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)

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Yiddish Literature before 1800

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Yiddish Literature after 1800 

Yiddish, which was brought by its speakers from German-speaking lands to Eastern Europe, gradually became the spoken language of local Jews as well. During the early modern period, Yiddish was the only naturally spoken language of Jews, regardless of age, gender, or social, cultural, or economic status, in German lands, Bohemia and Moravia, PolandLithuania, northern Italy (only until the seventeenth century), the Netherlands (only from the mid-seventeenth century), and several locations in the Ottoman Empire. Consequently, there were regional variations in the language. Although no formal coordinating body existed, regional elements of the spoken language were diligently excluded from Yiddish printed books to make their contents comprehensible to all potential readers. A literary language was thus created, which until the end of the eighteenth century systematically distanced itself from local usages and maintained the link of all Yiddish speakers to the same body of literature.

Yiddish books everywhere were published in the same fixed literary Western Yiddish, in order to reach their main addressees: men and women, young and old, who could read Hebrew script but had not achieved the necessary language proficiency to understand a Hebrew text. In the last decades of the eighteenth century, with the neglect of Yiddish by its West European speakers in favor of German, and the subsequent massive transition of Yiddish printing from west to east, the Eastern Yiddish variant became the language of modern Yiddish literature.

The earliest evidence, slight and limited, of Yiddish in Eastern Europe dates to the fifteenth century. Actually, Kraków’s communal ordinances of 1595, which were drafted in a mixture of Hebrew and Yiddish, comprise the only Yiddish manuscript originating in Eastern Europe preserved from the period before 1648. We have very clear indirect evidence concerning the existence there of certain literary genres in Yiddish (the purim-shpil, the lampoon); however, the works themselves have not survived, and it is possible that they were not the only literary genres that existed then. What is known about East European Jewry’s contribution to Yiddish literature is based mainly on the printed books that were preserved.

Title page of Merkeves hamishne (Kraków: Helicz, 1534-1535), the earliest Yiddish book published by the first Hebrew printing press in Poland. (Jewish National and University Library, Jerusalem)

The earliest Yiddish printed books appeared in Kraków in 1534–1535: Mirkeves hamishne—a concordance of the Bible also known as Seyfer shel Reb Anshl—and three ethical works: Azhores noshim (Admonitions for Women) by David Kohen, the pioneer of the printed women’s commandments books; Den muser un hanhoge (Ethics and Behavior), which includes instructions on daily behavior by Asher ben Yeḥi’el in their Hebrew original and Yiddish translation; and, published with it, a Yiddish version of Ka‘arat ha-kesef by Yosef ha-Azuvi of Perpignan. The printing of these books in Kraków does not signify that their authors originated from Eastern Europe, or that they composed their works there.

When Aharon ben Yitsḥak of Prostitz (Prostĕjov) renewed Yiddish printing in Kraków in the 1570s after an interruption of approximately 30 years, and with the printing activity in Lublin in the early 1580s, books were imported to Poland for their first printing. Among them were the rhymed adaptation of the Book of Psalms by Mosheh Shtendel of Hannover (Kraków, 1586), the travelogue Gliles Erets-Yisroel by Gershon ben Eli‘ezer ha-Levi (Lublin, 1635), as well as reprints such as the Kraków editions of the biblical epic poems Shmuel-bukh (on the Book of Samuel; 1578, 1593) and Melokhim-bukh (Kings; 1583), which were first printed in Augsburg (1543–1544) and then in Mantua (1562–1564). The great mobility of works from their location of composition to the place of their printing characterized Yiddish publishing from its beginnings until the Haskalah period. Similarly, works moved from the location of their first printing to other printing locations for further editions.

Biblical and Other Religious Works

The propensity to explain the Bible in the vernacular language took a variety of forms in Eastern Europe. Mirkeves hamishne, the concordance mentioned above, presented a Yiddish explication of biblical words according to the alphabetical order of their roots. The volume demanded of its reader a good command of Hebrew and must have been intended primarily as a reference for scholars. Printed twice in Kraków (1534, 1584), it was then forgotten. In contrast, Be’er Moyshe (on the Pentateuch; Prague, 1605) and Lekakh tov (on the Scrolls: Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther; Prague, 1604), both by Mosheh Yisakhar ha-Levi Shertels of Prague, were long-lived. They are both glossaries, which present words with their Yiddish explanations following the order of their appearance in the text, and were mainly intended to help teach the Bible and the Scrolls to children. Shortly after Be’er Moyshe was first printed, an addition to the ordinances of Kraków determined that “it is forbidden for any melamed to teach the Bible with any commentary other than Be’er Moyshe.” The book was reprinted often (more than 25 times before 1725), either separately or together with the Pentateuch.

