Yitsḥak Erter. Postcard printed by Verlag Hatchijah, Stanisławów. The harp, the feather pen, inkwell, and books were symbols often used on postcards featuring writers. (YIVO)

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Erter, Yitsḥak

(1791–1851), Hebrew satire writer, physician, and a leader of the Haskalah movement in Galicia. Yitsḥak Erter was born in the village of Koniuszek in the Premishla (Przemyśl) district of Galicia, and grew up as a Hasid. At age 13 he married a rabbi’s daughter who died six months later. He was married again in 1806, also to the daughter of a rabbi (her name was Ḥayah Sarah) and he moved to his wife’s town of Wielkie Oczy where he was supported by his father-in-law. There, Erter formed a deep bond with the maskil Yosef Tarler (a probable later convert to Christianity), who introduced him to medieval Jewish philosophy and Haskalah literature.

In 1816 Erter moved to Lwów, where he taught languages, history, and mathematics for three years. He introduced himself to local maskilim there and befriended Shelomoh Yehudah Rapoport and Yehudah Leib Mieses. Though Erter was respected in the intellectual circles of Lwów, he was forced to move to Brody when Rabbi Ya‘akov Orenstein (1775–1839) banned the activities of maskilim. In Brody, Erter was hired in 1823 by the natural sciences secondary school to teach Hebrew and German and to supervise curricula. In the same year, he published his first satirical work, “Mozne mishkal” (Scales), in Bikure ha-‘itim.

Two years later Erter went to Budapest to study medicine, leaving his family behind. When he was qualified to practice in 1829, he returned to Galicia and lived in Rava for two years. With the outbreak of a cholera epidemic in 1831, Erter was appointed as the provisional government physician and traveled throughout Galicia to supervise medical care. In Lwów, he witnessed the death of his friend Mieses, and when the epidemic subsided later that year, Erter returned to Brody, remaining there for the rest of his life.

Erter was one of the first modern Hebrew satirists. Between 1836 and 1845, he published the short stories: “Ḥasidut ve-ḥokhmah” (Hasidism and Wisdom), “Telunot Sani ve-Sansani ve-Samangaluf” (The Complaints of Sani and Sansani and Samangaluf [names of angels]), “Tashlikh” (the ceremonial casting away of sins on Rosh Hashanah), and “Gilgul nefesh” (Transmigration of the Soul). Most of his works were intended to be chapters of a comprehensive text titled Ha-Tsofeh le-vet Yisra’el (The Watchman of the House of Israel; based on a line from the biblical prophet Ezekiel).

Throughout his writing, Erter presented Judaism as integrated in rather than external to general history. Though he did not detach himself from the standard ideas of Judaism, he was at the same time influenced by contemporary scientific and critical theories. As a humanist and rationalist, he had little tolerance for the religious scholars of Galicia and their disciples.

In “Mozne mishkal” and “Tashlikh,” for example, Erter, as a part of his fiction, exposes a plagiarism in Ya‘akov Orenstein’s text Yeshu‘ot Ya‘akov (1809). Erter then attacks what he considered to be unreasonable decrees and pointless pilpul in the writings of his contemporary rabbinical authorities. In “Ḥasidut ve-ḥokhmah” and “Gilgul nefesh,” he goes so far as to accuse Galician Hasidic leaders of fraud. In “Telunot Sani ve-Sansani ve-Samangaluf,” he creates a scene of unbearable pandemonium in the upper world and protests the corruption prevailing in heaven when new angels are created in the image of Hasidim.

Erter’s watchman, his major figure in Ha-Tsofeh le-vet Yisra’el, is a person “whose eyes see visions in dreams and while awake, and whose eyelids examine the Israelites in their beliefs and activities, in their customs and all of their conduct” (Erter, 1996, p. 88). Erter’s satire draws its moral justification from the innocent belief of this character in the possibility of establishing a better world. The watchman is an optimist who believes in the capacity of the human mind to repair the flaws of Jewish reality, flaws that are the outcome of fundamentalist religious ignorance as manifested, in Erter’s view, in the world of Galician Hasidism.

Erter was also involved in public affairs. He was a founder of the Society and Fellowship for the Education of Jewish Farmers in Galicia (1848–1849) and formally phrased its aims in his “Kol kore li-vene Yisra’el toshave erets Galitsyah” (Appeal to Israelites Residing in the Land of Galicia; 1848). With his friend Yehoshu‘a Heshel Schorr, he established the periodical He-Ḥaluts in 1852.

Yitsḥak Erter led a difficult private life. His son died while Erter was still alive, and his eldest daughter became ill and died two months after her father. Still, Erter was renowned in his lifetime, and the intellectuals of his generation took pleasure in reading his satires, as indicated by the letters they exchanged with him. Erter’s work still generates interest among researchers and students of modern Hebrew literature, as it marked the start of modern Hebrew satire in the nineteenth century and figured prominently in the cultural war waged by Hebrew Haskalah against Hasidism and the numerous decrees imposed by its rabbis. Erter’s complete works, edited by his friend Me’ir Letteris, were first compiled seven years after his death, and were published in Vienna in 1858.

Suggested Reading

Yitsḥak Erter, Ha-tsofeh le-vet Yisra’el, ed. Yehuda Friedlander (Jerusalem, 1996); Shim‘on Halkin, Zeramim ve-tsurot ba-sifrut ha-‘ivrit ha-hadashah, ed. Tsiporah Kagan, vol. 1 (Jerusalem, 1984); Yosef Klausner, Historyah shel ha-sifrut ha-‘ivrit ha-ḥadashah, 3rd ed. (Jerusalem, 1960), vol. 2, pp. 321–349; Avraham Shaanan, Ha-sifrut ha-‘ivrit ha-ḥadashah li-zerameha (Tel Aviv, 1962), vol. 1, pp. 175–182; Uri Shoham, Mashma‘ut ha-aḥeret: Min ha-mashal ha-alegori ve-‘ad ha-sipur ha-paralelisti (Tel Aviv, 1982), pp. 79–105; Shemu’el Verses (Samuel Werses), Mi-Mendel ‘ad Hazaz: Sugyot be-hitpatḥut ha-siporet ha-‘ivrit (Jerusalem, 1987), pp. 256–291; Shmu’el Verses, Megamot ve-tsurot be-sifrut haskalah (Jerusalem, 1990), pp. 91–109, 223–248; Israel Zinberg, A History of Jewish Literature, ed. Bernard Martin (New York, 1977), vol. 10, pp. 92–101.



Translated from Hebrew by Rami Hann