Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Teaching Hebrew to the Puritans

Judah Monis and the failure of evangelizing translation as a spiritual exercise in early colonial America

Rachel Wamsley
November 27, 2019
Photo: Hebraic Section, Library of Congress
Judah Monis (1683-1764). 'Dickdook Leshon Gnebreet' (A Grammar of the Hebrew Tongue). Boston: Jonas Green, 1735.Photo: Hebraic Section, Library of Congress
Photo: Hebraic Section, Library of Congress
Judah Monis (1683-1764). 'Dickdook Leshon Gnebreet' (A Grammar of the Hebrew Tongue). Boston: Jonas Green, 1735.Photo: Hebraic Section, Library of Congress

Dickdook Leshon Gnebreet: A Grammar of the Hebrew Tongue, the first Hebrew primer produced in the North American colonies, concludes abruptly with a citation from the Prophet Zephaniah:

I submit to the Judgment of the truly Learned in this Ancient Tongue, and Conclude by Wishing, that the Time may come when the Prophecy in Zeph. 3. 9. shall be accomplished, כִּי-אָז אֶהְפּךְֹ אֶל-עַמִּים, שָׂפָה בְרוּרָה, לִקְראֹ כֻלָּם בְּשֵׁם יְהוָה, לְעָבְדוֹ שְׁכֶם אֶחָד . For then will I turn to the People a pure Language, (or Lip) that they may all call upon the Name of the Lord, to serve him with one Consent. (or Shoulder.)

A M E N. (Monis 1735)

Zephaniah’s “pure Language” is construed here as the Hebrew tongue, ancient and unsullied, joining the people in universal devotion. With its physicalizing parentheticals, the English translation intimates an incorporation, many disparate individuals drawn together into a single faithful, worshipping body, united by its use of a shared, Hebrew, language. Yet Dickdook circulated almost exclusively in the Anglophone colonies of Puritan New England. It was intended, as the title page remarks, for “all those who are desirous of acquiring a clear Idea of this Primitive Tongue by their own Studies; [and] more especially for the Use of the STUDENTS of HARVARD-COLLEGE.” Though presumably intended to teach Hebrew as an aid to the interpretation of the Bible, the grammar’s citation of Zephaniah 3:9 intimates a more ambitious, even ecumenical project, one that would place Hebrew at the very center of spiritual practice.

Judah Monis, an Italian Jew of Sephardic descent, arrived in Boston around 1720, with a completed draft of his Dickdook already in tow. Within two years, he was baptized and installed as instructor of Hebrew at Harvard College, a position he would hold for the next thirty-eight years. The primer served as a textbook for his introductory classes and, among its grammatical expositions and verb tables, featured a mysterious system of Hebrew transliteration of his own design, and two devotional translations of the Lord’s Prayer and the Apostles’ Creed into Hebrew. A brief nomenclature of Hebrew words survives in a single student manuscript copy. Though never published and now lost, Monis also produced Hebrew translations of the Large and Small Catechisms, as well as the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England. Among Puritan luminaries and Harvard academics, the excitement over Monis’s conversion and literary activity was intense: did it presage the conversion of the Jews, with all its millenarian implications? Would Monis himself go evangelize among his former co-religionists? Might Puritan missionaries, furnished with Monis’s insights into Jewish learning and psychology, finally break down the resistance of that infamously stiff-necked people?

Yet none of these events came to pass. After his conversion, Monis had no further contact with any Jewish community; the devotional translations were read solely by his Puritan students and colleagues, if at all. And though his benefactors were inclined to read these translations as preparatory exercises for a mission to the Jews, Monis himself may have had something rather different in mind. For an essential ambiguity troubles the citation from Zephaniah: does incorporation mean a universal Christianization of the people, or a universal Hebraization of prayer? Perhaps these two were the same for Monis, a mutual transformation that would finally enable his Christian students to “call on the Name of the Lord” in His own language?

This blurring, between Christianized Hebrew and Hebraized Christianity, should be contextualized amid the uncertainty that could characterize early American identities. Monis’s case offers us a glimpse of a “Jew” (as he continued to be called, even after his baptism) writing in “America” before either of these categories had stabilized in colonial contexts. In this sense, the present article follows the work of early Americanists Jill Lepore and Edward Gray on the ways in which American identities only gradually emerged over the course of the colonial period, hardening along confessional, linguistic, and cultural lines. In this context, Monis occupied a precarious and indeterminate position, called to maintain these boundaries even as he himself traversed them. As a proselyte, he was to repudiate his former co-religionists, but also to continue to represent them to a Puritan audience, perhaps even to return to them as an evangelist.

At the time of his arrival, Monis’s Puritan sponsors were deeply engaged in the imaginative work both of constituting and policing colonial identities. Throughout the seventeenth century, colonization had embroiled Puritans in intensive, though often unsuccessful, missionary efforts among the native peoples of New England, which then overlapped with the bloody conflict that has come to be known as King Philip’s War. Jill Lepore has argued for this episode, and its literary representation by Puritan writers, as “the story of how English colonists became Americans,” which in turn shaped future American efforts to define “the geographical, political, cultural, and sometimes racial and national boundaries between peoples.” In exploring what she calls the “extraordinarily complicated and tenuous cultural position” of Christianized Algonquians, or “Praying Indians,” Lepore argues that literacy (especially its role in evangelization) functioned in cross-cultural encounters between colonists and natives as “a weapon of conquest.” Through literacy, and later through wholesale Anglicization, colonists worked to erase native difference and enforce assimilation.

