Lebensohn, Abraham Dov

views updated


LEBENSOHN, ABRAHAM DOV (known as Adam (Abraham Dov Mikhailishker ) ha-Kohen ; 1794–1878), Hebrew poet during the Haskalah period. He received elementary and yeshivah education in his native Vilna where he became a successful broker. His earliest published writings were occasional poems for weddings or funerals of Vilna notables, honoring Jewish and gentile dignitaries. In 1842 his first collection of poems, Shirei Sefat Kodesh ("Poems in the Holy Tongue," part 1; part 2, 1856) was dedicated to "The Queen of Languages – Hebrew." From 1849 to 1853 Lebensohn, together with Isaac Benjacob and Behak, published a second edition of the Biur, the commentary and translation of the Bible by Moses Mendelssohn and his disciples, and appended materials not published in the first edition, under the title Be'urim Ḥadashim ("New Commentaries," 1858). These Be'urim found a wide audience in Russian Jewry and aided in the spread of the Haskalah. Following the death of M.A. *Guenzburg in 1846, Lebensohn became the leader of Vilna's maskilim, and, because of his eloquence, served as the main preacher at their synagogue, Tohorat ha-Kodesh. In 1847 he was appointed teacher of Hebrew, Aramaic, and biblical exegesis at the government rabbinical school of Vilna, a post which he held for 20 years. He published several scholarly works in these fields, including a Hebrew grammar (1874). Lebensohn was an active contributor to the Hebrew press including such periodicals as Kerem Ḥemed, Kokhevei Yiẓḥak, Ha-Karmel, and Ha-Maggid. In 1867 he published an allegorical drama Emet ve-Emunah ("Truth and Faith"), which he had written 25 years earlier, but had withheld for fear of offending the Orthodox. This work aroused considerable literary controversy, especially among the younger maskilim, who felt it was outdated. In 1869–70 he published a new and enlarged edition of his poems, and in 1895, a six-volume collection of his poems and those of his son Micah Joseph *Lebensohn appeared under the title Kol Shirei Adam u-Mikhal.

Lebensohn was the spokesman of the Russian Haskalah during its early period. He openly proclaimed his allegiance to the "Berlin" Haskalah and particularly to Moses Mendelssohn. He cherished the Hebrew language ("The beautiful language, the last remnant") and the Bible. He was influenced by Moses Ḥayyim *Luzzatto and Herz *Wessely. An inadequate knowledge of the European languages kept him from reading European literature, but indirectly he was influenced by Schiller. He possessed an original talent and had a superb command of the Hebrew language. The main theme underlying his poetry is the conflict between optimism (enlightened rationalism), expressed in poems such as "Higgayon la-Erev" ("An Ode to the Evening"), "La-Boker Rinnah" ("Joy in the Morning"), "Ha-Aviv" ("Springtime"), and the harsh, cruel reality of life (six of his children and his beloved son-in-law died during his lifetime). The dirges written for his children, "Hesped Mar" ("Bitter Dirge") and "Mikhal Dimah" ("Tears for Mikhal"), are intensely emotional despite the ornamental style of his day. In "Ha-Mitonen ve-ha-Meshorer" ("The Complainer and the Poet") he contrasts the pessimism of the complainer with the optimism of the poet, but shows partiality to neither. In his great poem "Ha-Ḥemlah" ("Compassion"), the Spirit of Compassion complains before God about the presence of cruelty and evil in nature, in human society, and in the relations between man and nature. The divine reply is weak and rather unconvincing.

Lebensohn's impact upon his contemporary Hebrew readers was great. Some of his poems "Dal Mevin" ("The Poor Wise Man"), "Ha-Temurah" ("The Transition"), and "Ha-Ḥemlah" became very popular, and were even popular tunes. In the subsequent development of literature, Lebensohn's poems were more or less forgotten. However, they are important for the history of Hebrew literature, and he was the first Russian Hebrew poet of any significance.


Klausner, Sifrut, 3 (1953), 171–227 (detailed bibliography, 171–3), 190–2 (annotated list of his works); Kressel, Leksikon, 2 (1967), 165–8; Zinberg, Sifrut, 6 (1960), 230–47; Rosenblum, in: Perakim, 2 (1959), 151–71; Waxman, Literature, 3 (19602), 217–26.

[Yehuda Slutsky]

About this article

Lebensohn, Abraham Dov

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article