Melamed siakh, another text intended to aid in the teaching of the Pentateuch and the Scrolls, was published in Amsterdam in 1710 by Elyakim ben Ya‘akov Melamed Shats, who was born in Komarno, Galicia. In Amsterdam he was a cantor as well as an editor and proofreader in a publishing house. Among the works he published were a Hebrew correspondence manual titled Leshon limudim (1686), intended for younger readers, and a Yiddish explanation of kines (liturgical dirges); he translated slikhes (penitential prayers; 1688) and prayers into Yiddish (1705), and Manasseh ben Israel’s Esperança de Israel (Hope of Israel) into Hebrew (1697). He was also involved in the translation of the latter into Yiddish (Amsterdam, 1691). The author justified the elementary level of exposition of Melamed siakh, claiming that the earlier, more complex works of this type were no longer useful in his time, when quality of Bible teaching had reached such a low state and teachers were barely-literate ignoramuses. The book was printed about 10 times during the eighteenth century in both West and East European presses. Its extensive distribution, still in the first third of the nineteenth century, is indicated by the harsh attacks of certain maskilim (among them Tuviah Feder) on the book and its author.

There is no evidence of the composition or publication of Yiddish translations of biblical texts in Eastern Europe in the sixteenth century. However, the information that does exist (from the introduction to Seyder mitsves noshim [Kraków, 1577])—that in the 1570s women commonly studied the weekly Torah portions in Yiddish translation—may point to the importing of such translations, or to local printings that have been lost.

In contrast to direct biblical translations, epic poetry in Yiddish on biblical themes earned not only repeated printings in Eastern Europe (Shmuel-bukh and Melokhim-bukh, mentioned above, as well as Seyfer Doniel [Kraków, 1588] and Seyfer Yehoyshua [Kraków, 1594]), but also manifested a unique local contribution, even if the works were not composed or printed there. Gumprecht of Szczebrzeszyn, who was born in Poland, emigrated to Italy and served as a melamed in Venice, composed two epic poems—apparently in 1555 and following the burning of the Talmud: one for Hanukkah, based on the yotser, the liturgy for that holiday, and one for Purim that draws from the Talmudic tractate Megilah, from an Aramaic Bible translation (Targum Sheni), and from the Midrash Ester Raba. The author recalls his Polish origins and mourns the burning of the Talmud. In his highly stylized poems, which were never printed in their entirety, one notes the influence of the German folk song and its metric patterns, as well as a number of Italian words. Gumprecht’s poems, which draw on traditional Hebrew sources and also reflect influences of the languages and cultures of the regions in which Jews lived, are an example of the results of the intercultural contacts characteristic of Yiddish-speaking Jewry during this period.

A fine contribution to biblical epic poetry in Yiddish was made by Ya‘akov ben Shemu’el Bunim, also called Koplman of Brisk Dekuy (Brześć Kujawski). Born in 1555, he left Poland and lived in Frankfurt am Main and Metz, France, before returning to his birthplace. The author of scholarly Hebrew works such as Ohel Ya‘akov (Freiburg, 1584), a commentary to Yosef Albo’s Sefer ha-‘ikarim, and ‘Omek halakhah (Kraków, 1593 or 1598), which includes mathematical and geometrical equations related to Talmudic topics, he translated into Yiddish Berekhyah ha-Nakdan’s Mishle shu‘alim (Freiburg, 1583) and the Five Scrolls, which appeared in Freiburg around 1584.

The core of his latter book is a poetic adaptation into Yiddish of the Aramaic translations of the Scrolls, in which many midrashim and additional types of commentary are interspersed. In his original style, one notes the author’s adherence to the tradition of Yiddish biblical poetry in terms of content and the sources drawn from, as well as in terms of structure: on the title page, the author explicitly declares that his work follows the metric pattern of the Shmuel-bukh, “in order that it be easy to sing.” At the same time, terminology, phrases, and expressions deriving from the language of Talmudic study in the yeshiva find their way into the composition. This style is appropriate to the homiletic character of the book—which frequently deals with the question of exile and its nature—and to its ethical digressions, most of which deal with the study of the Torah. The author’s erudition is also evident in a unique occurrence in Yiddish books: in the margins and in red characters, Hebrew explanations of many of the Aramaic words in the translations of the Scrolls appear in succession. This clearly indicates that the book was intended not only for the presumed main audience of Yiddish books—women, and men not sufficiently schooled in the Hebrew—but also for a more learned audience, and even a very learned audience.

A lack of poetic talent undermined Koplman’s intention to adapt his poems to the metric pattern of the Shmuel-bukh. He was not successful in maintaining the full stanzas’ structure or a unified length of the rhymed lines. His rhymes are poor and repetitive, and completely lack a sense of stress and rhythm. His work, the first printed poetic version of the Scrolls (except for Esther), is actually an epigonic episode signaling the decline of Yiddish biblical epics, the dominant genre of Yiddish literature until the end of the sixteenth century. During his time, the first signs of the genre that would eventually replace it appeared: Yiddish homiletic prose. This genre, which draws on the same traditional sources, would play a central and most significant role in the culture of East European Jewry.

