The Hart Family
Aaron Hart (1724-1800) was born in London, England, to Ashkenazi Jews originally from Bavaria. They had changed their surname to better integrate into British society. Aaron became Quebec’s first permanent Jewish settler, arriving in 1760 as a British army officer. Although other Jewish soldiers had previously served in British North America, he settled permanently in Trois-Rivières in 1761. By 1763, he was appointed postmaster.
Hart wove himself into the very fabric of Quebec history in numerous areas. He became one of North America’s first Jewish Masons, in 1760. His fur trade investments allowed him to purchase more than seven seigneuries, including a large portion of the territory around Trois-Rivières. There, he opened a store which also handled commercial and real estate loans. As the Hart family’s wealth increased, so did its social standing: Aaron and his wife Dorothea Catherine even received Prince Edward – father of soon-to-be Queen Victoria – as well as a Papal envoy.
In 1775, Hart took on an active role in military operations during the American Revolutionary War, notably in thwarting a failed invasion of Canada.
However, Hart’s best-known role was as founder of Montreal’s Shearith Israel congregation, precursor to the modern-day Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. While this seems at odds with his Ashkenazi heritage, British Jewry was then mostly Sephardic; and it would take another century for the vast wave of Ashkenazi Jewish immigration to reach Montreal.
Aaron’s son Ezekiel (1770-1843) took over the family business, inheriting some of his father’s land holdings and buying others. He also opened a brewery with his brothers. Like his father, Ezekiel served in the British militia during the American Revolutionary War. As well, while his brother Moses had been the first Jew to run for election to Lower Canada’s Legislative Assembly, it was Ezekiel who first succeeded. However, his election in 1807 led to controversy. He took his oath of office using a Hebrew Bible, rather than the required Christian one, despite the fact that the legal courts system already accepted that practice. Ezekiel’s election opponent then argued Hart’s Jewish status nullified both the election and Hart’s right to sit in the Assembly. Despite Ezekiel’s connections, he was dismissed from his seat in 1808. Subsequently re-elected, Hart was sworn in on a Christian Bible – but was expelled yet again in 1809. He never ran for public office again.
Trois-Rivières’ citizens revered Ezekiel. In 1832, through his efforts, the Assembly passed the Emancipation Act granting Lower Canada’s Jews full rights 27 years before anywhere else in the British Empire. Upon his death, all of Trois-Rivières’ merchants closed their stores in tribute. In 1909, the remains of those originally interred in the town’s Jewish cemetery – including Hart – were moved to Montreal’s Mount Royal Cemetery.
About The Author
David Levi (1742-1801), born to Ashkenazi Jews, utilized his ambition and intelligence early on despite his parents’ meagre means. Employed as a cobbler and milliner, Levi taught himself both Hebrew and the Talmud, and read both Jewish and Christian texts widely. He primarily focused on eradicating British Christians and Jews’ misconceptions about Judaism.
He became considered the 19th-century’s foremost English-speaking expert on Judaism, relied upon by Christian Hebraists and writers as much as by the Jewish community. Levi was the first to write in English for both Jewish and Christian audiences. Many British Jews had little access to Hebrew and had gradually become disenfranchised from it and thus also to their religion’s literature. He wanted not only to provide them with clear, unbiased and above all accessible versions of that literature, but also to clarify Judaism for Christian audiences, as existing English-language Judaic texts generally provided conflicting and sometimes suspect information.
For instance, Christian theologist and philosopher Joseph Priestley’s A Letter to the Jews contended they were “under the divine displeasure”, due to their rejection of Jesus as messiah. Between 1793 and 1800, Levi responded with a 3-volume work examining Old Testament prophecies regarding the Jews, building upon previous works addressed directly to Priestley. He also defended Judaism against other writers and philosophers like Spinoza, Voltaire, Hume, and Paine, as well as Priestley’s Millenarian peer Richard Brothers, an early leader of the British Israelite movement who declared himself the Jewish messiah.
The preface of Levi’s first publication, A Succinct Account of the Rites and Ceremonies of the Jews (1782), already demonstrates his awareness of writing for Jews and Christians alike. His Lingua Sacra (1785-1787), a Hebrew dictionary and grammar, intended to help London’s Jews reacquaint themselves with Hebrew. Over the next few years, Levi also produced multi-volume English translations of the Torah, and Ashkenazi and Sephardic prayer books (like those held in the JPL’s Rare Books collection) which became the basis for other editions in both England and the United States.
The JPL’s Copies
The JPL holds 2 copies of this edition of a prayer-book for Fast days. Both measure 22 x 13.5 x 3 cm, likely from the same print run. One copy retains its original brown leather binding, cracking and discolored, with gilding running along the cover’s entire outer edge, including the spine’s horizontal ridges. Its front cover displays evidence of the book’s use, at one point, as a coaster! Our other copy was rebound in a much newer, similarly-hued brown leather without the gilt decoration; the book’s title, in English, is tooled into its spine. Once opened, both copies appear in relatively good condition, although the originally-bound copy’s first few pages show signs of more foxing.
Both copies contain English and Hebrew title pages, similar to the text proper as they face each other, with English on the leaf verso and Hebrew on the recto. The English title page notes W. Justins of Shoemaker Row, London (UK) printed the work “for the Author”, while Johnson of St. Paul’s Church-Yard, and Parsons and Walker of Pater Noster Row, sold it. The English title lists the publication date according to the Jewish calendar, rather than the Gregorian one.
Both copies bear traces of Canadiana. Their previous owners — from Montreal — signed their respective copies. The originally bound copy’s front endpage bears a penciled-in “Rev. Isaac de la Pinchas”; this indicates it belonged to Isaac de la Penha, the cantor and assistant rabbi at Montreal’s Shearith Israel congregation – the precursor to today’s Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. Born in Amsterdam, de la Pinha, also an accomplished diamond cutter, came to Montreal from New York in 1908 ; he served at Shearith Israel until his death in 1935. The rebound copy displays a brown-inked “Rev. Cl. de la Sola”, just above the title. This indicates Clarence Isaac de la Sola, noted businessman, Zionist leader, and author, once owned that copy. De la Sola designed the building which housed Shearith Israel between 1882 and 1928, and also served as the congregation’s treasurer, parnas (sexton) and president. On the very next page’s top corner, “1880” is written in what appears to be de la Sola’s hand, and though the page’s top has been cut out, it is clear that another name – perhaps de la Sola’s – was written there previously.
As well, a subscribers (i.e. publication sponsors) list appears at the back of this edition which include British, American and Jamaican subscribers, as well as several members of now-seminal Jewish Canadian families, such as Aaron and Ezekiel Hart, are included. Unlike the rest of the work, the list appears only in English and its orientation requires it be read from left-to-right and front-to-back.