Levita, Elijah Bokher

▪ Italian grammarian
Hebrew in full  Eliyahu ben Asher ha-Levi Ashkenazi 
born February 13, 1469, Neustadt an der Aisch, Nürnberg [Germany]
died January 28, 1549, Venice [Italy]

      German-born Jewish grammarian whose writings and teaching furthered the study of Hebrew in European Christendom at a time of widespread hostility toward the Jews.

      Levita went to Italy early in life and in 1504 settled at Padua. There he wrote a manual of Hebrew (1508) that was appropriated by his transcriber, Benjamin Colbo, who made interpolations and published it under his own name. The work enjoyed wide popularity among both Jewish and Christian students, but Levita did not receive credit for writing it until 1546, when he published a corrected edition.

      Forced to flee Padua when it was taken and sacked by the League of Cambrai (Cambrai, League of) in 1509, he settled in Venice and in 1513 went to Rome, where he enjoyed the patronage of Gilles of Viterbo, general of the Augustinian religious order and later a cardinal. Encouraged by Gilles to write a treatise on Hebrew grammar, Levita produced Sefer ha-Baḥur [Bokher] (1518; “Book of Baḥur”), which was widely used and went into many editions. About the same time, he published a table of paradigms and an annotated dictionary of irregular word forms found in the Bible. A work on phonetics and various aspects of Hebrew grammar, Pirqe Eliyahu (“Chapters of Elijah”), appeared in 1520.

      In 1527 Levita again lost his property and many of his manuscripts and was forced to leave Rome when it was sacked by the imperial army. He went back to Venice, where he employed himself in correcting Hebrew works for a printer, teaching, and completing the work that he considered his masterpiece, Sefer ha-zikhronot (“Book of Memoirs”), a Masoretic (Masoretic text), or Hebrew biblical, concordance. Though never published, the manuscript brought him offers of professorships from church prelates, princes, and the king of France, Francis I. He declined all of them, however. Another Masoretic work, Massarot ha-massarot (1538; “Tradition of Tradition”), remained a subject of debate among Hebraists for nearly three centuries.

      During the last years of his life Levita produced, among other writings, two major works. Sefer meturgeman (1541; “A Translator's Book”) was the first dictionary of the Targums (Targum), or Aramaic books of the Hebrew Bible. His lexicon Tishbi (1542) explained much of the Mishnaic Hebrew language and was a supplement to two important earlier dictionaries.

      Levita also wrote in Yiddish. He is noted for the Bove-bukh (written in 1507 and printed in 1541; “The Book of Bove”), based on an Italian version of an Anglo-Norman tale about a queen who betrays her husband and causes his death. He may also have written Pariz un Viene (printed in 1594; “Paris and Vienna”), about a poor knight seeking to marry a princess.

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Universalium. 2010.

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