In 1579, Seyfer shir hashirim (Song of Songs) by Yitsḥak Sulkes (a family name derived from a woman’s name that was common in Eastern Europe but not in Western Europe) appeared in Kraków. The author composed his book (apparently in Kraków) at a late age, introducing himself as a simple man, unlearned, because the burdens of making a living and taxes had forced him to neglect his studies. He presents his book to “men like me,” who wish to return to their learning but are not able to do so by means of books in Hebrew. His book is a complex homiletic composition based on the oral traditional fashion of studying Song of Songs in Yiddish, in which the literal translation is absorbed by an abundance of commentary that removes the text from its literal meaning. To this exposition, which is a written recording of the oral tradition, the author adds exegetical and homiletical sources, and combines stories and exempla from a variety of traditional sources. In this way, he aspires at once to stimulate the passion of the intended reader for the study of the Torah, and to dissuade him from reading foreign popular literature by offering him a proper substitute. He harshly criticizes various contemporary and local practices, mainly in the areas of prayer and Torah study. In his lively and flowing style, in which Hebrew elements and expressions characteristic of the language of yeshiva study are prominent, one notes weak remnants of a rhyme scheme, the final remnants of the Yiddish biblical epic. This work initiated the era of homiletic prose in Yiddish literature. The two following editions of Sulkes’s book (Kraków, 1589, 1599) may bear witness to its positive reception at least in its own time.

Three books published in Kraków in the 1580s also belong to the genre of homiletic prose: Seyfer mishley (Proverbs) by Mordekhai ben Ya‘akov of Teplitz (1582); a Yiddish version of Isaiah, combining the commentary of David Kimḥi (Radak) with homiletic additions (1586); and Esther in Hebrew with a Yiddish translation and homiletic supplements (1589). The introduction of the latter directly addresses women and girls, “because they too are committed to study the Pentateuch, the Bible, the laws of purity and impurity, and the ritual laws, like men.” The work was reprinted several times, and with the appearance of the Amsterdam edition of 1663 it became known as Di lange megile (the long scroll), a term used ever since for any tiresomely long speech or document.

Even if we do not know the places of origin of the authors of these books, there is no doubt that these works played an important role in the development and dissemination of Yiddish homiletic prose in Eastern Europe and beyond. This genre reached its climax with the appearance of Tsene-rene by Ya‘akov ben Yitsḥak Ashkenazi, of the Rabino (or perhaps Rabeynu) family of Janów, who unlike his predecessors did not restrict himself to a single biblical book, or to the consecutive order of the verses, but rather included the books of the Pentateuch, the Scrolls, and haftarot (readings from the Prophets), dealing with each of its three divisions in a different manner.

About the author of this book—which became the most popular and longest-lasting work in Yiddish literature—we have only limited information, but there is no doubt concerning his East European origin. He composed at least one Hebrew book, Shoresh Ya‘akov, “an index and reference to the sources and the roots of all the laws in the Shulḥan ‘arukh, Yoreh de‘ah, and all of the responsa literature in alphabetical order.” According to the author’s son, who published the work after his father’s death (Kraków, 1640), additional books composed by his father remained unpublished.

The immediate success of the Tsene-rene among both men and women encouraged the author, according to his own words, to write another book of the same kind—a discussion of the weekly Bible portions based on selected verses—titled Meylits yoysher, intended for a more defined audience: men who had been yeshiva students and upon marriage neglected their studies and turned ignorant, but now regretted it and, realizing the importance of Torah study, wished to return to it with the aid of Yiddish books. The main sources he drew from are Mosheh Alsheikh’s Torah commentary; Divre shalom by Yitsḥak ben Shemu’el Adrabi; Keli ḥemdah by Shemu’el ben Avraham Laniado; Keli yakar by Efrayim Shelomoh ben Aharon of Luntshits; Akedat Yitsḥak by Yitsḥak Arama; and Sefer ma‘aseh ha-Shem by Eli‘ezer ben Eliyahu ha-Rofe Ashkenazi. The book was published in Lublin in 1622 and had only one additional edition (Prague or Amsterdam, 1688), probably because it was not deemed appropriate for its intended audience.

