1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Elias Levita

ELIAS LEVITA (1469–1549), Jewish grammarian, was born at Neustadt on the Aisch, a place in Bavaria lying between Nuremberg and Würzburg. He preferred to call himself “Ashkenazi,” the German, and bore also the nickname of “Bachur,” the youth or student, which latter he gave as title to his Hebrew grammar. Before the end of the 15th century he went to Italy, which thenceforth remained his home. He lived first at Padua, went in 1509, after the capture of this town by the army of the League of Cambrai, to Venice, and finally in 1513 to Rome, where he found a patron in the learned general of the Augustinian Order, the future cardinal Egidio di Viterbo, whom he helped in his study of the Kabbalah, while he himself was inspired by him to literary work. The storming of Rome by the army of the Constable de Bourbon in 1527 compelled Elias to go to Venice, where he was employed as corrector in the printing-house of Daniel Bomberg. In the years 1541 and 1542 he lived at Isny, in Southern Württemberg, where he published several of his writings in the printing-house of the learned pastor Paul Fagius. The last years of his life he spent at Venice, continuously active in spite of ill-health and the weakness of old age. His monument in the graveyard of the Jewish community at Venice boasts of him that “he illuminated the darkness of grammar and turned it into light.” The importance of Levita rests both in his numerous writings and in his personal activity. In the remarkable period which saw the rise of the Reformation and gave to the study of the Hebrew Bible and to its language an importance in the history of the world, it was Levita who furthered in an extraordinary manner the study of Hebrew in Christian circles by his activity as a teacher and by his writings. To his pupils especially belong Sebastian Minoter, who translated Levita’s grammatical works into Latin, also George de Selve, bishop of Lavaur, the French ambassador in Venice (1536), who was instrumental in obtaining for Levita an invitation from Francis I. to come to Paris, which invitation, however, Levita did not accept. Levita’s writings on Hebrew grammar (Bachur, a text-book, 1518; Harkaba, an explanation, alphabetically arranged, of irregular word-forms; a Table of Paradigms; Pirke Elijahu, a description—partly metrical—of phonetics, and other chapters of the grammar, 1520; his earliest work, a Commentary on Moses Kimḥi’s Hebrew Grammar, 1508) were by reason of their methodical exposition, their clear articulation, their avoidance of prolixity, especially suited as an introduction to the study of the Hebrew language. Amongst Levita’s other writings is the first dictionary of the Targumim (Meturgeman, 1541) and the first attempt at a lexicon in which much of the treasure of late Hebrew language was explained (Tishbi, explanation of 712 new Hebrew vocables, as a supplement to the dictionaries of David Kimḥi and Nathan b. Yeḥiel, 1542). Scientifically most valuable, and of original importance, are the works of Levita on the Massora; his Concordance to the Massora (Sefer Zikhronot completed in the second revision 1536), of which hitherto only a small part has been published, and especially his most celebrated book Massoreth Hamasoreth (1538), published with English translation by Chr. D. Ginsburg, London, 1867. This was the first attempt to give a systematic account of the contents and history of the Massora. By his criticism of the Massora, and especially by proving that the punctuation of the books of the Hebrew Bible is of late origin, Levita exercised an epoch-making influence. Of his other writings may be mentioned his running commentary on David Kimḥi’s Grammar and Dictionary (in the Bomberg editions 1545, 1546), his German translation of the Psalms (1545) and the Baba-Buch (more properly Buovobuch, a German recension of the Italian novel Historia di Buovo d’ Antona, 1508).

Of the literature on Levita may be mentioned: Y. Levi, Elia Levita und seine Leistungen als Grammatiker (Breslau, 1888); W. Bacher, “E. Levita’s wissenschaftliche Leistungen” in Z. d. D. M. G. xliii. (1889), p. 206–272.  (W. Ba.)