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Stern, Abraham

(1762/69–1842), mathematician, inventor, translator, and censor. As an inventor, a committed adherent of Orthodox religious education, and a holder of various official posts, Abraham Stern was highly regarded in administrative circles as well as by broad sections of the Jewish public. By virtue of his talents, the Hrubieszów-born watchmaker was invited to Warsaw on the initiative of the leading reformer Stanisław Staszic. There Stern developed numerous complicated apparatuses, including an agricultural machine and, in 1813, a calculator. The latter device was presented to Tsar Alexander I, who, in acknowledgment, awarded Stern a state pension. On the basis of these and other inventions, Stern was welcomed into the Polish Academy of Sciences.

In addition to working as an official translator, Stern held a series of state administrative posts and functions, including those of supervisor of Jewish elementary schools and temporary director of state censorship of Hebrew-language texts. A sworn opponent of Hasidism, he used these positions as a vantage point from which to inhibit the spread of Hasidic writings. However, his intense efforts to curb the increasing popularity of Hasidism in the Kingdom of Poland by means of a series of petitions directed to the authorities (1813–1824) came to nothing. Indeed, in the course of the conflict, Stern’s opponents succeeded in gaining recognition for the Hasidic community as an element loyal to the state.

In 1825, Stern was appointed to the Komitet Starozakonnych (Jewish Advisory Council to the Committee for Jewish Affairs), which concluded its work with the recommendation that a Reform-oriented rabbinical school be founded. In 1826, he was invited to be the school’s first director; however, he turned the position down, seeing the project as a tool for Jewish secularization. In his view, the heder, or traditional Hebrew school, was a core institution of Jewish education, while a more secular educational approach carried with it the risk of political radicalization. Out of loyalty to the existing government, Stern kept his distance from the Polish independence movement and its Jewish supporters.

As an author, Stern’s scope of activities was more limited; only a panegyric to the tsar has been preserved (“Rinah u-tefilah” [Song and Prayer]; 1825). Stern’s son-in-law was the influential journalist Ḥayim Zelig Słonimski, who for many years was the publisher of the Warsaw weekly Ha-Tsefirah.

Suggested Reading

Salomon Łastik, Z dziejów oświecenia żydowskiego: Ludzie i fakty (Warsaw, 1961), pp. 180–184; Raphael Mahler, Hasidism and the Jewish Enlightenment (Philadelphia, 1985), pp. 315–337; Jacob Shatzky, Geshikhte fun yidn in Varshe, vols. 1–2 (New York, 1947–1948); Marcin Wodziński, Haskalah and Hasidism in the Kingdom of Poland: A History of Conflict (Oxford, 2005), pp. 86–94.



Translated from German by Deborah Cohen