There is still time to apply: OSRJL Visiting Fellowships!

The Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies is currently inviting applications for 2 OSRJL Visiting Fellowships in Rare Jewish Languages! For more information and to apply, please consult this page.

The deadline to apply is 12 noon UK time on Monday 8 January 2024.


OSRJL Applications Open for Hilary Term 2024

We are pleased to announce that applications for classes beginning in Hilary Term 2024 through our Oxford School of Rare Jewish Languages are now open! For more information and to apply, please consult this page.

The deadline to apply is 4 December 2023 at 12 noon UK time.


The Oran Maḥzor as a Source for the Study of Multiple Histories

This post is based on research undertaken during Professor Jonathan Glasser and Dr Amina Boukail’s stay at the OCHJS as Visiting Scholars in June 2023.


The Oran Maḥzor is a set of five manuscripts found at the Bodleian Library that brings together liturgical and paraliturgical texts associated with the Jewish community of Oran, Algeria, during the first period of this port city’s rule by Spain up until the community’s expulsion in 1669.[1] These manuscripts appear to have emerged from the Cansino family, prominent Jewish figures in Oran who for generations served as Arabic translators and intermediaries for the Spanish authorities.[2] The maḥzor joined the Bodleian Library in 1869 through the intermediary of Isaia Luzzatto, son of the renowned Italian Jewish scholar S. D. Luzzatto, who himself had acquired the manuscripts around 1834.[3] Most of the maḥzor features texts in Hebrew, but one of the manuscripts ends with a long section of poems written in Judeo-Arabic.

Our collaborative work on the Judeo-Arabic components of the maḥzor dates back to 2018. As an Algerian scholar of medieval Arabic literature and an American ethnographer and historian of North African expressive practices, we found in the maḥzor a fascinating testament to everyday life in western Algeria during the early modern period. Professor Paul B. Fenton has published a study of the final long Judeo-Arabic poem narrating the expulsion of the Oran Jewish community by the port city’s Spanish rulers in 1669, but we were pleasantly surprised to discover that this fascinating poem is only the last in a series of more than one hundred texts in Judeo-Arabic and Hebrew that end this volume of the maḥzor.[4]A recent visit to Oxford as Visiting Scholars of the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies allowed us to finalize our Arabic-letter transcription of the texts which we plan to make available online through the website of one of our home institutions, The College of William & Mary, USA. 

Studying this collection of texts enriches our understanding of cultural production in western Algeria during the period in question in several ways. Most immediately, it gives us a rich sense of poetic and musical life among one of the leading Jewish families of Oran in this period. The texts are sung poems which, with the exception of the narrative of the expulsion, are arranged into a compound form called ṭarīq (path). Nearly every ṭarīq brings together multiple texts in Hebrew and Arabic under the rubric of a particular melodic mode. Professor Edwin Seroussi has suggested that this manuscript is the earliest known example of the notion of ṭarīq in a Maghribi Hebrew-letter manuscript.[5] Coming at the end of a larger manuscript that is mainly devoted to liturgical and paraliturgical poems associated with formal worship, the ṭarīq texts point to a rich musical practice that stood alongside these more canonical practices and integrated Arabic texts and musical concepts, including through the use of melodies associated with Arabic texts to sing Hebrew texts found in other parts of the manuscript. If this document indeed reflects the everyday practice of the Cansino family, then it shows that for them, Arabic was a language not simply of commerce and politics but also of intimacy, entertainment, creativity and worship. It is thus a testament to the intimate ties between the Jews of Spanish-ruled Oran and the wider Arab-Islamic culture of the region.

Fig. 1. MS. Opp. Add. 4° 85, ff. 105v, 106r.
(© Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford)

In addition, the nearly one hundred Arabic texts included in the ṭarīq section of the manuscript are a rich contribution to our understanding of early modern poetic and musical practice in this part of the Maghrib. These texts reflect a wide range of linguistic registers, including classical Arabic and colloquial Arabic. A few have obvious religious themes, often with strong Sufi inflections, but most of them read at the surface level as profane love songs, some of them of a homoerotic nature. The poetic voice in some instances evokes a Muslim speaker and, in some cases, a female or an enslaved speaker (or, in several instances, both). Formally speaking, the poems, nearly all of them strophic, are marked as kharjazajalabarwāl or are left unmarked.[6] In a few instances, we can find sung texts that circulated in medieval Iberia, which suggests centuries-long continuity in repertoire. Intriguingly, a few of them are versions of texts that continue to be performed in the modern Andalusian music tradition of the Maghrib, making this manuscript an important point of comparison for later songbook collections. However, many of them are poems that have not been previously attested in print or in manuscript form. This fact makes the manuscript particularly exciting for scholars of Maghribi popular poetry. Making the texts available in Hebrew and Arabic orthography—as our project aims to do—will allow for wider access to this understudied source. In addition, like several recent publications from Morocco and Tunisia, it will provide practical tools for speakers of Arabic who are seeking to learn how to access Judeo-Arabic texts.[7]

[1] The manuscript we explore here is Opp. Add. 4to 85 (Neubauer 1191), marked as Vol II. The connected volumes are Neubauer 1987 (Vol I), 1190 (Vol III), 1089 (Vol IV), and 1163 (Vol V).

[2] On Jews in Spanish-ruled Oran, see the pioneering work of Jonathan Israel, ‘The Jews of Spanish North Africa, 1600-1669’. Transactions and Miscellanies (Jewish Historical Society of England) 26 (1974-1978): 71-86. On the Cansino family, see Jean-Frédéric Schaub, Les juifs du roi d’Espagne: Oran 1509-1669. Paris: Hachette Littératures, 1999.  

[3]We thank Dr César Merchán-Hamann for the information regarding the circumstances of the acquisition.

[4] Paul B. Fenton, ‘Une qaṣîda historique sur l’expulsion des Juifs d’Oran en 1669’. In Présence juive au Maghreb: Hommage à Haïm Zafrani, edited by Joseph Tedghi and Nicole S. Serfaty, 451-455. Paris: Editions Bouchene, 2004.

[5] Edwin Seroussi, ‘Music of the Maghrebi Jews in North-Africa and Israel’. In Perceptions et Réalités au Maroc: Relations Judéo-Musulmanes, Actes du Congrès Marrakech-Paris, 14-22 octobre 1995, edited by Robert Assaraf and Michel Abitbol. Casablanca: CRJM Maroc, 1998.

[6] The use of kharja as a textual heading is unusual—kharja usually refers to the final refrain in a muwashshaḥ. A zajal is a more colloquial version of the strophic muwashshaḥ form, and abarwāl (more usually barwāl or barwāla) usually refers to a short colloquial song text in urban musical traditions in the Maghrib.  

[7] See Abdelaziz Chahbar, Dīwān Al-malḥūn bi-‘arabiyyat yahūd al-maghrib. Tétouan, 2014; Leila Habbachi, Safīnat al-ma’lūf bil-khaṭṭ al-‘ibrī. Tunis: Dār Suḥnūn, 2018.


In a Money Lender’s Shop in Late Medieval Poland

Professor Judith Olszowy-Schlanger is the founder of the OSRJL.


The Bodleian Library manuscript MS. Opp. 600 (Neubauer 1378) is a late 15th-century copy of a learned work: a Hebrew translation of Averroes’s adaptation of the Physica Auscultatio of Aristotle. Translated into Hebrew under the title שמע הטבעי, this translation was a popular work preserved in several extant manuscripts—some medieval, others early modern—copied from the printed version of 1559 (Reva di Trento).[1] MS Opp. 600 predates this printing by more than half a century. Its 93 paper folios are written in careful and elegant, non-square Ashkenazi script consistent with contemporary Eastern European styles. The transmission of this scientific work among Eastern European Jews in the late medieval period is in and of itself a fascinating subject, but what attracts our attention today is a series of informal notes scribbled in Hebrew characters on the blank final leaf (fol. 93) of the volume by one of its readers. The language of these notes—tentatively defined as Polish by Malachi Beit-Arié[2]—and the contents, which I have deciphered (with some difficulty), reveal a moment in the life of the book’s reader, who was probably its owner. Through the notes, we discover this reader’s daily occupation, his time and place of activity and his efforts to communicate efficiently and elegantly with non-Jews.

Fig. 1. MS Opp. 600, f. 93v.
(© Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford)

Once the difficulty of recognising the forms of the Slavic words behind the Hebrew script is overcome, the notes reveal a series of short phrases in Old Polish. They are common expressions a Jewish businessman might have needed to communicate with his Christian clients and reveal that the object of the exchange is money lending. The notes do not reflect an actual transaction, but rather constitute a ‘phrasebook’ providing the money lender with model expressions, all in Polish, for different stages of the transaction. 