Ya‘akov ben Yitsḥak also planned and partially composed Seyfer hamagid, a much more comprehensive work, intended to be a commentary on all the biblical books except for the Pentateuch, and in which “ancient words are translated into the language of Ashkenaz, with explanations of each and every verse sweeter than honey, in order that all the unlearned, young and old, know and understand by themselves all the books of the Bible.” The author apparently intended to present both a Yiddish translation and homiletic commentaries to each and every verse. Considering the advantages of the printed book in the process of learning, he preferred reading to hearing, and aimed to provide his audience with a substitute in book form for the magid, the teacher engaged in teaching Torah to a class of adults, as was decreed in the community ordinances. The disadvantages of this teaching method—the set times, which could cause one to arrive late or entirely miss the lesson, and the pace of study, which could not take into account the individual learning abilities of the students—would be overcome through his book. The reader could study on his own and at his own time and pace. However, it appears that Seyfer hamagid, whose author died shortly after the beginning of its publication in 1623, went through different transformations before its three impressive volumes appeared in Lublin: First Prophets (1623), Latter Prophets (1624–1626), and Writings (1627). From the publishers’ introductions we learn not only that Ya‘akov ben Yitsḥak did not complete his work before his death, but also that they were uncomfortable with his manner of interpretation since he preferred other exegetes to Rashi’s commentary and because he addressed his work to an “average and helpless” public.

In order to broaden Ya‘akov ben Yitsḥak’s intended audience for Seyfer hamagid, the publishers added the biblical text as well as Rashi’s commentary in the original Hebrew. In places where Rashi was lacking, they turned to other exegetes, among them Radak (David Kimḥi), Ralbag (Levi ben Gershon), Avraham ibn Ezra, and Aharon of Pesaro (Toldot Aharon). Possible differences between the sections the author himself composed and the sections added after his death have not been explored. In any case, the predominant pattern consists of the citation of the original Hebrew verse, followed by its Yiddish translation, and accompanied by various kinds of short or long homiletic additions, most of them from Rashi’s commentary. Even if we do not know for certain which parts originate from Ya‘akov ben Yitsḥak and which were contributed by others, there is no doubt that it was his initiative that first provided the Ashkenazic public with an efficient textbook for the autodidactic study of the Prophets and the Writings.

Nevertheless, what was accomplished for these books early in the seventeenth century was not accomplished for the five books of the Torah until the second decade of the eighteenth century, when two residents of Amsterdam, Eli‘ezer Zusman Rudelsum [Rödelsheim] and Menaḥem Mann Amelander, composed a Yiddish version of the Pentateuch following the pattern of Seyfer hamagid. By including it in a book together with their revised edition of the latter, they provided the reader with a complete and consistent Yiddish rendering of the entire Bible. The new book, Magishey minkhe, was published in Amsterdam (1725–1729) and became extremely popular. Surprisingly, its popularity did not diminish the widespread acceptance of Seyfer hamagid, which also continued to be reprinted. Moreover, from 1738 onward there appeared editions of Seyfer hamagid that included the Pentateuch version of Magishey minkhe.

The pattern established in Seyfer hamagid is followed in Khumesh im targem ivri-taytsh (Pentateuch with Yiddish Translation), whose first editions appeared in Eastern Europe in the 1830s. The translation with commentary in Yiddish in these books, too, was set beneath Rashi’s Hebrew interpretation, which was itself set under the biblical original; in different editions, other interpretations—either in their original Hebrew or in Yiddish translation—were often added. Seyfer hamagid, Magishey minkhe, and Khumesh im targem ivri-taytsh disseminated, maintained, and preserved the knowledge of the Bible, the commentaries, and the Midrash for broad sectors of Ashkenazic Jewry for generations. With the aid of these books, the Bible with Rashi’s commentary became a living cultural treasure for the simple Jew who did not understand its original language. The presence of the original Hebrew text in combination with the Yiddish translation must have served as a bridge to the language of the Torah and its meaning.

Ethical Literature

The printing presses of Poland were extremely important locations for publishing ethical literature. Among the works first published in Poland were Brantshpigl (Kraków, 1596), the comprehensive ethical work by Mosheh ben Hanokh Altschul of Prague, which achieved a wide level of popularity and was called “the encyclopedia of the Jewish woman”; and a bilingual ethical–moralistic poem by Elḥanan Heln of Frankfurt am Main, Shir ve-zemer na’eh ‘al orekh ha-galut (Lublin, 1624), whose sharp social criticism seems just as appropriate to the circumstances in Poland as to the situation in the author’s place of residence. Among the ethical compositions that earned repeated printings are Seyfer mides (Kraków, 1582), first printed in Isny, Germany, in 1542, and Seyfer mare muser / Tsukhtshpigl, by Seligman Ulma Ginzburger (Lublin, 1640; first printed in Prague, 1610).

