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In 1754, a young man named Samuel West graduated from Harvard College at the top of his class. He would go on to be a pastor in a number of New England towns, a theologian whose thought was a forerunner of New England Unitarianism, a colonial patriot who served as a chaplain and codebreaker in the Continental Army, and a political figure who was key to Massachusetts’ ultimate ratification of the US Constitution. But in 1754, he was still a student who needed to pass his classes. One of those classes was Hebrew, which had been required by Harvard College of all undergraduates since its founding in 1636. To this end, he acquired a copy of Judah Monis’s “A Grammar of the Hebrew Tongue,” the textbook for the Hebrew class taught by the grammar’s own author. This copy is in the collections of Museum of the Bible today.

Figure 1: Samuel West's copy of Judah Monis's grammar

The Hebrew language was an object of deep interest for Puritans and other colonial American Protestants. The Reformation’s rallying cry of sola scriptura, that scripture alone holds authority for Christians rather than tradition or the officers of the church, contributed to an interest in understanding the text of the Hebrew scriptures in their original language. Throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Christian thinkers such as John Seldon, Hugo Grotius, and Johannes Buxtorf learned Hebrew, and also studied Jewish texts other than the Hebrew Bible, in order to better understand both the Hebrew Bible and the context of the New Testament.

This led many Christian Hebraists to have a certain amount of ambivalence toward Jewish people. On the one hand, Jews had preserved the text and language of the Hebrew Bible and many other texts they believed could help them better understand the life of Jesus. On the other, however, Christians of the time saw Jewish rejection of Christianity as sinful and Jews as embodying a stubborn rejection of faith. This ambivalence played out differently in different contexts. The story of Judah Monis at Harvard is one sad example.

Monis was born in Northern Italy to Jewish parents who had fled persecution in their native Portugal. They likely lived as “crypto-Jews,” publicly professing Christianity while observing the Jewish religion in secret to avoid execution at the hands of the Inquisition. His first wife and child died a year apart, and he ultimately settled in the New World. Monis first served as a rabbi in New York before moving to Cambridge, MA, to serve as a Hebrew tutor to local Puritans and work in a hardware store. In 1720, Monis was awarded a Master of Arts from Harvard College, the first and only Jew to receive a college degree in America before 1800.

Monis was in an uncomfortable position upon his graduation. He was acknowledged at Harvard as a skilled Hebrew scholar, but he could not serve as an instructor there without converting to Christianity. He was, additionally, in love with the daughter of the owner of the hardware store where he worked, Abigail Marret, but marriage was impossible so long as he was Jewish. Moreover, there was no Jewish community in Massachusetts at the time. Monis was living his life essentially alone. His conversion became a project for Increase Mather, the Puritan leader, and in 1722 he was baptized. He became instructor of Hebrew at Harvard a month later, where he served until 1760. In 1734, his Hebrew grammar was published, relieving students of the burden of copying it by hand. His grammar was the first book printed in America with Hebrew type; the type had to be specially imported from Amsterdam.

Figure 2: Title page of Monis's grammar

Figure 3: A conjugation table from Monis's grammar

Figure 4: The Lord's Prayer and the Apostle's Creed translated into Hebrew in Monis's grammar

Sadly, though he married his beloved Abigail, Monis was never fully welcomed into New England society. His colleagues at Harvard did not treat him well, and his course load, and consequently his salary, was continually reduced through the 38 years of his service. There was constant whispering that his conversion was not sincere. Meanwhile, his conversion alienated him from whatever community he might have had among Jews, who viewed it as a betrayal. Students were known to despise him, though it is hard to say whether this was for his religious origins or methods of instruction. He died in Northborough, MA, in 1764, and is buried in the yard of the church where his brother-in-law was pastor.

The afterlife of his work is also somewhat tragic. He was swiftly replaced by his student, Stephen Sewall, and his book was replaced by Sewall’s shortly after. Monis’s scholarship was largely forgotten through the eighteenth and most of the nineteenth century, until he was rediscovered by American Jewish historians. The first of those was the rabbi and scholar G. A. Kohut, whose 1889 article put Monis back on the map of American Hebrew scholarship, such that he is now widely recognized as one of its earliest significant proponents.  

In some ways, Monis’s life can be read as a metaphor for the subject he devoted his life to in early America. There was intense interest in the origins of the Hebrew Bible and its language in colonial America, but there was also a great deal of ambivalence and even animosity toward Jewish people and the Jewish religion as practiced. Judah Monis could be a Hebrew instructor, but only if he renounced his Hebrew faith. Otherwise, Hebrew didn’t belong to him. Instead, it belonged to Samuel West.

Find Samuel West’s copy of Monis’s “A Grammar of the Hebrew tongue” on the Museum Collections page here.

By Jesse Abelman, Curator of Hebraica and Judaica

Much of the information in this article is sourced from Shalom Goldman’s God’s Sacred Tongue: Hebrew and the American Imagination (University of North Carolina Press, 2004).

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