Zemach, Shlomo

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ZEMACH, SHLOMO (1886–1974), Hebrew writer. Born in Plonsk (Russian Poland), Zemach spent his youth on his father's estate in the village of Volka. In his youth he was attracted to Zionism, and together with some friends founded the Zionist society Ezra. At the age of 18 he immigrated to Ereẓ Israel, where he became an agricultural worker. He was one of the founders of *Ha-Po'el ha-Ẓa'ir in 1905. In 1909 he went to France. After studying literature and philosophy at the Sorbonne for three years, he attended the Higher Institute of Agriculture in Nancy and graduated as an agricultural engineer in 1914. On the outbreak of World War i he went to Poland and was obliged to remain there, within German-occupied territory, until 1918. He then left for Odessa, where he edited the periodical Ereẓ, and engaged in other literary activities. In 1921 he returned to Ereẓ Israel and taught agriculture at the Mikveh Israel school. From 1924 to 1933 he directed the training department of the agricultural experimental station run by the Zionist executive. In 1933 he founded the *Kadoorie Agricultural school and was its principal until 1937. It was only after his retirement that he began to devote himself exclusively to literary work.

Short Stories

Zemach began his literary career as a writer of short stories – one of the first to write about Ereẓ Israel. He described the life of the villager. Averse by nature to idealizations and illusions, Zemach never wrote in a symbolic or allegorical fashion, nor did he make any attempt to depict abstract characters. There is a strong biographical element in his stories and his characters and events are presented within a limited, well defined range of time and place.

Zemach's uniqueness as a writer lies not so much in his narrative gifts as in an outlook which sublimates existence. A sober and discerning observer, lacking in illusions, he treats his heroes' foibles with gentle amusement. The Ereẓ Israel stories that Zemach wrote at the beginning of the century are very different from the idyllic, folkloristic, superficial, and tendentious Zionist stories of other writers. He was able to rise above the eroding stream of life and to free himself in considerable measure from the "bonds of custom," a phrase which became the title of his article on the subject.


Zemach wrote one novel, Eliyah Margalit (1921), which describes the life of young Jewish intellectuals living in Paris during the pre-World War i period. The young men establish a national Hebrew circle, and they discuss the future of their people and the image of the Jew as he will be when he is privileged to live a normal life in Ereẓ Israel. The hero, Eliyah Margalit, a painter, has not yet succeeded in freeing himself of the "burden of inheritance," the oppressiveness of his rigorous education, and the stifling influence of his hometown. He is thus impelled to preach extreme and self-contradictory revolutionary ideas, to rebel against traditional Judaism and demand that epicurean joy in life rule as the supreme value. He believes in the theory that the entire history of the Jewish people after the destruction of the Temple must be blotted out of memory; a new way of life must be created for the contemporary Jew, so that his heart and soul may be rejuvenated and he can live a normal healthy life. He wishes to pass over the hundreds of years spent in the Diaspora, so as to return to the ancient epoch and to the primary source of Judaism.

From the structural point of view, Eliyah Margalit is one of those romantic novels which end in inevitable disaster. The spirit of the age and the French background of the novel find expression in the temporary corruption of the hero who emerges from his experience utterly purged and purified. In this respect also Zemach was a pioneer, inasmuch as he was the first Hebrew writer to study the problem of decadence and its effect upon life.


Zemach's play Tanḥum mi-Kefar Yano'aḥ is on the face of it a historical drama. The events take place in the plain of Jericho and in the village of Janoah at the time of the establishment of the Essene sect. The ideas, however, apply to the present. Tanḥum is a young farmer who decides to join the Essene sect, and is followed by Miriam, a girl from his village. But he soon discovers that the strict laws of purification are neither in accord with his temperament nor with his opinions. He is a rebel by nature and dislikes those who are excessively righteous; he much prefers ordinary people, with all their weaknesses. He transgresses the custom of the sect when he shakes hands with a Jewish peddler, thus becoming "defiled by touch." He is unable to forgo reality for the sake of shutting himself away in an ideal world of abstinence and devotion to God. The Essenes accuse him of corrupting the brotherhood and causing defilement among them, and finally they expel him from the sect. Tanḥum and Miriam return to their village, where they are married. He proves himself when the time comes to defend his country and he fights the enemy at the head of the village youth. Zemach thus attempted to refute the view that morality and patriotism necessarily call for abstinence and asceticism, and he championed the individual who loves life but at the same time is ready to sacrifice it in the defense of his country.


