Levi, David (DNB00)

LEVI, DAVID (1740–1799), Jewish controversialist, born in London in 1740, was son of Mordecai Levi, a member of the London congregation of German and Polish Jews. He was at an early age apprenticed to a shoemaker, but practised that trade without much success, and subsequently made a precarious livelihood as a hat-dresser.

A design of sending him in youth to Poland to study Hebrew literature under his great-grandfather, a Polish rabbi, came to nothing owing to the rabbi's removal at the time to Palestine. But Levi soon acquired at home a good knowledge of Hebrew, and read in his leisure the chief biblical commentaries and many English theological works. In 1783 he published ‘A Succinct Account of the Rites and Ceremonies of the Jews, in which their Religious Principles and Tenets are Explained, particularly the Doctrines of the Resurrection, Predestination, and Free Will, and the opinion of Dr. Humphrey Prideaux concerning these Tenets refuted.’ Between 1785 and 1787 he published in weekly parts, under the title of ‘Lingua Sacra,’ a Hebrew grammar, with explanations in English and a Hebrew-English dictionary. The work formed three bulky octavo volumes, and their periodical issue entailed so much labour on Levi that he was compelled to abandon his ‘mechanical business,’ and to work at them sixteen hours a day (see vol. iii. ad fin. ‘To the Public’).

In 1787 Joseph Priestley published ‘Letters to the Jews, inviting them to an Amicable Discussion of the Evidences of Christianity.’ Levi replied in the same year in ‘Letters to Dr. Priestley.’ In the advertisement he described himself as ‘a sincere enquirer after truth,’ who did not desire to reflect upon ‘true Christianity,’ but he sought to refute the authenticity of the New Testament, and to vindicate on logical grounds his adherence to Judaism. Dr. Priestley thought the attempt ‘poor,’ but deemed it wise to notice it at length in a second part of his ‘Letters’ (1788), whereupon Levi retorted in a second tract (1789), in which he also answered many others who had written answers to his first tract, viz. Samuel Cooper, James Bicheno, Philip David Krauter, John Hadley Swain, and Anselm Bayley [q. v.] Priestley, after reading this reply, declared Levi unworthy of further notice, and the Rev. Richard Beere seems to have continued the controversy singlehanded in ‘An Epistle to the Chief Priest and Elders of the Jews’ (1789). Levi found a new antagonist in 1795, when he published ‘Letters to Nathaniel Brassey Halhed, M.P., in Answer to his Testimony of the Authenticity of the Prophecies of Richard Brothers [q. v.], and his pretended Mission to recall the Jews.’ In 1796 Levi wrote ‘A Defence of the Old Testament in a Series of Letters addressed to Thomas Paine,’ whose ‘Age of Reason’ had attacked the Bible with much acuteness. These letters were first published in New York in 1797.

Meanwhile Levi executed some useful literary work for his co-religionists by publishing English translations of the Hebrew ritual. In 1789 appeared his edition of Genesis in Hebrew and English, arranged on opposite pages. Notes by Lion Soesmans, who printed the works, were appended. The other books of the Pentateuch followed. Between 1789 and 1793 he completed in six volumes an English rendering of the festival prayers used by the London congregation of Spanish and Portuguese Jews, and he did similar service for the German and Polish congregation. In 1794 he translated ‘The Hagadah, or Service for the first two nights of the Passover;’ and he rendered into English the prayers written for use in the synagogues on special occasions, like that of the king's illness in 1788 and his recovery in 1789, or of the dedication of the Great Synagogue in Duke's Place in 1790. He also wrote a Hebrew ode on the king's escape from assassination in 1795.

In 1793 Levi published vol. i. of his ‘Dissertations of the Prophecies of the Old Testament,’ which had already occupied him twenty-five years (Pref.) Vol. ii. appeared in 1796, vol. iii. in 1800. An edition (in two vols.) revised by J. King was issued in 1817.

Levi, who was always in pecuniary difficulties, was attacked by paralysis in November 1798, and died on 11 July 1799, at his house in Green Street, Mile End New Town. He was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Mile End. An elegy by Henry Lemoine [q. v.] appeared in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine.’

A portrait was painted by Drummond. An engraving by Burnley appeared in the ‘European Magazine’ for May 1799.

[Lysons's Environs of London, Supplement, pp. 430–1; Picciotto's Sketches of Anglo-Jewish History, pp. 228–9; European Magazine, May 1799, pp. 291–4; J. T. Rutt's Life and Correspondence of Joseph Priestley, i. 404, 409–10, ii. 21–3.]

S. L.