The conscientious money lender wrote the expressions in the order in which his meetings and negotiations with his Polish customers would have unfolded. Unfortunately, the beginning of the page is missing—traces of the vowels on its upper edge show that the extant part captures the unfolding of potential negotiations in medias res, but not too far into the discussion. The preserved part begins by a no-nonsense overture: שֵיהו טְרְשֶיבו  (szeho trzebo, Modern Polish [henceforth mPol.] czego trzeba?), ‘What do you need?’, and מְנָא הוֹלִי טרשיבו (mnoho-li trzebo? mPol. czy dużo trzeba?), ‘Do you need a lot?’. The agreement to open the negotiation is expressed by a polite verbal form רַאד בִיך (rad bych, mPol. byłbym rad), ‘I would be glad/I would like’. The phrasebook provides ready language assistance in the event that the client is a woman, to whom an offer is introduced by פַאני מֵיל פַעניד (Pani, miła Pani da), ‘Lady, dear lady, you will give . . .’. Readiness to negotiate is expressed by readiness to talk: ֹ מְלובֿיטְיִ (mołwić, mPol. mówić, ‘to say, to talk’). Then follow model proposals for exchange: פַאנִי מִטוֹד יֵידְנָא (Pani mi to da jedno), ‘Dear lady, you will give me that one’, or בֵֿילמי טוֹהוֹא טְרְשֵיבוֹ (wiele mi toho trzebo, mPol. wiele mi tego trzeba), ‘I need a lot of this’.

If up until now the blank phrases were quite general in their semantic purport, the next expressions leave no doubt that the planned discussions concern credit. נַאצְאש כציש (na cóż chcesz), ‘On what do you want (it)?’, is a question about the type of warranty for the loan, as clarified by the possible options offered to the borrower listed immediately after: צֵֵישלִי נַא רוּקוֹיְמֵי  (chcesz-li na rukojmie, mPol. czy chsesz na rękojmie?), ‘Do you want (to secure the loan) with a guarantor?’ (i.e., a person who will stand surety for the loan), or rather is the loan to be secured by a pawn: דיימי זאקלט (daj mi zakład, mPol. Zastaw), ‘Give me a surety [pawn]’.[3]

Once the legal technicalities regarding the form of the loan’s guarantee are sorted out, the phrasebook provides expressions useful in the discussion of monetary details. One appreciates that the phrasebook offers examples of two-sided dialogue between the creditor and the client: אצש מי דאש טוֹהא ([z]a cóż [?] mi to dasz toho? mPol. Za co mi to dasz?), ‘for how much you will give it to me?’, and the reply: דַאם טֵיבֵי זא גרוש  (dam tiebie za grosz, mPol. dam ci [tobie]za grosz), ‘I will give you for one grosz’ (grosz being a silver coin, 1/48 of grzywna, introduced in Czech and Polish lands at the beginning of the 14th century).[4] There are ready expressions for agreement to the conditions, but also for the absence of it: דַאם טֵיבֵי פִיט פיניז  (dam tiebie piat pieniedz, mPol. dam ci pięć [monet] pieniędzy), ‘I will give you five coins’, faces ני דאם טֵיבי  (nie dam tiebie, mPol. nie dam ci), ‘I will not give to you . . .’. Negotiation allows for the increase of the sum advanced for a pawn—up to six coins—and foresees the possibility that this will not be accepted: כַאק ניד זַא שֵישְט פיניז (kak nie da za sześć pieniedz, mPol. jak nie da za sześć pieniędzy [monet], ‘if he/she will not give for six coins . . .’).

The phrasebook advises firmness and formulates an ultimatum clause, which, by the way, can be used by both the creditor and the borrower: פְרוֹטוֹ  בֵֿיזמִי לֵיבו נֵיבַֿיי (pro to weźmi leybo [for lubo] nie wej[ź], mPol. weź za to, albo nie bierz), ‘either you take it for this or don’t take (it)’. Additionally, the notes provide ready formulae for when the parties have not reached an agreement. The formula expressing disappointment is crossed out, and a more daring formulation offered: נמי טו יֵשט ווילקא שקודא זֵי יַא (nie mi to jest wielka szkoda że ja . . .), ‘it is not a great damage (pity) for me, that I . . .’. A difficult sentence to interpret is: צשלוֹבִיק נֵי מוהַל סֵיבֵי סְטֵיסְקְנוֹצֵי זֵיבֵי מול מוהל זופֿאצי (człowiek nie mohl siebie steisknoć [ścisknąć[5] (?) żeby mohl zobaczy(ć)], mPol. człowiek nie mógł się zmusić [?], [?] żeby mógł zobaczy[ć]), ‘a man could not force (?) himself to see’. This hypothetical exchange ends without using up all the space on the page and with what seems to be a rebuke for a certain person’s possible statements: […]אוֹ,  מי מוֹרַפֿשקי מלוביטיי([c]o mi Morawski mołwitie, mPol. mówicie!), ‘what are you telling me, Morawski!’. 

This last sentence provides the only strictly historical information present in the phrasebook—the name of a Polish individual. In the late medieval period, the aristocratic Morawski family was prominent in the political life of the regions of Mazovia and Podlesie, in today’s Central-Eastern Poland.[6] This nobleman’s name, together with the expressions addressing a female client by the honorific ‘pani’ (‘lady’), may indicate that this Jewish creditor had financial dealings with high Polish society, a hypothesis supported by historical information on credit in medieval Poland. Unfortunately, there is no explicit mention of the creditor’s name, date or place of activity. As stated, his writing can be classified as belonging to the Eastern Ashkenazi non-square type of the 15th-16th centuries, containing some cursive features, such as large shin whose shape is reminiscent of a Latin ‘e’.

Let us now turn briefly to the language of the notes. Their linguistic features belong to the Old Polish (staropolski) layer of the language (Old Polish lasted from the earliest attestation of Polish words in Latin texts in the 12th century until the turn of the 15th and 16th centuries). Before discussing grammatical characteristics of this short text, though, we need to point out the enormous difficulties of reconstructing the words’ pronunciation and morphology. Hebrew characters render imperfectly the rich gamut of Slavic sounds. The writer recorded his aural impressions, noting what he heard, sometimes even dividing words wrongly or amalgamating several short Polish words into one graphic compound, as in line 3 מִטוֹד, mitod(a) for mi to da, ‘(she) will give it to me’. The Hebrew vowels were added only to part of the phrases and, when present, they only partially elucidate the pronunciation. In most cases, the presence of the vowels necessitates another level of analysis, aimed at not only ascertaining how the Hebrew vocalization was used to reflect the vernacular Old Polish vocalic system, but also at understanding how the Hebrew vowels were pronounced by Jews living and writing in Polish-speaking lands. 

It must be mentioned that the inconsistency in spellings is not only a matter of an always-imperfect transposition of the phonetics of one language to a graphic system of another, which does not contain signs expressing sounds which are foreign to Hebrew and Semitic languages. Early Polish texts written in Latin characters are also notorious for their highly inconsistent and idiosyncratic spellings, despite the normalizing ambitions of the Rector of the University of Krakow, Jakub Partoszowic of Żórawica.[7] His tractate on Polish orthography, written in the mid-15th century in Latin, was not able to reform the chaotic spelling of the growing number of vernacular texts. It was only in the blossoming Renaissance culture of the 16th century that lasting normalisation was introduced into Polish spellings. Indeed, Old Polish adopted the Latin alphabet and had to find creative solutions to express nasal vowels ę and ą; the mid-lingual consonants ć, ś, ź, dź; dentals sz, cz, ż, dż; plausives c and dz; and j and ł. No wonder the author of our phrasebook had similar problems, made even more acute by his use of the Hebrew alphabet. 

Thus lamed is used for l and ł (מֵיל, mPol. miła, ‘dear’) (similarly, in Old Polish texts in Latin characters, both sounds are rendered by l[8]); ṣade expresses both c and cz (in Old Polish, too, the grapheme c could be used for both sounds); and resh renders r (רַאד, mPol. rad, rady, ‘glad, happy, satisfied’) but also combines with a shin to render a ż sound when it is spelled rz (etymological ř) (טְרְשֶיבוֹ, mPol. trzeba, ‘it is needed’). Shin/sin (no diacritic point to differentiate these two Hebrew consonants is ever marked in the notes) can render sz (שֵישְט, mPol. sześć, ‘six’), ś (שֵישְט, sześć, ‘six’) or simply s (יֵשט, jest, ‘he/she is’), or be a component with resh to render rz (טְרְשֶיבוֹ, mPol. trzeba, ‘it is needed’). Alternatively, s is rendered by a samekh (סֵיבֵי, siebie, ‘oneself’). Zayn expresses both z (זַא, za, ‘for, in exchange’), dz (פיניז, pieniedz (mPol. pieniądz), ‘money, coin’) and ż (זֵי, że, relative pronoun ‘that’). Kaph and khaphexpress ch (כציש, chcesz, ‘you want’, בִיך, bych, mPol. bym, ‘[I] would . . .’) but also k, interchangeably with qoph (כאק,kak [mPol. jak], ‘how, thus’). Beth is equivalent to b but also expresses w and is, in these cases, provided with a raphe-like sign above (בֵֿיל, wiele, ‘a lot, many’). In turn, the Polish b can be rendered by a pe with a raphe sign as in זופֿאצי(zobaczy[ć], ‘to see’). Pe raphe is also used for an orthographic w, which is indeed pronounced close to f in the proper name מוֹרַפֿשקי, Morawski. The Old Polish g is expressed either by a gimel (גרוש, mPol. grosz, type of coin) or by a he(טוֹהוֹא toho, for the expected togo/tego[9] [mPol. Tego], ‘of this’, or מְנָא הוֹ mno ho [for the expected mnogo], ‘a lot’). The forms of these words with an h are not attested in Old Polish dictionaries. It is uncertain whether the Hebrew transliteration with a he reflects the way the guttural Polish g was perceived in these words by listeners or whether it reflects a Czech influence in which h appears (whereas in Polish there is a g). 

