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Jewish Languages

Hebrew, the holy tongue, has been the main intellectual and liturgical language of the Jewish people throughout their history. However, it is only one of many languages employed by the Jews of the Diaspora over the millennia. Since ancient times, beginning with Aramaic, various Jewish vernacular languages have come into existence. All of these reflect the functions and exigencies of Jewish life and tradition, always including some Hebrew-Aramaic vocabulary and usually written in Hebrew characters.

Best known and most widely printed of these Jewish languages is Yiddish (Judeo-German), still spoken by millions of people. (Montreal, for example, is a Yiddish literary centre.) Judezmo (Judeo-Spanish) is one of the major languages of Sephardic Jews, used in all Balkan lands and parts of North Africa; forms of Judeo-Arabic are still spoken across North Africa and the Orient. Many of the Jewish languages, which developed in medieval times, are now extinct or nearly extinct, among them Judeo-French, Judeo-Provençal, Judeo-Italian, Judeo-Greek, and the Judeo-Slavic, Judeo-Turkic, and Judeo-Indic languages. Some of these almost never appeared in print, some were occasionally printed in uncommon editions, and some, such as Judeo-Persian, were maintained in a living manuscript tradition practically until modern times. In addition to those shown here, examples of these languages, part and parcel of Jewish life prior to assimilation, are scattered throughout this exhibition.

Me'am Lo'ez 1753
Jacob Culi, of Safed and
Constantinople, ca. 1685-1732
Graphical element
[ Me-Am Lo'ez ]
Constantinople: Reuben and Nissim
Ashkenazi, 1753.

The classic work of Judezmo literature, Me-Am Lo'ez is an encyclopedic commentary on the Pentateuch, initiated by Culi, edited and completed by Isaac Magriso and Isaac Argüeti. This volume, on Leviticus, is part of the first edition, printed by the son of Jonah Ashkenazi of Poland, whose firm stimulated a revival of Judezmo literature.

Ketsat Yosef ha-Tsadik
Graphical element
[ Ketsat Yosef ha-Tsadik ]
Manuscript: Shanghai, 1865.

Written (prior to the first printed edition) in a fine oriental cursive script, this is a Judeo-Arabic adaptation of the story of Joseph popular among eastern Sephardim. The scribe was Hayim Barukh Benjamin Hakham Solomon, a member of the Shanghai community of Indian and Egyptian Jews.

Hag- gadah 1740
Liturgy and Ritual. Passover Haggadah
Graphical element
[ Seder Hagadah shel Pesah ]
Venice: Stamparia Vendramina, 1740.

Modelled on the Venetian edition of 1629, this Haggadah includes the Judeo-Italian translation by Leone Modena, along with his abridgement of Abravanel's commentary. One table song at the end is given in Yiddish: Almekhtiger Got.

Sefer Goralot 1838
Sefer Goralot
Graphical element
[ Sefer Goralot ]
Manuscript: Persia?, 1838.

This Judeo-Persian recension of the Book of Lots ascribed to Ahitophel the Gilonite, adviser of King David, is part of a whole genre of fortune-telling books. The manuscript was written for (or by?) Mordecai b. Elazar b. Ya'uda.

Shivhe Todah 1833
Liturgy and Ritual. Karaite Hymns
Graphical element
[ Shivhei Todah ]
Yevpatoriya (Crimea): s.n., 1833.

The thanksgiving prayers and hymns in this collection, composed by various Karaite scholars including Joseph Solomon Luzki and Abraham Firkovich, were recited by the Karaites on the anniversary of their exemption from military conscription. The introductory historical note and blessing for Czar Nicholas I are given in parallel columns of Hebrew and Karaitic Tatar, a Turkic language.

Biblio- thecae Heb- raeae
Johann Christoph Wolf, of Hamburg,
Bibliothecae Hebraeae Volumen III
Hamburg & Leipzig: apud B. Theod.
Christoph. Felgineri Viduam, 1727.

Wolf, the eminent Christian bibliographer of Hebrew literature, appended to his magnum opus a sample of Genesis in Judeo-Greek, taken from the Constantinople Jewish Polyglot published in 1547. This is the first scholarly treatment of a text in this Jewish language.

Tseneh -reneh 1785
Jacob b. Isaac Ashkenazi, of Janow,
fl. 16th cent.
Graphical element
[ Tseneh-reneh ]
Sulzbach: Aaron and son Zekl
(Arnstein), 1785.

Intended for both men and women ignorant of Hebrew, this Yiddish paraphrase of the Pentateuch, interwoven with tales and legends, in fact became the basic source of Jewish knowledge for women. This edition, illustrated with woodcuts, is one of more than 200 issued over the centuries; the first editions have been lost.

Go to Chap. 15 Go to Chap. 17


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