In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Yiddish Literature Before 1800

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Reference Works
  • Bibliographies
  • Journals
  • Illustrations in Old Yiddish Books
  • Elijah Bahur Levita
  • Book of Customs and Practices
  • Ethical Literature
  • Mystical Texts
  • Letters
  • Women and Old Yiddish Literature
  • Prayers, Songs, and Religious Hymns
  • Historical Songs and Pamphlets
  • The Purim-shpil and the History of the Jewish Theater
  • Medical Texts and Didactic Literature
  • Between Old and Modern Yiddish Literature

Jewish Studies Yiddish Literature Before 1800
Jean Baumgarten
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 February 2019
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0034


Old Yiddish literature—the works created and written in the vernacular Jewish language parallel to Aramaic, Hebrew, and the non-Jewish languages from the Middle Ages to the Haskalah in the Ashkenazi world—was for a long time locked up in a complex network of prejudice and a priori associations, or the texts were simply unknown or neglected. A few philological, cultural studies were written, often with an anti-Jewish perspective, during the Renaissance period by Christian Hebraists, theologians, and humanists. In the beginning of the 19th century, some scholars from the Wissenschaft des Judentums movement started to take an interest in Old Yiddish literature, but “popular Jewish literature” was defined as the expression of an obsolete society. In the beginning of the 20th century, in connection with the national movements, and the recognition of Yiddish as a language of culture, Old Yiddish texts were brought to light and studied as an essential part of Jewish tradition, not as a dead, passéist culture but as a living expression of the Jewish life. Since that period, many texts were rediscovered and many critical editions were published. Old Yiddish literature is now recognized as a field of Jewish studies, essential to the understanding of traditional Ashkenazic culture and its shift to modernity. To be fully understood, the texts must be integrated into a broad historical and cultural context, in relation to the complex totality of Jewish culture, and must be linked with other constituent elements of European Judaism. If one considers the complexity of the Yiddish compositions with their dynamic relations to Aramaic and Hebrew culture and other coterritorial, non-Jewish cultures, the longevity of this literature, which appeared in the Middle Ages and which has endured up to our own day, and the vast geographical area where Yiddish was spoken, then one begins to comprehend the difficulties involved in delimiting this field, which both transcends the partitions of its constituent disciplines and their divisions into cultural domains and crosses into numerous fields of inquiry. Old Yiddish literature appears as a transnational, pluri- or transdisciplinary field of studies that requires connection to many domains of research. For this reason, Old Yiddish studies could be either relegated to the margins of many disciplines or, on the contrary, considered as an original contribution to many fields, such as history, linguistics, literature, religious studies, cultural and social anthropology, and folklore. Due to more than a century of research, Old Yiddish literature is now considered to be an important testimony regarding many issues central to Jewish society, Ashkenazi culture, and European languages and literature.

General Overviews

With the exception of texts written in the 16th century, mostly by Christian Hebraists, humanists, and theologians, the scholarly study of Old Yiddish literature began in the end of the 19th century among scholars of the Wissenschaft des Judentums (“Science of Judaism”) movement, who started, in spite of their despising and disdain for “popular Jewish literature,” for the “culture of the ghetto” and of “dark ages,” to write bibliographies, catalogues of libraries, and peripheral studies of Old Yiddish texts (Zunz, Steinschneider). Ber Borochov (see Borochov 1966), a defender of the diaspora culture who struggled for the recognition and legitimization of the culture of the Jewish masses, could be considered as one of the founders of the field. For the first time he collected sources, wrote bibliographies, and studied Old Yiddish literature, not as a minor component of the Jewish tradition but as a rich heritage of the Jewish people. Inspired by the same ideological trends, the first histories of Old Yiddish literature were written (Erik 1979, Weinreich 1928, Zinberg 1972–1978). In spite of the paucity of the material, the conception of the quasi-insularity of Yiddish culture; the lack of broad perspective, especially concerning the relation among Hebrew, Jewish vernacular, and non-Jewish sources; and the role of Yiddish in multilingual Jewish society, these histories could be considered as laying the foundation for this field of study. Contemporary scholars, even if they follow the historical and philological method of the former generation, place emphasis on new perspectives of research. If some authors put emphasis on the “secular” creations or the “profane” Jewish culture, other scholars focused on the relation between traditional rabbinic literature and Old Yiddish texts. A new generation of researchers is redefining the field and is transmitting different approaches to Old Yiddish literature, based on new methodological, theoretical, historical, and cultural perspectives. They analyze Old Yiddish literature in a broader religious, cultural, historical, and linguistic context, as part of a complex polysystem connected to Hebrew literature and coterritorial culture (Shmeruk 1978). They also study how the texts were written, printed, diffused, and read, demonstrating the role of the secondary Jewish intelligentsia in the translation, adaptation, and rewriting of many canonical Jewish texts, as well as in the creation and diffusion of popular books (Baumgarten 2005). Many important manuscripts and early printed editions have been (re)discovered and studied, showing the richness and complexity of Old Yiddish literature. This field is now studied in many universities and institutions, showing the recognition and acceptance of Old Yiddish studies as an integral part of Jewish studies.

