Erter, Isaac

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ERTER, ISAAC (1791–1851), Hebrew satirist of the Haskalah. Born in Koniuszek near Przemysl, Erter, during the earlier part of his life, lived in various places including Lvov, where he, together with a group of young maskilim, was excommunicated in 1816 by Rabbi Jacob Ornstein; Budapest, where he studied medicine (1825–29); and Brody, then an important commercial and cultural center for Galician Jewry, where he settled in 1831 and remained for the rest of his life. In addition to his literary work, Erter was also active communally among Haskalah circles, showing special interest in the plans for a reform of contemporary Jewish society. Toward the end of his life, he collaborated with his friend Y.H. *Schorr in the early stages of the founding of He-Ḥalutz, a Hebrew periodical dedicated to the study of Judaica in the spirit of religious reform, and distinguished by a boldly critical treatment of problems relating to Jewish tradition.

Erter's only book, Ha-Ẓofeh le-Veit Yisrael ("The Watchman of the House of Israel," 1858), consists of five satires, all of which had been published separately (between 1823 and 1851) with the addition of some personal correspondence relevant to his literary career. Noteworthy among the satires are the following: Ḥasidut ve-Ḥokhmah ("Ḥasidism and Wisdom"), Tashlikh (the ceremony of symbolically casting one's sins into the water on Rosh Ha-Shanah), and Gilgul Nefesh ("Transmigration of the Soul"). Written in the form of epistles, several of the satires seem to have been modeled on the work of Lucian, the second-century Greek satirist, whose writings were very popular in European Rationalist literature and which Erter came to know in Wieland's German translation. Lucian's satiric and ironic treatment of Greek mythology and of ignorant and boorish antiquity during its decline was adapted by Erter in his fight against the traditionalist Jewish society of his day. The recurring character – a type of "persona satirae" – "the watchman of the House of Israel," has its source in the prophet-castigator of Ezekiel 3:17 (whence also the title); by virtue of the authority of the biblical figure, Erter's watchman reviews the reality of Jewish society in Galicia and Poland in the first half of the 19th century. In this narrative, written in an autobiographical manner, the "observer" gathers evidence and confronts the reader with confessions of figures belonging to an imaginary, fanciful world, confessions made in a dream state or after death. Having endowed them with a keen rhetoric ability, Erter enables these figures to explain their character and experience by ironic exaggeration, coupled with the idealistic pathos characteristic of the Haskalah movement.

The subjects treated in the satires are the hypocrisy, ignorance, and superstition, which in Erter's view characterize the world of Ḥasidism; the rabbis, who are accused of pedantry, pursuit of personal glory, and literary plagiarism; and the leaders of the Jewish community, condemned for their corruption. The irony is likewise directed, although to a lesser extent, at the maskilim, who ignore the plight of their brethren, and at Erter's colleagues, the physicians, who abuse their profession out of either ignorance or the pursuit of gain and glory. These facts are presented in an extremely satiric form with Erter's frequent use of not only conventional personifications of human qualities, in the tradition of satirical allegory, but also demonic figures drawn from the Jewish legends, such as angels, Samael, and reincarnated souls. The satirist pretends to be an objective reporter of empirical facts who, in his experimental approach, employs such satiric devices as scales which expose the true value of human qualities, nets which catch the sins of persons regarded by all as above reproach, and the cynical confessions of deceased sinners. He even has recourse to the pseudo-magical devices of a miraculous shortening of a journey and instantaneous flight to distant places so as to keep track of events in all areas of Jewish sojourn. The number of observations made is basic to his method, for in describing as many facets as possible of Jewish life which to him seem disgraceful, Erter seeks to stress his accusations by way of irony. Assuming an air of innocence, he is apparently surprised and shocked at the various reports of deceit and ignorance which are conveyed to him by the characters which inhabit the shadow of his sketches. His style is most important in the shaping of his satire. Using biblical phraseology extensively, he highlights the disparity between the sublime and the ideal in the original biblical source from which that phraseology is drawn and the ugly and the ridiculous state of the contemporary world which it describes. He also parodies traditional legal sources and adapts for his purpose some traditional sayings and proverbs. His idiom reflects the elaborate Hebrew style of the period and does not lack a certain rhetorical symmetry. A new edition of Ha-Ẓofeh le-Veit Yisrael was published in 1996.


J. Chotzmen, in: jqr, 3 (1891), 106–119; idem, Hebrew Humour and other Essays (1905), 127–39; M. Lovitch, in: huca (1904), 224–34; M. Weissberg, in: mgwj, 62 (1928), 184–92; Waxman, Literature, 3 (19602), 187–94; S. Bernfeld, Sefer ha-Shanah, 2 (1935), 134–42; Klausner, Sifrut (19522), 321–49. add. bibliography: M. Peli, Darkhei ha-Sippur shel Erter ba-Satirah Gilglul Nefesh (1973); N. Orland, "Aufklaerung, Emanzipation und Zionismus," in: Veröffentlichungen aus dem Institut Kirche und Judentum, 5 (1977), 36–41; J. Vilian, "Ḥasidut ve-Ḥokhmah le-Yiẓḥak Erter," in: Dappim le-Meḥkar be-Sifrut, 5–6 (1989), 277–86; S. Werses, "Gilgul Nefesh shel Erter be-Tirgumo le-Yiddish," in: Ḥuliot, 2 (1994), 29–49; S. Werses, "Tofa'ot shel Magiyah ve-Demonologiyah ba-Aspaklariyah ha-Satirit shel Maskilei Galiẓiya," in: Meḥkarei Yerushalayim ba-Folklor ha-Yehudi, 17 (1995), 33–62; Y. Friedlander, Introduction to Ha-Ẓofeh le-Veit Yisrael (1996).

[Samuel Werses]