Yet even as Puritan intellectuals endeavored to “incorporate” non-Christians, they obsessively remarked on the immutable differences that supposedly distinguished them from one another. The invention of categories such as “Praying Indian” or “converted Jew” bespeaks a deep-seated ambivalence about hybridity, paying lip service to Christianization while stressing ethnic difference and cultures of origin. The same dynamic can be observed in contemporary reactions to American languages. Echoing Lepore’s emphasis on the linguistic dimensions of colonization, Edward Gray has argued that Enlightenment philosophy discerned in the grammatical, lexical, and even orthographic diversity of languages “signatures of human difference,” according to which political, social, and moral hierarchies were then imposed in the New World. Linguistic unity and spiritual salvation were intimately entangled for seventeenth-century colonists, so much so that the co-existence of many distinct American languages was seen as proof of the native “failure to heed the divine mandate of repentance, salvation, and unification.” Christianization, it was hoped, would dissolve the barriers erected by language through literacy (and thence Anglicization), just as it would assimilate native New Englanders to the culture of their colonizers. In colonial America, language could be both symptom of difference and its antidote.

In a certain light, Monis’s Lord’s Prayer and Apostles’ Creed can be read as the textual playing out of this paradox and the cultural demands it encoded. As with contemporary efforts to evangelize native peoples in their own Algonquian languages, it was hoped that Christian prayer in Hebrew might induce the Jews to adopt the collective identity—spiritual and cultural—imagined by colonial Puritans. But a “return” to Hebrew as the pristine language of revelation could equally threaten to disrupt and Judaize Puritanism. As a close reading of Monis’s materials makes clear, the visual poetics of his transliterations conspires with his translations to foreignize Christian prayer more than it domesticates Hebrew discourse. Such an estrangement, wrought by the process of transl(iter)ation itself, enacts the threatening subtext of Zephaniah’s prophecy: universal Christianization might in fact demand the sacrifice of the very cultural and linguistic distinctiveness that colonial Puritanism held so dear.


In fact, Monis’s arrival was neither cause nor consequence of Puritan anxiety about Judaizing, accusations of which had plagued Protestantism in one form or another since the Reformation. The ambivalence was rather baked into the very substance of Christian Hebraism. On the one hand, Hebrew was revered as the hebraica veritas, the immaculate, original language both of Scripture and of Eden. On the other, a fetishization of Hebrew might dangerously blur the distinction between Protestants and contemporary Jews, whose Hebraic erudition was as much a threat as a resource.

A solution to this problem lay, in part, in the hope of Jewish conversion. The founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony was accompanied by a wave of millenarian enthusiasm, which brought with it fantasies of the long-awaited conversion of the Jews. Universal Christianization, it was hoped, would not be long in coming. By the mid-seventeenth century, colonial Puritans were experimenting with “Jewish” forms of observance: seventh-day sabbatarianism, the wearing of skullcaps, and the use of honorifics such as “rabbi.” They were also radical iconoclasts and eschewed celebrations of Christmas and Easter, which they took to be pagan in form and in substance. Most importantly, the 1652 Ordinance of the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony hewed wherever possible to the language and spirit of the juridical books of the Old Testament, styling their new society as a Torah-observant commonwealth. It was only by recourse to the original language of Scripture that revelation might be re-experienced and translated into temporal law.

Yet high-level Hebrew competence was hard to come by in the colonies and posed a major obstacle to the success of any Hebraist project. The greatest expertise in Hebrew, meanwhile, lay with contemporary Jews, whom the Puritans viewed with equal parts fascination and suspicion. As Jacob Rader Marcus points out, “Hebraic studies [in North America] were most intense in Colonial New England where Jews were conspicuous by their absence.” He suggests that while “the original Puritans were interested in Hebrew and in ancient Hebrews,” this interest did not extend to “their descendants as long as they remained Jews.” Indeed, disentangling Hebrew learning from Jewish pedagogy was one of the great challenges facing Christian Hebraism. From its founding in 1638, Harvard College had included mandatory Hebrew instruction in its curriculum, intending that every ordained minister should have direct access to “the SACRED ORACLES of the Old Testament, according to the Original,” as Dickdook puts it. Monis’s baptism and his installation as Hebrew instructor seemed to promise a new era of Harvard Hebraism, one enriched by Jewish learning, yet free from the taint of Judaization. For the promise offered by a “converted Jew” like Monis lay in imagining that once he had shed “Moses’ veil,” he would transmit a purely biblical Hebrew, untainted by “rabbinical” folly. The problem, of course, was that converts like Monis rarely abandoned the Jewish cultural apparatus by which they had learned their Hebrew in the first place.

Dickdook Leshon Gnebreet embodies the encounter between Christian Hebraist and traditional Jewish approaches to Hebrew. While its outward appearance—in language, format, and organization—resembles contemporary grammars of other classical languages, Monis prominently announces his intellectual debt to a number of Jewish grammarians, most notably David Kimhi, on the title page. Elsewhere, Monis was vocal in his defense of the Masoretic vocalization system, which had lately come under attack by Christian Hebraists. His pedagogy, too, was informed by distinctively Jewish practices, such as the use of mnemonic acronyms, which had been only occasionally taken up in Christian Hebraist circles. At the same time, however, the textbook had to avoid looking too Jewish, and especially too rabbinic. Like Monis himself, Dickdook was required to do two things at once: demonstrate the authenticity of its Jewish origins, even as it divested itself of the very Jewish features that established this pedigree.

Perhaps as a result of this innate contradiction, the work has not fared well in the eyes of posterity. Stephen Sewall, Monis’s sometime student and eventual successor in the post of Hebrew instructor, called the grammar simply “a very bad one,” and these sentiments have been duly echoed since then by modern scholars across a variety of disciplines. Most maligned of all is Monis’s idiosyncratic system of transliteration. Noted Semiticist George Foot Moore set the tone in 1919 when he wrote:

The pronunciation of Hebrew that is disguised beneath the monstrous system of transliteration for English-speaking students which makes Hebrew look like the speech of the lost Ten Tribes whom so many New England theologians recognized in the American Indians, is unmistakably that of the Italian Jews of [Monis’s] time.

