Rabbi Judah Monis
was North America’s first college instructor of the Hebrew language and author of the first Hebrew textbook published in North America. Monis was also the first Jew to receive a college degree in the American colonies. His conversion to Christianity made him a figure of some controversy to both Jews and Christians.
Monis was born in Algiers in 1683, into a family of formerly Portuguese conversos. Educated at Yeshivas in Italy and Holland, Monis later served in synagogues in Jamaica and in New York. By 1715 he was the owner of a small store in New York City, teaching Hebrew on the side. By 1720 he moved to Cambridge, Mass., home of Harvard College and an area in which very few Jews lived.
At that time, all Harvard undergraduates except freshmen were required to study Hebrew. Harvard assumed that no Christian gentleman could be considered truly educated unless he could read the Bible in its original language. Encouraged by friends, Monis presented his personal, handwritten manual of Hebrew grammar to the Harvard Corporation in 1720, for their “Judicious perusall.” He was granted an M.A. degree by the Harvard University, the first Jew to receive a degree and the only one for a long time to come. He made an impression on the Boston clergy, the educated men of his day, to be “truly read and learned in the Jewish cabbals and Rabbins, a Master and Critic in the Hebrew”. Two years later, the corporation “Voted, That Mr. Judah Monis be approved instructor of the Hebrew Language,” making Monis the first-ever full time Hebrew instructor at Harvard University.
On March 27, 1722 Monis was publicly baptized in the College Hall at Cambridge, at which time the Reverend Benjamin Colman delivered A Discourse… Before the Baptism of R. Judah Monis, to which were added Three Discourses, Written by Mr. Monis himself, The Truth, The Whole Truth, Nothing but the Truth. One of which was deliver’d by him at his Baptism (Boston, 1722). Monis’ essays are an apology and defense of his new faith, and in support of the doctrine of the Trinity drawn from “the Old Testament, and with the Authority of the Cabalistical Rabbies, Ancient and Modern.” Monis argues here for the divinity of Messiah, not only with the authority of the sacred oracles, but even by the opinion of the Jewish authors of old; and answers all the objections that the discourse brings forth out of Isai. 9. 6,7; concluding with a word of exhortation. These may be found on the web at
Monis’ Christian peers seem to have been sceptical of the sincerity of his faith, according to Hannah Adams; well they may have, as it certainly suited his career at the time to be a Christian. The fact that he also continued to observe the Shabbat (the seventh day) rather than the Sunday, rendered him suspect in their eyes.
However, Monis had been corresponding with leading Puritan ministers since his arrival in New York, on such subjects as the kabbalah, the trinity and Christian doctrine. He studied the Bible with Cambridge ministers. So his so-called “conversion of convenience” seems to have been the climax of years of study and thought. De le Roi, the historian of Jewish missions in the 18th century, describes him as a thoroughly sincere and thoughtful man, and believed himself that Monis was a true believer. The Jewish community in Europe was outraged and dismayed at his acceptance of Jesus as Messiah and what they saw to be a foreign religion; but Monis insisted that he had become a Christian out of true conviction, and not for opportunism.
Monis’ method of instruction was based on the handwritten text he submitted to the Harvard Corporation in 1720. Each year, his new students had to copy the text by hand, a laborious task that could take up to one month. The archives of the American Jewish Historical Society have a rare remaining handwritten copy of Monis’ text.
In 1724, to save his students from the burden of copying, Monis petitioned the corporation to publish his grammar. Eventually, the corporation agreed. Hebrew type was shipped from London, and in 1735, a thousand copies of his ‘“Grammar of the Hebrew Tongue” were published — the first Hebrew textbook published in North America.
Hebrew was never a popular course at Harvard in Monis’ time. Students complained that the exercises were boring, and college records show that Monis was frequently hazed by his students. While in 1723 the college recorded itself as “greatly pleased with [Monis] assiduity and faithfulness to his instruction,” in 1724 the teaching of Hebrew to undergraduates was turned over to tutors. Monis remained responsible only for teaching graduate students and tutors.
Monis taught at Harvard until 1760. By then, his responsibilities had dwindled to one weekly class with graduate students. His own health declining and student interest flagging, and grieving for his recently deceased wife, he retired and moved to live with the relatives of his wife.
Monis died four years later, in 1764. It is said, that at the time of his death he was visited by several ministers to whom he professed his hope of salvation by the Messiah of Israel. One of the men observed to him, “Now good father you will go to Abraham’s bosom.” “No,” he replied, “I will go to Christ, for he is my only hope.”
Monis is buried in a churchyard in Northboro, Massachusetts. Using the Christian image of a grafted tree for conversion, the inscription reads in part:
“A native branch of Jacob see.
Which once from off its olive brook
Regrafted, from the living tree.”
In his will Monis bequeathed a small sum to be distributed among seven clergymen then living in the vicinity; and established a fund, the interest of which was to be divided among ministers in indigent circumstances. The remainder of his estate, he left to his wife’s sister and her relations.
Goldman, Shalom. God’s Sacred Tongue: Hebrew & the American Imaginations. UNC Press, 2004.
Karp, Abraham J., From the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress, (DC: Library of Congress, 1991).
Monis, Judah, The Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth. Boston : Printed for Daniel Henchman, and sold at his shop, 1722.
Monis, Judah. Grammar of the holy tongue. [microform] : Proposals for printing by subscription, a Hebrew grammar … by … Judah Monis, M.A[.] teacher of the Hebrew tongue at Harvard College in Cambridge, New England. …
Colman, Benjamin A discourse had in the College-Hall at Cambridge, March 27. 1722. Before the baptism of R. Judah Monis. [microform] / By Benj. Colman, V.D.M. ; To which are added three discourses written by Mr. Monis himself, The truth, The whole truth, and, Nothing but the truth. One of which was deliver’d by him at his baptism. Boston : Printed [by Samuel Kneeland] for Daniel Henchman, and sold at his shop over against the Old Brick Church in Cornhill, 1722.
Kohut, George Alexander. Judah Monis, M.A., the First Instructor in Hebrew at Harvard University (1683-1764) in The American Journal of Semitic Languages and Literatures, Vol. 14, No. 4 (Jul., 1898) pp. 217-226. Published by: The University of Chicago Press; Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/527966
Reiss, Oscar. The Jews in Colonial America. McFarland & Company, 2004.
Sarna, Jonathan D.; Smith, Ellen; Kosofsky, Scott-Martin. The Jews of Boston. Yale University Press, 2005.
Wilson, Marvin R. Our Father Abraham: Jewish Roots of the Christian Faith. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1989.