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Davidson, Israel


DAVIDSON, ISRAEL (1870–1939), scholar of medieval Hebrew literature. Davidson was born in Yonava, Lithuania; at a young age he became an orphan and went to live with his uncle in Grodno, Lithuania. In 1888, after a few years' study at Slobodka yeshivah, he immigrated to the United States. There he earned a living as a street vendor, then as a shop assistant and Hebrew teacher; at night he studied English and other subjects to meet college-entrance requirements. After completing his studies at Columbia University, he was director of the Hebrew Orphan Asylum and chaplain at the Sing Sing prison. In 1905 he began teaching Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary, New York, and in 1915 was appointed professor of medieval Hebrew literature.

Davidson's first major scholarly publication in English was Parody in Jewish Literature (1907, repr., 1967). Thereafter, he wrote and edited articles and books in both English and Hebrew. Among the most important works are his editions of Joseph *Ibn Zabara's Sefer Sha'ashu'im with an English introduction (1914; 19252 with Hebrew introduction); Saadia's Polemic against Hīwī al-Balkhī (1915); Maḥzor Yannai (1919), published from Greek palimpsests, Davidson recognizing *Yannai's piyyut in the superimposed writing; Mahberet mi-Shirei ha-Kodesh asher li-Shelomo ibn Gabirol (1923), Ibn *Gabirol's sacred poetry with English translations by Israel Zangwill; Ginzei Schechter (vol. 3, 1928), poems and piyyutim from the Cairo Genizah; and Sefer Milhamot ha-Shem (1934), the arguments of the Karaite *Salmon b. Yeroham against Saadiah Gaon. He was also responsible for preparing the critical edition of piyyutim for Siddur R. Sa'adyah Ga'on (with S. Assaf, 1941). His Oẓar ha-Meshalim ve-ha-Pitgamim, a treasury of medieval Jewish parables and maxims, on which Davidson had worked for many years, was published posthumously (1957).

Davidson's magnum opus is the Ozar ha-Shirah ve-ha-Piyyut (Thesaurus of Medieval Hebrew Poetry, 4 vols. and supplement, 1925–38). In this gigantic work Davidson recorded in alphabetical order the initial words of more than 35,000 poems and prayers from post-biblical times to the beginning of the Haskalah period. Each entry contains information relating to the type and structure of the poem, its author, and all available information on its publication as well as the literature about it. An author index, containing over 2,800 names, and a subject index are included. In 1936 Davidson received the first Bialik Prize for this monumental work. Davidson's Thesaurus has remained an indispensable work of reference for scholars.


A.M. Habermann, in: Gilyonot, 24 (1936/37), 109–12; 29 (1939), 180–81; Spiegel, in: Hadoar (May 16, 1930); Finkelstein, in: ajyb (1939), 35–56; O. Davidson, Out of Endless Yearnings (1946); S. Spiegel, in: Menorah Journal, 22 (1934), 69–72; S. Assaf (ed.), Siddur Rav Sa'adyah Ga'on (1941), 10–16.

[Abraham Meir Habermann]

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