Moore likely meant the observation merely as an insult, casting Monis as a snakeoil salesman among the Hebraically ignorant Puritans. Yet the image of Monis’s transliterations as monstrosities has stuck. Remarks of this kind have come either from Semiticists or from scholars of Jewish history who lament the transliterations as a mutilation of Hebrew grammar. Yet the scholarly emphasis on Monis’s misrepresentation of Hebrew is itself misleading. It tells us little about why Monis did what he did, and less about its effects on his students (who were neither accomplished Hebraists nor Jewish historians). For them, there was no pristine Hebrew to be protected from barbarization. From the students’ perspective, Hebrew may just as well have been working an estranging magic on their own, familiar, English letters, rendering them unrecognizably new.

Monis, aware that his system was unlike anything his students had encountered before, ironically explains his transliterations as an accommodation or adaption to English orthography:

I have in the first chapter throughout, and in sundry other Places, turned the Pronunciation of the HEBREW Words in English Letters, as near as the difference of the Tongues would permit, with a design to lead (as it were) young Beginners into the way of Pronouncing this Tongue by their own Industry. [. . .]; and therefore in Conformity to the English pronunciation ONLY, I have Spelt the Words in English Characters as I have done.

Monis sets out, it seems, to adapt the peculiarities of English spelling to Hebrew. By adopting these conventions, however arbitrary or whimsical, he hoped to elicit correct pronunciation by means of visual cues his students had acquired over years of reading and writing in English. An example may be taken from the title of the work itself: Dickdook [ דִּקְדּוּק , Grammar] is a transliteration that depends on English “sight rhymes” for its effectiveness. Through orthographic convention, Monis forges visual associations with English words the student already pronounces instinctively, on sight. A syllable like dik [ דִּק ] is spelled to rhyme visually with English words like “stick” and “brick,” while duk [ דּוּק ] is made to resemble the English words “book” and “hook.”

The use of “sight rhymes” is even more evident in the “scheme” he gives as a guide to the pronunciation of Hebrew vowels:

Figure 1. Judah Monis’s Dickdook Leshon Gnebreet, p. 13, held at the Boston Public Library. From Gale. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. © Gale, a part of Cengage Learning, Inc. Reproduced by permission.

In number 2, Monis adopts for his transliterations the English convention by which a final e makes the vowel preceding it “say its name,” as we all learned in grade school. Thus “hat” can be made “hate.” Monis adapts this principle to produce visual rhymes with English words. For example, אֲשֶׁר becomes aushare, playing on English “share” to elicit the nearest English approximation of the correct Hebrew vowel (10). But this strategy is prone to go awry, producing oddities such as tipharate for תִּפְאֶרֶת “splendor” or gnautarate for עֲטֶרֶת “crown.” With these examples, one is almost tempted to speculate that Monis was not sufficiently familiar with English orthography to foresee how badly wrong his students could go based on these romanizations.

To make matters worse, Monis’s system generates words with an unusually high ratio of characters to phonemes. The fact that Hebrew is a synthetic language, which packs a great deal of semantic and syntactic information into the individual word, only exacerbates the problem. As a result even simple words can become startlingly opaque: gnausheereem for עָשִׁירִים (“rich men”) or mauphtaauh for מַפְתֵּחַ (“a key”). The most extreme examples involve not individual morphemes but larger syntactic units, which Hebrew, thanks to its synthetic structure, can represent in a single word. Prefixes and suffixes thus combine with Monis’s uneconomical use of characters to produce truly difficult sequences: Thus, כּארְֲבּעַתַ [sic] (“almost four”) is written Keaurbaugnaut, and לִמְנוּחָיְכִי (“unto thy rest”) becomes limnoohauyehee. The tremendous visual concision of the Hebrew syllabary and vowel system that makes such sequences legible at a glance is sacrificed in Monis’s system for a maximalist, even excessive multiplication of characters.

Many of these transliterations are in fact so tortured that one wonders whether Monis was not playing up the foreignness of Hebrew by making it appear visually bizarre on the page. Estrangement may well have been a feature, not a bug. And perhaps Moore was right in suggesting Monis actively disguised his run-of-the-mill, continental Hebrew in the garb of a still more exotic tongue: one, if not related to, then at least reminiscent of the Algonquian peoples’ that Puritan missionaries so hoped to Christianize. Such a transliteration system may very well have excited the biblical imagination of Monis’s Puritan audience, who might yet discover in the native Americans the remnants of the lost Ten Tribes.


In the mid-seventeenth century, John Eliot, the so-called Apostle to the Indians, invented a phonetic transcription system during his missionary efforts among the Natick people of New England. His Massachusett Bible, a translation of both the Old and New Testaments, was primarily composed in it, as were other texts of his “Indian Library,” among them a reading primer, grammar, book of logic, and a psalter. While the historical connection between Hebrew and native languages was pure fantasy, Monis’s transliterations do bear a striking visual resemblance to those Eliot produced half a century earlier. Eliot had, after all, wrestled with similarly conflicting impulses: should written Massachusett partake of English spelling conventions? Should it focus on predictability and ease of memorization? Should it clarify the language’s grammar, or should it focus purely on phonetics? Like Monis, Eliot arrived at an uneasy (and often unreadable) compromise that at certain times prioritized pronunciation and at others morphological construction:

“The words in the Text are spelled with respect to pronunciation, more then [sic] to Grammatical composition: here I spell them with respect to Grammatical composition.” He also strays occasionally from his phonetic aspiration by irregularly resorting to English spelling convention (though he seems not to do so as a matter of principle, as Monis does). Thus Eliot’s /ch/, which he terms chee, is usually spelled “ch” as in “chin,” but when in a medial position is represented “-tch-” as in “switch.” Though the two sounds have no apparent difference, the convention likely appealed to Eliot’s English eyes. A similar case is his representation of the sound /ks/ with, variously, “ks,” “qs,” and “x,” which was both phonetically unnecessary and reliant on English orthography, as in “Nux, yea”, “Anogqs, A Star,” and “Psukses, A little Bird”. So too with “sk” and “sq,” in Eliot’s rendering of “Mosq, A Bear,” and “Askook, A Snake or Worm.” While he gives no explanation in his Grammar, Eliot, like Monis, relied heavily on doubled consonants, and on doubled or tripled vowels, which alone might increase the length of a written word by a third or even a half. Average word length was also increased by the fact that Massachusett is, like Hebrew, a synthetic language. As Eliot describes it: “This Language doth greatly delight in Compounding of words, for Abbreviation, to speak much in few words, though they be sometimes long; which is chiefly caused by the many Syllables which the Grammar Rule requires.” Like biblical Hebrew, Massachusett could use prefixes and suffixes to create a full sentence that was, in Eliot’s transcription, written as a single word. These factors combined to produce extraordinarily long sequences of letters in transcription.

form is of great use in Theologie, to express what Christ hath done for us: as
Nunnuppoowonuk, He died for me.
Kenuppoowonuk, He died for thee
Kenuppoowonukqun, He died for us
Kenuppoowonukoo, He died for you.

