“Cylkow’s work remains, like a lonesome monument…”

Czesław Miłosz


“Cylkow’s work remains, like a lonesome monument…”

Czesław Miłosz

Portret Rabina Izaaka Cylkowa

Rabin Izaak Cylkow – wielki polski patriota. Tłumacz Biblii na język polski.

Izaak Cylkow

Izaak Cylkow was born in 1841 in Masovia, in the town of Bieżuń, to the family of Mojżesz Aaron Cylkow (1813-1884) – a respected scholar of the Talmud, a person of exceptional humility and wisdom. Masovia was the true homeland for Cylkow’s family – since the 30s of the 19th century, they divided their time between Bieżuń, Warsaw and Kuchary (currently called Kuchary Żydowskie), where Izaak’s father was a teacher and administrator of Salomon Posner’s estate. Both Bieżuń and Kuchary are located by the same beautiful river Wkra, surrounded by swamps and meadows…

One cannot help but appreciate these landscapes and their singular atmosphere while reading Cylkow today, contemplating his mastery of the Polish language. We must also remember that Mojżesz Aaron Cylkow raised the children, including the sons of Salomon Posner and his own Izaak, to become Poles of the Jewish Denomination – advocates of progress and cultural assimilation, maintaining, at the same time, the faith of their ancestors…

The story of Cylkow and his Torah

YEAR 1895 CRACOW ...

Józef Fiszer’s publishing house. “Moses’ Pentateuch” is published, “translated and elucidated according to the best sources by Dr I. Cylkow”. The book was “funded by the Translator”. Translation of the Torah – the most important five books of the Hebrew Bible – was not the first project of the author. In 1883, the print shop of Aleksander Gins publishes “Psalms”, also “translated and elucidated by Dr. I. Cylkow”.
Neither was it his last – at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, he published the majority of Księgi Prorocze (Newiim) and Pisma (Ketuwim). Several books were published already after his passing, while the books (Pisma) of Daniel, Exra, Kronik and Nechamiasz, which complete the translation of the entire Tanach (meaning all books of the Hebrew Bible) left by Cylkow in manuscript, were lost during the destruction of Warsaw… Apart from biblical books, Cylkow also translated the Machzor prayer book, as well as Sermons and Teachings. Today, the publishing of Cylkow’s works (as facsimile) is undertaken by the Cracow-based publishing house Austeria.

YEAR 1878 WARSAW ...

Consider the context of Cylkow’s work – both personal and historical. It is beyond doubt that the translation of the Pentateuch was the most important effort in his entire career as a translator. The basic meaning of the Torah for the Jewish people requires no explanation. Its translation to the Polish language however – especially in the curious circumstances that Poland found itself in at the end of the 19th century, deprived of statehood for the previous 100 years – was indeed an extraordinary endeavor. It combined an adherence to the Jewish tradition and religion with a passion for the Polish language – a mother tongue for an enormous part of the community of Polish Jews. The translation and publishing of the Pentateuch has historical and political significance, emphasizing the rabbi’s patriotic involvement.

The Tłomackie Sermon…

One cannot help but notice this in the context of the astounding event that took place on September 26th, 1878. During the ceremony of the opening of the Great Synagogue, Rabbi Cylkow, despite a rigorous prohibition issued by the Tsarist government, gave a sermon in Polish – and by doing so, he enforced the government’s acceptance for this practice!

This sermon contained a beautiful fragment, still meaningful today: 
(…) religions do not exist in order to aggravate and inspire rage; to separate people from one another, or to sow the seeds of contention, but to bring calm and promote peace; to bring people together and to unite them towards a common good. (…) religion should not be a storm that extirpates and destroys, but a sun that illuminates and radiates warmth that grows flowers and fruit (…) a true religion is such that accepts truth in all religions and respects faith in each faith (…) nobody has been given exclusive privilege to the Heavens, or the Earth (…) God rules in the Heavens and on the Earth, He has but one love for everyone and one justice for all…”

YEAR 1854 – Warsaw-Berlin

At the age of 13 (in 1854), Cylkow’s entire family moved to Warsaw, where Izaak’s father became a Talmud teacher in the Warsaw Rabbinic School. The young Izaak obtains education there as well. After graduating from the Rabbinic School, Izaak joins the Tsarist-Royal Medical-Surgical Academy in Warsaw, with the intention of becoming a doctor. However, he soon changed his mind and, with the help from his father, leaves for Berlin for a foreign stipend. In Berlin, he finalizes his university career and obtains a doctorate in philosophy and linguistics. He returns to Warsaw in the year of the January Uprising (1863) and begins social work. He becomes a supervisor of Jewish schools for children, and begins preaching in the synagogue at Daniłowiczkowska street. Together with other exceptional representatives of the Jewish community, he helps in reforming the Warsaw Talmud-Tora schools, and revives religious classes for children by the synagogue. The list of activities of Izaak Cylkow is long; however, it is his work on translation of the Psalms, the Torah and all remaining books of the Tanach that is certainly Cylkow’s greatest achievement and the true work of his life

Year 1908 – Warsaw

We have traced Izaak Cylkow’s biography backwards – from the future, towards the past. The unforgiving fate concludes this journey with the seal of death – Izaak Cylkow died, after a serious cardiac illness, on December 1st, 1908 in Warsaw…

He was active until the very end – a few days before his death, together with Bolesław Prus and Catholic and Protestant priests, he actively participated in the works of the Practical Hygiene society… In the eulogy delivered by Dr Henryk Nusbaum, we read: “Izaak Cylkow, a profound scholar of Judaist knowledge and Old Hebrew literature, knew, praised and loved the masterpieces of the Polish literature, and knew how to appreciate the grand currents of justice, unconditional tolerance and the loving nature of the Polish culture. He lamented the infertile and pointless symptoms of antisemitism in the Polish society”. In the latter part of the eulogy, Dr Nusbaum emphasized the ideal harmony of the late rabbi’s activity between the hallowed praise for the ancestors’ religion and the history of the Jewish nation, and the love for our common homeland (..), with love and understanding toward brothers of different faiths and the eternal children of this land!”

Reflecting upon this quote, we cannot forget the words of Pope John Paul II, directed – over 100 years later – “back” towards the Jews: “First of all, our two religions, fully conscious of the many aspect that bind them together (…) want to be recognized and respected, each in its identity, without any syncretism or ambiguous appropriation.”