(1795–1846), Hebrew writer, translator, and educator; a leader of the Haskalah movement in Lithuania. Born in the provincial town of Salantai (near Kovno), Lithuania, Gintsburg was first educated at his parents’ home. His father, who wrote articles on Hebrew grammar and mathematics, influenced his predilection for the Hebrew language and the Bible. When he was 14, Gintsburg married a considerably older woman and moved into his father-in-law’s home in the town of Shavli, north of Kovno. There he broadened his general education, studied German, and developed a keen interest in classical and contemporary German literature.
Title page of Kiryat sefer, by Mordekhai Aharon Gintsberg (Vilna, 1855). This igron, or book of model Hebrew letters, is an example of a maskilic genre whose aim was the enrichment of Hebrew epistolary style. (YIVO)
Gintsburg’s outlook was influenced by Moses Mendelssohn’s Jerusalem: he was guided by an intellectual liberalism and an openness to general cultural values combined with traditional observance. Gintsburg objected to extreme opinions, both those of Orthodox Jews and of militant maskilim. He reasoned that free thought was not intended to oppose religious faith, but rather was to cleanse it of superstition. His moderate approach notwithstanding, he did not shun satiric criticism of flaws in Jewish society. In this vein, he wrote a rhymed poem, “Tikun Lavan ha-Arami’: Shir sipuri neged ha-ḥasidim,” about a badkhn (jester) who had posed as a ba‘al shem (miracle worker) only to have his deceit exposed publicly. Published after Gintsburg’s death (in Vilna, 1864), the piece influenced Haskalah authors in Russia.
Gintsburg never aspired to start an intellectual revolution, and was well aware that the Haskalah in Germany had accelerated the process of assimilation. He sought only to broaden the horizons of the Jewish public. To this end, he devoted most of his time to translating historical works into Hebrew and Yiddish. In 1823, Gintsburg published Gelot ha-arets ha-ḥadashah (Discovery of the New World) in Vilna. According to some researchers, the text is a Hebrew translation and reworking of Entdeckung von America (Discovery of America; 1781/82) by Joachim Heinrich Campe, and according to others, it is a reworking of the book Tsofnas paneakh (Revealer of Secrets) by Khayim Khaykl Hurwitz of Uman. In 1824, Gintsburg published a Yiddish translation of the book.
Gintsburg continued to publish translations of historical studies as well as his own works. In 1839, he produced ‘Itote Rusyah (A Concise History of Russia), followed in 1842 by Ha-Tsarfatim be-Rusyah (The French in Russia) on the French invasion of 1812. Ḥamat Damesek (The Wrath of Damascus), about the Damascus blood libel, was published in 1860.
Gintsburg’s translations are characterized by their clear and fluent style. Though he borrowed material and ideas, he made them his own. His popular history books and igronim (models of epistolary style), including his Kiryat sefer (1835) and Devir (1844) clearly reflect his intention to enrich modern Hebrew literary styles.
Gintsburg’s most important original literary work was his autobiography Avi‘ezer, written over many years but remaining incomplete; it was published in Vilna in 1863, after his death. Influenced by The Confessions of St. Augustine and those of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Gintsburg’s work describes the shortcomings of the old-style Jewish educational system without exhibiting the hostility that was a hallmark of many contemporary maskilim. Unlike his predecessors, he did not restrict himself exclusively to the language of the Bible, and was among the first to utilize the verbal expressions of the Mishnah and Midrash. In doing so, Gintsburg became a pathfinder for modern Hebrew prose, as later developed in the works of Mosheh Leib Lilienblum, Yehudah Leib Gordon, and Mendele Moykher-Sforim.
Gintsburg was also a pioneer in the field of modern Jewish education. In 1841, he and his friend, poet Shelomoh Salkind (d. 1868), founded the first secular Jewish school in Lithuania, which Gintsburg headed in Vilna for five years, until his death.
Israel Bartal, “Mordecai Aaron Günzberg: A Lithuanian Maskil Faces Modernity,” in From East and West: Jews in a Changing Europe, 1750–1870, ed. Frances Malino and David Sorkin, pp. 126–147 (Oxford, 1991); Joseph Klausner, Historyah shel ha-sifrut ha-‘ivrit ha-ḥadashah, vol. 3, pp. 120–170 (Jerusalem, 1953); Alan Mintz, “Günzberg, Lilienblum and the Shape of Haskalah Autobiography,” AJS Review 4 (1979): 71–110.
RG 617, Mordecai Ginzburg, Papers, 1930-1966.
Translated from Hebrew by Rami Hann