DE SOLA, ALEXANDER ABRAHAM, clergyman, professor, author, editor, and publisher; b. 18 Sept. 1825 in London, England, the sixth child of David Aaron de Sola and Rebecca Meldola; m. 30 June 1852 Esther, youngest daughter of Henry Joseph* and Rachel Solomons, and they had at least three sons; d. 5 June 1882 in New York City, and buried in Montreal, Que.
Alexander Abraham de Sola was born into an accomplished Jewish family of Spanish and Portuguese extraction which had come to London via Amsterdam in the early years of the 19th century. His maternal grandfather, Dr. Raphaël Meldola, was chief rabbi of the Sephardic congregation of London, and his father was an author and hazan (the title for a non-ordained Jewish reader or leader in the Sephardic tradition) of the same congregation. Endowed with his father’s intellectual interests and versatility, Abraham was educated first at the City of London Corporation School, and later under the direction of his father and Louis Loewe, an Oriental scholar. After a year’s service as a tutor Abraham applied for and received the office of hazan to the Montreal Jewish congregation of Shearith Israel in 1846. Arriving in January of the following year he was to serve this congregation until his death.
Having been active in literary societies in London, as co-editor of the Voice of Jacob and as director of the Sussex Hall Literary Institution, de Sola soon established himself at the centre of Montreal’s English-speaking intellectual community. An eloquent, popular, and prolific lecturer and a man of broad interests, he frequently addressed the Montreal Mercantile Library Association, the Montreal Literary Club, the Numismatic and Antiquarian Society of Montreal (of which he was elected an honorary member), the Montreal Mechanics’ Institute, and the Natural History Society (which he served as president in 1867–68), as well as several organizations associated with McGill College. Many of his speeches and sermons, delivered in English, were published in periodicals and the contemporary Jewish press. Although he was chiefly concerned with the reconciliation of religion and science, the articles’ diverse subjects reflect the eclectic nature of his intellectual interests. He wrote on the history of Jews in England, Persia, Poland, and France; reported on cosmography and Sinaitic inscriptions; examined botanical and zoological references in the Scriptures; and drew critical acclaim from European scholars for his articles on prominent Jews such as Sir Moses Montefiore, a contemporary philanthropist, and R. Abram Peritsol, who contributed to the development of the arts and sciences. De Sola also wrote medical studies, on the rabbinical dietary laws and the use of anaesthetics, which appeared in major medical journals and were reprinted as pamphlets. His chief works include: Behemoth hatemeoth, a 16-page pamphlet published by John Lovell*, containing an annotated catalogue of the animals pronounced unclean by the book of Leviticus as determined by Jewish and Christian authorities; A Jewish calendar for fifty years, a 177-page volume, prepared with New York rabbi Jacques Judah Lyons, and also published by Lovell, containing an introductory essay on the Jewish calendar system together with historical notes on various Jewish congregations in North America and elsewhere; a Biography of David Aaron de Sola, a short, 61-page sketch of his father; The form of prayers according to the custom of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews, a five-volume collection, based on earlier versions published by his father and Isaac Leeser, which he revised, edited, and republished. In 1853 he also edited a small booklet entitled The Jewish child’s first catechism of Bible history. Rounding out his versatile literary career, de Sola became a book distributor in 1873 when he, together with his brother-in-law Jesse Joseph, purchased the copyright of Leeser’s translation of the 24 books of the Holy Scripture as well as the distribution and copyright of a long list of works issued by Leeser’s Philadelphia publishing house.
As minister of the Shearith Israel congregation he sought to organize the educational, benevolent, and fraternal life of his religious community. In 1849 de Sola established a Sunday school which one year later boasted some 35 students, and in 1854 he opened a private Jewish day- and boarding-school, for boys and girls. When the Protestant school board was reorganized in 1875 the school claimed and received public support for the employment of a teacher, thereby helping to establish the claim of the Montreal Jewish community for publicly supported separate schools. Soon after he arrived in Montreal he and Moses Judah Hayes* had been instrumental in founding the Hebrew Philanthropic Society to care for the poor, sick, and needy “Israelite in Montreal,” including a growing number of immigrants. De Sola subsequently helped establish the Young Men’s Hebrew Benevolent Society (1863), the Yod Beyod or Jewish Mutual Aid Society (1872), and the Ladies’ Hebrew Benevolent Society (1877). A member of the Ancient Jewish Order of Kesher Shel Barzel, he gave his name in 1872 to its first Canadian lodge, known as De Sola Lodge no.89 as a tribute to its distinguished leader. Two years later he was named district grand saar for the dominion of Canada, a position which brought him in close contact with the Jewish communities of Toronto, Hamilton, and London, Ont. Although of orthodox doctrine and strict Sephardic tradition, de Sola went out of his way to cooperate with the Ashkenazi Jewish community by supporting their schools and social organizations, and in 1878 he even considered devising a common ritual to permit the union of the congregations, which would join together Montreal’s two rich Jewish traditions. In touch with the larger international Jewish community and with its chief philanthropists such as Montefiore, de Sola pleaded publicly the cause of his co-religionists in Persia, Morocco, Palestine, and Russia and organized funds for their relief which attracted support from the gentile community. He also attempted to interest working-class Portuguese Jews residing in London, England, in emigrating to Canada.
