Jewish Studies The Early Modern Yiddish Bible, 1534–1686
by
Morris M. Faierstein
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 June 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 November 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0207

Introduction

The Bible has been the central text of Judaism since its earliest history. Translations of the Bible into the vernaculars of the Jewish people in their various diasporas are a venerable tradition. The earliest Jewish translation of the Bible was into Greek, known as the Septuagint, and produced in the centuries preceding the rise of Christianity for the benefit of Greek-speaking Hellenistic Jews. The Bible was then translated during the Talmudic period in Aramaic, the lingua franca of Jews living in the eastern Roman Empire. There were several Aramaic translations, collectively called Targums (translation in Aramaic). The major ones were the Targums of Onkelos, Jonathan, Yerushalmi, and another Targum found in the twentieth century known as Targum Neofiti. Unlike the Septuagint, the Targums did not constitute a complete translation, but only covered selected parts of the Bible. The Torah (Five Books of Moses) was the subject of several Targums, while the other parts of the Bible may have had one or more Targums or none at all. After the rise of Islam, the lingua franca of the Jews living under Islamic rule gradually changed from Aramaic to Judeo-Arabic, a version of Arabic with a significant component of Hebrew and Aramaic terminology. The translation of the Bible into Judeo-Arabic by Saadia Gaon (b. 882–d. 942), known as the Taj, became the de facto standard translation and achieved almost canonical status among Jews living in the orbit of Islam. It is believed that Saadiah completed the translation of the whole Bible, but some parts of the translation have been lost. The Jews of the Christian lands in Europe developed a variety of Jewish vernaculars like Judeo-Spanish, Judeo-Italian, and others. The vernacular developed by the Jews living in the German-speaking lands was referred to as “Teutsch,” meaning translation. In the eighteenth century it began to be called Jüdisch-Deutsch (Jewish-German) and eventually received its modern name, Yiddish. However, unlike the earlier Bible translations, there is no significant tradition in the lands where German/Yiddish was spoken of translating the Torah or other parts of the Bible into the Jewish vernacular prior to the Early Modern period. Hebrew remained the language of the Bible and its study. There is a meager tradition of Yiddish biblical manuscripts, with the majority of the few surviving manuscripts dating from no earlier than the fifteenth century. Many of the surviving manuscripts are copies of published works from the sixteenth and even the seventeenth centuries. There has been no significant scholarship on this manuscript tradition. For this reason, this study will restrict itself to the printed Yiddish works from the Early Modern period relating to the Bible.

General Overview

The earliest printed Yiddish book relating to the Bible is also the earliest Yiddish published book, Mirkevet ha-Mishneh (“The second chariot”) published in Cracow, 1534–1536). It was a concordance based on an earlier Hebrew concordance. It was followed in the sixteenth century by a number of works that can be divided into two categories. The first category consists of translations of the Humash (Liturgical Bible), which is composed of the Five Books of Moses, selections from the Prophets that are read after the weekly selection from the Torah, and the Five Scrolls (Esther, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs) that are read in the synagogue on certain festivals. The works in this category have a common form and have a common ancestor. The second category consists of works that are paraphrases and retellings of some books from the Prophets and Writings. They vary in form, style, and purpose. Some works have a liturgical or educational focus, while others are works of religious entertainment and diversion. The seventeenth century also begins with a concordance, but with significant differences in style and format from the Mirkevet ha-Mishneh. The books that follow moved into new literary forms and styles that departed significantly from the works of the sixteenth century. The seventeenth century and the Early Modern Yiddish Bible concluded with two Yiddish translations of the whole Bible that rejected the traditions of the earlier Yiddish Bible translations. These two translations by Yekutiel Blitz and Joseph Witzenhausen, published almost simultaneously in Amsterdam, had the same goal, to provide a Yiddish translation of the Bible that was a straight translation of the biblical text, similar to the Protestant Bible translations, without the rabbinic additions and emendations that characterized the Early Modern Yiddish works relating to the Bible. The eighteenth century saw the reprinting of some of the 17th-century works that became classics, but there was no innovation until the end of the century when Moses Mendelssohn, the father of the Jewish Enlightenment, began publishing his translation of the Humash in German, but with Hebrew letters. Little scholarship explores the genre of the Early Modern Yiddish Bible as a whole. Much of the classic scholarly literature on the subject was written by scholars who had negative attitudes to religious texts or who were ignorant of the religious tradition; as a result, many of their findings are tendentious or factually wrong. The study of this genre of Jewish literature is still at an early stage. The overviews of the Early Modern Yiddish Bible can be divided into three categories. The first consists of a general history of Early Modern Yiddish literature (Baumgarten 2005, Zinberg 1972–1978). The second is bibliographical surveys (Staerk and Leitzmann 1977, Steinschneider 1852–1860). These works are early attempts to define the bibliographical parameters, but they do not offer analysis of the contents and their context. Shmeruk 1978 and Shmeruk 1988 reflect on some of the themes in this genre and offer suggestions for future research.

  • Baumgarten, Jean. “Yiddish Bibles.” In Introduction to Old Yiddish Literature. Edited and translated by Jerold C. Frakes, 82–127. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199276332.003.0005

    A recent overview that surveys and summarizes the state of the whole genre.

  • Faierstein, Morris M. The Early Modern Yiddish Bible: From the Mirkevet ha-Mishneh to Blitz and Witzenhausen. Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 2023.

    The first comprehensive study of all Yiddish works related to the Bible that were published in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In addition to a general overview of the subject, each text has a chapter devoted to it that analyzes and summarizes the current state of research for that text. Each chapter includes full bibliographical information, translations of the paratexts, and text samples translated into English.

  • Shmeruk, Chone. “Concerning the Bible.” In Yiddish Literature: Chapters in Its History. By Chone Shmeruk, 105–146. Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University Press, 1978.

    In Hebrew. Reflections on and insights into aspects of the Early Modern Yiddish Bible.

  • Shmeruk, Chone. “Concerning the Bible.” In Chapters in the History of Yiddish Literature. By Chone Shmeruk, 157–210. Tel Aviv: I. L. Peretz, 1988.

    In Yiddish. A Yiddish version of the essay in Yiddish Literature.

  • Staerk, Wilhelm, and Albert Leitzmann. Die jüdisch-deutschen Bibelübersetzungen: Von den Anfängen bis zum Ausgang des 18. Jahrhunderts. Repr. Hildesheim, Germany: Olms, 1977.

    Originally published in 1923. The first attempt to survey and describe the literature of the Early Modern Yiddish Bible. It also includes a description of both manuscripts and printed books. The list of printed books is incomplete, and the list of manuscripts remains to be studied and analyzed.

  • Steinschneider, Moritz. Catalogus librorum hebraeorum in bibliotheca Bodleiana. 3 vols. Berlin: Friedlander, 1852–1860.

    Moritz Steinschneider in his three-volume catalogue, written in Latin, includes descriptions and bibliographical information of many Early Modern Yiddish books. The famous Oppenheim collection in Oxford contains a large number of Yiddish books relating to the Bible. Catalogue numbers 1177–1300 constitute the first attempt to create a bibliography and description of this body of Yiddish literature.

  • 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, “Old Yiddish Literature from Its Origins to the Haskalah Period,” contains two chapters, “Bible Translations and Midrashim in Yiddish” (chapter 4) and “Popular Literature: Tze’enah U-Re’enah” (chapter 5), pp. 87–139. This is the classic survey of the Early Modern Yiddish Bible as understood by the first generation of Yiddish scholarship. Many of the conclusions have been superseded by more recent scholarship.

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