One of the most popular and influential books of East European Jewry—popularly known as the “women’s Bible.” Tsene-rene, composed by Yankev ben Yitskhok Ashkenazi of Janów, took its name from tse’enah u-re’enah benot Tsiyon (“Go forth and look, daughters of Zion”), a phrase from verse 3:11 in the Song of Songs. This phrase adorns the book’s frontispiece, following the actual title, The Pentateuch in the Language of Ashkenaz, with the Five Scrolls and the Haftarahs (the Five Scrolls [Heb., megilot] are Song of Songs, Ruth, Ecclesiastes, Esther, and Lamentations; haftarahs are prophetic portions read liturgically each week). This formulation gave rise to the mistaken conception that the book is a translation into Yiddish (called Taytsh, after the Yiddish word for German) of the biblical books that had become part of Jewish liturgical life. Actually, the book is a Yiddish adaptation of the texts, the nature of which varies from section to section.
The discussion of the Torah portions, organized in accordance with the weekly Torah readings in the synagogue, deals with selected verses, generally quoted in the original Hebrew and translated into Yiddish. These are explained in a commentary that tries to be faithful to the plain meaning of the text, but occasionally develops into a more homiletic discussion, focusing on the conceptual intent of the subject matters and their ethical implications.
Title page of Seder tefilot ke-minhag ashkenaz u-polin (Order of the Prayers According to the Custom of Germany and Poland), by Rabbi Ya‘akov ben Yitsḥak Ashkenazi of Janów (Amsterdam, 1751). This book, first published in 1590, was written especially for women and included the complete text of the Tsene-rene, a popular Yiddish adaptation and paraphrase of the Pentateuch, haftarot, and megilot. (YIVO)
Ashkenazi drew on different midrashim, first and foremost Midrash rabah (with the commentary called Matenot kehunah, by Yisakhar Ber Katz), and the Talmud. Of classical biblical commentators, the text most frequently cites Rashi and Rashi’s interpreters (Yisra’el Isserlein, Imre no‘am, and Devek tov). Other commentators include Avraham ibn Ezra, Naḥmanides, Yehoshu‘a ibn Shu‘aib, Ba‘al ha-Turim (Ya‘akov ben Asher), Ḥazekuni (Ḥizkiyah ben Manoaḥ), and Tseror ha-Mor (Avraham Saba). But above all, his primary influence was Baḥya ben Asher. He generally avoids the philosophical and kabbalistic interpretations of this commentary (Ashkenazi’s use of which also reflects the influence upon him of the conceptual framework of Toldot Yitsḥak by Yitsḥak Karo). Of contemporary commentators, he mentions only Efrayim of Luntshits.
Some of these sources underlie, together with others, the discussion of the Five Scrolls, which is similarly based on selected verses but displays a clear tendency toward narrative expansion. In the section of the haftarahs, the commentary is essentially a consecutive translation interlaced with verses or fragments of verses in the original Hebrew rather than an exegetical discussion of selected verses.
We do not know when the Tsene-rene was written nor when it was first printed. The earliest extant edition appeared in 1622, apparently in Hanau rather than in Basel as stated on the title page, which mentions three earlier editions, one in Lublin and two in Kraków, that have been lost.
The Tsene-rene achieved immediate popularity, and its reading was recommended by scholars, among them David ben Shemu’el ha-Levi (known as Taz; 1586–1667), who wrote, “Whoever is not learned certainly ought to read contemporary Torah commentary in the language of Ashkenaz, such as the Tsene-rene, so that he can understand the weekly portion” (Shulḥan ‘arukh, Oraḥ Ḥayim, 285:2). Although according to the title page of the oldest extant edition the book was intended “for men and women, who will find peace of mind in understanding the words of the Living God,” the Tsene-rene became, over the years, the book for women, specifically, to read on the Sabbath and holidays.
“This is the angel coming to Hagar.” Woodcut illustration from Tsene-rene (Lvov: Verlag v. B. L. N., 1872). (Gross Family Collection)
The Tsene-rene was published in more than 210 editions. After the 1622 edition, which came out in two volumes (the Pentateuch; the Haftarahs and Five Scrolls), most were published as one volume and in a variety of formats (for example, each weekly portion together with its particular haftarah). Some editions were illuminated, and in the seventeenth century, a section of the first portion of Genesis was translated into Latin. At the end of the eighteenth century, publication of the Tsene-rene shifted from Western to Eastern Europe. At this point considerable changes in the language of the writing became apparent. The book turned into a kind of living Yiddish-language laboratory, and had at the same time a significant influence on the development of Yiddish, both written and spoken. Some East European editions reflect the spirit of Hasidism or Haskalah. In the nineteenth century, versions appeared in Western Europe with different purposes or aims—mainly Germanization of the language, modernization or actualization of the contents, and structural rearrangement—alongside partial translations into different languages. The title Tsene-rene was sporadically used for other similar books of sermons and teaching of the Bible, and also appeared on the title page of a number of copies of the 1822 Basel edition of Moses Mendelssohn’s Bi’ur. The twentieth century saw full translations into English and Hebrew, as well as a partial translation into modern Yiddish.
A number of later editions of the Tsene-rene include various supplements, such as Yiddish translations of Targum Sheni on the Scroll of Esther, the book Naḥalat Tsevi on the Torah portions and the Scrolls, the book Nofet tsufim on the haftarahs, and selected portions of Sefer ha-yashar and Shene luḥot ha-berit.
The Tsene-rene was common in traditional Jewish homes in Eastern Europe and followed its readers across the ocean; reprinted editions appeared eventually in the United States and Israel. The work had a significant impact on the dissemination of knowledge of the Bible and its commentaries among those who had not mastered the Hebrew language—mainly women—and expanded their spiritual world.
Yaakov ben Yitzchak Ashkenazi, Tz’enah Ur’enah: The Classic Anthology of Torah Lore and Midrashic Comment, 3 vols., trans. Miriam Stark Zakon (New York, 1983–1984); Maks Erik, Di geshikhte fun der yidisher literatur (Warsaw, 1928), pp. 223–230; Simon Neuberg, Pragmatische Aspekte der jiddischen Sprachgeshichte am Beispiel der Zenerene (Hamburg, 1999); Chone Shmeruk, “Di mizrekh-eyropeishe nuskhoes fun der ‘Tsene-rene,’ 1786–1850,” in Max Vaynraykhn tsu zayn zibetsikstn geboyrntog (The Hague, 1964); Chone Shmeruk, Sifrut yidish be-Polin: Meḥkarim ve-‘iyunim historiyim (Jerusalem 1981), pp. 147–164; Chava Turniansky, “Nusaḥ maskili shel Ts’enah u-r’enah,” Ha-Sifrut 2 (1971): 835–841; Chava Turniansky, “Iberzetsungen un baarbetungen fun der Tsene-rene,” in Sefer Dov Sadan, pp. 165–190 (Jerusalem, 1977).
Translated from Hebrew by Deborah Weissman