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Sore bas Toyvim

(Sarah bat Tovim; 18th century), author of women’s prayers (Yid., tkhines; from Heb., teḥinot). Sore, daughter of Mordekhai (though various editions list her as the daughter of Yitsḥak or Ya‘akov), of Satanów in Podolia, Ukraine, was a great-granddaughter of Rabbi Mordekhai of Brisk (on this, all editions agree). She became the emblematic tkhine author, and one of her works, Shloyshe sheorim (Three Gates), was perhaps the most beloved of all tkhines. Unusual for this genre, her works contain a strong autobiographical voice. She refers to herself as “I, the renowned woman Sore bas Toyvim, of distinguished ancestry,” and tells the story of her fall from a wealthy youth to an old age of poverty and wandering, attributing her fate to the sin of talking in synagogue.

Sore’s distinctive literary voice helps account for the enduring popularity of her works, as does her skillful interweaving of domestic concerns and messianic hopes. It is difficult to establish the bibliographic history of Sore’s tkhines, though her use of excerpts from other sources allows their dating to the mid-eighteenth century. Her texts have significance for three fields: women’s religious history, popular piety, and Yiddish literature.

Tkhine shaar ha-yikhed al oylemes (The Tkhine of the Gate of Unification Concerning the Eons) contains one long tkhine to be recited Mondays and Thursdays (minor penitential days) and on fast days, thus suggesting the importance of such occasions in women’s devotional lives. The work concludes with a tkhine to be said before making memorial candles for Yom Kippur, a theme that recurs in her second work. This portion of the text incorporates material from Naḥalat Tsevi (Frankfurt am Main, 1711; Żółkiew, 1740), a Yiddish paraphrase of portions of the Zohar by Tsevi Hirsh Ḥotsh (also Chotsh). Sore’s use of this excerpt demonstrates the reach of popularized kabbalistic material beyond a male audience.

Better known is Shloyshe sheorim. This work deals with three of the most popular occasions for which tkhines were published in Eastern Europe: the three “women’s commandments” (ḥalah, separating and burning a small portion of the dough of the bread for the Sabbath; nidah, marital separation during menstruation followed by ritual immersion; and hadlakat nerot, kindling the Sabbath and festival candles), the Days of Awe, and the New Moon. Sore’s tkhine for the ritual of kneytlakh leygn (laying wicks) to make candles for Yom Kippur is a liturgy for a centuries-old Jewish women’s folk ritual. The powerful text calls on the forefathers and foremothers of the Jewish people to bring the Messiah, the end of death, and the resurrection of the dead, and also to aid their descendants with a healthy and prosperous New Year.

The tkhine for the Sabbath before the New Moon contains a great variety of material, much of it drawn from kabbalistic and Sabbatian sources, deriving in part from Sefer ḥemdat yamim (Smyrna, 1731–1732; Żółkiew, 1740), a widely read kabbalistic guide to the Jewish festival cycle that too had originated in Sabbatian circles. Sore’s use of this material, through an intermediate text in Yiddish, is evidence of its influence beyond the Hebrew-reading public. It begins with an appeal to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and the “King Messiah” to arise and redeem Israel. The text continues with a description of the women’s paradise, drawn from the Zohar (III 167b), again, through an intermediate Yiddish source, Sefer ma‘aseh ha-Shem (Deeds of the Lord; 1709) by Akiva Ber ben Yosef.

The figure of Sore bas Toyvim continued to live in the imagination of the folk and in the literary imagination of Yiddish authors. Nineteenth-century maskilim, who wrote tkhines for commercial purposes, sometimes attached her name to their own creations, thus leading some to doubt her existence. Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh (Mendele Moykher-Sforim) mentions Sore’s tkhines in his fictional autobiography, Shloyme reb Khayims (Khayim’s Son Solomon). One of the most powerful scenes in the book is a description of women making candles before Yom Kippur, reciting a version of Sore’s tkhine. Sore also became the subject of a short story, “Der ziveg oder Sore bas Toyvim” (The Match; or, Sore bas Toyvim) by Y. L. Peretz; she appears as a sort of fairy godmother, helping those who recite her tkhines. She is also said to have been the ancestor of poet Julian Tuwim.

Suggested Reading

Samuel Niger, “Di yidishe literatur un di lezerin,” in Bleter geshikhte fun der yidisher literatur, pp. 35–107 (New York, 1959), see esp. pp. 83–85; Sarah bas Tovim, “Tkhine of Three Gates,” in The Merit of Our Mothers: A Bilingual Anthology of Jewish Women’s Prayers, comp. Tracy Guren Klirs, trans. Tracy Guren Klirs, Ida Cohen Selavan, and Gella Schweid Fishman, pp. 12–45 (Cincinnati, 1992); Chava Weissler, Voices of the Matriarchs (Boston, 1998), pp. 31–33, 76–85, 126–146; Israel Zinberg, History of Jewish Literature, vol. 7, Old Yiddish Literature from Its Origins to the Haskalah Period, trans. Bernard Martin (New York, 1975), pp. 252–256.