Isaac Leeser

Isaac Leeser (December 12, 1806, Neuenkirchen, in the province of Westphalia, Prussia - February 1, 1868, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) was an American rabbi, author, translator, editor, and publisher; pioneer of the Jewish pulpit in the United States, and founder of the Jewish press of America. He wrote the first Jewish translation of the Bible into English to be published in the United States. He is considered one of the most important American Jewish personalities of the nineteenth century America.

Early life

Educated at the gymnasium of Münster, Leeser was well-grounded in Latin, German, and Hebrew. He also studied the "Talmud" tractates "Moed", "Bava Metzia", and portions of "Kodashim" and "Bava Batra" under Hebrew masters. At the age of seventeen he emigrated to America, arriving at Richmond, Virginia, in May, 1824. His uncle, Zalma Rehiné, a respected merchant in that city, sent Leeser to a private school but after ten weeks the school closed, and for the next five years Leeser was employed in his uncle's . Although his circumstances were inhospitable for the growth of his Jewish knowledge, Leeser showed his bent by voluntarily assisting the "hazzan" to teach religion on Saturdays and Sundays and also by defending Judaism in the public press from time to time when it was assailed.

Elected at Philadelphia

In 1828, an article in the "London Quarterly" reflecting on the Jews was answered by Leeser in the columns of the "Richmond Whig", and the reply attracted the attention of the Jewish communities of Richmond and Philadelphia. About that time Abraham Israel Keys, "hazzan" of Congregation Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia, died. Leeser was induced to accept the congregation's invitation to serve as his successor. His own view of the situation is given in a letter written by him six years later to Rabbi Solomon Hirschell of London: "Knowing my own want of proper qualification, I would never have consented to serve, if others more fitting in point of standing, information, or other qualities had been here; but this not being the case (as is proved by there being yet two congregations at least in this country without a regular "hazzan"), I consented to serve."

In August, 1829, Leeser went to Philadelphia with the manuscript of his first book ("The Jews and the Mosaic Law"). He also brought fresh ideas about his new job. Up to that time the role of a "hazzan" in America had been merely to lead the congregation in Hebrew prayers. There was, however, a new movement in Europe. In Hamburg, Rabbi Gotthold Salomon had broken new ground by delivering a sermon in German. Preaching in German soon became the norm in Reform synagogues, and even some conservative rabbis , such as Isaac Bernays, had begun to deliver sermons in the vernacular. This movement had inspired Leeser, and he hoped to transform the lectern into the pulpit.

On June 2, 1830, Leeser delivered his first English sermon, and thereafter he preached with regularity, though on only, until June 18, 1843, when the congregation formally accepted the sermon as regular. Leeser's practice of delivering sermons on a regular basis was ultimately adopted by American congregations, and preaching became one of the standard duties of Jewish clergyman.


The scarcity of books concerning the Jewish religion emphasized the fact that there was no American Jewish publisher. Having translated Johlson's "Instruction in the Mosaic Religion", Leeser issued in the winter of 1829-30 proposals to publish it and "The Jews and the Mosaic Law". When no offers were forthcoming, he became his own publisher.

In 1845, Leeser published a Hebrew-English edition of the "Torah" in five volumes; the English translation was his own. It was the first such translation in the United States, and it became the standard Bible for English-speaking Jews during the nineteenth century.

Three years later, Leeser published a masoretic Hebrew edition of the "Tanakh", "Biblia Hebraica", in cooperation with Joseph Jaquett, a local Episcopalian minister. It was the first of its kind to be printed in America.

In 1853, Leeser completed his English translation of the entire "Tanakh", commonly called "The Leeser Bible". In 1857 he issued a second (folio-size) edition of this Bible.

Later career

Leeser retired from Congregation Mikveh Israel in 1850. He did not take office again until 1857, when the newly formed Congregation Beth-El-Emeth in Philadelphia called him, and he remained its leader until his death.

When Leeser commenced his public career, there were approximately 12,000 to 15,000 scattered Jewish individuals and members of congregations in the United States. He helped to mold them into a community in part by the pulpit and in part by the press.

Leeser participated in nearly all the Jewish activities in the United States — examples include the first Jewish day schools, the first Jewish seminary, the first Jewish publication society. "The Occident and American Jewish Advocate", Leeser's monthly magazine, acquired an international reputation; Maimonides College, of which he was provost, paved the way for future Jewish seminaries in the United States; the Jewish Publication Society he founded is the predecessor of today's Jewish Publication Society of America; and his translation of the Bible became an authorized version for English-speaking Jews around the world.


Leeser published the following works, including his own books, his translations, and books by other authors.

* Joseph Johlson's "Instruction in the Mosaic Religion" (translated by Leeser, 1830)
* "The Jews and the Mosaic Law" (1833)
* "Discourses (2 volumes, 1837)
* Portuguese prayers, with Leeser's English translation (6 volumes, 1837)
* "Hebrew Spelling-Book" (1838)
* "Catechism" (1839)
* "The Claims of the Jews to an Equality of Rights" (1841)
* "Discourses" (1841)
* "The Occident and American Jewish Advocate", a monthly magazine (1843—1868)
* "The Pentateuch (Hebrew and English)" (5 volumes, 1845)
* "Daily Prayers, German Rite", with Leeser's English translation (1848)
* "The Twenty-four books of the Holy Scriptures" ("The Leeser Bible") ( [ 4to] , 1853)
* "The Twenty-four books of the Holy Scriptures" ("The Leeser Bible") (Second edition, [ 18mo] , 1857)
* Portuguese prayers, with Leeser's English translation (Second edition, 7 volumes, 1857)
* "The Dias Letters" (1859)
* "The Inquisition and Judaism" (1860)
* "Meditations and Prayers" (1864)
* Grace Aguilar, "The Jewish Faith" (1864)
* Grace Aguilar, "Spirit of Judaism" (1864)
* "Collected Discourses" (10 volumes, 1867)
* Joseph Johlson's "Instruction in the Mosaic Religion" (translated by Leeser, second edition, 1867)

In addition, Leeser translated Joseph Schwarz's "Geography of Palestine" and, with Jaquett, published an edition of the Hebrew Bible.


*Adler, Cyrus and Sulzberger, Mayer, " [ Isaac Leeser] ", "Jewish Encyclopedia", Funk & Wagnalls (1901-1906).
*Comay, Joan, "Who's Who in Jewish History", Oxford University Press (1974). pg 118.
*Levine, Yitzchok, " [ Glimpses Into American Jewish History] ", "The Jewish Press", December 6, 2006. Retrieved on May 5, 2007.
*Sussman, Lance J., "Isaac Leeser and the Making of American Judaism", Wayne State University Press (1995).
*Goldman, Yosef, "Hebrew Printing in America", YGBooks, 2006.

External links

* [ The Occident and American Jewish Advocate] : contains many of Leeser's works, including
** ["The Jews and the Mosaic Law"] and
** [ "Catechism for Jewish Children"]

ee also

*Jewish English Bible translations
*Jewish history in Philadelphia
*Relationship of American Jews to the U.S. Federal Government (pre-20th century)

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