The vowels are written inconsistently, and their pronunciation reflects the specific pronunciations of Polish Jews. For example, a qamaṣ, especially when followed by a mater lectionis aleph, reflects an o sound, as in יֵידְנָא, jedno, ‘one, certain’. The neuter form ending in o rather than feminine (jedna) is suggested by the context. The use of the aleph mater lectionis can, in addition, indicate a long pronunciation of the vowel. 

The use of Hebrew script and the necessity for the writer to adapt it to Slavic sounds makes the precise identification of forms difficult. A good example is the ending of the infinitives: מְלובֿיטְיִ (most probably mołvić[10], mPol. mówić, ‘to say, talk’), דַאצשֵי (dać, ‘to give’), סְטֵיסְקְנוֹצֵי (ścisknąć [?], ‘to coerce’) and זופֿאצי (zobaczy[ć], ‘to see, have a look’). The Hebrew transliteration seems to suggest that the infinitives end in i. In Old Polish, the Old Slavic infinitives ending in i (-ti, -ci) disappeared progressively and were replaced by –c or –ć endings; by 1400, they appeared only in poetic texts for the sake of rhyme..[11] Since our phrasebook dates from the very end of the medieval period when the transformation into –c or –ć, with the disappearance of the final i, had already occurred, the Hebrew transliteration with a yod may be a creative attempt to reflect the soft consonant ć in Hebrew script, unless it reflects Czech influence.[12]

A characteristic verbal form is דְבַאם, most probably dawam (mPol. daję, ‘I give’), an Old Polish formation with an infix –awa- which indicates a repeated action.[13] The verbs ‘to give’, dać, and ‘to give repeatedly’, dawać, are attested in Old Polish. However, in contemporary language, the form dawać is attested in the infinitive only and the first-person singular present tense is the same for both verbs: daję. Another peculiarity is the infinitive of the second-person singular ending in –I attested in weźmi, mPol. weź, ‘take’. The infinitive in –i disappeared early in the Middle Ages with a few exceptions, whose transformation was complete only in the early 16th century. Weźmi is one of the last archaic forms attested until the end of the medieval period.[14]

A further feature demonstrated in the document and which disappeared in the 16th century is the use of the ancient aorist form of the verb ‘to be’ to express the conditional or optative mode. This phenomenon is attested in רַאד בִיך (rad bych, mPol. byłbym rad, ‘I would be glad’), where בִיך bych is an Old Polish form of first-person singular, aorist of być, ‘to be’.[15] Some declined forms seem to keep archaic features. The demonstrative pronoun טוֹהוֹא, toho (for togo)—Genitive case of tentato—consistently displays the vowel o in the penultimate syllable, as opposed to the more modern form tego

From the point of view of the periodization of Polish, the phonetic and grammatical features of these notes allow one to categorise them as belonging to the Old Polish stratum and, more precisely, to its later phase in the 15th or early 16th centuries. Some features attested here, such as the aorist form bych used as a conditional mode, went out of use in the 16th century and were replaced by other forms of the verb ‘to be’, still used in modern Polish. This state of language development, which can be dated to around 1500, corresponds to the palaeographic assessment of the Hebrew script.

Who was the Jewish author of these notes and why did he need to write this short vademecum to be guided through negotiations on credit with his Polish borrowers? That he was active in Central Poland can be deduced from the language as well as the name of the Polish customer, Morawski. However, some elements may suggest that he was not completely fluent in Polish. Thus he had some difficulties with the (admittedly complicated) case declension, such as the use of the Nominative singular instead of the Genitive plural of a noun after numerals 5 and 6 (piat pieniedzsześć pieniedz). More importantly, our money lender translated most of the Polish words into Hebrew. Unlike in most cases of Judeo languages which represent the spoken vernaculars, familiar to their speakers/writers from the cradle and even used to explain the ancestral and sacred but basically foreign Hebrew, here we find that it is Hebrew which helps the writer understand Polish. No less than twelve expressions receive a Hebrew gloss above the line, among them a current expression שֵיהו טְרְשֶיבוֹ מה תצטרך, ‘what is needed/what do you need?’, or a more technical צֵֵישלִי נַא רוּקוֹיְמֵי תרצה על ערבות , ‘do you want it with a guarantor?’. Was the author of the notes a Yiddish speaker who had little opportunity to practice the language of his neighbours? Was he an émigré from a nearby but different country? Some elements of his notes bear resemblance to Czech. We have already seen some cases of h instead of g or the use of the preposition pro, ‘for’, in פְרוֹטוֹ, pro to (mPol. za to), ‘for it’. Borrowed from Latin, pro is a common preposition in Czech. The Dative form of the full personal pronoun, טֵיבֵי, tiebie, ‘to/for you’ (a declined form of ty, ‘you’), is vocalised with a double e, whereas the Polish form is tobie or ci as a short enclitic form. Either the scribe confuses Accusative with Dative or, again, טֵיבֵי represents a Czech influence. Similar uncertainty concerns the form רוּקוֹימֵי, rukojmie (mPol. rękojmia), ‘guarantor’, whose first vowel’s transcription as a shuruq suggests a pronunciation u of the first component of the word, similar to Czech ruka, Polish ręka, ‘hand’. However, the term itself is Polish, and the vowel shuruq may be a way of rendering the nasal Polish ę vowel, which has no Hebrew equivalent. If indeed these are Czech influences, then they could also belong to the Polish of the document rather than to the individual writer. Indeed, the 15th century in Poland was a time of strong cultural and linguistic inspiration from the south.[16]

This modest page of informal notes in Bodl. MS Opp. 600 has not yet disclosed all its secrets. A more detailed study by experts of the history of Western Slavic languages is a desideratum. Nonetheless, we can safely state that this unique document gives us an unprecedented glimpse into the shop of a Jewish financier and records his exchanges with Polish customers.

[1] See, for example, MS. Can. Or. 63 (Neubauer 1377) and Neubauer 1379—the latter copied from the printed version.

[2] Beit-Arié, Malachi, 1994, n° 1378.

[3] See Urbańczyk et al. (ed.): rękojmia: vol. 7 (1973-1977), p. 464-465; zakład: vol. 11 (1996), p. 98. Both terms are attested together in the credit context in Old Polish in the 15th century, e.g., wstawil-li Schadokerski rankoymye na ten zaklad ? ‘Has Szadokerski appointed a guarantor for this surety?’, ibid., vol. 4 (1963-1965), p. 33 (s.v. li).

[4] On this currency and its etymology from Latin grossus, ‘thick, large’ (probably as opposed to thin, bracteat type of coins with the inscription on one side only), see Bańkowski, 2000, vol. 1, p. 483.

[5] The form with a k is irregular and not attested. The meaning proposed here is a hypothesis. For the verb ścisnąć, ‘to squeeze, force’, and ścisnąć (prawem), ‘coerce (by law)’, see Urbański et al. (ed.), vol. 9 (1982-1987), pp. 8-9.

[6] The name ‘Morawski’ is attested in central Poland since the end of the 14th century, see Taszycki (ed.), 1971-1973, vol. 3, p. 553.

[7] Długosz-Kurczabowa, Dubisz, 2006, p. 63. 

[8] Długosz-Kurczabowa, Dubisz, 2006, p. 68.

[9] For the Genitive forms for the demonstrative pronoun, ten, ta, to—tego or togo, see Urbański et al. (ed.), vol. 11 (1982-1987), p. 135.

[10] Urbański et al. (ed.), vol. 11 (1982-1987), p. 111.

[11] Urbański et al. (ed.), vol. 11 (1982-1987), p. 325.

[12] Z. Klemensiewicz, T. Lehr-Spławiński, S. Urbańczyk, Gramatyka Historyczna języka polskiego, Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, Warszawa, 1955, p. 72.

