Librarian's Lobby
by Daniel D. Stuhlman

June 2001

Yiddish books from the 17th and 18th Centuries

Over the past few weeks I have cataloged more than 350 Yiddish books published before 1740. These books are part of a microfiche project done by the Inter Documentation Company (IDC) in Leiden, the Netherlands, to preserve Jewish books and encourage the distribution and use of rare and important books and periodicals. Many of these books are found in fewer than five libraries and the originals are in fragile condition.(1) The project was done in the late 1970's. Another microfiche project, the Judaica Archive Project, was done in conjunction with the Hebrew University and Jewish National Library. Microfiche is now considered old technology. For those of you who have never used fiche, it is a photographic film card about 4.5 x 6 inches (105 x 148 mm). Images of the pages are photographically reduced. The actual reduction scale depends on the size of the original. Currently the Judaica Archive Project no longer sells copies of microfiche. They are now offering books on CD-ROMs that can be read using a computer.

This collection consists of the full range of Yiddish literature. The materials include liturgical books (Mahzorim, Haggadot, and Birkhat ha-Mazon), Bibles (translations and commentaries), books of ethics and customs, history (for example Yosippon) and missionary materials. Meyer Waxman, in his A History of Jewish Literature (New York, Bloch Publishing, 1933) volume 2, gives an overview and description of most of the Yiddish books in this microfiche collection. Since I am not a Yiddishist, I will focus on features that Waxman did not mention.(2)

The value of this fiche collection is its aggregate total. This is the individual items will probably never be read in their entirety. The items are artifacts and provides windows into understanding the Jewish communities of their time. Until this microfiche project, scholars of pre-1799 Yiddish literature had few places to examine this material. The Hebrew University-Jewish National Library (HUJNL), Jewish Theological Seminary(3), Bodleian Library of Oxford(4), and YIVO had the biggest collections. The ability of the scholar to examine a significant percentage of all these books cannot be understated. Yiddish books did not command the same reverence as religious Hebrew texts. Because of persecutions, wandering, etc., of European Jewry, few copies of Yiddish books and manuscripts have survived.

General Observations

The biggest centers for Yiddish book publication were Amsterdam, Frankfurt am Main, Dyherenfuth, and Wilmersdorf. The spelling of Yiddish words in the books is fluid and based on how the author or publisher pronounced the words. Even within the same book, words could be spelled different ways. Yiddish developed in the middle ages, however, we have very few manuscripts or books from before the 15th century. Some scholars maintain that until the 16th century there was very little difference between German and spoken Yiddish. All the books in the fiche collection use the term "Lashon Ashkanaz" [German language] when describing the language of the work or the included translation. This expression, "Lashon Ashkanaz," is evidence that Hebrew words were part of the vocabulary of Yiddish. (Now before you claim that Yiddish included words from Russian, Slavic, Polish, and English, remember we are examining early Yiddish books.) Some scholars studying the origin of Yiddish argue that as early as the 13th century there was a differentiation between the speech of the Jews and their neighbors. Some differences were influenced by the use of Hebrew letters for writing Yiddish. Certain sounds in German can't be represented in Hebrew letters. In addition the Jews were isolated from the changes in spoken German and the use of Hebrew expressions was wide spread among even the least schooled Jews.

Many Haggadot and Birkat ha-Mazon (These books contain blessing after meals and other prayers for the home) books have illustrations. Some of the same illustrations appear in editions published in different places separated by many years. Considering that photo reproduction did not exist, the second publisher had to either copy the illustration by hand or get the original wood cut. The illustrations do give us clues to what the people wore. The Birkat ha-Mazon books also contain prayers from home ceremonies such as the lighting of Hanukkah candles and the Pesah seder. Publishers were not always careful to choose pictures that illustrated the text. For example one picture in Birkat ha-Mazon(5), 1687 shows a man holding a candle extinguisher reaching up to put out the lights on a seven-branched menorah that is taller than the man. The text is, "Ha-narot ha-lallu" followed by "Ma-oz Tzur." This book has pictures of a man getting ready to wash his hands and a woman blessing the lights of the oil lamp in two places, before birkat ha-mazon and right after the blessing of maror. The lines of type near the illustrations are not straight. The picture of the man washing and blessing on the lights also appears in a Haggadah(6) from Prague dated 1713, however, the woman is on the opposite side of the table. This 1713 Haggadah also repeats pictures of the Bet Ha-mikdash. The woman blessing the light appears again in a Birkat ha-Mazon(7) book from 1629.

