(1856–1939), scholar, rabbi, Zionist, folklorist. Moses Gaster was born in Bucharest to a renowned Jewish family; his grandfather Asriel Gaster had been a community leader and synagogue founder, and his father Abraham Emanuel Gaster was the consul of the Netherlands in Bucharest.
In 1876, Gaster enrolled at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau, where Heinrich Graetz and Zacharias Frankel were among his professors. He simultaneously took up linguistics, biblical studies, and oriental languages at the University of Breslau. In 1877, he earned his doctorate from the University of Leipzig, defending a thesis on the historical phonetics of the Romanian language.
In 1878, on Graetz’s initiative, Gaster joined the Romanian Committee in Berlin, a group that subsequent to the Russian–Turkish war demanded that Romania’s independence be conditional on Jewish emancipation. After his return to Romania in 1880, Gaster did research on ancient literature and Romanian folk literature, and lectured on comparative mythology at the University of Bucharest. He advocated the granting of equal rights to Romanian Jews in the spirit of the Berlin Treaty, and was a founder of the local organization of Ḥibat Tsiyon. In 1882, he was one of the main organizers of Samarin (Zikhron Ya‘akov), the first colony of Romanian Jews in Palestine.
Gaster was banished from Romania in 1885, along with others who had campaigned to publicize restrictive legislative measures and administrative abuse of Jews in Romania. He moved to England, where he delivered the Ilchester series of lectures on Slavic literature at Oxford University. In 1887, he was appointed rabbi (ḥakham) of the Sephardic community of London. He also served as director of Montefiore College in Ramsgate, which he attempted to reorganize according to the model of the seminary he had attended in Breslau. Gaster was president of the Folklore Society and the Jewish Historical Society and vice president of the Royal Asiatic Society.
Gaster joined the Zionist movement at its very beginning and was the vice president of the second, third, fourth and seventh Zionist Congresses. He was also an active member of Ḥoveve Tsiyon and of the Anglo-Jewish Association, and was the founder and the chairman of the English Zionist Federation. Dedicated to cultural Zionism and unwilling to accept any territorial compromise, Gaster was involved in negotiations with British authorities over the fate of the Jewish homeland in Palestine. The first draft of the Balfour Declaration was written at his residence in London on 7 February 1917, in the presence of Chaim Weizmann, Naḥum Sokolow, James de Rothschild, Mark Sykes, and Herbert Samuel.
Gaster had made his scholarly debut with studies on the Romanian language, but in 1880, after his graduation and his return from Breslau to Bucharest, he concentrated on folk literature. He compiled the first comprehensive synthesis of Romanian literary folklore, published in Literatura populară română (Romanian Folk Literature; 1883) and Chrestomația română (Romanian Chrestomathy; 1892).
Using the comparativist method for his folklore studies, Gaster considered Slavic and Byzantine folk literature to be the link between Jewish folk literature and European folklore. His research on the exegesis of the scripture and on Hebrew folk literature from Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages was collected in Studies and Texts in Folklore, Magic, Medieval Romance, Hebrew Apocrypha, and Samaritan Archaeology (3 vols., 1925–1928), which included his findings in other areas of Judaic and Samaritan studies. He also contributed to scholarly publications such as Archaeological Review, Asiatic Quarterly Review, Byzantinische Zeitschrift, Folk-Lore, Journal of Apocrypha, Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, Slavonic Review, and Zeitschrift für alttestamentische Wissenschaft.
Beyond his scholarly research, Gaster published articles in prestigious Romanian cultural periodicals, and made numerous contributions to journals of Jewish studies such as Monatsschrift für Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums, Revue des études juives, Hebrew Union College Annual, Jewish Quarterly Review, Anuar pentru Israeliți, and Sinai. Articles by Gaster were also published in popular Jewish publications such as The Jewish Chronicle, The Jewish Forum, The Jewish World, Ost und West, and the Jewish Tribune. Widely acknowledged as an outstanding promoter of Romanian popular literature, Gaster was elected in 1929 an Honorary Member of the Romanian Academy, to which he left his collection of Romanian medieval manuscripts. During the 1930s, although impaired by blindness, he continued both his research and his publishing activity, writing articles on Jewish topics with particular attention to Hebrew theological issues, Jewish settlement of Palestine, and the fate of European Jewry faced by the peril of Nazi Germany.
Moses Gaster, Judaica and Hungarica: A zsidó, magyar és román muvelodési és politikai kölcsönhatások történetébo, ed. Miskolczy Ambrus (Budapest, 1993); Moses Gaster, Memorii (fragmente) corespondenṭă, ed. Victor Eskenasy (Bucharest, 1998); Elisabetha Mănescu, Dr. Moses Gaster—viața şi opera sa (Bucharest, 1940); Bruno Schindler, ed., Occident and Orient: Being Studies in Semitic Philology and Literature, Jewish History and Philosophy and Folklore in the Widest Sense, in Honour of Haham Dr. M. Gaster’s 80th Birthday (London, 1936); Măriuca Stanciu, “A Promoter of the Haskala in Romania—Moses Gaster,” Studia Hebraica 1 (2001): 53–62.
RG 205, Kalman Marmor, Papers, 1880s-1950s; RG 375, Moses Gaster, Papers, ca. 1900-1920s.
Translated from Romanian by Anca Mircea