Moshe Taube, Hebrew University of Jerusalem
The unprecedented fifteenth-century corpus of East Slavic translations from Hebrew divides into two groups:
1. Early fifteenth century including excerpts from apocrypha (e.g., on Moses) and historical works (e.g.,, Yosippon) integrated into East Slavic Historical compilations such as the Explanatory Paleja, various Chronographs (EL-2, Academy Chronograph). They show traces of "West Russian", but were heavily edited and russified.
2. Late fifteenth century or in Sobolevskij's words "Literature of the Judaizers". They include:
a. Nine books of the Old Testament Hagiographa
b. Algazel's Intentions of the Philosophers (Logic and Metaphysics)
c. Maimonides' Logical Vocabulary
d. Sacrobosco's Book of the Sphere
e. Emanuel Bar Yaakov's Six Wings
f. Pseudo-Aristotle's Secret of Secrets with interpolations:
1. Maimonides' On sexual intercourse
2. Maimonides' On poisons and antidotes (Chapter 2)
3. Maimonides' Book of Asthma (Chapter 13)
4. Rhazes' Al-Mansuri (Chapter 2 "On Physiognomy").
I do not at present have any clear picture of the circumstances of translation of the first group. The following analysis concerns only the second, later group, known as "Literature of the Judaizers".
This second group is clearly Ruthenian with several traits pointing to northern (Belorussian) dialects. Some of the texts surviving in later (16-17 c.) Muscovite copies underwent russification. Some of them (2b-c known as the Logika and 2f - Tajnaja Tajnyx) have glosses, which show that 16th or 17th c. Muscovite readers tried to tackle the texts, mostly without real success.
Is there a link between the Ruthenian translations and the Novgorod-Moscow heresy? I will try to show that there is such link, namely through the person of Zacharia, whom I (folllowing Brutskus) identify with Zacharia ben Aharon ha-Kohen from Kiev, scholar, copyist and glossator of philosophical and astronomical works, identified in at least five Hebrew mss. from 1454 to 1485, some of which were made for Rabbi Moses ben Yaakov (the second, or the exiled) from Kiev.
Who were the translators? Manifestly Jews from the Ruthenian lands, where Jews were allowed to settle (unlike Muscovy). Apart from the numerous proofs adduced by Altbauer (1992) for the OT books, there are some direct indications in the Logika. Thus, the example for 'a name said of a particular and a universal, which in Heb. is:" 'Koxav' is the name of any star as well as of a particular planet (Mercury)" is replaced in Slavic by "'Israel' is the name of us all as well as of an individual among us".
How were the translations carried out? Apparently by a Jew dictating to a Christian scribe. This is reflected in doublets, not just of words, but of whole phrases.
What was the perspective of the translators? The choice of texts and some particularities in the translation, as well as additions not found in the original show that the Jewish translators wanted to present a (non-realistic) progressive and humanist picture of Judaism which they thought would be attractive to their audience. For this purpose they even tried to dissimulate the non-Jewish origin of some of the texts, e.g., Algazel's whom they renamed (in Slavic alone!) Aviasaf.
For whom were the translations made? In contrast to Tschizhewskij, Stankievic and others who proposed that the translations were made for "internal" or "synagogal" aims (something which the make-up of the corpus absolutely excludes) I maintain that the translations were made for Christians interested in Judaism. This can be corroborated by some details in the translation, e.g., the extreme delicacy with which problems of Unity and uniqueness (of God) are treated in Algazel. Hypothetical notions such as 'God's associate" - a clearly absurd notion from a Jewish point of view, which is brought merely as an example of something fictitious (like 'unicorn' in Western tradition) is censored, and so are other examples where God's unity is compared to the oneness and indivisibility of the point.
Why? What was the motive for Jews from Ruthenian lands to translate a seemingly attractive, but certainly not representative for that time, corpus of Jewish scholarship for a Christian audience?
I will try to propose a possible explanation involving Rabbi Moses of Kiev, who beside his rationalist and scientific interests showed a passion for mysticism (Kabbalah). In his work "A Rose of Secrets" he speaks of the importance of proselytes to the Redemption (the coming of the Messiah), which was expected in 1490 or 1492, by Jews (with calculations based on Job 38:7) as well as by Christians (expecting the end of the world for the year 7000=1492). There are some traces of this Kabbalistic approach in the translation of the Secret of Secrets, e.g., translation of '(lucky) star' not only by planeta but sometimes also by iskra 'spark' - a clearly kabbalistic term.
Could this eschatological fervor have been the motivation for a possible Jewish "Mission to the Slavs"?