Many of these books were written for women. On the title pages the author states this book is for girls (maidlakh) and wives (viber). This indicates that women could read and they probably knew Yiddish better than Hebrew.

A few unanswered questions-- How much did these book cost? Not just actual amounts but in comparison to the wages earned. How many and what books were in a typical Jewish home? We have records of the collections from rich and well-known bibliophiles, but so far I have found not clues as to what a common Jew or even a shul rabbi would own.

A Tanakh Sample

Just as an example I would like to compare Shemot 20:8-10 in the Yiddish translation of Amsterdam 1687 (IDC card# J-43-306) with the German translation of Rabbi Selig Bamberger (Frankfurt a.M., 192-?). The section is the Aseret Ha-Dibrot (Ten Commandments).

Yiddish text transliteration: Gedenk den tag fun (shebes) des di iyn heiligist. Seks tag zalstu 'arbeiten un du zallst al deyn verk tun. Un an dem sibendn tag iz (shabes) tsu Got daynem Got. Du solzt kiener tse verktun du un deyn zun un deyn takhter deyn kanekht un deyne dinst ihr un deyn fikh un deyn fremdlim der da iyn deyne pafartn az.

German translation: Gedente des Ruhetages, ihn zu heiligen. Sechs Tage sollst du arbeiten und all dein Werk verrichten, Der siebente Tag ist ein Ruhetag dem Ewigen, deinem Gott, zu Ehren; da sollst fu sein Werk verrichten, weder du noch dein Sohn oder deine Tochter, noch bein Stlave oder bein Stavin, noch dein Vieh, auch nicht dein Fremer, der sich in deiner Toren aufhalt.

English translation: Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy. Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but on the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God; you shall not do any work-- you, your son or your daughter, your male or female servant or the stranger within settlements.

These early Yiddish books are an important window to the understanding of Jewish culture of the era. We learn that reading was wide spread. The most important books for women were books for home rituals, personal prayer (e.g. Tehinot), and books connected to the Tanakh such as translations, commentaries and interpretations. For men siddurim and mahzorim had Yiddish directions and translations. Yiddish books of fiction were not written until the late 1800s.

1. The sales brochure from IDC claims many of these books are single copies. I think this is an exaggeration since information from at least three libraries indicates they own significant numbers of these titles. However, for over 90% I was the first one to enter the bibliographic information for the title in this collection into a computer system.

2. Additional sources: "Yiddish translations of the Bible," by A.R. Malachi. In Yiddish. In Jewish Book Annual, vol. 21(1963-64) p. 22-40.; "Yiddish Literature" in Encyclopedia Judaica (Keter Publishing, 1971) v. 16 col. 800-833.

3. According to Nahum Sarna in "The Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America" In Jewish Book Annual, vol. 21(1963-64) p. 55, the Library acquired the private collection of Judah A. Joffe, which contained more than 1,000 early Yiddish books. The Library claimed to have about 90% of all Yiddish imprints from the 16th-18th centuries.

4. The most comprehensive bibliography of early Yiddish works is M. Steinschneider's Catalogus Librorum Hebraeorum in Bibliotheca Bodleiana (Berlin, 1852-1860). This is a bibliography of all the books in Hebrew letters in the Bodleian Library. The cataloging for the IDC fiche collection includes a reference to this work.

5. Seder Birkhat ha-Mazon. Wilherms Dorf, 1687 (IDC card# J-43-302)

6. Mah Nishtanah. Prag, 1713. (IDC card# J-34-587)

7. Seder Birkhat ha-Mazon. Dyhrn Part, 1692. (IDC card# J-43-755) 

Daniel D. Stuhlman is president of Stuhlman Management Consultants, Chicago, IL, a firm helping organizations turn data and information into knowledge. Previous issues of Librarian's Lobby can be found at: He can be reached via e-mail at:

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©2001 Last revised June 10 , 2001