Photo Credit: Israel Mizrahi

One of the most famous occurrences of “truth being stranger than fiction” in the history of Hebrew books is the case of Shlomo Friedlander and the forged Yerushalmi (Jerusalem Talmud) on Seder Kodshim, a copy of which I was able to acquire this week. While the Babylonian Talmud was intensely studied throughout the Jewish world, the Jerusalem Talmud slowly became relegated to the rank of obscure and left for only great scholars and rabbis who have already mastered the classic Jewish texts. This led to much fewer copies surviving to the era of printing and a result being that a portion of it being lost forever. While there are sporadic quotes in the era of the Rishonim to the Jerusalem Talmud on the Seder Kodshim portion, no portion of it survives today.

In 1907, a mysterious figure appeared in Europe, claiming to have found a manuscript of the Yerushalmi on the Seder Kodshim, long thought to have been lost forever. Friedlander was born roughly in 1860 and often gave conflicting information as to his origins, at times claiming to have been born in Hungary, Turkey and Romania, but most likely having been born in Belorussia. He spent time in Chernowitz, Mainz, Frankfurt d’Main, Vaitzen, and finally in Satu-Mare, Romania. It appears that he passed away in Vienna in 1924. Friedlander, using an alias of Shlomo Yehuda Elgazi, announced that he discovered an original manuscript dated 1212 from Spain containing the Yerushalmi on Kodshim. Many leading rabbinic authorities of the day welcomed the news, and the portion on tractate Chullin was published in Siene, Romania in 1907 bearing the approbations of Rabbi Aryeh Leibish Horoviz, the “Harei Basamim”; Rabbi Yekusiel Yehuda Greenwald of Satmar; the Maharsham of Berezhany; among others.


Almost immediately, though, several prominent rabbinical authorities suspected the manuscript and text were clever forgeries by Friedlander. The first to expose the forgery was R. Dov Aryeh (Bernhard Löbel) Ritter, who served as rabbi of Rotterdam. The Gerrer Rebbe, a collector of early printed books and manuscripts, viewed the alleged manuscript of Friedlander and confirmed that it was not really old, rather made to look old. R. Meir Don Plotzky (1866-1928), who originally used the Yerushalmi Kodshim, and quoted it in his book, retracted his belief in it, and wrote an entire book exposing the forgery. Eventually, nearly all his supporters abandoned Friedlander, though he continued publishing polemical books and personal attacks on his detractors claiming that the manuscript he published was indeed authentic.

In the years since, scholars have determined that nearly all of the other publications of Friedlander were forgeries to some extent, including an edition of Tosefta on Zeraim, a Yerushalmi on Yevamot and a tikkun of prayers he published in 1881. What remains, though, a mystery is Friedlander’s motives. In what was clearly a brilliant mind and what took extraordinary work and effort, the question remains why such a man would relish attempting to fool the world rather than contribute to Jewish scholarship. Today, his books are an intriguing addition to book collections and sought-after by collectors of Hebrew books throughout the world.

Suggested price: $650.

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Israel Mizrahi is the owner of Mizrahi Bookstore in Brooklyn, NY, and He can be reached at [email protected].