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Khvol’son, Daniil Avraamovich

(1819–1911), orientalist. Daniil Khvol’son was born in Vilna. He received a traditional rabbinical education but then studied French, German, and Russian. To complement his traditional education, he moved to Riga. There, Max Lilienthal provided him with a letter of introduction to Abraham Geiger, who enabled Khvol’son to finish his studies at the University of Breslau.

In order to pursue a university career, Khvol’son converted to Eastern Orthodoxy in 1855, an act that earned him the chair of Hebrew and Syrian Studies at the University of Saint Petersburg. When he was asked why he became a Christian, he is said to have replied: “I was convinced it was better to be a professor in Saint Petersburg than a melamed in Eyshishok.” Another motive may have been to better defend his Jewish coreligionists; indeed, all his life he maintained very close relations with community leaders such as Kalman Schulman and Yitsḥak Elḥanan Spektor. The latter apparently urged him to defend the Jewish people against certain allegations.

In 1857, the Russian government appointed Khvol’son to a commission investigating the blood libel and purported references in Jewish literature to the use of Christian blood for ritual purposes. In the case of the Saratov blood libel, he successfully defended Jews against such accusations. In 1877–1878, Khvol’son’s defense led to the acquittal of Jews who had been accused in another ritual murder case in Kutais, Transcaucasia. A text he wrote on the blood libel was translated into German and published in 1901 under the title Die Blutanklage und sonstige mittelalterliche Beschuldigungen der Juden (The Blood Libel and Other Medieval Accusations against Jews). A similar work was published in English in 1874 under the title The Semitic Nations.

Despite his conversion, Khvol’son continued to work for the Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia (OPE), serving on its executive committee with Baron Horace Gintsburg, Leon Rosenthal, Rabbi Neuman, and court physician I. Berthenson, another convert to Christianity.

In 1856, Khvol’son published Sabaeans and Sabaeism, a text that catapulted him into the ranks of experts in oriental scholarship. He taught for 25 years at the Orthodox Theological Seminary in Saint Petersburg and lectured for about the same time on the ancient Jewish language of Aramaic at the Roman Catholic Academy, while simultaneously holding a chair at the university in Saint Petersburg. His studies profoundly affected the development of Semitic studies in Russian. He wrote numerous works on the history of the East, on the history of the ancient Jewish language, and on Assyriology. For the scientific periodical Tanakhi, published for the British Biblical Society, Khvol’son also wrote a series of articles on historical themes as well as on the blood libel.

In 1882, Khvol’son published Corpus Inscriptionum Hebraicarum (Russian trans., 1884), a still-influential work in the field of Hebrew paleography. He also published a series of articles in German on philosophical and religious themes in Saint Petersburg and Leipzig. He died in Saint Petersburg.

Suggested Reading

Recueil des travaux rédigés en mémoire du jubilé scientifique de Daniel Chwolson (Berlin, 1899).