Outside his religious community de Sola enjoyed a wide reputation as a scholar, teacher, and public citizen. Of broad liberal sympathies, he not only belonged to the literary societies of the city but supported its educational and benevolent institutions as well. In July 1848, a year after he arrived in Canada, McGill College appointed him a lecturer in Hebrew and rabbinical literature, and in November 1853 a professor of Hebrew and Oriental literature, a position which he held until his death. He also taught philology and Chaldean and Spanish language and literature at McGill as well as Hebrew at the Presbyterian College. In recognition of his service and his growing international reputation, particularly after the publication of his authoritative study on “Sanatory institutions,” in 1858 McGill made him an honorary doctor of laws, the first time a Jewish minister had received the honour in England or North America. While at McGill de Sola also worked closely with the eminent scientists John William Dawson* and Sir William Edmond Logan*. A tolerant, public-spirited man, he participated in and supported several institutions. He sent his sons to the High School of Montreal and the Catholic Commercial Academy, supported the Montreal Eye and Ear Institution, and in 1850 joined the management committee of the Montreal Dispensary. In 1869 he played a prominent part in attempting to have the Canadian government alter its copyright laws to afford greater protection to Canadian authors. Although he received many testimonies of public esteem during his lifetime, one of his greatest honours came on 9 Jan. 1872 when he opened the House of Representatives of the United States with prayer, the first British subject to do so. His participation, coming shortly after the signing of the Treaty of Washington, received wide publicity and letters of congratulation from many public men including William Ewart Gladstone, the British prime minister, and Sir Edward Thornton, the British minister at Washington.
In 1876 de Sola’s health began to decline and he spent a year in Europe trying to recuperate. Upon his return he resumed his work, but the strain proved too much and he finally died on 5 June 1882 while in New York City visiting his sister. The class de Sola belonged to, his Protestant and anglophilic sympathies, and his intellectual interests in science and religion gave him easy access to influence and recognition. At his death he enjoyed a wide reputation as a translator, author, editor, publisher, teacher, and public and spiritual leader, not only among his co-religionists and the local community but also among scholars and public men in Canada and abroad. Two of de Sola’s sons, Clarence I. and Meldola, followed in his footsteps; the former was one of the leading Canadian Zionists; the latter was a minister and one of the most prominent scholars and exponents of orthodox Judaism in North America.
