Bookmark-shaped postcard with portrait of Ḥayim Zelig Słonimski. The card is decorated with traditional symbols of scholarship. Printed by Société Libanon, Warsaw, ca. 1900. (YIVO)

Find more information about

at the Center for Jewish History:

NOTE: you will be redirected
to the Web site for the

Słonimski, Ḥayim Zelig

(1810–1904), author of scientific texts in Hebrew; inventor; principal of the Zhitomir Rabbinical Seminary; and founder and editor of the journal Ha-Tsefirah (The Dawn). As was the case with many nineteenth-century maskilim, Ḥayim Zelig Słonimski had to rely on inner strength, curiosity, and self-motivation to make the transition from a cultural environment steeped in tradition to one based on a more modern Jewish ethos. The education he received in Białystok, where he was born, qualified him for a career in the rabbinate, but out of a desire to expand his intellectual horizons, Słonimski taught himself European languages and read their literature.

Słonimski’s involvement in the East European Haskalah movement, from early on, manifested itself in his insatiable interest in the exact sciences. He had feared that the sciences were being ignored by Jewish culture, and he wished to disseminate such knowledge to the Jewish population, and to use science as a means for educating youth. Already at age 24, after returning to Białystok, and after entrusting his wife with the financial support of his family, he wrote his first book, an introduction to mathematics: Yesode ḥokhmat ha-mispar (Fundamentals of the Wisdom of Numbers; 1834). A year later, turning to astronomy, and wishing to allay fears associated with the appearance of Halley’s Comet, he compiled Kokhava’ de-shavita’ (The Comet; 1835). In an attempt to broaden his influence, he took great pains to write books in a comprehensible style and to present science as completely compatible with religious beliefs. As was true of the early maskilim of the eighteenth century, Słonimski claimed that fear of heaven could be reinforced if one understood the wonders of nature—which God had created.

In 1838, Słonimski moved to Warsaw, came into close contact with Polish scientists, and became involved with the Jewish intelligentsia, some of whom had preached stronger integration into Polish society and culture. At the same time, he joined the circle of maskilim who were trying to nurture a Jewish culture that would use the Hebrew language as its medium. He established very close ties with Abraham Stern, the mathematician and inventor, and became his frequent guest. Słonimski fell in love with Stern’s daughter, Sarah, who had received a modern education from her father, and in order to marry her divorced his first wife.

Słonimski published another book on astronomy, Toldot ha-shamayim (The History of the Heavens; 1838). This text received critical acclaim and served as evidence of his success at popularizing the sciences. He also tried his hand at the applied sciences, and a number of his technological inventions received recognition and awards. He was especially famous for inventing an adding machine in 1844, but was also known for creating a device that allowed four telegrams to be sent at once using just one telegraphic wire, and for a chemical formula to create an iron coating for cooking utensils. Some of his scientific essays were published in European journals in German and Russian. The highlight of Słonimski’s scientific career came with his visit to Berlin in 1858, where he was warmly received and was granted an audience with the king of Prussia.

In 1862, Słonimski founded the first Hebrew newspaper in Poland, the weekly Ha-Tsefirah. His primary aim was to assist Jews of his generation to acquire a full understanding of the news and to arm them with the secular knowledge necessary to live as modern European citizens, and to be equipped with tools for day-to-day living. Słonimski emphasized the practical function of a newspaper, especially its role in the acquisition of scientific knowledge necessary for economic success. He avoided ideological disputes, criticism of traditional society, and literary works that had no utilitarian benefit. Poetry, for example, had no place in his journal, but at the same time there was a column that offered readers technical advice.

By the summer of 1862, however, Ha-Tsefirah ceased publication. Słonimski was appointed principal of the Zhitomir Rabbinical Seminary and also became the chief censor of Hebrew books for the Russian government. Only after the seminary was itself closed in 1873 did Słonimski return to Warsaw, where a year later he resumed publication of the journal. It became one of Polish Jewry’s cultural institutions, managing to survive for a very long period, until 1931. In the early 1880s Naḥum Sokolow joined its editorial board and became Ha-Tsefirah’s dominant figure and eventually its de facto editor. In 1886, Ha-Tsefirah became a daily, and after the first Zionist Congress it was the Zionist movement’s unofficial mouthpiece. At that point Słonimski’s influence waned considerably.

Słonimski’s views mirrored those of others in the moderate Haskalah. He supported the preservation of religious tradition and carefully avoided conflict with the Orthodox masses. Nonetheless his children, like many others of the Warsaw Jewish intellectual elite, were attracted to Polish culture, underwent radical acculturation, and two of his sons converted to Christianity.

Suggested Reading

Alina Cała (Alinah Tsa’lah), “Tenu‘at ha-hitbolelut be-Polin,” Kiyum ve-shever 1 (1997): 337–351; Getzel Kressel, Leksikon ha-sifrut ha-‘ivrit ba-dorot ha-aḥaronim, vol. 2, col. 504–507 (Merḥavyah, Isr., 1967); Abraham Samuel Herschberg, Pinkas Byalistok, ed. Yudel Mark, vol. 1, pp. 236–240 (New York, 1949); Ḥayim Re’uven Rabinovits, “Igrot Ḥayim Zelig Sl’onimski (Ḥet-Zayin-Samekh),” Areshet 4 (1966): 447–460; Ira Robinson, “The Diffusion of Scientific Knowledge among Eastern European Jews in the Nineteenth Century: The Writing of Hayyim Selig Slonimski,” in The Interaction of Scientific and Jewish Cultures in Modern Times, ed. Yakov Rabkin and Ira Robinson, pp. 49–65 (Lewiston, N.Y., 1995); N. Slonimski, “My Grandfather Invented the Telegraph,” Commentary 63 (1977): 56–60; Mordekhai Zalkin, “Ha-Haskalah ha-yehudit be-Polin: Kavim le-diyun,” Kiyum ve shever 2 (2001): 391–413.



Translated from Hebrew by David Fachler