The Book of the Honeycomb’s Flow

The נופת צופים, Nofet Tsoufim, of יהודה בן יחיאל הרופה Yehuda ben Yechiel Harofe, also called Messer Leon of Mantua, is just arrived in Antwerp! The text in the Hebrew language is provided with an English translation entitled The Book of the Honeycomb’s Flow due to Isaac Rabinowitz.  The title comes from Tehilim 19,10-11 and can be translated as “the honey that drips from the rays of the hive”.

The Rav Yehuda ben Yechiel harofé was born in Mantua in 1425 and died in Naples in 1497. He was a doctor as his name suggests. He was also rosh yeshiva and possek. He lived in several Italian cities and wrote many books.

To fully understand the nature and scope of Messer Leo’s work, it is necessary to make a brief history of what is today called Hebrew scholasticism.

Latin medieval philosophy is referred to as scholasticism. Although philosophy was only ancilla theologiae, the servant of theology, scholasticism, essentially Aristotelian, is a model of logical rigor.

When the Jews want to learn something that lies outside the Torah, they will naturally seek out the world in which they live. When the Rambam was learning medicine, he learned it in Arabic. When the Spanish and Italian Jews want to learn logic or physics, they will study the scholastic treatises since they know Latin. This movement is called Hebrew scholasticism.

The later Latins will build an educational system that will be transmitted to the medieval world: the seven Liberal Arts. These arts (sciences or techniques) are liberal in the sense that they are studied for themselves and not for practical application. The Artes Liberales are divided into two groups:

  • The Trivium : grammar, logic and rhetoric
  • The Quadrivium : algebra, geometry, astronomy and music

At the time of the Renaissance, the Italian Jews became enthusiastic for the Artes Liberales.

The Rav Yehuda ben Yechiel composed a Trivium in the Hebrew language :

  • Livnat hasappir : Sapphire stone, on the Hebrew grammar of which you can find the manuscript by clicking here.
  • Mikhlal Yofi : Perfect beauty, on logic, from which you can find the manuscript by clicking there and about which Isaac Huzik wrote a book.
  • Nofet Tzoufim : Honey dripping from the rays of the hive, on the rhetoric of which here is the text in modern characters and of which here is the original.

It is this last work which has just arrived at Antwerp. Is not that wonderful?

Hebrew rhetoric, melitza in Hebrew, pursues purposes other than Greek or Latin rhetoric. It is not a question of teaching eloquence to ambitious young people who run for high positions but to learn to read the Torah books and, if necessary, to write them. Keep in mind that the Pirqe Avos teaches that it is better to be at the tail of the fox than to be at the head of lions so Julius Caesar said it is better to be first among the barbarians second among The Romans.

The Ramchal gives us a beautiful proof of the fundamental moral dimension of Hebrew rhetoric by titling his first treatise on rhetoric by a title that comes from Isaiah (50: 4) :

ה׳ נָתַן לִי לְשׁוֹן לִמּוּדִים לָדַעַת לָעוּת אֶת-יָעֵף

Hashem has given me the tongue of the disciples
so that I may know to support by the word the one who is exhausted.

The Ramchal, who is today one of the keystones of Judaism, is a representative of this school.

During the last year of his stay in Amsterdam, he also composed a Trivium in the Hebrew language :

  • Sefer hadiqduq: Grammar Book
  • Sefer hahigayone: Book of Logic
  • Sefer hamelitza: Book of Rhetoric

Some may wonder if the Artes Liberales are kosher.

There are neutral. There are just methods. Furthermore, halacha tells us that when we see a non-Jewish scholar, we must say: “Blessed are You, Hashem, who gives your wisdom beings of flesh and blood.” The Mishna Beroura tells us that he is a scholar versed in the Shevii chochmot, the Seven Sciences, but he does not give us a list of these seven sciences. Looking that list for several months, but right now, I still do not know what the Chofetz Chaim had in mind but it is likely that he thought the Seven Liberal Arts. Although for reasons dependent on my personal journey, I studied for years the interactions between Latin thought and Hebrew thought, I ask myself a lot of questions about the relevance of such studies.

Several hypotheses are to be considered :

  • This is a time gone forever. These studies have only a historical interest.
  • This culture has disappeared only because of the vicissitudes which the Jewish people have known in the Christian countries. It could be reborn from its ashes.
  • This research on language analysis must be continued using the methods of linguistics, mathematics and computer science. References to older authors are obsolete.

I would like to hear your opinion.

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