[13] For the forms of dawać, including the present tense conjugation dawam, dawasz, etc. attested in the 15th century, see Urbański et al. (ed.), vol. 2 (1956-1959), p. 31.

[14] Klemensiewicz, Lehr-Spławiński, Urbańczyk, 1955, p. 73.

[15] For bych/bich, see Urbański et al. (ed.), vol. 1 (1953-1955), p. 192.

[16] On Czech influences on Old Polish by the end of the Middle Ages, see Walczak, 1995, pp. 90-91.


Bańkowski Andrzej, Etymologiczny Słownik Języka Polskiego, Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, Warszawa, 2000.

Beit-Arié, Malachi, Supplement of Addenda and Corrigenda to Vol. I, Oxford: Clarendon, 1994.

Długosz-Kurczabowa Krystyna, Dubisz Stanisław, Gramatyka Historyczna Języka Polskiego, Warsaw University Editions, Warsaw, 2006.

Klemensiewicz Zenon, Lehr-Spławiński T., Urbańczyk S., Gramatyka Historyczna Języka Polskiego, Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe, Warszawa, 1955.

Taszycki Witold (ed.), Słownik Staropolskich Nazw Osobowych, Zakład Naukowy Imienia Ossolińskich / Wydawnictwo Polskiej Akademii Nauk, Wrocław, Warszawa, Kraków, Gdańsk, 1971-1973.

Urbańczyk Stanisław et al. (ed.), Słownik Staropolski, Zakład Naukowy Imienia Ossolińskich / Wydawnictwo Polskiej Akademii Nauk, Wrocław, Kraków, Warszawa, 11 vols, 1953-1996.

Walczak Bogdan, Zarys Dziejów Języka Polskiego, Kantor Wydawniczy SAWW, Poznań, 1995.

Professor Judith Olszowy-Schlanger
President, OCHJS; Director, Centre for Hebrew & Jewish Studies; Professor of Hebrew Manuscript Studies, EPHE, PSL; Fellow, Corpus Christi College, Oxford


A List of Grammatical Terms from MS. Opp. 152

Dr Sandra Hajek teaches Judeo-French at the OSRJL.


The Bodleian manuscript MS Opp. 152 (Neubauer, n° 1484) is one of only two preserved manuscripts of the most comprehensive and original medieval dictionary of the Hebrew Bible north of the Pyrenees, the Sefer ha-Shoham (‘The Onyx Book’). The Sefer ha-Shoham was composed in the 1260s in London by Moses ben Isaac, known as ben ha-Nessiah.[1] The manuscript was copied in a decorative Gothic bookhand by two different scribes working in collaboration during the late 13th century, possibly in England before travelling to Europe. In the late 14th century, a Jewish scholar scribbled on fol. 1r a unique list of grammatical terms in Hebrew translated into Old French and written using Hebrew characters in a non-square style of writing, suggesting provenance around the French-German border (see Fig. 1).[2] The Old French (henceforth: O. Fr.) translations display features of the Anglo-Norman dialect (henceforth: Agn.), which had developed particular linguistic characteristics under the influence of Anglo-Saxon (later 12th and early 13th centuries, cf. Pope 1966, 424).[3] The presence of these Anglo-Norman dialect features is not easily explained. Although the Sefer ha-Shoham was composed in England and the manuscript was likely produced there, or in Northern France, the grammatical note on fol. 1 was written after the expulsion of the Jews from England (1290). It can only be surmised that the note was written by a migrant from the island or his descendent. Such authorship would suggest that Jews from England maintained a specific vernacular dialect after settling in the east of France. We have no evidence of similar familiarity on the part of Jewish communities with O. Fr. grammatical terminology. The list in question can be seen as the earliest attestation in France of the tradition of describing the Hebrew language through grammatical terms expressed in the vernacular.[4] The fact that the scribe ever translated the Hebrew terms into O. Fr. means that the O. Fr. grammatical terms were somewhat familiar to him. Therefore, we can surmise that he not only spoke the language (probably in its Anglo-Norman variety) but also used it as a language of education.

Unfortunately, the list is quite short and only displays a few dialectal features. Moreover, it is only partially vocalized, which makes the identification of vocalic features quite difficult. In some cases, the phonetic representation of a graphic sign remains ambiguous: this is the case with the matres lectionis yud and double yud following a non-vocalized consonant, where the preceding vowel could be [i], [e]/[ɛ] (in the case of yud and double yud) or [je]/[jɛ] (in the case of double yud).[5]

One very striking characteristic of Agn. is the raising of unstressed vowels, especially [ə], to [i] (cf. Pope 1966, 439). We find this in the forms אֵין טְרַגִֿיטִיףֿ ent(e)ragitif[6] ‘interrogative’ (< Lat. INTERROGRATIVUS, Mod. Fr. interrogatif[7]), פְרִישונא p(e)risone (for pirsone, cf. below) ‘person’, אַנְטְרְקִייליש antrechilis/antrechilés ‘inserted’ (cf. Mod. Fr. intercalés), and—if yud is a mater lectionis for [i]—also in פְרימְרְא primere ‘first (fem. sg.)’. However, the fact that the raising to [i] can also be found in the last, i.e., tonic syllable of אִנְפֵרושוֹנִיל inperosoni(< Lat. IMPERSONALIS) ‘impersonal’, vocalized with ḥiriq, where one would expect a ṣere or sheva rendering [e]/[ɛ] (cf. Mod. Fr. impersonnel), could point to a different or at least an additional interpretation. According to Zwink (2017, 125), the cases of vocalization alternating between ḥiriq and ṣere attested in the medical treatise Fevres (end of 13th-beginning of 14th century) might point to the similarity of the pronunciation of /e/ and /i/ in O. Fr. spoken by Jews.[8] In Fevres (cf. ibid.), as well as in our list, the alternation also takes place before nasal consonants: next to אִנְפֵרושוֹנִיל inperosonel, we read אֵין טְרַגִֿיטִיףֿent(e)ragitif and—analogically—probably טרנשי{טי}ף אין entransitif ‘intransitive’, which points to a similar pronunciation of /ẽ/ and /ĩ/.[9] The form פְרימְרְא primere/premere (instead of O. Fr. premiere), well attested in Agn. (cf. AND, s.v. primer), shows the early reduction of [je] or [jɛ] to [e] in Western French, which, next to Northern French (Norman), contributed noticeably to the character of Anglo-Norman.[10] If the yud in פלו׳ריל plurirepresents [i], we have here a reduction of the diphthong [je] or [jɛ] to the first element, which is characteristic of Northern O. Fr. (cf. Pope 1966, 488). In שנגולייר, the diphthong may be preserved, the resulting form singulie‘singular’[11] either reflecting the influence of the ‘leading’ O. Fr. dialect, Francien, on the Anglo-Norman variety spoken in England especially in the 13th and 14th centuries (cf. Pope 1966, 451), or an influence of the surrounding Eastern O. Fr. dialects on the Anglo-Norman variety spoken by our scribe at his living place next to the Franco-German border.

In אַנְפַראַטיף anparatif ‘imperative’ (< Lat. IMPERATIVUS, Mod. Fr. impératif), we have an assimilation of the unstressed vowel in the second syllable (-pa-) to the unstressed vowel in the third syllable (-ra-), which goes along with the cases of assimilation that are attested for Agn. (cf. Pope 1966, 439). The vocalization of the initial alef with pataḥ (here representing [ã]) instead of ṣere (representing /ẽ/) is probably a confusion of the initial syllable with the prefix [ã] (en-/an-, cf. below) or—in view of the vocalization of the following syllables with pataḥ—a simple lapse.

A phenomenon sometimes attributed to Judeo-French but which can also be found in Old Occitan and Middle Latin texts in Hebrew script (cf. Zwink 2017, 139) is cases of metathesis, such as p(e)risone for pirsone ‘person’ (cf. above), טַרְנִשִיטִיףֿ tar(e)nisitif for transitif ‘transitive’, and טריצא trece for terce ‘third (fem. sg.)’ (this form shows the same reduction of [je] or [jɛ] [Francien: tierce] to [e] as primere, cf. above).[12] However, as Old French was the mother tongue of the Jews living in Tsarfat (cf. Fudeman 2010, 13) and, as such, was learned prior to Hebrew, it is not probable that we are dealing here with a phonetic influence of Hebrew, which, as a Semitic language, does not permit the combination of obstruent and liquid within a syllable. Rather, we have here a purely graphical influence of Hebrew, which was the principal written language of the Jewish communities in Tsarfat. As cases of metathesis and, likewise, the epenthetic vowel e (rendering [ə]) are also typical for Agn. texts in Latin script (cf. Pope 1966, 490, Burgess 1990, 343), we are probably dealing with two factors that reinforce each other. In tar(e)nisitif and inperosonil (cf. above), the epenthetic vowels do not appear in their usual form as sheva or yud, but rather are adapted to the following or preceding vowels, graphically rendered by ḥiriq and vav respectively.

