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Sketches Of Jewish Life In Russia: Chajim Selig Slonimski, the Mathematician

By Chief Rabbi Dr. Lilienthal

(Concluded from Page 97.)

The student from Bialystok had not the remotest idea that Slonimski could be the man of whom the Rabbi spoke in such exalted terms; he looked therefore all over the room for a third person, and finding none else, he returned to the Rabbi, saying “The man must have gone out, I see nobody in your room.”

“How is this?” replied the Rabbi, and opened the door: “there he sits,” pointing to Selig.

The Bachur could hardly believe his eyes, when Selig was introduced to him as a בעל תכונה (Astronomer), and as a מושלם בכל חכמה.

The Rabbi kept the over-happy Selig three days in his house, and loved him every day more, as he became convinced of his great knowledge; he encouraged him to go to Wilna, promised him letters of introduction, and sent him home with the best blessings for his welfare.

These letters of introduction were forwarded under cover to his brother to Bialystok, with the request to hand them over to Selig. He smiled, when he saw on the direction all the high titles and learned directions, applied to his brother, names commonly only given to renowned Rabbis. He showed the direction to a friend, who knew the handwriting of the Rabbi, and he, equally astonished, advised him to open the letter; but they found within the same titles, which, coming from the Wilcowicker Rabbi, they could not explain, nor for what purpose the letters for Wilna were intended. They sent after Selig, who told them the whole proceedings, and having soon completed the necessary domestic arrangements, he began his new journey with an anxious and palpitating heart. Wilna, the Lithuanian Jerusalem, as Napoleon called it, theעיר ואם בישראל, as the Jews call it, appeared to him as the ne plus ultra of the world.

Although he knew his own value, yet he feared that he would be lost as a minor star among so much wisdom, so much piety, among the great riches and splendour of a large city.

Early in the morning after his arrival, he passed through the great German street. On both sides are the chief stores of the Jews. The wives of the merchants are found in attendance in all, as they chiefly attend to the business. Attired in turbans bound round the head, from which the hair is carefully cut away, adorned with golden chains and jewelry, in long waistless dresses, they sit and await the buyer. The men call only sometimes in those stores; they move in another world, being either occupied with larger speculations, or studying the Talmud, or employed in congregational matters. Between the houses you see running to and fro, the poor, who have at home plenty of children and no bread, and who are impatiently waiting the opportunity to gain a few shillings by hard work,

Wrapped in his thin cloak, with fur cap on his head, and anxiously looking about with his large and piercing eyes, Selig approached the house of Hirsh Simcha Katzenellenbogen, a man full of Talmudical knowledge, and having an earnest desire to farther as much as possible, all that is good and noble. Twice had Selig already called. The busy housewife replied in few words, that her husband was not at home. Already despairing to meet the gentleman of the house, he tried his luck for a third time, and a portly-looking man with a jovial face and friendly mien approached him, and asked for the cause of this visit. Slonimski handed him his introductory letters. Astonished at the energetical manner of introduction by the Rabbi  of Wilcowick, and at the youth of the stranger, Katzenellenbogen offered him, with a hearty welcome, his house as a home, and advised him to keep quiet till Sabbath, when the people were at  their leisure, and recommended him also to Mr. Hirsh Klatzko. In the house of the last-named gentleman, where all who loved sciences assemble, he met likewise with a friendly reception, and the promise that those Jewish printers, who are also publishers, should be present at the meeting of Saturday next.

The long-hoped-for Sabbath arrived. After the service, the first men of Wilna assembled in Katzenellenbogen’s house. In their silk caftans, with their silk cloaks and hats of the finest fur, with their long beards, and their marked and intellectual faces, these stern-looking men awaited in the extensive library-room of that Jewish Mæcenas, the man who was so highly recommended. He appeared: his juvenile face was against him, but the spirit with which he carried on the conversation, soon won the heart of his listeners, and when the meeting broke up, they had unanimously resolved to raise, if possible, funds enough for the publication of his works. A subscription list was opened; but by reason of the poverty of the Jews it had not much success. The printers were not enterprising enough to take hold of a new work in Jewish literature. The expenditure of a thousand rubles appalled them, and thus Selig was forced to publish only one part of his great work, the מוסדי חכמה. This part treats of Algebra; and met with the most decided approbation from all Jews.