In an even more striking example, Eliot translates the phrase “without form” from Genesis 1:2 as matta kuhkeaauunneunkquttinnoo. Such sequences, virtually impossible to read at a glance, forced the reader to sound out each character, possibly with the aid of a finger on the page to keep his place. This, of course, assumes ideal reading conditions. The same words read by candlelight, with poor eyesight, or by a novice reader would be vastly more difficult to recognize. Eliot himself acknowledged that the words of Massachusett were unusually long by Indo-European standards, but seems to have made no effort to reduce the number of characters required by his method.

There is also evidence that even native speakers of Massachusett found Eliot’s rendition of their language confusing. Cotton Mather wrote in 1710 of an informant who reported that “There are many words of Mr. Elliot’s forming which [the Algonquians] never understood. This they say is a grief to them.” Mather, who was a strong campaigner for Anglicization, uses his informant’s testimony to argue that “their Indian tongue is a very penurious one … and the great things of our Holy Religion brought unto them in it, unavoidably arrive to them in terms that are scarcely more intelligible to them than if they were entirely in English.” He does not consider that Eliot’s grasp of Massachusett may have been weak, his translations of Scripture inadequate, or his transcriptions ill-devised.

Despite these failings, Eliot’s Indian Library lived on in the missionary imagination. Phillip Round remarks that though “John Eliot’s Indian Library was virtually wiped out during King Philip’s War, it lived on as an ideological construct for generations of Euro-American missionaries who … would construct visions of the Native American missionary enterprise based on the concept of book conquest that John Eliot had introduced two centuries before.” Like the notion of book conquest, or Lepore’s characterization of literacy as a weapon of colonialism, so too linguistic formalization—whether through imposition of alphabetic transcription or “bringing into Rules,” as Eliot’s subtitle to his grammar has it—gave evangelists tremendous power over the image of native language on the page. While Eliot’s Indian Library failed to improve the incidence of conversion, his transcriptions did generate a visually potent representation, however distorted, of a primevally “primitive” language, the very unpronounceability of which vouchsafed its exoticism and intimated its uninterrupted descent since Genesis.

Monis’s transliterations, though also inaccurate, relied in turn on the visual poetics of length, convolution, and unpronounceability to portray Hebrew as a language ancient, foreign, and primitive. Despite Jacob Rader Marcus’s contention that the Puritans were not interested in the descendants of the ancient Hebrews “as long as they remained Jews,” the notion that the native peoples of America were latter-day Israelites exerted a powerful sway over the Puritan imagination. Nor were ancient Hebrews and native North Americans clearly distinguished from contemporary Jews. They were in fact sometimes imagined as one race.

In 1650 the British divine Thomas Thorowgood published his pamphlet, Jewes in America, or Probabilities that the Americans are of that Race. By “Jews in America,” Thorowgood did not refer to émigrés like Monis, but to the indigenous Amerindians. He argued that the native peoples of North America were directly descended from the Hebrews of the Bible, and that native languages showed signs of their Hebraic origin: “The aspirations of the Americans have the force of consonants, and are pronounced by them not as the Latines and some other Nations, but after the manner of the Hebrews.”

Thorowgood was not the only seventeenth-century thinker to link the native Americans and Israel’s lost Ten Tribes. Roger Williams, author of A Key into the Language of America, harbored similar suspicions: “others (and my self ) have conceived some of [the Americans’] words to hold affinity with the Hebrew.” John Eliot contributed a prefatory essay to the second edition of Thorowgood’s pamphlet, where he speculated, “may it not be worth the searching after, whether all the easterne world [including the Americas], have not more footsteps of the Hebrew language [. . . .] It seemeth to me, by that little insight I have, that the gramatical frame of our Indian language cometh nearer to the Hebrew, than the Latine, or Greek do.”

Thorowgood’s evidence for the shared origins of Hebrew and American languages relied primarily on etymology, as in the following two examples:

The name of that great City Mexico is observed in sound and writing to come very neare unto that name of our deare Lord, Psalme 2:2 Meschico, and Mexico in their Language is a Spring, as of our Master and Messiah; the day spring that from on high hath visited us. Luk. 1:78. … The Ziims mentioned Esa. 13. 21. and 34. 14. are supposed to bee wicked Spirits, deluding Mankinde, as Hobgoblins, Fairies, &c. Such are the Zemes among the Indians so often spoken of by Peter Martyr, these they call the Messengers of the great God; every King among them hath such a Ziim or Zeme, and from them came those Predictions constantly current among them.

Phonological resemblance, it seems, was to guarantee the historical connection between languages. Yet in both cases purportedly phonological affinities were in fact the product of transliteration practices. “Mexico” and “Messiah” seem similar only if the final consonant is written “c,” concealing the fact that one is a stop /k/ and the other a fricative /x/ or perhaps /ħ/. By the same token, the resemblance between Zemes and Ziim depends on their shared use of the letter “z,” and not their initial consonants, which are /s/ and /ts/, respectively. It was this preoccupation with, and faith in, transliteration that allowed language to play such a central role in the Hebrew-Amerindian fantasy.

