“Portraits of the Great Poets of Israel.” Commercially produced lithograph based on an illustration printed in the Hebrew newspaper Ha-Asif, 1886. (1) Mikhah Yosef Lebensohn, (2) Yehudah Leib Gordon, (3) Naftali Herts Wessely, (4) Adam ha-Kohen (Avraham Dov Lebensohn), and (5) Avraham Ber Gottlober. (YIVO)

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Lebensohn, Avraham Dov

(1794–1878), maskil, biblical commentator, poet, and playwright. Born in Vilna, Avraham Dov Lebensohn (known by the pseudonym Adam ha-Kohen [also rendered Hakohen]) married a girl from Mikhailishok in northern Belorussia (now Mikaliskis, Lith.) when he was 13. He lived there for eight years, engaging in traditional religious studies but also teaching himself the Hebrew language and its grammar. In 1815, he moved to nearby Oshmyany, where he worked in commerce and continued to expand his knowledge of Hebrew. Known for his expertise in Jewish law, he was asked on occasion to join the local rabbinical court.

In 1819 Lebensohn returned to Vilna, where he found his place in the circle of maskilim that gathered in the home of the Katzenellenbogen family. Yitsḥak Aizik ben Ya‘akov, Mordecai Natanson, and Nisan Rozental were among those active in this circle. It was then that Lebensohn took the pseudonym Adam (acronym for Avraham Dov Mikhailishker) ha-Kohen and began his career as an educator, serving as a Talmud, Tanakh, and Hebrew language teacher for 10 years to youths wanting a modern education. Among his students were Ḥayim Leib Katzenellenbogen, Shemu’el Yosef Fuenn, Mordekhai Trivush, Leib Natanson, Ya‘akov Katzenelson, and others. Health issues caused Lebensohn to stop teaching when he was in his late twenties; he earned a livelihood instead by lending money, taking commissions for composing poetry and epitaphs, and importing books from Central Europe.

When Max Lilienthal visited Vilna in 1841 as an emissary of the Russian government to advance a project for “government-sponsored secular and religious education,” Lebensohn worked to support the program. Lilienthal later recommended him to be appointed to the Committee for the Enlightenment of the Jewish People, an advisory committee to the minister of education. In 1846 Moses Montefiore visited Vilna; for the occasion, Lebensohn composed a special welcoming poem (“Shemesh yareaḥ ve-kokhavim” [Sun, Moon, and Stars]), also writing a memorandum urging Montefiore to support a Haskalah educational system in Vilna to promote social and economic mobility and to break the cycle of poverty and misery. When the Vilna Seminary for Teachers and Rabbis was founded in 1848, Lebensohn became a teacher of Hebrew and Aramaic language and rhetoric.

In 1847, the first maskil synagogue, Tohorat ha-Kodesh, was founded in Vilna, and Lebensohn was named its magid (preacher). He was also among the first members of the Society for the Promotion of Culture among the Jews of Russia. For holding these posts, for his intense activity in disseminating the Haskalah worldview, he was sharply attacked by conservatives in the Vilna Jewish community.

Lebensohn’s earliest poetry was written for special occasions. He composed pieces to honor the marriage of Count Tyszkiewicz, scion of a powerful Lithuanian noble family (“Shir ḥavivim” [Song of the Beloved Ones; 1822]), and to grieve the death of the rabbi Sha’ul Katzenellenbogen (“Evel kaved” [Deep Mourning; 1825]). The poems he wrote on the occasion of the marriage of the Russian crown prince (“Kol hamon ḥogeg” [The Sound of the Multitude Celebrating; 1841]), in honor of Montefiore’s Vilna visit (“She’elat shalom” [Appeal for Peace; 1846]), and on the occasion of the coronation of Tsar Alexander II (“Kelil yofi” [Paragon of Beauty; 1858]) also belong to this genre, along with the eulogy for his friend Mordekhai Aharon Gintsburg (“Kinat sofrim” [Lamentation for Writers—a play on the Hebrew phrase kin’at sofrim, “jealousy among scholars”; 1847]). Lebensohn’s great fame, however, came with the appearance in 1842 of his first collection of poems, Shire sefat kodesh (Poems in the Holy Tongue), many of which became permanent features of the Jewish culture of the time (second and third parts were published in 1856 and 1870). In 1867, he published an allegorical play, Emet ve-emunah (Truth and Faith), a Haskalah work that evoked a wide response as well as public controversy.

Lebensohn’s views on education as well as his great interest in the Hebrew language and its grammar were broadly expressed in his writing. His attitudes are apparent in Shene luḥot ha-‘edut (The Two Tablets of Testimony; 1856), a Hebrew-language textbook for rabbinical students, and Yitaron le-adam (An Advantage to Man; 1871), in which Lebensohn added notes to Yehudah ben Ze’ev’s Hebrew grammar, Talmud lashon ‘ivri (Learning the Hebrew Language).

In the field of biblical exegesis, Lebensohn published the books of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, the 12 Minor Prophets, Job, Proverbs, Psalms, Lamentations, and Ecclesiastes in editions accompanied by Moses Mendelssohn’s commentary, a German translation, and his own notes (1849–1853). Some of his sermons on the weekly Torah readings and Jewish holidays were published in the book Kovets derushim (Collection of Homilies; 1867); and his articles appeared in such journals as Pirḥe tsafon, Kerem ḥemed, and Kokhave Yitsḥak, and in newspapers such as Ha-Magid and Ha-Karmel.

In the eyes of contemporary maskilim, Lebensohn was a figure in the tradition of great Jewish scholars, commentators, and poets. His eldest son, Aryeh Noah Lebensohn, held many public positions and served as director of the Vilna Seminary for Teachers and Rabbis. His second son, Mikhah Yosef Lebensohn, stood out from a very young age as a prolific poet and translator. His poems were published together with his father’s in Kol shire Adam u-Mikhal (All the Poems of Adam and Mikhal; 1895). Lebensohn’s son-in-law was the rabbi, teacher, linguist, censor, and lexicographer Yehoshu‘a Shteynberg.

Suggested Reading

Ben-Ami Feingold, “Introduction,” in Emet ve-emunah, by Adam Hakohen Levenzon, pp. 7–25 (Jerusalem, 1994); Menuḥah Gilbo‘a and Yehudah Fridlander, “Introduction,” in Shire sefat kodesh by Adam Hakohen, pp. 9–39 (Jerusalem, 1987); Joseph Klausner, Historyah shel ha-sifrut ha-‘ivrit ha-ḥadashah, vol. 3, pp. 171–227 (Jerusalem, 1953); Hillel Noah Magid, ‘Ir Vilna, pt. 2, pp. 116–127 (Jerusalem, 2002); Noah H. Rosenbloom, “Li-Veḥinat hashkafat ‘olamo shel Adam ha-Kohen,” in ‘Iyune sifrut ve-hagut, pp. 164–211 (Jerusalem, 1990).



Translated from Hebrew by I. Michael Aronson