In Minsk, which is full of eminent Talmudists, and where Rabbi Israel M. Jeshurun presides, our young mathematician enjoyed the most marked attention; and encouraged by his first success in mathematics, he returned to Sabludoff. Although he drew upon himself already, by the publication of scientific works, the name of the Demiberliner, as they called him tauntingly in his small village, and although his wife felt greatly chagrined by the danger which the orthodox reputation of her husband run, yet she relaxed in her opposition, when the silvery sound of seventy-five rubles struck upon her ear. A year and a half he passed now under his domestic roof, enjoying greater freedom for study; and he ordered several books from Leipzig, for a pamphlet on Halley’s comet, which he intended to publish, in order to make his brethren acquainted with the astronomy of our times, and in 1835 the כוכבה דשביט appeared.

The same success attended his second literary labour. Rapaport, Reggio, Geiger, and other scholars, began to correspond with him, and from all parts he received encouraging words. But more than by all this outward honour, he was pleased with the effect which it produced on his Jewish brethren. He understood perfectly the style which would suit them. These men, used to Talmudical brevity, love to find everywhere something which leaves them room enough for self study. Theכוכבא דשביט gives the ideas in few words, explains clearly and explicitly all the axioms, but refers for proofs always to Christian authors. Bare of all preparatory study, the Talmudical reader tries to overcome those difficulties; he tries to hit, as the Jew calls it, and here, where success is nearly impossible in spite of the greatest acuteness, he feels himself forcibly thrown on a systematical study. Slonimski had this always before his eyes, and felt therefore highly rewarded, when success crowned this idea, one of the chief aims of his labours.

Selig tried afterwards to obtain in Warsaw a publisher for his Hebrew Mathematical Cursus. He was sure of the benefit which he could thus diffuse among his fellow-Israelites, that many spirits would be aroused, and many a slumbering genius be awakened, and that great gain could be reasonably expected by it for the sciences in general. But he had not the thousand dollars which were required, and a subscription list, which was opened, was not successful. Indeed, he became so straitened in his circumstances during his sojourn in the Polish capital, that he was even unable to pay the “Geleitgeld” (a tax imposed in Poland upon all Jews), and had hardly money enough to carry him home. He applied therefore to the Director of the Observatory, privy Counsellor Arnimski, with whom he had been made acquainted already at several former visits to the Observatory. It was on a Friday afternoon, when the Counsellor and his coadjutor, the observator Baronowski, had spoken with Slonimski about mathematical instruments. Convinced of his thorough knowledge in this branch, they asked him if he would not like to see the instruments of their Observatory. He urged them fervently to do it; for he remarked that he had never seen yet an astronomical instrument. From that moment he was a favourite with both these gentlemen, and Arnimski invited the Jewish Censor in Warsaw, Tugenhold, to open with him a subscription for Slonimski. As this should only cover his necessary expenses, and save the student from momentary pressure, he had to delay the publication of his Cursus. He began therefore to work out the תולדות השמים, and during the time that one sheet was in the printer’s hands, he had to write the other one; but notwithstanding the haste with which he composed the work, it satisfied his subscribers, and met with equal success and equal approbation from the public at large.

Glad to have escaped this embarrassment, he returned to Sabludoff to continue his former retired life. During a visit at Bialystok, he heard that a Jew had spent there several days, to collect subscriptions for tables of calculations, which he had invented. The verdict which judges had given about the insignificance of this invention, determined him to try to produce something better; and having once taken the idea into his head, it was soon accomplished. That tables would not do, was clear to him, and on his return home, he invented a machine to render addition and subtraction easy. It is similar to the machine of Dr. Roth in Paris, but has not only the right of priority to it, as he had invented it in 1840, but excels it by far, according to the judgment of the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg. But he had not the means to complete his instruments.

