LEVITA, ELIJAH (known also as Elijah ben Asher ha-Levi Ashkenazi, Elijah Baḥur, Elijah Medaḳdeḳ, and Elijah Tishbi):

Grammarian, Masorite, and poet; born at Neustadt, near Nuremberg, in 1468; died at Venice Dec., 1549.

Title-Page from the First Edition of Elijah Levita's "Tishbi," Isny, 1541.(From the Sulzberger collection in the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, New York.)

From his childhood Elijah showed a predilection for Biblical studies and Hebrew grammar. He settled early in Venice; but in 1504 he was at Padua, earning a livelihood by instructing Jewish children in Hebrew. At the request of his pupils he wrote a commentary to Moses Ḳimḥi's "Mahalak"; but a certain Benjamin Colbo, to whom Elijah had given the manuscript to transcribe, published the work at Pesaro under his own name. Colbo interspersed the annotations with excerpts from another work; and in this form Elijah's first production was most incorrectly printed. In spite of this, however, it became the favorite manual for students of the Hebrew language, both among Jews and Christians. It was soon reprinted several times at Pesaro, and made its way into Germany and France, where also it was reprinted; it was translated into Latin by Sebastian Münster (Basel, 1531, 1536). It was not until 1546 that Elijah, urged by his friends, claimed the authorship of the work and published a corrected edition of it at Venice. During his stay in Padua, Elijah published in German a version of the Baba Buch.


The relatively happy circumstances enjoyed by Elijah at Padua did not long continue. In 1509 the city was taken and sacked by the army of the League of Cambray, and Elijah, losing everything he possessed, had to leave the place. He betook himself to Rome, and having heard of the scholarly and liberal-minded Ægidius of Viterbo, general of the Augustine Order, who was studying Hebrew, he called upon him. This prelate, in exchange for Hebrew lessons from Elijah, offered to maintain him and his family. For thirteen years Elijah remained in the palace of the cardinal, writing works which spread his reputation, giving lessons in Hebrew, and, in turn, taking lessons in Greek from the cardinal. During this period Elijah produced the "Sefer ha-Baḥur," a grammatical treatise written at the request of the cardinal, to whom it was dedicated, and first published at Rome in 1518 (2d ed. Isny, 1542, and many subsequent reissues). As the author explains in his preface, he called the work "Baḥur" because that was his surname, and further because the word denoted both "youth" and "excellent." The treatise is divided into four parts, each of which is subdivided into thirteen sections, corresponding to the thirteen articles of the Jewish creed; while the total number of sections, fifty-two, represents the numerical value of "Elijah," his name. The first part discusses the nature of the Hebrew verbs; the second, the changes in the vowel-points of the different conjugations; the third, the regular nouns; and the fourth, the irregular ones.

In the same year (1518) Elijah published tables of paradigms for beginners, entitled "Luaḥ be-Diḳduḳ ha-Po'alim weha-Binyanim"; and a work, on the irregular words in the Bible, entitled "Sefer ha-Harkabah." Desiring to explain every intricacy and anomaly in the Hebrew language, but fearing that too many digressions might prevent his grammar from becoming a popular manual, he in 1520 published dissertations on various grammatical subjects under the general title "Pirḳe Eliyahu." This he divided into four parts: the first, "Pereḳ Shirah," discussing in thirteen stanzas the laws of the letters, the vowel-points, and the accents; the second, "Pereḳ ha-Minim," written in prose, treating of the different parts of speech; the third, "Pereḳ ha-Middot," discussing the various parts of speech; and the fourth, "Pereḳ ha-Shimmushim," treating of the servile letters. Like his preceding works, it was translated into Latin and published by Sebastian Münster.

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In 1527 misfortune again overtook Elijah; he was driven from his studies when the Imperialists sacked Rome, and lost all his property and the greater part of his manuscripts. He then returned to Venice, and was engaged by the printer Daniel Bomberg as corrector of his Hebrew press. To the income derived from this employment was added that earned by tuition. Among his pupils was the French ambassador George de Selve, afterward Bishop of Lavaur, who by generous pecuniary assistance placed Elijah in a position to complete his great Masoretic concordance "Sefer ha-Zikronot," on which he had labored for twenty years. This work, which De Selve, to whom it was dedicated, sent to Paris to be printed at his expense, has for some unknown reason never been published, and is still extant in manuscript in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris. An attempt to edit it was made by Goldberg in 1875, but he got no farther than . The introduction and the dedication to it were published by Frensdorf in Fraenkel's "Monatsschrift" (xii. 96-108). Still the "Sefer ha-Zikronot," to which Elijah often refers as his chef-d'œuvre, made a good impression in Paris, and Elijah was offered by Francis I. the position of professor of Hebrew at the university there, which he declined, being unwilling to settle in a city forbidden to his coreligionists. He declined also invitations from several cardinals, bishops, and princes to accept a Hebrew professorship in Christian colleges.