  • Baumgarten, Jean. Introduction to Old Yiddish Literature. Edited and translated by Jerold C. Frakes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199276332.001.0001

    A survey of Old Yiddish literature covering the main genres and texts from the Middle Ages to the 19th century. The book also analyzes the history of Yiddish studies and the question of authorship, readership, diffusion, and printing of Yiddish books.

  • Borochov, Ber. “Di bibliotek fun yidishn filolog: Fir hundert yor yidishe shprakhforshung.” In Shprakh-forshung un literatur-geshikhte. Edited by Nachman Mayzel, 76–136. Tel Aviv: Perets, 1966.

    The first comprehensive bibliography of books and articles on Yiddish language and literature. Borochov shows the richness of this field of studies. Originally published in 1913.

  • Erik, Max. Di geshikhte fun der yidisher literatur: Fun di eltste tsaytn biz der haskole-tkufe. New York: Congress for Jewish Culture, 1979.

    Another important history of Old Yiddish literature presenting the main genres and literary sources. For Erik, Old Yiddish literature is the expression of the lower and middle strata of Jewish society, in opposition to the rabbinic culture expressed in Hebrew. He stresses the conflict between religious Hebrew tradition and “popular” profane Yiddish culture, represented by the epic literature. Originally published in Warsaw (Kultur-Lige, 1928).

  • Frakes, Jerold C. The Emergence of Early Yiddish Literature. Cultural Translation in Ashkenaz. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017a.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt2005zs8

    This book offers an excellent and erudite presentation of the Jewish vernacular as a multifaceted, multivalent cultural phenomenon that shows the slow religious evolution and sociocultural turn from the Middle Ages to the Early Modern period. Frakes explores the main religious and secular genre of the Old Yiddish literature in a broad comparative perspective showing the connexion and correlation with European non-Jewish literature.

  • Frakes, Jerold C. A Guide to Old Literary Yiddish. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017b.

    The first manual to reading, understanding, studying the Yiddish texts from the late medieval and Early Modern periods. Includes step-by-step instructions, glossaries, exercices, and grammatical indexes. A reference book for students and scholars who wish to study Old Yiddish texts, language, and literature.

  • Shmeruk, Chone. Sifrut yidish: Perakim le-toldoteha. Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University Press, 1978.

    The most important history of Old Yiddish literature, written by Chone Shmeruk, professor at the Hebrew University, who renewed the field and its methods by placing Yiddish literature into a broad linguistic and cultural polysystem at the intersection between traditional Jewish sources (Bible, midrash, etc.) and non-Jewish literature. Yiddish translation, Prokim fun der yidisher literatur-geshikhte, published in 1988.

  • Weinreich, Max. Bilder fun der yidisher literaturgeshikhte: Fun di onheybn biz Mendele Moykher-Sforim. Vilnius, Lithuania: Farlag “Tomor” fun Yoysef Kamermakher, 1928.

    In this collection of articles published in scientific reviews, Max Weinreich, one of the founders of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in Vilnius and New York, gathered studies on Yiddish language and literary sources.

  • Zinberg, Israel. A History of Jewish Literature. Translated and edited by Bernard Martin. 12 vols. Cleveland, OH: Press of Case Western University, 1972–1978.

    Volume 6 of this monumental history of Jewish literature is devoted to Old Yiddish literature. Zinberg laid the foundation for Old Yiddish literary studies, presenting the main questions and the classical texts. Even if this synthesis is in many respects outdated, this history can be considered an essential introduction to the field. Originally published 1929–1937; Vols. 4–12 published by Hebrew Union College Press, Cincinnati, Ohio.

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