Though some contemporaries derided Thorowgood’s etymological approach (Hamon 1651, 60), the assumption that pronunciation could be accurately represented on the page also motivated competent speakers of American languages like Williams and Eliot to invent systems of transcription. Designing such systems was no simple matter. Williams foregrounded the challenges posed by pronunciation and transcription in his Key to Narragansett: “Because the Life of all Language is in the Pronuntiation, I have been at pains and charges to Cause the Accents, Tones or sounds to be affixed.” In dubbing pronunciation “the life of all language,” Williams gives pronunciation pride of place among all the attributes that compose a language. Similarly concerned with accurately and alphabetically representing the sounds of Massachusett, John Eliot did not invent an original set of characters for the language. Instead, he developed a system of transcription that could (at least theoretically) acquaint native readers with Latin letters, while making the pronunciation of their language apparent to English speakers. Eliot’s transcription system aimed, as Monis’s would fifty years later, to domesticate Massachusett into a form acceptable to an Anglophone reader.

Thorowgood’s, Williams’s, and Eliot’s blind faith in transcription was likely misplaced. Yet its very extremity bespeaks a tenacious optimism about the ability of Western alphabetic writing to capture any language, however foreign, to fix its evanescent sounds on the page and render them reproducible across time and space. In a sense, this optimism rested on the selfsame assumptions that underlay colonial Christianization: the universal applicability of European moral and philosophical systems to non-European peoples, cultures, languages, and lives. Yet such systems of conversion—linguistic, social, political, spiritual—often proved unruly interpreters, changing both target and source beyond recognition.

The same universalist and evangelical spirit that animated Eliot’s Indian Library—which included catechetical and liturgical texts, in addition to the Bible—was at work in Monis’s Hebrew translation of the Lord’s Prayer and Apostles’ Creed. And although Monis himself never articulates their precise purpose, for his Puritan contemporaries they were inextricably linked with the process of his baptism. Colman, in his introductory sermon on the occasion at the Common Hall of Harvard College, praised the translations as a sign of the imminent conversion of the Jews: “Upon all which I may well add the Words that a Reverend Minister lately had to me; ‘Who knows what great designs of Providence may be hereby served, respecting that People of Promise, whose Inlightning is so often the Subject of our Prayers’.” In correspondence with the Scottish Presbyterian divine Robert Wodrow, too, Colman speculated that Monis’s catechetical translations boded well for a future career as an evangelist to the Jews: “[Mr. Monis] has also turned the Assembly’s Catechism into pure Hebrew which I think was never done before and he seems to be much set on doing something considerable for the conversion of his nation by the will of God.” From Colman’s perspective, proselytizing was the only possible use for these translations. As with Eliot’s Indian Bible, Hebrew was assumed to be just as adaptable as Massachusett to the articulation of Christian doctrine and liturgy. Yet while Eliot could speculate that “Indian language might be sanctified by the translation of the Holy Scriptures into it,” Hebrew was already sacred in the eyes both of Monis and his Puritan colleagues. Hebrew’s historical and spiritual authority could threaten to subsume as much as bolster Christian typological arguments. Meanwhile Colman’s certainty that the translations were evangelical in intent is undercut by their appearance in a Hebrew textbook for non-Jewish students of Harvard. This was, in fact, the only occasion on which they appeared in print and circulated publicly. (Presumably Monis’s translations of the Large and Small Catechisms and the Forty-Nine Articles did not survive for precisely this reason.) As when he marketed Hebrew on the title page on the basis of its originary, primeval authenticity, Monis resorts to the very same rhetoric in the Table of Contents to describe the translations: “The Lord’s Prayer, and the Creed, according to the true Idiom of this Primitive Tongue” (back matter unpaginated). As before, Monis’s stresses that Hebrew is “primitive” and authentic, uncontaminated by modernity. Yet he also assures the reader that these prayers are translated “according to the true Idiom” of Hebrew. In a way, Monis seems to be offering the foundational texts of Christianity in a “true” Hebrew version. Aimed at his students (and colleagues at the College), Monis’s translations almost read as a “recovered” Hebrew original, rediscovered in the “pure Language,” as Zephaniah would have it, of Christian prayer:

Figure 2. Dickdook Leshon Gnebreet, p. 94, held at the Boston Public Library. From Gale. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. © Gale, a part of Cengage Learning, Inc. Reproduced by permission.

The visual poetics of these translations convey their liturgical earnestness. Though largely unintelligible to his Puritan readership, Monis adorns both texts with cantillation marks, indicating how they could be chanted according to traditional Jewish cantorial practice. This choice was no mere whim. In his defense of the Masoretic vowel system, Monis naturally included the Tiberian system of cantorial trope, which could serve both as liturgical notation and, much like any other punctuation system, as an exegetical aid, breaking up the biblical verse into smaller units and thus clarifying grammatical relations within the sentence. Yet biblical trope usually requires at least one accent per word, where Monis often skips over two words or more. The result is a text that, practically speaking, would be extremely difficult to chant. Monis further limits his use of trope to only three accents—munach, etnachta, and sof pasuk—which suggests all the more strongly that he had in mind a simplified punctuation system. Throughout the Lord’s Prayer, munach (a so-called conjunctive accent) functions much as a comma might, linking subordinate and relative clauses to a preceding syntactic unit. Etnachta (a disjunctive accent) serves as Monis’s semicolon, separating one sentence from the next. Sof pasuk, as one might expect, closes the “verse” or larger thematic unit, which may contain several sentences. In the Creed, Monis reduces yet further, using only two accents, munach and sof pasuk, as comma and period, respectively. At a time when both the Masoretic vowel-system and cantorial trope came under attack in Christian biblical scholarship, Monis’s insistence on using both in his Hebrew translations situates him squarely within a Christian Hebraist debate, as though to argue for how very “Jewish” the prayers of early Christianity might have looked.

