Marcus Mordechai Jastrow (June 5, 1829 – October 13, 1903) was a renowned Talmudic scholar, most famously known for his authorship of the popular and comprehensive A Dictionary of the Targumim, Talmud Babli, Talmud Yerushalmi and Midrashic Literature.
Jastrow was born in Rogasen in the Grand Duchy of Posen. After receiving rabbinical ordination, Ph.D., and Doctorate of Letters (D.Litt), he became the rabbi of the then Orthodox Congregation Rodeph Shalom in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1866, at the age of thirty-seven. In 1886, he began publishing his magnum opus, A Dictionary of the Targumim, Talmud Babli, Talmud Yerushalmi and Midrashic Literature, in pamphlet form. It was finally completed and published in two-volume form in 1903, and has since become a popular resource for students of Talmud. In the preface to this work, Jastrow sharply criticized those linguistic and etymological scholars who claimed that obscure terms in Talmudic literature are primarily derived from Greek. Jastrow held that Greek influence on Talmudic Aramaic was minimal, and that most obscure terms could be much more simply be traced to Hebrew origins. Jastrow was also responsible for most Talmud-related articles in the Jewish Encyclopedia.
American rabbi and scholar Marcus Jastrow was the fifth child of Abraham Jastrow and Yetta (Henrietta) Rolle. Until 1840 he was privately educated. In 1844 he entered the third-year class of the Friedrich Wilhelm Gymnasium at Posen, graduating in 1852. From there he went to Halle, where he was graduated in 1855, receiving the degree of doctor of philosophy. In the meantime he continued his Jewish studies and in 1853, at the age of 24, he received his rabbinical ordination from the Orthodox Rabbi Moses Feilchenfeld in Rogasen and later, in 1857, from the Orthodox Rabbi Wolf Landau in Dresden. Jastrow taught briefly at Orthodox Jewish schools in Berlin, first at a school by Dr. David Rosen then at Michael Sachs' school.
Although it was controversial at the time, delivering a sermon in Polish does not violate any Orthodox Jewish restriction. (Neither does following a funeral procession on foot on the Sabbath.) Today most Orthodox rabbis give lectures in their local vernacular.
On various pretexts the three rabbis were arrested (November 10, 1861) and incarcerated in the citadel of Warsaw. For twenty-three days Jastrow was kept in solitary confinement; for seventy-two days he shared the cell of Rabbi Meisels. His release came on February 12, 1862, when, being a Prussian subject, he was sent across the frontier. During his imprisonment he had been required to answer in writing three questions concerning the relation of the Jews to the Polish Christians in their opposition to the government (see Hebrew Leader, July 15, 22, 1870).
The literary results of his Polish period are: Die Lage der Juden in Polen (anonymous; Hamburg, 1859); Kazania Polskie, a volume of Polish sermons (Posen, 1863); Die Vorläufer des Polnischen Aufstandes (anonymous; Hamburg, 1864). He probably had a considerable share in the production of Beleuchtung eines Ministeriellen Gutachtens (Hamburg, 1859 [?]). In July, 1864, Jastrow accepted a call to Worms as Orthodox district rabbi, and while there he produced Vier Jahrhunderte aus der Gesch. der Juden von der Zerstörung des Ersten Tempels bis zur Makkabäischen Tempelweihe (Heidelberg, 1865).
To the same period belongs his collaboration with the leading Orthodox rabbi in Boston, Benjamin Szold, in the revision of the latter's prayer-book ('Abodat Yisrael) and home prayer-book (Hegyon Leb), and his translation of the same prayer-books into English. (The prayer-book was later more thoroughly revised after his death.) In his own congregation his influence effected consolidation and growth; in the Jewish community he participated in the formation and reorganization of societies.
In 1876 Jastrow fell severely ill, and for some years his public activities were limited by his poor health, which necessitated a sojourn in the south of Europe. During this period of withdrawal he fully matured the plans for his great work, A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature (London and New York, 1886-1903). When the dictionary was approaching completion in manuscript (1895), the Jewish Publication Society of America was about to begin work on its projected new translation of the Bible into English, and to Jastrow was entrusted the chief-editorship. At the time of his death the translation of more than half the books of the Bible had been revised by him. In addition to these two great undertakings, he was a member of the Publication Committee of the Jewish Publication Society from the time of its establishment, and was connected with the Jewish Encyclopedia as editor of the department of the Talmud; he took a prominent part in the proceedings of the Jewish Ministers' Association, held a seat in the central board of the Alliance Israélite Universelle at Paris, was on the committee of the Meḳiẓe Nirdamim, was one of the vice-presidents of the American Federation of Zionists, and was active in relieving the needs, material and intellectual, of the Russian immigrants.
Jastrow, a progressive rabbi, initially allowed his congregation to join the Reform Union of American Hebrew Congregations. At the time the schism between Reform and Modern/Progressive Judaism was not yet distinct. After the Reform organized "Pittsburgh conference" in 1885, Jastrow, along with many other rabbis of the time, withdrew his congregation's membership.
In 1886 together with Rabbi Henry Pereira Mendes (founder of the Orthodox Union) he helped Rabbi Sabato Morais establish the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. It was only in 1913, ten years after Jastrow's passing, that the next generation of management altered the Orthodox principles of the school, and from them emerged Conservative Judaism.
He was removed by his congregation in September 1892 in favor of the Reform ordained Dr. Henry Berkowitz. Dr. Jastrow attributed this decision to the growing popularity of liberal reforms and the congregation's desire to compete for membership with the more liberal synagogues. In his farewell speech he chastised his congregation insisting that "he who does not feel himself in unison with the tenets of Israel's religion as they have been transmitted from generation to generation, [is] not justified in occupying a Jewish pulpit established for the proclamation of Jewish doctrines." Several efforts were made by him to prevent the introduction of reforms, including articles in the public press. In 1894, the Board felt the necessity to write him to ask him to refrain from publishing articles that might create strife in the congregation. He served as rabbi emeritus of the congregation until his passing in 1903, on the Jewish festival of Shemini Atzereth.
Besides the journals previously mentioned, articles of his appear in the Revue des Études Juives; Frankel's Monatsschrift; Berliner's Magazin für die Wissenschaft des Judenthums; Sippurim; Journal of Biblical Literature; Hebraica; Young Israel; Libanon; "Jewish Record"; Jewish Messenger; American Hebrew; Jewish Exponent; etc.