Shanah Rishonah ("First Year"; 1952), a volume of memoirs about Zemach's first stay in Ereẓ Israel in 1904, lies on the borderline between fiction and documentary literature. Written in the 1950s, considerably removed in time from the actual events, the author with a critical and discerning eye selected the essential events and utterances that seemed to him the most characteristic, arranging them in such a way as to create a planned, well-designed, and meaningful picture. All the problems and crucial events of the Second Aliyah period are described and illuminated here with critical discernment. A. Zemach wrote down Shlomo Zemach's life story (Sippur Ḥayai, 1983).

Literary Criticism

Throughout his literary career Zemach wrote not only belletristic works but also literary criticism. From 1910 onward he systematically and seriously engaged in criticism, publishing scores of essays, articles, and reviews in different periodicals. These have been collected in part in Be-Arẓot Nod (1922), Adam im Aḥerim (1953), Massah u-Vikkoret (1954), Sheti va-Erev (1959), Eruvin (1964), Shettei ha-Mezuzot (1965), and Massot u-Reshimot (1968). Ten essays on Bialik (Al Bialik) were published in 1978. Zemach regards criticism as "free evaluation, based on a literary truth (not the truth, just a truth), free from all mixture of secondary interests and having two points of departure whose influence is reciprocal, evolved and kept alive through the relationship between the author as agent who creates the work of art and the work of art as agent in that it reveals the author." True criticism derives from the critic's devotion to literature, his principal tools being the power of analysis and of expression. Zemach is totally opposed to the view that criticism is an inferior or parasitic genre of literature; he regards it as a form of literary creativity even though it does not come entirely from the world of feelings but applies logic as well as emotions.

A basic principle of Zemach's critical doctrine is the demand that contemporary Hebrew literature cultivate an attachment to the nation's traditions. He opposes literary phenomena that manifest imitation or detachment. It is the duty of contemporary Hebrew literature to return to its sources, to abandon imitation and foreign patterns and to seek genuine independence.

Throughout his career in criticism Zemach was a fighter. Already in his youth he attacked the "Mendele style" in Hebrew literature; he warned against the danger of "petty realism" involved in this school, demanding that prose should liberate itself from its ties with cultural patterns and soar to the heights of human thought and feeling. In "Ha-Sifrut va-Ḥalifoteha" (1926) Zemach maintained that the literature of Ereẓ Israel should broaden its themes, abandon Diaspora motifs, and have the courage to come to grips with the new reality in Ereẓ Israel. He regarded writing on the subject of Ereẓ Israel as a temporary measure. At the same time he rejected modernistic trends in Hebrew literature and remained faithful to traditionalism.

Zemach is perhaps the only contemporary Hebrew critic who attempted to formulate a theoretical basis for his work. He defined his view on the essence of the beautiful in art in the final chapter of Al ha-Yafeh. "I do not regard aesthetics as contemplation nor as an escape from the concrete world and an evasion of life; aesthetics is for me a continuation of human activity that transports the actual in nature to the actual in visions; and in the process of shifting, the actual is divorced from its dependence on nature and its laws. Certainly feeling pain, love – is as real as feeling stone, water, dust. Thus an abstract description does not exist. It is not figural, but consists of color splashes and geometric forms and these are real. We are not discussing the 'abstract' and the 'real' but the distinguishing force which gives them significance." Ha-Seḥok (1947) also deals with the theory of aesthetics.

For many years Zemach contributed to newspapers and periodicals. His main work as editor was in the periodical Beḥinot (1953–57), a platform both for the theory of criticism and for its practice. For a listing of Zemach's works in English translation see Goell, Bibliography, index.


Biography in: Ketavim Nivḥarim (1956); A. Epstein, Mi-Karov u-me-Raḥok (1944), 145–52; G. Yardeni, Tet Zayin Siḥot im Soferim (1961), 27–38; B.J. Michali, Le-Yad ha-Ovnayim (1959), 200–27; Kressel, Leksikon, 2 (1967), 720–2. add. bibliography: D. Sadan, "Ahavat Shelomo: Devarim al S. Zemach," in: Molad, 1 (1975), 388–91; A. Shapira, "Bein Sh. Zemach ve-A.D. Gordon," in: Shedemot, 69 (1979), 31–37; H. Shaham, Mishnato ha-Sifrutit vi-Yẓirato ha-Ereẓ Yisra'elit shel Shelomo Zemaḥ (1981); G. Shaked, Ha-Sipporet ha-Ivrit, 2 (1983), 61–65.

[Abraham B. Yoffe]