However, it was not the printing and distribution of books that constituted the main contribution of East European Jewry to Yiddish ethical literature, but rather the compositions of local residents. The earliest is the comprehensive poem (88 stanzas of 7 lines) composed by a Silesian-born Jew, Binyomin Volf of Kraków. The poem, whose genre is defined by its name, Eyn sheyn getlekh lid (A Beautiful Pious Poem), is based on the halakhic code Tur, Oraḥ ḥayim and is an elaborate poetic adaptation of a selection of the original’s contents. It deals with conduct in the synagogue and at the family table, children’s education and hospitality, the treatment of servants and the poor, and more. Despite its direct connection to the Hebrew original, the contents appear to be anchored in the reality of the author’s time and place. His guidance is directed toward a male reader, an inhabitant of a city who is tempted by its seductions, and who is warned against cardplaying, drunkenness, and drinking with non-Jews. Similar in nature and orientation is the anonymous poem Seyfer matsl mimoves, attributed to “a very well-known Torah scholar,” and printed in Kraków, although it is unknown whether its author was East European. Similar themes are addressed by Leib Lemberger in his ethical booklet Khibet hakeyver (date and place of publication unknown).

Sam khayim by Avraham Ashkenazi Apeteyker of Ludmir was printed in Prague in 1590. An ethical composition written in parallel Hebrew and Yiddish versions of rhymed prose, it deals with moral–practical issues. Although the author, a pharmacist, is a learned man, he does not consider himself a talmid ḥakham (learned Torah scholar). From the point of view of a respectable member of the community, he presents the ideal manners of behavior to be followed by diverse groups of the public: householders, yeshiva students, and especially the communal leaders and religious ministrants, such as the parnasim (lay leaders), rabbis, charity and tax collectors, cantors, and beadles. Although the influence of previous ethical works is apparent, his book is unique in being ordered not according to ethical qualities, but rather according to the type of addressee. The author suggests the proper conduct bound to lead to a harmonious, righteous, and moral community life. In consequence, the composition reflects various aspects of daily life in the author’s time and place, and some echoes are heard of his spoken Eastern Yiddish. Despite its uniqueness and originality—and perhaps due to the quality of printing, which renders its reading extremely difficult—Apeteyker’s work did not gain popularity. A revised version appeared in Metsies Ezri by Menaḥem ‘Azaryah ha-Kohen, which was printed only twice, in Amsterdam (1727) and Żółkiew (1795).

An interesting and unique contribution to Yiddish ethical literature, a book of morals titled Meynekes Rivke, was written by Rivke bas Me’ir of Tikotin, the first known Ashkenazic female author. The second edition of her book (Kraków, 1618) appeared slightly earlier than Seyfer lev tov (Prague, 1620), with which this genre reached its climax in Eastern Europe. While Sam khayim and Meynekes Rivke were soon forgotten, and the Brantshpigl with the passing of time had a limited number of editions, the editions of Lev tov continued to appear for centuries, and the work is still being reprinted today.

The tendency to address an exclusively male audience is more conspicuous in East European Yiddish ethical literature than in general Yiddish ethical literature. However, in the genre of books of commandments for women, Eastern Europe made a unique contribution to Yiddish literature. Not only were the first two books published in this field, Azhores noshim and Seyder noshim, printed in Kraków (brought there from Italy), but Seyder mitsves noshim: Eyn sheyn frauen bikhlen by Binyamin Aharon ben Avraham Selnik of Grodno—the author of the responsa Mas’at Binyamin—displaced the other books of this type. What characterizes the composition is the intimacy of his direct appeal to the female audience, and the interweaving of exemplary proverbs and stories from the Talmud and Midrash, making engaging reading material out of the discussion of the women’s commandments—ḥalah (preparation of the Sabbath bread), nidah (purity laws), and hadlakat ha-ner (Sabbath candlelighting). The simple and flowing language, which preserves signs of the spoken Yiddish of Eastern Europe and in some measure reflects the day-to-day life there, also enhanced its appeal. The book was printed in Poland three times before 1600, and was reprinted elsewhere in the Ashkenazic dispersion in later centuries as well. In 1616, an Italian translation by Ya‘akov Heilprun appeared in Venice and was reprinted there in 1652 and 1710.

In the area of translations of the liturgy into Yiddish, research has yet to determine the East European contribution prior to the seventeenth century, beyond the printing and distribution of books. The same is true for the genre of tkhines (supplicational or petitional prayers), both those written in Yiddish and those translated from Hebrew. In this period, tkhines were not published in collections in Poland, but appeared rather as individual prayers, either as separate pamphlets or as additions to the ends of books, such as Seyfer matsl mimoves or Seyder mitsves noshim. Of the different types of liturgical songs and hymns before 1648–1649, only a few songs whose authors’ East European origin is definite have survived: “Simkhes toyre lid” by Rivke bas Me’ir of Tikotin; and the bilingual Hebrew–Yiddish songs “Tsemakh li-Tsevi” (1621) by Pesaḥ Tsevi ha-Kohen Shats, commonly known as Hirsh Khazn of Lublin; “Shire Yehudah” by Yehudah Leib Zhelikhover, a scribe and cantor from Little Poland who worked in the community of Altona-Hamburg-Wandsbek (Amsterdam, 1697); and “Zemer le-Purim” by Ze’ev Volf ben Yehudah Leib (Berlin, 1699). Some of many other songs of this kind that have not reached us were probably composed in Eastern Europe and printed there or elsewhere.