The spelling with pataḥ rendering the nasal vowel [ã] instead of [ẽ] in antrechilis (cf. above) does not match the phonetic features of the Northern and Western varieties of O. Fr. and, in consequence, Anglo-Norman, where /ẽ/ was conserved and did not coincide with /ã/ to /ã/ (cf. Pope 1966, 427, 428). Again, the form either reflects the influence of Francien, where the coincidence had taken place in the 12th century, on the Anglo-Norman variety spoken in England, or a later influence of Francien or the surrounding O. Fr. dialects on the Anglo-Norman variety spoken by our scribe at his living place near the Franco-German border.

The spelling with pataḥ rendering [a] in ent(e)ragitif (< lat. INTERROGATIVUS, cf. above) does not represent any regular phonetical development and is either a mistake or—considering that in Early Middle English, [a:] was velarised and rounded to [ɔ:] (cf. Pope 1966, 435)—a hypercorrection.

That the scribe does not seem to have been very well trained in writing French using Hebrew characters is shown by clear scribal mistakes,[13] such as פרשוש for פרשונא persone, which occurs more than one time. In אִנפֵ{נ}יטיף infenitif ‘infinitive’, he omitted a consonant sign that was later added above, and in אין טרנשי{טי}ף intransitif, he omitted the first two letters of a syllable. These scribal mistakes could also be an indication that the scribe copied the list very carelessly and did not make it up on his own.

Given that the note on fol. 1r of MS Opp. 152 can be dated to the 14th century, the O. Fr. grammatical terms found herein are earlier than attestations of the respective terms in the oldest extant, complete grammar of (late) O. Fr. also written in O. Fr. (more precisely, in Anglo-Norman), the Donait françois (ca. 1400). In respect to the Donait françois, our note has some peculiarities. Among them is the term טומֵא פְרימְרְא tome primere/premere (‘first case’, with tome maybe erroneously attributed to the feminine gender[14]), as the word tom(b)e, basically meaning ‘fall’ (see FEW 13/3, 407), is attested here in the meaning of ‘grammatical (morphological) case’ and is thus a semantic loan from the Latin grammatical term CASUS (cf. Germ. Fall). Since the Donait has the Latin loanword nominatif in the meaning of ‘first case (nominative)’ (cf. ed. Stengel 1879, 28), the attestation of tome primer(e) ‘first case’ in our list seems to be quite exceptional.[15]

Fig. 1. List of grammatical terms translated from Hebrew into Old French,
MS Opp. 152, fol. 1r. (© Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford)

[1] A partial edition of a manuscript in St. Petersburg (MS RNL Evr II A 34) was published by Collins, 1882, and Klar, 1947, completed the part edited by Collins. See also Olszowy-Schlanger, 2012, pp. 183–198.

[2] The list is mentioned by Olszowy-Schlanger, 2023, p. 128.

[3] For the general characteristics of Anglo-Norman, see Pope (1966, 425f.), for its external history, see ibid., pp. 420–424. It is essential to keep in mind that in research on Old French, the features that are termed ‘dialectal’—i.e., typical for a certain ‘dialect’—are those features that appear regularly in the written texts that can be localized in a specific geographic area on the basis of non-linguistic features (foremost, mentions of the place where a text was written). To what extent these features were part of the actual pronunciation of Old French in different areas cannot be said with certainty, but the probability that the graphically attested forms actually mirror a local or regional pronunciation is increased if the forms: a) can still be found in the respective Modern Gallo-Romance dialects or b) represent a phonetically plausible interstage between the original form (be it Latin or Germanic) on the one side and the pronunciation in the respective Modern Gallo-Romance dialects on the other (cf. Berschin/Felixberger/Goebl 2008, 205).

[4] A similar tradition can be assumed for Christian education, if the extant bilingual (French-Latin) glossaries from 13th-century England are interpreted as serving the teaching of Latin by means of the translation into French and not vice-versa (cf. Kristol 1990, 300). 

[5] The case of אֵין טְרַגִֿיטִיףֿ ent(e)ragitif shows that yud can be preceded by a consonant vocalized with ṣere (here representing the nasalized version of [e]/[ɛ]) as well as by a consonant vocalized with ḥiriq (representing the vowel [i]). As not only intertextual but also intratextual graphic variation is the usual case in Judeo-French texts (as in O. Fr. texts in general), in instances of a missing vocalization the quality of the vowel cannot be deduced from the cases in which yud or double yud are preceded by vocalized consonants. See also note 8.

[6] The blurring of word boundaries in the written text, here in form of the graphical separation of the nexus /ẽn/, probably erroneously considered as the homonymous prefixe en-, is a typical phenomenon of Judeo-French (cf. Banitt 1972, 95).

[7] The Modern French grammatical terms most often do not continue their O. Fr. equivalents but are rather (later) loanwords from Latin.

[8] Attestations of this kind can also be found in the Hebrew-O. Fr. glossaries, first and foremost in the alternation of ḥiriq and ṣere vocalizing alef when this combination stands for the coordinating conjunction ‘and’ (in Latin script: et, here (אֵי) and i (אִי), with loss [according to the pronunciation] of final /t/), but also in other contexts such as e.g., אִיאָנְװִירוֺנִיש לַײֿ, i anvironi(= anvironez) lai (Mod. Fr. et contournez-la) ‘and surround her’, cf. Banitt 1995–2001, vol. 3, no. 14566.

[9] It is, however, unlikely that we have here an early attestation of the well-known coincidence between /ẽ/ and /ĩ/ to /ẽ/ in the history of French, which is generally dated to the 15th–16th centuries (cf. Pope 1966, 174).

[10] For the characteristics which Anglo-Norman shared with the Western varieties of O. Fr. on the one hand, and with the Northern varieties of O. Fr. on the other, cf. Pope 1966, 427–429. The study by De Jong (1996) gives evidence that the overall character of Anglo-Norman was most similar to the Northern (i.e., Norman) varieties of O. Fr.

[11] The reduced forms singulir and singuler are also attested in Agn., cf. AND s. v. singuler.

[12] In the cases mentioned by Zwink (cf. ibid.), however, the vowel sign inserted between an obstruent and a following resh (a combination known as muta cum liquida) is always a ṣere, thus transforming the combination re into er, e.g., ventre > venter ‘belly’.

[13] Of course, some of the above-mentioned features could represent scribal mistakes or lapses, too. The small amount of the leʽazim contained in this list does not allow a definite decision on this point.

[14] In Judeo-French, at the end of a word, alef regularly appears as a mater lectionis for a preceding sheva, rendering the final [ə] of feminine words (cf. Kiwitt/Dörr 2016, 151).

[15] In the context of this paper, it was not possible to examine whether this expression also appears later in the history of French grammaticography.


AND = Anglo-Norman Dictionary (AND2 Online Edition), 2022. Aberystwyth University.

Banitt, Menahem, Le Glossaire de Bâle, vol. 1: Introduction, Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1972.

Banitt, Menahem, Le Glossaire de LeipzigTexte, 3 vols, Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1995–2001.

Berschin, Helmut, Josef Felixberger, and Hans Goebl, Französische Sprachgeschichte, Hildesheim/Zürich/New York: Olms, 2008.

Burgess, Glyn S., ‘Französische Skriptaformen IV: England’, in Lexikon der Romanistischen Linguistik, vol. 5/1, ed. by Günther Holtus, Michael Metzeltin, and Christian Schmitt, Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1990, pp. 337–346.

Collins, George Wolseley, A Grammar and Lexicon of the Hebrew Language entitled Sefer Hassoham by Rabbi Mōseh ben Yitsḥak of England, London: Trubnir, 1882.

De Jong, Thera, ‘Anglo-French in the 13th and 14th centuries: continental or insular dialect?’, in: The Origins and Development of Emigrant Languages. Proceedings from the Second Rasmus Rask Colloquium, Odense University, November 1994, Odense: University Press, 1996, pp. 55–70.

FEW = Wartburg, Walther von (ed.), Französisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch. Eine Darstellung des galloromanischen Sprachschatzes, 25 vols, Bonn/Heidelberg/Leipzig/Basel, Zbinden et al., 1922–1996 (online version:

Fudeman, Kirsten, Vernacular Voices. Language and Identity in Medieval French Jewish Communities, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.

Kiwitt, Marc, and Stephen Dörr, ‘Judeo-French’, in Handbook of Jewish Languages, ed. by Lily Kahn and Aaron D. Rubin, Leiden: Brill, 2016, pp. 138–177.

Klar, Benjamin (with an introduction by Cecil Roth), The Sepher ha-Shoham: (the Onyx Book) by Moses ben Isaac Hanessiah, Part I, London: Published for the Jewish Historical Society by E. Goldston, 1947 (Hebrew).

Kristol, Andres Max, ‘L’enseignement du français en Angleterre (XIIIe-XVe siècles): les sources manuscrites’, Romania, vol. 11, no. 443/444 (1990), pp. 289–330.