The type, too, proclaims its affiliation with Jewish tradition, by imitating the calligraphic conventions governing the work of the Jewish ritual scribe, or sofer. The second line of the Lord’s Prayer concludes with a horizontal dilation of the final mem, which a scribe could use to fill out a line and maintain justification on both sides of a column of text in the Torah scroll. This had been standard practice in Hebrew books using square type since the dawn of print, which prized perfectly justified columns as aesthetically superior. The Torah scroll’s aesthetic thus surfaced in printed books across a wide range of genres, not only those with specifically scriptural content. Monis’s attention to Jewish textual aesthetics, furthermore, should come as no surprise: he was himself an accomplished Hebrew calligrapher, and claimed to have worked as a sofer, producing a Torah scroll in Amsterdam prior to his arrival in the colonies. Yet for Monis’s readership, primarily his Harvard students, the evocation of traditional Jewish typesetting would have gone virtually unnoticed. As with his transliterations, Monis’s visualization of Hebrew actually makes it less transparent to his non-Jewish students, for whom cantorial trope and Jewish scribal aesthetics were equally illegible.

Despite their Jewishly inflected visual impact, Monis’s translations could, at least in theory, still serve to point up the continuities between biblical Hebrew and Christianity. At the same time, the Puritan context in which he composed them required an acknowledgment of the supersessionist primacy of Christian belief. Once again, the Judaizing tendencies in Protestantism were to be held in check by a pervasively typological approach to Jewish language and literature. Yet Monis’s emphasis on the “true Idiom” of Hebrew is the first intimation of his deep intellectual commitment to Hebraism, whether Jewish or Christian. This commitment to “true” Hebrew strains against the evangelical universalism of Eliot or Thorowgood, and results in translations that favor Jewish idiomaticity over Christian doctrine.

Once again cast as uneasy intermediary between Jewish and Christian contexts, Monis was faced with the problem of capturing the Old Testament resonances of early Christian prayer while simultaneously conveying how Christianity had evolved beyond its Jewish origins. This ambivalence is already apparent in Monis’s awkward attempts to render the prayers’ two (sub)titles. Two versions of the Lord’s Prayer appear in the synoptic gospels (Matthew 6 and Luke 11), and Monis’s subtitle alludes to the latter: “And … one of his disciples said unto him, Lord, teach us to pray” (11:1). Monis’s subtitle, “a prayer that the Messiah taught us,” refers directly to this scene. Jesus then responds with the words which by Monis’s time were central to the devotional practices of every congregationalist church in colonial New England. As a name, the “Lord’s Prayer” may in fact have evolved out of this introductory verse from Luke, and came to serve, particularly in Anglophone Protestant contexts, as an alternative to the prayer’s traditionally Catholic, Latinate name, the “Our Father” [Pater noster]. It seems that Monis’s subtitle is not only in keeping with the gospels, but also with conventions of early eighteenth-century Puritan prayer. Conspicuous, however, is Monis’s use of the word mashiach in place of “Lord,” which we might more likely expect based on the exact phrasing in Luke. Monis is in some sense overexplicit here: for Christians familiar with the gospels it is already clear the subtitle refers to Jesus; the precise term used, whether Messiah or Lord, makes little difference. In either case, for Puritans who largely affirmed trinitarian doctrine, there would have been no difficulty in naming both Jesus and “the Father” with the same honorific. Instead, Monis uses a word that cannot be applied to both Jesus and God the Father.

A semantic penumbra accompanies Monis’s mashiach: diffuse, polysemous, polyglot. For which English, Latin, Greek, Hebrew word(s) is mashiach the syncretic shorthand? Messiah, certainly. Christ, as well? Anointed of the Lord (Mashiach ha-Shem)? Messiah son of David (Mashiach ben David)? Son of God? Or indeed God the Son? In a way, all of these possibilities coalesce in Monis’s translation of “Lord” as “messiah.” Mashiach claims Davidic kingship, divine election, and the promised eschatological redemption. Yet thanks to its present context, the word also invokes the expanded, soteriological implications of its literal meaning: the Anointed One, that is, “Christ,” who, for both Monis and his Puritan colleagues, could only be Jesus of Nazareth.

Maimonides Apostles’ Creed “I believe with perfect faith that the Creator, blessed be his name, is the Creator and Guide of everything that has been created.” “I believe with perfect faith in the Father, God of Hosts Almighty, creator of heaven and earth”

Monis’s fusion of Jewish and Christian doctrinal rhetoric becomes even more apparent in his rendering of the Apostles’ Creed. Perhaps the most visible allusion to the Jewish tradition appears in Monis’s Hebrew subtitle, ‘iqare ’emunah, as a translation of “Creed.” This turn of phrase immediately calls to mind the Rambam’s Thirteen Principles of Faith (shloshah-‘aśar ‘iqare he-’emunah), which was by then a central text in the Jewish prayer-service. Popularly known as Ani ma’amin, the prayer begins each doctrinal tenet with the affirmative “I believe with perfect faith in …” (’ani ma’amin be-’emunah shlemah). Monis expands the Creed’s “I believe in …” and adds “with perfect faith,” as though to conflate Jewish and Christian liturgy (see Table 1). And this is effective not only stylistically, but semantically as well (although only up to a point).

In spite of their distinct voices, both Maimonides’s principles and those of the Creed anchor faith with the same initial premise: the existence of a creator-God possessed of powers both generative and providential. Omnipotence is already present in both professions, via “Father Almighty” (the conventional English translation of Pater omnipotentem) in the Creed and “Creator and Guide of everything” in the Maimonidean iteration. Monis’s translation, then, strives to express these two key concepts (that is, of the Creator and his omnipotence) in shared theological terms. Take as an example his use of bore’ to describe God’s unique capacity for creation ex nihilo. In Jewish contexts, of course, the word bore’ is obligatory; no other can take its place. Yet contemporary Christian word choice was divided along confessional lines. Catholic translations in English hewed closer to the Latin with “Creator,” while Protestant renderings, like that of the Book of Common Prayer, more often used “maker.” Monis could have chosen to orient his translation toward the Puritan sensibilities of his benefactors by choosing another Hebrew word—yotser or even ‘ośeh—that would put his translation firmly on the Protestant side of the debate. But from a Jewish perspective, such a move would have entailed a radical rupture, both linguistically and theologically.