No narrative prose composed in Yiddish in Eastern Europe from before the end of the eighteenth century has been preserved. Before 1800, only three thin booklets of stories translated from Hebrew (and it is uncertain as to whether the translators were local) are known: the apocryphal (“external”) stories of Shoshanah and Yehudit (Kraków, 1571); “Khurbn habayis,” legends of the destruction of the temple (Kraków, 1583); and the story of Abraham and Nimrod from Seyfer mogn Avrom (Lublin, 1624). There is no trace of local original narrative prose. While the copying into Hebrew characters of German popular works reflects contact of German Jews with the local popular literature, and while Yiddish adaptations of Italian novels testify to vital literary contacts between Ashkenazic Jews in Italy with the local literature, there is a total absence of evidence in East European Yiddish literature of any contact with literary creations—in Polish or other Slavic languages—in the Jews’ areas of settlement. Similarly, two books, Diber tov, a Hebrew–Yiddish–Italian dictionary intended for Ashkenazim in Italy and printed in Kraków in 1590, and Safah berurah, a conversation book and travel guide in Hebrew, Yiddish, Italian, and Latin, printed in Prague in 1660, evidence interest in different languages, but not in any Slavic language.

This lack of cultural and literary contacts between the East European Jewish public and the surrounding population seems to have continued for a long period. However, East European Jews maintained extremely lively contacts with Jews elsewhere, and were at the same time consumers of Yiddish books printed outside of Eastern Europe, and until 1648–1649 were also important suppliers of Yiddish books to the entire Ashkenazic Diaspora. Noteworthy among these are the first printings in Kraków of anonymous Yiddish translations of two historical works—Shevet Yehudah by Shelomoh ibn Verga (1591), and the chronicle of the Vienna persecutions in the fifteenth century (1609)—as well as the travelogue Gliles Erets-Yisroel by Gershon ben Eli‘ezer ha-Levi, which was originally written in Yiddish and printed in Lublin in 1635. A Yiddish translation of Sefer ha-yashar titled “Tsemakh David” and completed in 1669 by Avraham Kap Serles of Pińczów, a refugee from Tysmenitsa (Ukraine) residing in Cleve (Germany), remains unpublished. In the introduction, the author mentions Shabetai Tsevi and mourns the loss of his wife and children in a massacre, while he himself was captured by Tartars and sold several times during his captivity.

Developments in East European Yiddish literature following 1648–1649 still require basic examination; however, it is clear that the virtual absence of Hebrew printing presses in Poland–Lithuania from 1648 until the last quarter of the eighteenth century resulted in the almost complete dependence of local Yiddish readers on books supplied to them from the outside. What has been preserved from the presses of Prague and Amsterdam is an array of Yiddish songs dealing with events that occurred in different locations in Eastern Europe. These songs, termed “historishe” lider (“historical” songs), present an East European type bearing special traits to a literary genre that was widespread in all of Ashkenaz.

The purpose of the Yiddish “historical” songs—as was also true of the German neue Zeitungen or neue Lieder and the Polish pieśni nowiniarskie—was to describe realistically a recent event, and to write and publish it shortly after that event’s occurrence. The oldest known Yiddish historical songs deal with events in Germany and were published in the first decade of the seventeenth century. No song of this kind written from then until 1648 has come down to us, but from 1648 to the end of the eighteenth century we have 47 such Yiddish or bilingual (Hebrew and Yiddish) songs, and it is likely that many more did not survive. Although none was printed in Eastern Europe, we know of a Polish Jew, Ḥayim ben Shalom, who was the author of a song about the trial and execution of two Jewish thieves in Prostitz (Prostějov), Moravia, in 1684. On several occasions, Polish Jews are mentioned in songs dealing with events outside Poland: a Polish woman’s search for the husband who deserted her, and her success in getting a divorce (1675); the death (during a raid) of Natan Note Hannover, the author of Yeven metsulah, described in a song about the tribulations of the Jews in Ungarisch-Brod during the Turkish invasion (1683); and the devastation caused by bubonic plague in Poland in the early eighteenth century, mentioned in a song about a fire in Altona (1713). About one-fifth, or 9 out of 47, of the extant “historical” songs deal directly with events that took place within the borders of the Polish Commonwealth between 1648 and the end of the eighteenth century, and were therefore most certainly composed by local Jews.