Olszowy-Schlanger, Judith, ‘Sefer ha-Shoham (“Le Livre d’Onyx”), dictionnaire de l’hébreu biblique de Moïse ben Isaac ben ha-Nessiya (Angleterre, vers 1260)’, in En mémoire de Sophie Kessler-Mesguich, ed. by Jean Baumgarten, José Costa, Jean-Pierre Guillaume et Judith Kogel, Paris: Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2012, pp. 183–198.

Olszowy-Schlanger, Judith, Learning Hebrew in Medieval England. Christian Scholars and the Longleat House Grammar, Toronto: PIMS, 2023.

Pope, Mildred Katharine, From Latin to Modern French with Especial Consideration of Anglo-Norman. Phonology and Morphology, Manchester: University Press, 1966 [1934].

Stengel, Eduard, ‘Die ältesten Anleitungsschriften zur Erlernung der französischen Sprache’, Zeitschrift für neufranzösische Sprache und Literatur mit besonderer Berücksichtigung des Unterrichts im Französischen auf den deutschen Schulen 1 (1879), pp. 1–40.

Zwink, Julia, Altfranzösisch in hebräischer Graphie : Teiledition und Analyse des Medizintraktats  ‘Fevres’, Berlin/Boston: de Gruyter, 2017.

Dr Sandra Hajek
OSRJL Judeo-French Teacher; Research Associate,
Georg-August-Universität Göttingen


Colophons of Judeo-Iranian Manuscripts: A Delicate Balance of Jewish and Non-Jewish Traditions 

This post is based on research undertaken during Professor Dr Saloumeh Gholami’s stay at the OCHJS as an Oxford School of Rare Jewish Languages Visiting Fellow in Trinity Term 2023. She will be teaching Judeo-Hamadani at the OSRJL.


‘Written here is the Torah of Moses, the man of God, in Persian language, by the poor, humble, and youngest of all Israel, Joseph son of Moses, may his light shine. Completed on Friday, which is the twenty-fourth day of the second Adar, in the year one thousand six hundred thirty of contracts. And if I have erred in my writing, may He forgive me and wipe away all my sins, and write freedom for me, by merit of the wise and their disciples, and He will forgive me and establish upon me the verse “and it will be forgiven to him” for all unintentional sins. . . . The Rock of Israel, a good sign, a granary upon all His people Israel, and may He show us the building of Zion . . . by merit of Moses, Aaron, and Samuel, and may He make us rejoice in the joy of building Jerusalem, and the mountain God will establish . . . Jerusalem [triple exclamation] may the scattered of Israel gather, amen and amen.’

This text is the translation of the Hebrew colophon of ‘Torat Mosheh’ (‘Moses’ Law’), a significant artifact in Judeo-Persian literary tradition. Dated 1319 CE, the manuscript represents the most ancient extant Judeo-Persian translation of the Pentateuch originating from Iran, thereby signifying a key milestone in the trajectory of Persian Jewish scriptural translations.

The colophon of Torat Mosheh.
Iran, 1319, British Library, Or.5446, Fol 124v

The term ‘colophon’—derived from the ancient Greek word ‘kολοφών’, signifying ‘summit’—characteristically refers to an inscription appended at the end of a manuscript or book (Carter, 1952). This inscription, often composed by the scribe, encapsulates pertinent details regarding the work’s genesis, inclusive of the work’s title, the scribe or patron’s identity, the location of its copy or replication, along with the date of its completion. Fundamentally, colophons represent a form of meta-text providing an introspective commentary on the production aspects of the text itself.

Approximately one third of the Judeo-Persian manuscripts currently housed in the British Library’s collection contain colophons. A comparative analysis of these colophons reveals a consistent structural framework, indicative of an entrenched tradition, rooted both in Jewish and Iranian cultural customs. This observation provides a potent testimony to the cross-cultural influences embedded in these texts and their historical contexts. 

Typically, colophons begin with the title of the book and proceed to indicate the date of the copy. In a substantial proportion of colophons, the practice of indicating the scribe’s name, when deemed relevant, often follows the mention of the date of copy. Noteworthy features of some colophons are the genealogical details pertaining to the scribe. This information represents a valuable historical and sociological resource. Concurrently, in consonance with enduring Iranian cultural conventions, scribes tend to depict their identities, personifying values of humility and deference. This self-representation routinely materializes through their employment of particular idioms, such as ‘poor and young scribe’, ‘the exiled, the poor servant’ and ‘humble servant’.

Customarily, the notation of the scribe’s name in the colophons is followed by a string of benedictions or well-intentioned wishes. Phrases such as ‘may his memory be a blessing’, ‘may her/his soul rest in peace’ and ‘may God have mercy on him’ pervade not only Persian manuscripts but also Zoroastrian colophons. Nevertheless, certain expressions appear to be unique to the Jewish cultural context and are absent from other colophons. Specific examples of these exclusive phrases include: ‘may his soul be bound up in the bond of life’ and ‘may his light shine’.

At the end of a considerable number of the colophons, the scribe mentions that the book is completed and lacks nothing (e.g., colophon of Manuscript Or 10007 in the British Library, 16th century).

Notably, the prayer יהי רצון מלפני הקדוש ‘may it be the will of the Holy One’, found in a number of Judeo-Persian colophons, bears striking similarity not only to Hebrew texts but also to the phrase ‘may it be according to the will of Ahuramazda’, the Zoroastrian God, which is consistently present in the Middle Persian colophons of the Avestan manuscripts. 

In the realm of Judeo-Persian manuscripts, Hebrew serves as the primary language of the colophons employed. 

Through a comparative analysis of the colophons found within Judeo-Persian manuscripts and their Judeo-Gorani counterparts, which encompass literary Gorani texts transliterated using Hebrew characters, distinct stylistic disparities become evident. Notably, Judeo-Gorani texts, originating from a later era spanning between 1874 and 1926, exhibit a language style closely resembling modern Persian. In stark contrast to Judeo-Persian manuscripts, the majority of Judeo-Gorani colophons are in the Persian language, not Hebrew. However, they do sometimes include Hebrew expressions typically consisting of a concise prayer, the copy date and the scribe’s name.

The first colophon of the manuscript Nāder-Nāme (Ms. Heb. 28°4388, folio.227r), The National Library of Israel.

This is the transliteration of one of the colophons of Nāder-Nāme:

1כאתבתי בשביל ]ס”ט אג[א דאוו]ד בנו[ אשר

-2תמאם שוד כתאב נאדר נאדר ]ר[וז א

-3רוז א שבת כא אום חודש אדר שנת

-4שנת תרמה הרכה [כ]אנד אז דועא

-5מן בנדה כונה כאר […]

 […]-6דל שאד […]

 […]-7 ד לענת כׄודא [.]ד

 […]-8גׅהת יאדגאר

-9מן נמאנם כׄת

-10במאנד רוז

-11גאר מן

-12אין ניויש



1-Katavti bishvil . . . āqā dāvūd binū āšir  

2-tamām šod ketāb nāder nāder rūz 1

3-rūz 1 šabat 21om ḥodeš ādār šanat 

4-šanat 5645, har ke [ḫā]nad az doʿā

5-man bandeh gonah kār [. . .]

6-…del šād…

7-…d laʿnat xodā…d

8-…jahat yādegār

9- man namānam xat

10-bemānad rūz-

11-gār man

12-īn neveš-



(Nikravesh, Hamidreza in press: In Gurānī in its Historical and Linguistic Setting, Problems and Prescriptions, edited by S. Gholami and Sh. O. Karim, [Berlin: De Gruyter Mouton, forthcoming]. In Series Trends in Linguistics. Documentation [TiLDOC]).

‘I wrote this for Āqā Dāvūd binū Āšir. Nāder’s book reached its completion on Sunday, the 21st of Hodesh Adar, in the year 5645. To all who read these words, do not forget me, a man burdened with sin . . . In my prayers, I feel the impending curse of God . . . My survival seems doubtful, yet this writing, my legacy, will endure in the world. I penned these lines. The end has come.’

This colophon serves as a compelling illustration of the intercultural exchanges among Jewish, Zoroastrian and Islamic scribal traditions. 

In lines four and five, the phrase ‘har ke [ḫā]nad az doʿā, man bandeh gonah kār [. . .]’ echoes a verse found in a Zoroastrian manuscript, the Videvdād. This manuscript is part of the collection at the Muze-ye Zartoštiyān, a renowned Zoroastrian Museum, and its adjoining Fire Temple in Kerman. This precious collection previously belonged to Manuchehr Rostami, the son of the late Rashid Rostami, the high priest of Kerman. It was later donated to the museum. The manuscript in question was meticulously penned by the eminent Mūbed, Rostam Molla Iskandar Molla Goštāsb Monaǰem-e Kermani, in the Gregorian year 1880. Its time of creation coincides nearly exactly with that of our Judeo-Gorani manuscript, being composed merely five years prior to the Nāder Nameh.