The Creed’s “born of the Virgin Mary” provides an even more potent example of how problematic this balancing act could become. On the one hand, Mary’s physical virginity and miraculous conception of Jesus represent a core tenet of Christianity, so indispensable it is built into the Creed itself. Its particulars, though, rely for their authority on Old Testament prophecy. Matthew explicitly interprets the virgin birth as the realization of Isaiah 7:14: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us)” (1:21–23). The doctrine of virgin birth was more than a principle of faith. Mary’s virginity actually derived its particular power and legitimacy thanks to the specific, even idiosyncratic, language of a Hebrew source.

Meanwhile, Mary’s virginity as a fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14 had long been a soft target for Jewish anti-Christian polemic. As Jewish exegetes had pointed out, the Hebrew word used in Isaiah, ’almah, refers only to an unmarried girl of childbearing age. No miraculously intact hymen was implied. If the prophet had meant a virgin, Jewish interpreters argued, he would have used the technical Hebrew term betulah. Yet the Septuagint (and Matthew afterwards) translated ’almah with the Greek parthenos, a young, usually virgin, girl. Any translator of “the Virgin Mary” back into Hebrew faced a dilemma: ’almah or betulah? The former maintained Mary’s vital identification with the young woman of Isaiah, and thus sustained a typological reading of Jesus as the Jewish messiah. For the purposes of the Creed, though, the physiological specificity of betulah was the crucial element; it was after all in the miraculous nature of the virgin birth that a Christian needed to profess his belief in the first place.

Monis’s choice of ’almah is a fascinating display of fidelity to Isaiah. By relinquishing explicit articulation of the virgin birth, he destabilizes one of the few elements of Christian belief that had gone uncontested during the Reformation. Puritan theologians, eager to repudiate Marian devotional practices that they viewed as distinctively Catholic, sought to reduce Mary’s significance to the bare minimum justified by the New Testament. Because her virginity at the time of Jesus’s conception found explicit support in Matthew and Luke, it was upheld. Betulah, not ’almah, would have best articulated the beliefs of Puritan New Englanders when they said the Creed. By contrast, Monis prioritizes continuity with Isaiah over doctrinal specificity.

Why would Monis have taken such an approach so potentially problematic for his non-Jewish colleagues? Elsewhere, Monis had shown himself more than willing to curry favor with Puritan luminaries by echoing their own doctrines and exegeses back to them. He was in fact under constant pressure to prove the sincerity of his conversion, especially since many were outspoken in their concern that he, like other Jewish converts around the same time, would return to Judaism. Monis can hardly have hoped they would look kindly on such a blatant disagreement with the text of Matthew. Rather than advancing an exegetical argument or doctrinal claim, this choice may have been a matter of Hebraist principle. In hewing to the exact wording of Isaiah, he does not treat Hebrew as a neutral, passive medium for Christian doctrine. Instead, Monis’s Hebrew is free in its interpretation, favoring idiomatic, Jewishly resonant renderings over word-for-word fidelity to his Christian liturgical source. When push came to shove, Christian doctrine had to make way for a richly allusive Hebrew, alive to its own history and sanctity.

Read closely, Monis’s translations reveal a purposeful effort to use historically attested, idiomatically Jewish ways of expressing Christian belief. The Creed’s “resurrection of the body” is transformed into the traditional Hebrew phrase techiyat ha-metim (lit. “the resurrection of the dead”), which, like Monis’s translation of “the Virgin Mary,” only loosely conveys the pertinent Christian doctrine of the literal resurrection of the flesh. Monis’s Jesus, too, does not merely “rise again,” as he does in the 1734 Book of Common Prayer, upon which contemporary Puritans relied, but is rather “resurrected from the dead,” chayah min ha-metim, making use once again of the traditional Jewish idiom. Wherever possible, Monis’s translation is not only literal, but cultural as well. Once again, Monis prioritizes Jewish idiomaticity over the fine points of Christian doctrine. In such a project, post-Reformation sectarian semantics take a back seat to an authentically Hebraic translation practice.

Though Monis’s Puritan benefactors were inclined to see these translations as missionary in purpose, the Hebraization of Christian doctrine they effect intimates a radical transformation of the dynamic between evangelist and evangelized. Monis’s translations are part of the back-matter of the grammar, separated from the citation of Zephaniah 3:9 only by a brief postscript of “Peculiar Hebraisms.” In a sense, Monis’s own book was itself to be the materialization of Zephaniah’s prophecy, “turning to the people a pure language that they may all call on the Name of the Lord.” Presumably they would do so with the very words offered in his translations only two pages later.


This is not the only instance in which Monis imagines Hebrew as an active, productive language for Christian piety. His nomenclature, too, was formatted with this precise use in mind. The student scribe whose copy has come down to us concludes his manuscript with the following note from the author:

Short Nomenclature or vocabulary in English and Hebrew, Composed Alphabetically, for the use and benefit of my Pupils in particular, and for the advantage of those who are Desirous to obtain the knowledge of the hebrew Tongue in general, which may be that great help to understand not only the Sacred oracles in their original, but even any Jewish author, (so far as Concern now us) as also it may give great insight in the tongue to those, as to Compose it.— a work altogether new. By Judah Monis.

Despite the assertion that this nomenclature could help in “understanding” the Hebrew Bible, it was structured for another purpose entirely, and in such a way that rendered it useless for someone translating Hebrew texts.