Two years after the completion of the "Sefer ha-Zikronot" Elijah published his Masoretic work "Massoret ha-Massoret" (Venice, 1538), divided into three parts, respectively denominated "First Tables," "Second Tables," and "Broken Tables," each with an introduction. The "First Tables" is divided into ten sections, or commandments ("'Aseret ha-Debarim"), dealing with the "full" and "defective" writing of syllables. The "Second Tables" treats of the "ḳere" and "ketib," "ḳameẓ" and "pataḥ," "dagesh," "mappiḳ," "rafe," etc. The "Broken Tables" discusses the abbreviations used by the Masorites. In the third introduction Elijah produces an array of most powerful arguments to prove that the vowel-points in the Hebrew Bibles were invented by the Masorites in the fifth century of the common era. This theory, although suggested by some Jewish scholars as early as the ninth century, provoked a great outcry among the Orthodox Jews, who ascribed to the vowel-points the greatest antiquity. They were already dissatisfied with Elijah for giving instruction in Hebrew to Christians, since the latter openly confessed that they studied the Hebrew language with the hope of finding in the Hebrew texts, especially in the Cabala, arguments against Judaism. To this Elijah replied in the first introduction to the "Massoret ha-Massoret" that he taught only the elements of the language and did not teach Cabala at all. Moreover, he pointed out that Christian Hebraists generally defended the Jews against the attacks of the fanatical clergy. Elijah's theory concerning the modernityof the vowel-points caused still greater excitement among Christians, and for three centuries it gave occasion for discussions among Catholic and Protestant scholars, such as Buxtorf, Walton, De Rossi, and others. The "Massoret ha-Massoret" was so favorably received that in less than twelve months after its appearance it was republished at Basel (1539). In this edition Sebastian Münster translated into Latin the three introductions, and gave a brief summary of the contents of the three parts. The third part, or the "Broken Tables," was republished separately at Venice in 1566, under the title "Perush ha-Massoret we-Ḳara Shemo Sha'are Shibre Luḥot." This part of the book was again republished, with additions, by Samuel ben Ḥayyim at Prague in 1610. The three introductions were also translated into Latin by Nagel (Altdorf, 1758-71). In 1772 the whole book was translated into German by Christian Gottlob Meyer, and in 1867 into English by Christian D. Ginsburg.


In 1538, also, Elijah published at Venice a treatise on the laws of the accents entitled "Sefer Ṭub Ṭa'am." Meanwhile David Bomberg's printingoffice had ceased to exist, and Elijah, although at that time seventy years of age, left his wife and children and departed in 1540 for Isny, accepting the invitation of Paul Fagius to superintend his Hebrew printing-press there. During Elijah's stay with Fagius (until 1542 at Isny and from 1542 to 1544 at Constance) he published the following works: "Tishbi," a dictionary containing 712 words used in Talmud and Midrash, with explanations in German and a Latin translation by Fagius (Isny, 1541); "Sefer Meturgeman," explaining all the Aramaic words found in the Targum (ib.); "Shemot Debarim," an alphabetical list of the technical Hebrew words (Isny, 1542); a Judæo-German version of the Pentateuch, the Five Megillot, and Hafṭarot (Constance, 1544); and a new and revised edition of the "Baḥur." On returning to Venice, Elijah, in spite of his great age, still labored on the edition of several works, among which was David Ḳimḥi's "Miklol," to which he added notes of his own ("nimuḳim").

  • Wolf, Bibl. Hebr. iii. 97;
  • Azulai, Shem ha-Gedolim, s.v.;
  • G. B. de Rossi, Dizionario, s.v.;
  • Orient, Lit. 1848, Nos. 4-6;
  • Frensdorf, in Monatsschrift, xii. 96 et seq.;
  • Gesenius, Gesch. der Hebräischen Sprache, Leipsic, 1815;
  • Brüll's Jahrb. viii. 188;
  • S. Buber, Toledot Eliyahu, 1856;
  • Steinschneider, Cat. Bodl. col. 934;
  • idem, Bibliographisches Handbuch, Nos. 1159-1167;
  • Grätz, Gesch. viii. 199;
  • Kahana, in Ha-Shaḥar, xii. 498 et seq.;
  • C. D. Ginsburg, The Masoreth ha-Masoreth of Elias Levita, London, 1867;
  • I. Davidson, in Modia la-Hadashim, ii. 21 et seq.;
  • J. Levi, Elia Levita, Breslau, 1888;
  • Bacher, in Ersch and Gruber, Encyc. s.v. Levita;
  • idem, Elija Levita's Wissenschaftliche Leistungen, in Z. D. M. G. xliii. 206-272;
  • idem, Zur Biographie Elija Levita's, in Monatsschrift, xxxvii. 398 et seq.
J. I. Br.