The same verse can be found in the colophon of Jong-e naẓm-o naṯr, an Iranian Islamic manuscript authored by Fatḥ-ollāh ibn-e mollā ʿAbd-ʿAlī Bihārī and written in 1881. 

هر که خواند دعا طمع دارم                      زانکه من بنده گنهکارم 

har kē xānad doʿā ṭamaʿ dāramFrom everybody, who reads (this book), I long praying 
zānke man bande-ye gonahkāramBecause I am a sinful servant

Another example of the relationship of various scribal traditions is the phrase at lines 8-10 in the Judeo-Gorani colophon ‘jahat yādegār man namānam xat bemānadThis phrase is also attested in Zoroastrian manuscripts—for example, in a Videvdād at The Central Library and Documentation Centre of University of Tehran written in 1635 CE: 

نوشتم من این خط که تا روزگار                   برآید بماند ز من یادگار 

neveštam man īn xat ke tā rūzegārI authored this manuscript with the intention 
barāyad bemānad ze man yādegārthat it may endure beyond my lifetime, serving as a testament to my existence.

The same phrase is also observed in a section of the extant colophon of the Divan-e Hafez at the British Library (Sig. Or. 4745, see S. Farridnejad, pp. 532-533):

נושתם אין תא בראייד רוזגאר

 מן נמאנם כ׳ט במאנד יאדגאר

 זאן כס כה נמאנד יאדגארי

נאייד פס מרג דר שמארי

This specific verse is attested in many Islamic Iranian manuscripts, such as in Changranghāchah-nāmah manuscript (MS 301) at The John Rylands Library, University of Manchester, scribed on 22 March 1660 CE.

The comparative analysis of the colophons found in the Judeo-Persian and Judeo-Gorani manuscripts clearly demonstrates the influence of the prevailing tradition of colophon-writing in broader society on the scribes. Undoubtedly, the scribes were influenced by the popular tradition of their time, but they also subtly exhibited aspects of their own religious culture and the prevalent tradition of Hebrew scribing. The extent to which these signs are consciously or unconsciously applied to the colophons remains unclear. It appears that the older the colophons are, the stronger the scribes’ connection to Jewish culture, as can be seen in the final part of the colophon brought up at the beginning of this article. As the colophons approach more modern times, they take on a more Iranian, and even occasionally Islamic, flavor and scent. 

Professor Dr Saloumeh Gholami
OSRJL Visiting Fellow Trinity Term 2023, OCHJS; OSRJL Judeo-Hamadani Teacher; Professor of Minority Languages in the Middle East, Goethe-Universität Frankfurt


Writing the Stars: An Early 15th-Century Judeo-Portuguese Astrological Text (MS. Laud Or. 310)

Like many Judeo-Romance languages, Judeo-Portuguese can often seem like little more than Portuguese written in Hebrew characters. An extinct language today, Judeo-Portuguese is preserved in several manuscripts, three of which are housed in the Bodleian Library. Throughout the 2021-2022 academic year, I had the pleasure of undertaking both Palaeography and Jewish Book History elective courses through Oxford University’s MSt in Medieval Studies. By chance and interest, I came upon MS. Laud Or. 310, an early 15th-century Judeo-Portuguese translation of the astrological treaty Kitāb al-bāri’ fi ahkām an-nujūm, translated into Latin as De iudiciis astrorum (‘On the Judgement of the Stars’, the title I will use henceforth), by 11th-century Arab astrologer ‘Alī ibn Abī al-Rijāl (known in Latin as Aben Ragel). As a product of the 15th-century Portuguese Jewish community, MS. Laud Or. 310, provides an insight into the intellectual life of this community, and the scholastic rigor and fruitful intellectual contacts that the community had with its non-Jewish neighbours and their scientific books.

Astrology played a complex role in Jewish life in the Middle Ages, when it was both praised and criticised, and reflects the collaboration between Jewish, Christian, and Muslim intellectuals who all contributed to the field. Maimonides, for example, in his Guide for the Perplexed argued that astrology was ‘intimately connected with witchcraft . . . leading to the worship of stars’. However, despite these objections, astrology remained important to many Jewish scholars, such as Abraham Ibn Ezra, and even Maimonides, who continued to teach and study the art of astrology. 

The Judeo-Portuguese text of MS. Laud Or. 310 reflects this academic and scholarly purpose of astrology in medieval Jewish culture. One of the ways this phenomenon can be seen most clearly is through the formatting and script of the text itself. In MS. Laud Or 310, Sephardic semi-cursive script is dominant. Examples of it can be seen in the first folio, where the aleph features a different structure and stroke mark when compared with an aleph in, for instance, Hebrew square scripts. There are at least two major potential ideological and practical reasons why this might be the case. The practical reason lies in Sephardic semi-cursive script’s compactness. By utilising this smaller more fluid script, the scribe and, by extension, the patron would be able to cram as many words as possible per page into the manuscript. Especially given that this is a long work at slightly less than 300 pages, and given the costs associated with producing a Hebrew manuscript, it would be cost-effective to utilise such a script. Furthermore, as a more fluid script that has more interconnected letters than traditional block script, Sephardic semi-cursive script could be written more efficiently, again saving time and money for the scribe and patron. 

Fig. 1. An Aleph from MS Laud Or. 310

Additionally, the usage of catchwords and marginalia nota bene in MS. Laud Or 310 adds to the text’s scholarly yet accessible value. On nearly every page of the manuscript, certain Judeo-Portuguese words are written in a darker stroke and in a much bigger size. On a practical level, these headings and catchwords make it easier for an ordinary reader to better prognosticate and read their star sign, as well as follow the text generally. Again given the length of the work, this decision to utilise catchwords makes the text easier to follow. Given the manuscript’s lack of a table of contents or appendix, it would be extremely difficult for anyone to read it fast and find the most relevant information without the catchwords. The book’s lack of additional sketches, drawings or other extra-textual content further situates the work as a scholarly one.

Fig. 2. From MS Laud Or. 310, fol. 20v
(© Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford)

Of additional interest is the colophon at the end of the manuscript, which offers some profound insights into thinking about the presentation and audience of Aben Ragel’s De iudiciis astrorum. In what has been described by Judeo-Portuguese scholar Gonzaelz Llubera as a traditional ‘Hebrew formula of conclusion’, MS. Laud Or. 310 ends with ‘an expression of praise to the Creator of the World, followed by the name of the copyist, Yosef b. R. Gedalyah, and the date of completion, the 6th day, 2 days after the 1st of Elul, of the year [51]71 (1411)’.

Fig. 3. The conclusion and colophon from MS Laud Or. 310, fol. 241v (© Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford)

Further contextual evidence for this manuscript provides evidence for understanding the translation and transmission of De iudiciis astrorum. Given its dating and known copyist, it has been suggested this Judeo-Portuguese text was part of a broader, royally sanctioned Portuguese project under King Joao I (1357-1433) to translate into Portuguese the old Castilian 13th-century version of the Arabic work, El libro conplido en los iudizios de las estrellas.  Since several of the Portuguese court scientists and translators were Jewish, it is not surprising that De iudiciis astrorum in Portuguese was transmitted using Hebrew characters. MS Laud Or. 310 should be understood as part of a broader intellectual project that engulfed leading Portuguese persons of letters, and that its Hebrew characters did not pose a problem to Christian and Islamic scholars of King Joao I’s court. Moreover, beyond the colophon, there is nothing remarkably Jewish concerning the content and language of the manuscript. The context of its translation ultimately underlies and supports the understanding that MS Laud Or. 310’s purpose was scholarly.

Although I have sought to provide some context and exegesis for its creation and purpose, MS. Laud Or. 310 raises many questions about Judeo-Portuguese’s usage and significance. The mystery of the manuscript includes its provenance and interaction with the Jewish and secular communities. These questions offer opportunities for further investigation regarding the function and significance of this manuscript that I hope future scholars and I can address.

Jonah Skolnik
MSt University of Oxford
BA Wesleyan University


Uncovering Unknown Judeo-Romance Dialects in a Bodleian Miscellany (MS. Heb. g. 1)

This post is based on research undertaken during Dr Peter Nahon’s stay at the OCHJS as an Oxford School of Rare Jewish Languages Visiting Fellow in Hilary Term 2023. He teaches Judeo-Provençal at the OSRJL.


In southern France, local dialects of the Romance family which developed from Latin are heterogeneous and exhibit considerable territorial variation. As in other parts of the Diaspora where Jews have spoken and written varieties of local languages, it can be assumed that in southern France this dialectal variation was mirrored in the languages used by Jews of that region. That being said, until recently, only Judeo-Provençal—the dialect used in one single, narrow area of south-eastern France—had received extensive scholarly attention. A focus of my research in the past few years has been documenting and describing other insufficiently studied or unknown Southern French Romance varieties used by Jews—Judeo-Gascon, Judeo-Niçart and diverse secondary Jewish linguistic varieties of Southern French—thus yielding unprecedented insights into the linguistic diversity of the field.