Persecutions and assaults on Jewish communities in Eastern Europe during invasion, war, and rebellion are the themes of four of the songs. The oldest one, “Kine al gzeyres hakehiles de-k”k Ukrayne,” about the Khmel’nyts’kyi massacres, appeared in September 1648, just before the Jewish New Year and right in the middle of the slaughter, making it the earliest document we have on those events, as the Hebrew dirge the song mentions as its source has not survived. A second edition, titled “Gzeyre lid al gzeyres hakehiles de-medines Ukrayne,” was printed in Amsterdam shortly afterward. The sufferings of the Jews in Lithuania, Belorussia, and elsewhere during the Muscovite invasion in 1655 are the topic of the historical song “Kine” (Lamentation); what befell the Jews of Poznań during the attack of the Tarnogrod Confederation in 1716 is recorded in “Di bashraybung fun gzeyres k”k Pozne” (The Description of the Persecutions in the Holy Community of Poznań); and “Kine al gzeyres Ukrayne” depicts the Haidamak attack on Uman in 1768. Four songs deal with trials of Jews being led to execution. The accused were usually tortured in order to make them convert, an act that would have saved them from death. Having refused to convert in spite of torture, they were executed and earned the epithet kodesh (martyr) in the songs telling their stories. “Dos bikhl fun dem kodesh Reb Shakhne” (The Booklet of the Martyr Reb Shakhne), dating from 1682, is the earliest song we know of about this type of trial in Eastern Europe. Reb Shakhne was arrested and sentenced to death for purchasing stolen sacred church objects; he refused to convert and was executed.

The trial and execution in 1691–1692 of three Jews from Vilna accused of murdering a Christian child is the subject of the song “Dos bilbl iz af di dray kdoyshim be-k”k Vilne” (This Blood Libel is on the Three Martyrs in the Holy Community of Vilna; Amsterdam, ca. 1692). Two additional songs dealing with the fate of Jews accused of desecrating the Holy Host or denigrating the Christian faith were printed without indication of place or date. The anonymous author of “Kidesh hashem hameyukhed shel Reb Mates vereb Pinkhes vereb Avrom” (The Sanctification of the Only One by Reb Mates and Reb Pinkhes and Reb Avrom; 166?–1692) seems to have lived in Lublin and to have witnessed the death on the stake of the accused. These three martyrs are mentioned again in a later song titled “Min hakodesh Reb Shloyme” (Of the Martyr Reb Shloyme) about Shelomoh of Krzeszów, who was hanged in 1692 for a reason not explained in the song. The author, Shemu’el ben David Auerbach of Lublin, author of a Hebrew commentary on the Book of Genesis (Sefer ḥesed Shemu’el; Amsterdam, 1699), describes the torture and deaths of other contemporary martyrs as well (Avrom of Lublin, Yuda of Przemyśl, Binyomen and Pinkhes Zelig of Łuków, Nakhmen of Maków, and Shmuel of Nowe Miasto). All of these Yiddish songs combine to form a sort of martyrology scroll of East European Jews in the late seventeenth century. The one remaining song (Prague, ca. 1696) differs from them with its bilingual form (it has parallel versions in Hebrew and Yiddish), its substantial length and broad perspective, and the outcome of the event described: a blood libel in Poznań in 1696 is averted by the efforts and close cooperation between Jews and non-Jews. The author, Yitsḥak ben Menaḥem, who believed the blood libel endangered all Polish Jews, called his work Seyfer geules Yisroel (The Book of the Redemption of Israel).

The Yiddish historical songs on East European events differ from others not only because of the kind of events they describe (they do not deal with fires, plagues, expulsions, or natural disasters), but in other ways, too: most are in rhymed prose and not in stanzas; they are titled kine, bikhl, bashraybung, and not lid, sheyn nay lid, klog lid, and the like; and if they do indicate their tune, its origin is Hebrew prayer, never German popular song. While these local characteristics of the genre do not reflect direct contact with the parallel Polish genre, they may be a result of the lack of direct contact with the German language and its popular literature, which produced a more intensive drawing from internal sources.

It appears that except for this genre, there is nothing in East European Yiddish literary creations to distinguish them from literary works produced elsewhere. Against this background, a small booklet containing eight pages and bearing the title “Di bashraybung fun ashkenaz un polak” is noteworthy. It describes a dispute between a German Jew and a Polish Jew and was printed twice without a title page, the author’s name, or the year of printing, while the location of its printing—Prague—is indicated in only one of the two printings. The Polish Jew opens the dispute and presents a detailed and vivid description of German Jews, their “aberrant” behavior, mainly in the realm of hospitality, and their “disgraceful” attitude toward Jews of Polish origin. He describes their eating and drinking habits; their conduct at home, with family, and in the synagogue; their dress and appearance; their aspirations. The German Jew answers in kind, and he too details his claims concerning the Polish Jews’ character, habits, and conduct. He presents the Polish Jew’s image mainly as a beggar, as dishonest, and as one who aspires to take full advantage of his hosts.

