians of Jewish language and literature, theology, and broader culture, as well as for the serious student of Hebrew codicology and bibliography. Among the items that he explained were a Passover Haggadah with an Aramaic tale of the Exodus, a Qaddish from pre-Crusader Eretz Yisrael, a special collection of biblical verses for use on Shemini ‘Aṣeret, and a previously unidentified version of Saadya’s prayer-book text. He also provided intriguing information about how scholars could be misled by the earlier errors of others. All these fragments are fully transcribed, translated and annotated in his volume Jewish Prayer Texts from the Cairo Genizah which is scheduled for publication by Brill early in 2016.


Research Seminar, Hebrew and Jewish Studies, University College London 2015–2016

By uclhwis, on 12 October 2015

First Term, Seminar Programme



Second Term, Seminar Programme


Helmut Gernsheim and the museum of photography that never was

By uclhwis, on 9 September 2013

by Michael Berkowitz

University College London


In 1951, Helmut Gernsheim proposed and curated an exhibition as a part of the Festival of Britain on masterpieces of Victorian photography. His idea for the exhibition grew out of his work in the history of photography, in which he may be considered one of the primary figures in the establishment of the field. It also came about as a consequence of Gernsheim’s ardent and systematic collecting of photography which he pursued along with his scholarship. At the time photography was not highly valued, and his insistence that photography belonged in the realm of fine arts was treated as an eccentricity, if not derided in harsher terms. Gernhseim failed in his quest. No national museum or institute of photography, with a historical approach, was ever founded–although parts of other institutions, such as the National Media Museum in Bradford and Victoria & Albert Museum now have formidable collections. The bulk of Gernsheim’s trove is housed at the Ransom Center of the University of Texas in Austin, and in Mannheim, Germany. The lack of support for Gernsheim’s endeavor was due to attitudes toward photography, which were intertwined with Gernsheim’s marginal status as a refugee (of Jewish origins) from Nazi Germany. Indeed, he had taken up photography upon the strong advice of his brother, who advised him that one of the few avenues available to him, in Britain’s art scene, would be through the practice of photography. His original passion was art history. This presentation was part of a current book-in-progress, /Jews and Photography in Britain: Connections and Developments, 1850-2007/, based on research at the Warburg Institute archives, the British Library, the Getty Institute (Los Angeles), and the Harry Ransom Center of the University of Texas. At the Getty Research Institute Professor Berkowitz was a library research fellow, and at the Ransom Center he held a Schusterman-Dorot Postdoctoral Fellowship for work in the Gernsheim Collection.

Babylonian Gynaecology in the 1st Millennium BC in the Light of Intercultural Parallels

By uclhwis, on 9 September 2013

By Ulrike Steinert

In her lecture for the research seminar on March 21, 2012, Ulrike presented an overview over her current research project entitled „Gynaecology in the Medical Texts of Ancient Mesopotamia from the 1st Millennium BC“, funded through a Medical History and Humanities Fellowship of the Wellcome Trust, London. The primary aim of this project is to produce an up-to-date edition of the corpus of gynaecological cuneiform texts from 1st millennium BC Mesopotamia, paying special attention to the Assyrian and Babylonian texts on female healthcare in the British Museum, which include several hitherto unpublished cuneiform tablets on this subject. Based on the philological study of these texts, which include diagnostic omens, recipes and rituals for different problems such as infertility, miscarriage, irregular bleeding, or complications during childbirth, Ulrike seeks to achieve a better understanding of the features and contents of these texts by drawing on comparative sources about female healthcare from neighbouring Greek, Egyptian and Jewish traditions.

Although approximate contemporary sources are to be preferred for intercultural comparisons (e.g. the Hippocratic corpus), Ulrike pursued an unorthodox route in her presentation and chose a Hebrew Medieval compendium on female healthcare from 15th century Western Europe as an example: The Book of Women’s Love / Sefer Ahavat Nashim, a work which contains a mixture of source material – oral traditions (especially of women), Greek, Latin and Arabic medical texts, Jewish sources (esp. the Kabbalah) and medieval treatises from Western Europe (e.g. the Catalan treatise Tròtula). In her comparison of Mesopotamian medical texts and The Book of Women’s Love, Ulrike discovered far-reaching agreements and continuities between both textual traditions, regarding the recorded gynaecological complaints, the treatment forms and some used materia medica to combat gynaecological illnesses, although differences can be noticed as well (e.g. in phraseology and in typical Graeco-Roman medical theories and practises found in The Book of Women’s Love which were unknown in Mesopotamia). Thus, Ulrike highlighted that comparative information from other textual traditions and cultures can be of help to elucidate puzzling details in the Mesopotamian texts and to develop plausible interpretations. The presented cross-cultural data about common drugs were exemplified by treatments for one problem, gynaecological haemorrhage, and were supplemented by information from Dioscorides’ De materia medica (1st cent. CE).

The similarities between ancient Mesopotamian and Medieval Jewish texts on female healthcare suggest that both societies encountered and treated much the same female health problems. The agreements in treatment types and used materia medica in texts of different cultures and periods hint at the existence and stability over long periods of time of a common medical knowledge, experience and practise, which can be described as recipe-based and is partially grounded in folk medicine.