His domestic troubles increased, and he was glad to escape from them by a journey, in which he remained six months from home. The printers in Wilna were willing to print his whole course, but they asked a contribution of one hundred and twenty dollars, for which sum they offered him two hundred extra copies; but he could neither cover those expenses, nor was he able to spend another six months in Wilna, for the correction of the proof-sheets. It was the last day of Pesach; on the evening before his departure he called on Mr. Klatzko, and complained bitterly of the ill luck which followed him everywhere, and mentioned accidentally during the conversation, his calculating machine; Klatzko offered him the means to proceed with his invention.

Happy to be at last able to realize those ideas which occupied his mind, he returned to Sabludoff, where his name was already mixed up with those Berliner. His wife called the new machine, in derision, a little chanuckah-lamp; the peace, which he was wont to find at home, was gone.  Discord had taken a strong hold in the bosom of his family, and he left therefore again for Warsaw, where he passed a few weeks with the mathematician Stern, and went from there to Königsberg. All the professors greeted him friendly, and through the recommendation of Bessel, the great astronomer, who taught at that university, he got permission to expose for inspection, in the university building, his new calculating machine and had the pleasure to see it highly approved by the whole faculty.

But his domestic troubles got worse and worse, and only the last remedy, so frequently used among the Polish Jews, remained to him, to divorce himself from his wife. Deprived of all means and the only support for three small children, he reached Bialystok, his native place, and poverty in all its nakedness starred him in the face.

But his ill-luck had reached its climax, and fortune began from now to smile on him. Stern, in Warsaw, got information of his misfortune, and with a parental kindness, he invited him and his family to his house, and offered him the hand of his daughter. Slonimski agreed; and the last happiness, which the venerable man enjoyed, was, to have united with his family a man worthy of it.

Selig found in his new home, in Mr. Rosen, a rich banker, a  real friend and patron. He obtained a permanent situation among the numerous beneficial societies of the Polish capital; and when Slonimski had finished his second calculating machine, he supplied him with means to go to Berlin. He passed again through Königsberg, where Bessel gave him letters of recommendation. But another circumstance favoured his appearance in Berlin. He heard that several mathematicians employed their time to find out a formula, by which the complication of the Jewish Almanac could be obviated. Selig had found out such a formula long ago, but never thought it worth while to appear with it before the public. But now, when he heard of the labours of a Gauss, and a Nesselmann, he communicated it to the last­named gentleman, and after being published, it found the most decided approbation from all the Chronologers of our age. He received also an invitation to present himself with his instruments before a meeting of the Academy of Sciences. The accurate results of his machines gained him here the same approbation, and although he did not communicate the theoretical principles on which the whole rests, yet, Alexander von Humboldt recommended him to the King of Prussia, where he saw, at his representation, his machines highly approved of.

Encouraged by such success, he ventured to send his instruments to St. Petersburgh, to contend there for the great Demidoff prize, which the Imperial Academy awards annually for the best literary work in Russia. Well supplied with money through his patron, the noble Rosen, he started on his eventful journey.

Alexander von Humboldt’s letter opened for him the doors of the Minister of Education, who received him with great kindness, and by his recommendation he was officially invited to a meeting of the Academy of Sciences. He was here not less successful, and in a public meeting they awarded to him solemnly the great Demidoff prize, with the promise to aid him with all the means in their power, in order to go on with his labours.

The President of the Academy, Minister von Uwaroff, presented the inventor before his Imperial Majesty, and a few days afterwards the following Ukase appeared.

“Ukase to the Senate.

“The Hebrew, Selig Slonimski, born in the city of Bialystok, is hereby, in approval of the high merits which his learned and useful labours in the Mathematical branch have gained, raised to the rank of an Honorary Citizen.

“Nicolas I.
“Peterhof, 26th July, 1845.”