References to the Khmel’nyts’kyi massacres of 1648–1649 as the reason for the Polish Jews coming to Ashkenaz determine the date of the work’s composition as the second half of the seventeenth century, and similar hints to the Thirty Years’ War—as the reason for the German Jews’ earliest arrival in Poland—give reason to question the opinion that the song was composed only in the eighteenth century. In any case, the present depicted in the song—for example, in citing the superiority of Poland as a “land of Torah,” the import of different types of religious ministrants (mainly rabbis, cantors, and teachers) from there to Germany (which lacked them)—was appropriate to that reality for a long period of time. The rather balanced presentation of both sides does not allow for a definite determination of the author’s origin, and what makes it even more difficult is the surprising appearance, toward the end of the song, of a Jew from Prague who claims his superiority, to whom the German responds with a series of references (obscure to the reader today) to famous deceptive deeds of Jews from Prague.

The bashraybung (description) presents an array of characteristic traits (for example, dress, food, conduct, etiquette, customs, habits, and even words and expressions) that distinguish different groups among Ashkenazic Jewry, and these descriptions contain the foundations of the stereotypes of the German Jew and the Polish Jew or East European Ostjude, known to us from a later period.

However, in the period dealt with here, there is no sign that the differences between these groups had any clearly discernible influence on the kind of Yiddish literature each of them produced or consumed. All of Ashkenaz was still sustained by one and the same corpus of Yiddish literature, which for the most part ignored local differences, particularly linguistic ones, for the sake of its widest distribution.

The role of East European Jewry in Yiddish literary works published outside of Eastern Europe in the eighteenth century has yet to be researched. Up until the last quarter of the eighteenth century, many of the known works (such as Tsene-rene, Lev tov, Hamagid, women’s commandment books, tkhines) continued to be issued—as they were or with changes—by the printing presses of Prague, Amsterdam, and cities in Germany. Joining them are only two important Yiddish compositions written by East European authors. The first is Kav hayosher by Vilna-born Tsevi Hirsh Koidanover, an ethical work replete with harsh criticism of individual and collective behavior, and including a mixture of stories from different sources, mainly the Zohar and hagiographical tales concerning Yitsḥak Luria and Ḥayim Vital. Extensive sections of the book are taken directly from the manuscript of Yesod Yosef by Yosef ben Yehudah Yidl, rabbi of Minsk and teacher of the author. Kav hayosher first appeared in a bilingual Hebrew–Yiddish format in Frankfurt am Main (vol. 1, 1705; vol. 2, 1706), and was printed in numerous editions in Yiddish and Hebrew, the language in which it continues to appear today. The other composition is Nakhles Tsvi by preacher and kabbalist Tsevi Hirsh ben Yeraḥmi’el Ḥotsh of Kraków, a rich and extensive selection of ethical passages and stories from the Zohar. The book was first printed in Frankfurt am Main in 1711 and was frequently reissued.

In the last decades of the eighteenth century, historical, cultural, and linguistic processes changed the character of Yiddish literature. The abandonment of Yiddish by its speakers in German-speaking lands in favor of German liberated authors and printers from the necessity to enforce a unified literary language that would be comprehensible to the intended reader throughout the length and breadth of the Ashkenazic dispersion, and allowed for the gradual domination of Eastern Yiddish, the spoken language of Jews in Slavic countries. From then on, these Jews—in the location of their residence or in the places to which they emigrated—would constitute the authors and the audience of Yiddish literature. The printing of Yiddish books in Western Europe gradually and almost completely ended. Concurrently, Yiddish printing began being renewed in Eastern Europe, and the first buds of the new Yiddish literature began appearing, the most important of which are Seyfer refues hanikro eyzer Yisroel by Moyshe Markuze (Poryck, 1790), the independent Yiddish version of Shivkhey habesht (Korets, 1816), the bilingual (Hebrew and Yiddish) first edition of Seyfer sipurey mayses by Naḥman of Bratslav (1816), and (Menaḥem) Mendel Lefin’s translation of Proverbs (Tarnopol, 1817). Subsequently, modern Yiddish literature developed, with roots in Eastern Europe—the exclusive location of its further growth and development—almost until the end of the nineteenth century.

Suggested Reading

Maks Erik, Di geshikhte fun der yidisher literatur fun di eltste tsaytn biz der haskole-tkufe (1928; rpt., New York, 1979); Chone Shmeruk, Sifrut yidish: Perakim le-toldoteha (Tel Aviv, 1978), pp. 72–89; Chone Shmeruk, Sifrut yidish be-Polin: Meḥkarim ve-‘iyunim historiyim (Jerusalem, 1981), pp. 11–116; Chava Turniansky, “Yiddish ‘Historical’ Songs as Sources for the History of the Jews in Pre-Partition Poland,” Polin 4 (1989): 42–52; Israel Zinberg, A History of Jewish Literature, vol. 7, pt. 8, Old Yiddish Literature from Its Origins to the Haskalah Period (Cincinnati and New York, 1975).



Translated from Hebrew by Carrie Friedman-Cohen