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Holy Tongue - Holy Land - Holy Words: Holy Tongue

The Hebrew language arrived in the New World with the galleons of Columbus in 1492. Luis De Torres, the expedition's interpreter, was chosen for his knowledge of "Oriental tongues," Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic among them. Born a Jew and but recently converted, he chose to remain in the New World, settling in Cuba, where, in the words of Cecil Roth, "he soon set up his own small empire." If Torres's reason for not returning to Spain was a. Marrano's fear of the Inquisition, the Holy Tongue not only arrived in the New World, but was pronounced there as well.

The Puritans brought to New England veneration for the Hebrew Bible and love for its language. Pilgrim father William Bradford, who arrived on the Mayflower and for some thirty years was governor of the Plymouth Colony, wrote a Hebrew grammar. Harvard College, established in 1636 to train a learned clergy, included Hebrew as a regular undergraduate subject, but then, as so often later, it did not prove to be popular. In 1653, Michael Wigglesworth (Harvard, 1651), a College tutor, complained:

My pupills all came to me ysday to desire yy might ceas learning Hebrew: I wthstood it with all ye reason I could, yet all will not satisfy ym.

Miracle of miracles, a day later, he reports:

God appear'd somewt inclining ye spt of my pupils to ye study of Hebrew as I had pray'd yet God would do.

Nonetheless, on leaving Harvard to take up his ministry in Malden, he complains again of the "pupills froward negligence in ye Hebrew." The lack of popularity of the subject may in part have been due to the personal and theological gloominess of the instructor. Wigglesworth was author of The Day of Doom, a frightening theological ballad, in which unbaptised infants are consigned, through God's infinite mercy, to the "easiest room in Hell."


Published in 1735 "to the ... use of the students at Harvard-College at Cambridge, in New England," by the college's instructor in Hebrew, Judah Monis, with the approval and aid of the school, Dickdook Leshon Gnebreet, A Grammar of the Hebrew Tongue served a generation of Harvard students as their textbook for the study of Hebrew. One thousand copies were printed, a large edition for an early seventeenth- century American publication.

Appended to the Hebraic Section's copy of Monis's grammar is this two-page manuscript of his "Alphabetical Catalogue of Nouns and Verbs which consist of more than three radicals called by the Grammarians Quadruples and Quintruples . . . " This addendum, of an unpublished work by Monis, makes this copy of singular importance.

Judah Monis, A Grammar of the Hebrew Tongue. Boston, 1735. Hebraic Section.


Seventy years later Harvard appointed a qualified instructor of Hebrew, Judah Monis. Born in the Barbary States or Italy in 1683, he received his education in Leghorn and Amsterdam, then apparently served in Jamaica and New York as a religious functionary. In 1715 he was a merchant in New York, and in 1720 he appeared in Boston. What caused him to come to the New World, and subsequently to leave a Jewish community in New York for Boston, which had but a few Jews during all the eighteenth century, is not known. What is known is that Monis had a deep interest and some expertise in the Hebrew language, because in the year of his arrival in Boston he wrote to the authorities at Harvard asking their approval of his "Essay to facilitate the Instruction of Youth in the Hebrew Language, wch probably may be published if there may be a prospect of its being serviceable." Monis was apparently seeking an appointment to teach Hebrew at the College, and its aid in publishing his grammar. All Harvard College was ready to do at that time was to grant him a degree, an M.A., the only degree granted to a Jew until well into the next century, yet the Boston clergy were much taken with him as one "truly read and learned in the Jewish cabbals and Rabbins, a Master and Critic in the Hebrew." The "aged venerable Dr. Increase Mather" and his colleagues soon let Monis know that the price of an instructorship at Harvard was conversion to Christianity. This Monis did at a public ceremony held in College Hall on March 27, 1722. The Reverend Mr. Colman preached the baptismal sermon, and R. Judah Monis responded with the first part of a tripartite apology for his new faith. The sermon and the apology, The Truth, The Whole Truth, and Nothing But the Truth, were published the same year (Boston, 1722). Monis is aware that the sincerity of his conversion would be suspect and pleads that he embraced Christianity as "the only religion wherein I thought I could be saved, and not because I had self ends."

Now a convert, Monis received his appointment. Beyond the freshman year, all students had to attend his classes four days a week. By 1726, he had prepared a Hebrew grammar for use by his pupils, and in 1735, the College joined with Monis in publishing his manuscript in an edition of one thousand copies, which Monis could sell to his students.

Judah Monis, A Grammar of the Hebrew Tongue. Boston, 1735. Hebraic Section.

The first Hebrew grammar to be published in the New World, for which a special font of Hebrew type was ordered from England, bears the title in Hebrew, transliterated Hebrew, and English: Dickdook Leshon Gnebreet, A Grammar of the Hebrew Tongue, being an Essay to bring the Hebrew Grammar into English. It was published "to Facilitate the Instruction of all those who are desirous of acquiring a clear idea of this Primitive Tongue by their own studies ... more especially for the Use of the students at Harvard-College at Cambridge, in New England." Because of the relatively large edition, and because students wrote not only their names but also notes in their copies, a fair number have survived. The Library has two. The one in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division contains a student's notes and comments; the copy in the Hebraic Section has notes, corrections, comments, and additions, and is of singular importance because it has a manuscript copy of an unpublished work by Judah Monis written on the recto and verso of a flyleaf:

An Alphabetical Catalogue of Nouns and verbs which consist of more than three Radicals called by the Grammarians Quadruples and Quintruples for the finding the Roots of which there is no Certain Rule; neither in the preceding or any other Grammar as I know of. Drawn for ease of those that are desirous of a clear understanding of this Tongue: (A work altogether new) Collected from [sic] Care and Diligence

pr. [?] Judah Monis A. M.

There follows an alphabetical listing of 118 words inscribed in Hebrew characters with English translations and notations where the word appears in the Bible, for example: "Dardar A Thistle, Genesis 3.18"; "Kodkod a Scull, Genesis 49.26." The handwriting of this Catalogue, different from the student's notes, might be Monis's own.

Judah Monis, A Grammar of the Hebrew Tongue. Boston, 1735. Hebraic Section.

In 1760, Monis retired from Harvard and was succeeded by Stephen Sewall, who three years later issued An Hebrew Grammar Collected Chiefly from those of Mr Israel Lyons, Teacher of Hebrew in the University of Cambridge and the Reverend Richard Gray D. D., Rector of Hinton in Northamptonshire (Boston, 1763), of which the Library has a fine copy. A year later, in his eighty-first year, Monis died. His tombstone in Westboro [sic - ed: Northboro], Massachusetts, is inscribed:

Here lie buried the remains of
Late Hebrew Instructor At Harvard College in Cambridge
In which office he continued forty years.

Sources: Abraham J. Karp, From the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress, (DC: Library of Congress, 1991).