Alexander Abraham de Sola was the author of Behemoth hatemeoth: the nomenclature of the prohibited animals of Leviticus, as determined by the most eminent authorities, both Jewish and Christian . . . (Montreal, 1853); Biography of David Aaron de Sola, late senior minister of the Portuguese Jewish community in London (Philadelphia, ); “Critical examination of Genesis III. 16; having reference to the employment of anæsthetics in cases of labour,” British American Journal of Medical and Physical Science (Montreal), 5 (1849–50): 227–29, 259–62, 290–93; “The Day of Atonement: a sermon delivered in the synagogue Shearith Yisrael, Montreal,” Occident, and American Jewish Advocate (Philadelphia), 6 (1848–49): 322–33; “A few points of interest in the study of natural history,” Canadian Naturalist and Geologist, new ser., 3 (1868): 445–53; “God’s judgments on earth: a sermon delivered in the synagogue ‘Shearith Yisrael’ Montreal, during the prevalence of Asiatic cholera,” Occident, and American Jewish Advocate, 7 (1849–50): 348–62; “Hebrew authors and their opponents,” Jewish Chronicle (London), 13, 27 July, 10 Aug., 2 Nov., 7 Dec. 1849; “History of the Jews of France, after Bégin and Carmoly,” Jewish Messenger (New York), 27 Jan.–17 March 1871; “History of the Jews of Poland,” Jewish Messenger, 14 Jan.–4 March 1870; “An inquiry into the first settlement of Jews in England,” Occident, and American Jewish Advocate, 6: 208–11, 247–51, 294–98, 349–55; “Life and writings of Saadia Gaon,” Hebrew Rev. (Cincinnati, Ohio), 2 (1881–82): 208–39; “The Mosaic cosmogony,” Jewish Messenger, 11, 18, 25 March 1870; “Notes on the Jews of Persia under Mohammed Shah, obtained from one of themselves,” Occident, and American Jewish Advocate, 7: 504-7, 549–54, 596–601; 8 (1850–51): 43–48, 141–45; “Observations on the sanatory institutions of the Hebrews as bearing upon modern sanatory regulations,” Canada Medical Journal and Monthly Record of Medical and Surgical Science (Montreal), 1 (1852–53): 135–41, 203–11, 325–40, 464–68, 529–32, 589–99, 654–66, 728–41; also issued in part under title: The sanatory institutions of the Hebrews . . . (Montreal, 1861); “The Passover: a sermon delivered in the synagogue Shearith Israel, Montreal, on Passover, 5608,” Occident, and American Jewish Advocate, 7: 72–86; “The Pentecost: a sermon, delivered at the synagogue Shearith Israel, Montreal, on Pentecost, 5607,” Occident, and American Jewish Advocate, 5 (1847–48): 229–40; “The revelation at Sinai; its possibility and necessity: a sermon delivered in the synagogue, Shearith Yisrael, Montreal, on Pentecost 5608,” Occident, and American Jewish Advocate, 6: 226–36; The righteous man: a sermon commemorating the bestowal of public honors on Sir Moses Montefiore, by the city of London; preached in Montreal, on Sabbath Noah 5625 ([Montreal, 1865?]); The study of natural science: an address . . . at the conversazzione held in the hall of the Natural History Society of Montreal, on Wednesday, 9th March, 1870 . . . (Montreal, 1870); Valedictory address to the graduates in arts of the University of McGill College, Montreal, delivered at the annual convocation, Tuesday, 3rd May, 1864 (Montreal, 1864); and “Yehuda Alcharizi and the book Tachkemoni,” Jewish Record (Philadelphia), 7 Nov.–5 Dec. 1879. De Sola also edited The form of prayers according to the custom of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews . . . (new ed., 5v., Philadelphia, ) and Voice of Jacob (London), 1841–48; and he compiled The Jewish child’s first catechism of Bible history: adapted [from Pinnock] to the capacity of young minds (Montreal, 1853; repr. 1866; repr. Philadelphia, 1877) and, with J. J. Lyons, A Jewish calendar for fifty years . . . from A.M. 5614 till A.M. 5664 . . . (Montreal, 1854). He translated “Life of Shabethai Tsevi, the pseudo-Messiah . . . ,” Jewish Messenger, 26 March–6 Aug. 1869. Other works by de Sola are listed in Morgan, Bibliotheca Canadensis and Printed Jewish Canadiana, 1685–1900 . . . , comp. R. A. Davies (Montreal, 1955).
AC, Montréal, État civil, Juifs, Shearith Israel Congregation (Montreal), 8 June 1882. Atwater Library (Montreal), Mechanics’ Institute of Montreal, Minute books, 1847–82. McGill Univ. Arch., Abraham de Sola papers (for a description of the these papers see Abraham de Sola papers: a guide to the microfilm, comp. Evelyn Miller (Montreal, 1970)). Gazette (Montreal), 3 June 1882. Borthwick, Hist. and biog. gazetteer. Canada, an encyclopædia (Hopkins). Canada directory, 1851; 1857–58. Cyclopædia of Canadian biog. (Rose, 1888). Encyclopædia Judaica (16v., Jerusalem, 1971–72), V. Montreal directory, 1851–59. Quebec directory, 1847. Atherton, Montreal. The Jew in Canada: a complete record of Canadian Jewry from the days of the French régime to the present time, ed. A. D. Hart (Toronto and Montreal, 1926). Sack, Hist. of the Jews in Canada (1945). Evelyn Miller, “The ‘learned Hazan’ of Montreal: Reverend Abraham de Sola, LL.D., 1825–1882,” American Sephardi . . . (New York), 7–8 (1975): 23–43.