Letteris, Meir

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LETTERIS, MEIR (Max ; 1800?–1871), Hebrew poet, writer, and editor. Born in Zolkiew (now Zholkva), Letteris, as a child, was introduced to Nachman *Krochmal, whom he henceforth considered his mentor. In spite of fame, professional recognition, public honors, and numerous editions of several of his works, he struggled financially all his life, holding jobs as copyreader in different printing houses (but especially in that of Anton von *Schmid), and lecturing, publishing periodicals, selling subscriptions, writing occasional poems, and, for some time, even receiving charity. In the course of his work as a copyreader in Vienna, Pressburg, and Prague, he edited important reprints and first editions, to which he added notes, explanations, and biographies. The latter, along with his autobiography, letter collections, and the contributions of his contemporaries to his various publications, convey a vivid picture of the Galician-Austrian Haskalah and all its leading personalities.

His works include the following: (1) Books of Hebrew poetry: Divrei Shir (1822), original poems as well as translations of Schiller, among others; Ayyelet ha-Shaḥar (1824), original poetry and translations of Schiller, Byron ("Hebrew Melodies"), and others; Afrot Zahav (1852), original and translated poetry; Tofes Kinnor ve-Ugav (1860), his first two volumes of poetry together with other previously published and new poems. (2) Translations: Two of Racine's plays, which are in fact free adaptations in Hebrew: Athalie (Geza Yishai, 1835) and Esther (Shelom Ester, 1843); several works by L.A. *Frankl, as well as Goethe's Faust, part 1 (Ben Avuyah, 1865), probably Letteris' most important work in this field of endeavor: he adapted and hebraized the play (the setting and characters are Jewish), and deleted all christological references. (3) Hebrew literary collections: Ha-Ẓefirah (1824) – intended as the first number of a periodical – opening with "Yonah Homiyyah," which became the best known of Letteris' poems, set to music and sung for generations; collections of letters including Mikhtavim (1827), Mikhtevei Ivrit (1847), and Mikhtevei Benei Kedem (1866). Further Hebrew collections appeared as supplements to some of his German periodicals. (4) German publications: Sagen aus dem Orient (1847), poetic renditions of biblical, midrashic, and talmudic themes, for which he was awarded a gold medal by Emperor Franz Joseph; Wiener Blaetter, with the Hebrew supplement Ẓefirat Tiferet (1851–52), Wiener Vierteljahrs Schrift, with Avnei NeẒer (1853), and Wiener Mitteilungen (1854–70). He republished both his Hebrew and German writings, including Oestliche Rosen (1852), Beitraege zur Literatur-und Kulturgeschichte (1859), and Ein Blatt Geschichte (1869). His German translation of the mahzor (with a Hebrew commentary, 1845–49) and the Andachtsbuch fuerisraelitische Frauenzimmer (1845) saw numerous editions. He also wrote a Hebraeische Sprachlehre (1853). (5) Editions from manuscripts: M.Ḥ. *Luzzatto's Migdal Oz (1838) with a Latin introduction by Franz *Delitzsch and notes by S.D. *Luzzatto; Abraham *Ibn Ezra's Sefat Yeter (1838), and R. Joseph ha-Kohen's Emek ha-Bakha (1852), with notes by S.D. Luzzatto. Among his new editions (always with notes, biographies, or text additions) are *Ben-Ze'ev's Oẓar ha-Shorashim (1839–44), the works of Isaac *Erter, Ha-Ẓofeh le-Veit Yisrael (1858), volume one of Ha-Me'assef (1862), and Krochmal's Moreh Nevukhei ha-Zeman (1863). (6) Other works: Ḥikrei Lev (1837), a treatise on Bible study; contributions to the periodicals Bikkurei ha-Ittim, Kerem Ḥemed, and Bikkurei ha-Ittim ha-Ḥadashim. In the latter, Letteris published a Spinoza biography (1845, 27b–31b) which aroused controversy because of his plea for the rehabilitation of Spinoza among Jews. Another undertaking, the editing of the Hebrew text of the Old Testament for the British and Foreign Bible Society of London (1852), damaged his reputation among Jews. It was perhaps his most lasting achievement, however, as it resulted in innumerable editions of the "Letteris Bible." Of his autobiography, Zikkaron ba-Sefer (1869), only the first part appeared, leading up to 1831, and containing a description of Nachman Krochmal's circle in Zolkiew.

Letteris was a true exponent of the Haskalah, a mediator between Jewish and Western cultures. His free Hebrew renditions of European literary works are probably his greatest contribution to modern Hebrew poetry. A new edition of Tofes Kinnor ve-Ugav appeared in 1969.


Waxman, Literature, index; Klausner, Sifrut, 2 (19522), 360–400; Lachower, Sifrut, 2 (195312), 7–11; Zinberg, Sifrut, 6 (1960), 83–88; Kressel, Leksikon, 2 (1967), 247–9. add. bibliography: M. Ungerfeld, "Bein Letteris u-Smolenskin," in: Moznayim, 23 (1966), 250–52; idem, "M.H. Letteris," in: Ha-Do'ar, 51 (1972), 231–33; A.M. Haberman, "Itonav shel M.H. Letteris," in: Kiyov (1972), 109–12; B.L. Knapp, "Jean Racine's Esther and Two Hebrew Translations of This Drama," in: Baron (1974), 596–621; S. Yaniv, "Habaladah ha-Sifrutit ha-Ivrit ha-Rishonah," in: Dappim le-Meḥkar be-Sifrut, 2 (1985), 139–157; M. Gilboa, "Ha-Zefirah shel M. Letteris ke-Koveẓ Loḥem," in: Sadan, 1 (1994), 77–87.

[Werner Weinberg]

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