The nomenclature is exclusively English-to-Hebrew, and it is alphabetized according to the English. Someone reading a text already in Hebrew would have no way at all of locating an unfamiliar word in the nomenclature. The work is in fact only good for looking up how to convey an English word in Hebrew that one is actively speaking or writing. This purpose is also evident in its lexical composition, for the nomenclature is hardly comprehensive. It consists of twenty-eight pages, averaging about twenty-five entries per page. At approximately 700 Hebrew words total, it utterly fails as a dictionary because its inventory is far too small. The selection of words, too, is curiously skewed. If the primary purpose had been as an aid to reading in Hebrew (whether the Bible or later Jewish authors), the nomenclature should display a well-balanced ratio among different parts of speech: nouns, verbs, adjectives, prepositions, etc., each proportionally represented. Instead, the nomenclature consists almost entirely of nouns, though some adjectives also appear. Verbs, the beating heart of any Hebrew sentence, are virtually absent.

The nouns that predominate are also a curious melange. They are not particularly high-frequency, at least not based on a biblical or rabbinic Hebrew corpus. Instead, they can be divided into a few limited categories: common household objects and foods (cider, pestle, salt-fish), everyday plants and animals (mulberry, quince, rooster), parts of the body and ailments (leprosy, hemorrhoids, kidneys), professions (doctor, potter, captain), signs of the zodiac and mythological figures (Gemini, Apollo, phoenix), names of the months, and philosophical terms (liberty, reason, Epicure). Finally, there is a great deal of religious terminology, often with Christian, even specifically Protestant, connotations. These relate to church life and organization (Lord’s Table, bishop, parson, chorister), to doctrine (election, providence, free will), or to theology ([God] the Son, Jesus, Holy Ghost, Godhead). Even more specifically, Monis provides words relevant to what one can only categorize as academic life: president, college, [teaching] master, index, grammar, parser, logician. Rather than the all-purpose dictionary Monis portrays in his note, the nomenclature seems primarily intended to help Harvard students to compose in Hebrew, and to furnish them with specialized vocabulary scarcely represented in traditional Jewish sources for that purpose. When an appropriate Hebrew word for “evangelist” was hard to come by, Monis provided it in the nomenclature. And when a word like “Quaker” was completely absent from Hebrew sources, he coined a new one.

To be fair, Monis was not merely fantasizing when he imagined a more central, active place for Hebrew in New England intellectual life. Hebrew was in fact already used, like Latin and Greek, as a language of ceremonial oratory, especially in university contexts where it was most likely to be understood. Documented commencement orations in Hebrew were delivered between 1685 and 1799 at the early American colleges, Yale, Dartmouth, and Harvard, where the tradition may have continued until as late as 1817. Ordinarily commencement addresses were composed by a professor and delivered by a student, but Ezra Stiles, professor of Semitics and president of Yale from 1788 to 1795, wrote and performed his own Hebrew speeches. (Stiles had, in fact, followed Harvard’s example when he made Hebrew study a core component of Yale’s general curriculum.) The survival of Monis’s nomenclature in a student copy, however, suggests that students were also encouraged to compose in Hebrew, perhaps with an eye toward writing and performing a commencement address of their own. Nor was the non-Jewish use of Hebrew limited to ceremonial circumstances. Though rare, Hebrew letters also passed between Christian Hebraists and Jewish correspondents. (Monis himself attempted to initiate such a Hebrew correspondence with the Scottish minister Robert Wodrow, though he met with little success.) Though largely aspirational, these uses of Hebrew as a living language of the Republic of Letters may well have given a sense of pith and moment to Zephaniah 3:9.

Through his nomenclature, Monis seems to imagine Harvard’s students achieving the ability to freely express themselves in Hebrew, to discourse on religion or politics or daily life. Such a Hebraism was not only a matter of mining valuable materials from Hebrew and its scriptural tradition, but of translating the life of the mind, including Christian faith, into Hebrew. And though he was a latecomer to the notion, Monis was in good, and familiar, company. The millenarian utopianism that characterized the work of Thorowgood, Williams, and Eliot, was also at work in the “universal language” movements of the seventeenth century, in which some of these men were active participants. Eliot, in the very year he finally published the complete Massachusett Bible, considered just such a universalist Hebraism when writing to the English Puritan divine Richard Baxter:

Why may we not make ready for Heaven in this Point, by making and fitting [Hebrew], according to the rules of the divine artifice of it, to express all imaginable Conceptions and Notions of the Mind of Man in all Arts and Sciences? . . . Were this done, all schools would teach this Language, and all the World, especially the Commonwealth of Learning, would be as one.

As Edward Gray explains, Hebrew was, for Eliot, the “true language of Jerusalem,” both earthly and heavenly: “Only in the case of Hebrew, the single tongue to precede the fall of Babel, can language be regarded as unified in both form and content, and therefore absent any disparity between signifier and signified.” Twentieth-century scholarship, so quick to decry Monis’s “monstrous” Hebrew, thus overlooks how, for linguistic universalists like Eliot, the invention of new Hebrew words, however infelicitous, was by definition a means of revealing, rather than obscuring, divine truths.

Hebrew never did attain the central place in American intellectual culture imagined for it by Eliot or Monis. Over the course of the eighteenth century it would slowly disappear from mandatory college curricula, as part of a broader shift away from religious education and toward preparing students for entrance into the learned professions. Yet neither did attempts to harness Hebrew for evangelical purposes succeed. Monis’s representations of Hebrew—whether Judaizing or exoticizing—speak to the already ambiguous place it occupied in the Puritan imagination. The quest for Hebrew literacy, which a convert like Monis was meant to facilitate, could instead become a troubling reminder of the very contingency of Puritan biblicism, its dependence on Jewish intermediaries, its sheer cultural and historical distance from the Hebraic origins it hoped to claim. If English literacy and the printed book served as a weapon of conquest in early America, Hebrew literacy and the Hebrew book could cut both ways, promising Puritanism either a redemptive incorporation or a threatening subsumption.


Adapted from “A Pure Language (or Lip)”: Representing Hebrew in Colonial New England,” in Studies in American Jewish Literature, Vol. 37, No. 2, 2018. Copyright © 2018 by The Pennsylvania State University. This article is used by permission of The Pennsylvania State University Press.

Rachel Wamsley is is Mandel Postdoctoral Fellow at the Mandel Scholion Interdisciplinary Research Center of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.