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Daniel Chwolson

(1819 – 1911)

Daniel Chwolson (Rus. Daniel Avraamovich Khvolson) was a Russian Orientalist. Chwolson was born of poor, devout Jewish parents in Vilna. In 1841 he went to Breslau, where Abraham *Geiger befriended him and helped him prepare for matriculation at the university. Later he returned to Russia, settling in St. Petersburg. In 1855 Chwolson became a convert of the Russian Orthodox Church. He was then appointed professor of Hebrew, Syriac, and Chaldaic philology at the University of St. Petersburg, and three years later he was given the corresponding chair at both the Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic theological academies in the same city. In this triple capacity he taught practically every eminent Semitic scholar in Russia during the second half of the 19th century and after. Among his disciples were the greatest Russian Orientalists; among them were P. *Kokovtzof, N. Mar, A. *Harkavy, J. *Israelson, H.J. *Gurland, and David *Guenzburg. Despite his conversion, Chwolson remained well disposed toward Jews and Judaism and retained his friendship with many eminent Jewish scholars and leaders. He was particularly welcome in Jewish Orthodox circles because of his frequent intervention on their behalf when government officials threatened the yeshivot or the publication of the Talmud. He joined the Ḥevrat Mefiẓei ha-Haskalah ("*Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews"), but was forced to withdraw after four years because of Jewish public opinion. Chwolson was also popular among the Jews for his works against the *blood libel, the first of which, O nekotoryh srednevekovykh obvineniyakh protiv Yevreyev (On Several Medieval Accusations Against the Jews, 1861), was written after such a libel in Saratov in 1857. Chwolson published his revised and enlarged doctoral dissertation as Die Ssabier und der Ssabismus (2 vols., 1856). His immense erudition and skill in combining and interpreting obscure and fragmentary sources were at once evident and established his reputation as a scholar both in Russia and abroad. Chwolson's subsequent publications cover a variety of subjects. Ueber die Ueberreste der alt-babylonischen Literatur in arabischen Uebersetzungen (1859) and Ueber Tammuz und die Menschenverehrung bei den alten Babyloniern (1860) are in a sense akin to his monumental work on the Sabians. In 1869 he published a monograph Izvestiya o Khazarakh… on the 10th-century Arab geographer Ibn Rustah's account of the Khazars, Magyars, Slavs, and Russians. His Corpus inscriptionum hebraicarum (1882) is a major contribution to Hebrew paleography. Das letzte Passahmahl Christi und der Tag seines Todes (1892), while meant as an answer to antisemitic accusations, is a learned and detailed investigation of the circumstances of Jesus' trial and condemnation. In it Chwolson attempted to prove that Jesus was sentenced to death by the Sadducean high court and that therefore the Pharisees and masses of Jews bear no guilt. Other works deal with Syriac inscriptions, the Moabite inscription of *Mesha, and the Semitic nations. Chwolson edited a 12th-century Hebrew version of I Maccabees for the seventh Kobez al jad (1896/97) and contributed a paper on the quiescent Hebrew letters to the Travaux of the Third Session of the International Congress of Orientalists (vol. 2 (1876), 459–90).

Chwolson's reputation for vast learning and critical acumen was occasionally vitiated by his proposals of bold hypotheses feebly supported by historical facts. It was probably his predilection for such stances that led him to persist in defending the authenticity of some of Abraham *Firkovich's forgeries, even after they had been fully exposed. Chwolson was a diligent collector of Hebrew incunabula and rare books, and his essay on the beginnings of Hebrew printing, Staropechatnya yevreyskiya knigi (1896; Reshit Ma'aseh ha-Defus be-Yisrael, 1897), is still useful. He published a catalog of his library, Reshimat Sifrei Yisrael (1897), and supervised the publication of the early fascicules of S. Wiener's catalog of the Friedland collection of Hebrew books in the Asiatic Museum of the Russian Academy of Sciences (1893– ). His own rich library was given to the same museum. Chwolson's son, OREST (1852–1934), was an eminent physicist and made important contributions to the study of the diffusion of light and of solar energy.


Recueil de travaux rédigés en mémoire du jubilé scientifique de M. Daniel Chwolson 1846–1896 (1899); YE, 15 (c. 1910) 584–7.

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.