Yet much remains to be done to expand our knowledge of Jewish languages in this linguistic region. Indeed, a wealth of material still remains in need of identification, description and linguistic analysis. It so happens that the Bodleian Library holds a manuscript miscellany that has tremendous potential for shedding light on whole swathes of Jewish linguistic variation. Oxford Bodleian Ms. Heb. g. 1 (cat. n. 2792 in Neubauer and Cowley’s Catalogue, 1906, vol. 2, p. 203-204) is miscellany of 197 folios, containing 21 different texts in several independent codicological units, of which a vast majority seem to have been written in the south and the east of France during the 15th century. The content of these texts is chiefly technical: medical and surgical topics, astronomic treatises, calendrical indications, charts of measure and weights, pharmacologic recipes and lists of therapeutic plants (materia medica). It also contains various materials attesting to deep cultural contacts between Jews and Christians: inter alia, a list of the books of the Old Testament ‘according to the count of the Christians’ (fol. 47), a list of the names used by Christians for the seven branches of learning (trivium and quadrivium) in Latin written in Hebrew letters (f. 61v) and a Christian calendar (ff. 181v-188v).

Fig. 1. Folio 187a. Part of the calendar, for the month of Tišri (תשרי) and September (שטומברא). The left column gives the name days of the Christian calendar of saints: Line 1—Saint Giles and Saint Ladre or Lazarus (ק׳ גילא וק׳ לאדרא), Line 4—Saint Martial de Limoges (ק׳ מרצייל דלימונגייש), Line 13—Saint Vernier or Werner (ק׳ וורנייר), Line 6—reads יריד בריאנשון ‘the fair of Briançon’ and Line 14—יריד רבייל ‘fair of Revel’, on the day of the Holy Cross (ק׳ קרוייץ).

The calendar, the only part of the miscellany that has been thoroughly described,[1] gives important clues about the dating and localisation of the manuscript: it is dated 1493 and refers to fairs or market days in Dauphiné (e.g., Briançon, Revel). Although the manuscript also contains some slightly later Italian material, it is very likely that the largest part of the miscellany was written and compiled in that area of south-eastern France by a single person—certainly a physician well-versed in the liberal arts—probably originating from northern France (as demonstrated by the palaeographic type of Hebrew handwriting used), who spent time in Dauphiné before immigrating to northern Italy.

Fig. 2. Folio 142b. A list of vernacular names of ‘hot’ seeds or species (זרעים חמים) used as remedies. In the first column, next to the Hebrew indication למחול קר ‘against the cold disease’, one reads קאפריש capres ‘capers’, שיקורייאיי chicorié ‘chicory’, טימי timi ‘thyme’, etc.; in the second column, שטאפיזאגרא stafizagre ‘stavesacre’, אפי api ‘celery, lovage’, אניזיי anize ‘anise’, אנייטי aneti ‘dill’, etc.

Such context of production has historically and linguistically significant ramifications. From the beginning of the Jewish presence in the kingdom of France and Burgundy, 15th-century Dauphiné was a crossroads for Jewish migrants en route to Savoy, Provence and, ultimately, Piedmont. It was there in Dauphiné that cultural and linguistic encounters occurred between its centuries-old Jewish community and exiles from neighbouring areas. However, material written by Jews in this area is extremely scarce: the few known items are all from earlier periods and comprise mostly formal codices, such as Bibles (e.g., Bodleian ms. Opp. 14, a 1340 Bible) or liturgical manuscripts (Parma ms. De Rossi 654), or very short, non-literary Hebrew documents (such as Grenoble ms. 4376, a betrothal contract from 1347). No other document of Jewish origin containing substantial matter written in the vernaculars of this dialectal zone—which extends across the linguistic border between Occitan and Franco-Provençal—has ever been described. Linguistic analysis shows that this unique manuscript furnishes a wealth of linguistic evidence in various dialects of south-eastern Gallo-Romance. While Hebrew is the main language used in the miscellany, the technical nature of its texts induces a frequent use of vernacular glosses, names or more extensive textual fragments. Reflecting the complex migration route and linguistic aptitudes of its writers, it includes words or phrases in Northern French, Franco-Provençal, Occitan, Latin and even Italian, all written in Hebrew characters.

Fig. 3. Folio 68a. A pharmacological recipe in Hebrew mixed with Romance: קח בצלים מדבריים דל שָוַויְיא ובשלם ‘take wild onions “del sâvaje” (Occitan “from the wilderness”) and cook them’. 

A thorough study of this material is needed. In the course of my ongoing OSRJL Visiting Fellowship at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, I am currently assessing the exact linguistic contents of the miscellany in order to then extract and describe all the vernacular linguistic data in it. This data deserves to be transcribed, edited and analysed with the methodological tools of Romance linguistics and dialectology (linguistic atlases, Gallo-Romance lexicography) in order to locate it within the complex map of dialect variation in southern France. Its critical edition and analysis will broaden considerably our knowledge of the languages used by Romance-speaking Jews in the late Middle Ages, as well as the history of cultural, scientific and linguistic contacts to which this important manuscript is a unique witness.

[1] Stern, Sacha, 2016. ‘Christian Calendars in Medieval Hebrew Manuscripts’, Medieval Encounters 22(1):236–265.

Dr Peter Nahon 
OSRJL Visiting Fellow Hilary Term 2023, OCHJS; OSRJL Judeo-Provençal Teacher; Research Fellow in Romance
Dialectology and Linguistics,
University of Neuchâtel
Judeo-Arabic Judeo-Italian

The ‘Maḳre dardeḳe’ Manuscript with Judeo-Italian and Judeo-Arabic Glosses

On 8 August 1488, Joseph ben Jacob Ashkenazi Gunzenhauser printed in Naples an abridgement of David Kimḥi’s Sefer ha-shorashim entitled Maḳre dardeḳe (מקרי דרדקי). This work is attributed to Menaḥem ben Peretz Trabot and includes a number of Judeo-Italian and Judeo-Arabic glosses. It seems that it was intended for a readership of Italian Jews, as well as Arabophone Jews in Sicily and Sephardic Jews who had come to Italy from the Iberian Peninsula beginning in the late thirteenth century. What is remarkable about Gunzenhauser’s edition is that it is not only the earliest printing of Maḳre dardeḳe, but also the earliest dated witness of this text with Judeo-Italian and Judeo-Arabic glosses.

Maḳre dardeḳe, printed by Joseph ben Jacob Ashkenazi Gunzenhauser (Naples, 1488), München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Res/2 A.hebr. 183.

Maḳre dardeḳe exists in manuscript form in six different manuscripts, dating from the end of the fifteenth century to the seventeenth century, and presenting notorious variants. These variants include the replacement of Judeo-Italian and Judeo-Arabic glosses by Yiddish or Judeo-Spanish glosses, or even the omission of glosses altogether. Three manuscripts contain Yiddish or Judeo-German glosses (Dortmund, Museum für Kunst und Kulturgeschichte, F 212, the oldest Maḳre dardeḳe witness; München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cod.r. 63; and Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Opp. 634); one contains Judeo-Spanish and Judeo-Arabic glosses (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Hunt. 218); another one has no glosses at all (Vatican, Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana, ebr. 429); and the last one contains Judeo-Italian and Judeo-Arabic glosses (San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Real Biblioteca, MS G-IV-9). In other words, this last manuscript is the only one containing Judeo-Italian and Judeo-Arabic glosses, like the Naples edition, and therefore deserves special attention.

Maḳre dardeḳe, San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Real Biblioteca, MS G-IV-9, fol. 22v. © Patrimonio Nacional, Ministerio de la Presidencia.

The manuscript in El Escorial does not contain the entire text of Maḳre dardeḳe, but only an excerpt of it. In fact, the manuscript, with 224 folios, is a composite or non-homogeneous miscellany containing several exegetical works, some materials relating to Jacob ibn Ḥaviv’s ‘En Ya‘aḳov, the printed work Sha’are teshuvah by Yonah ben Abraham Girondi (probably a copy of the Venice edition, 1544) and other miscellaneous materials. The excerpt from Maḳre dardeḳe is copied on folios 22v to 24v and includes the beginning of the work (roots אב to אפז from the letter א). Previous mentions of this manuscript described it as containing Judeo-Italian glosses only, but folio 24v includes several Judeo-Arabic glosses as well.

Being a non-homogeneous miscellany, this manuscript is the result of previous existing materials having been gathered into a single binding. Yet this process was not a random selection of material done at the library at El Escorial. Rather, it had already been completed in sixteenth-century Italy by one of the manuscript’s owners, who selected the different constituent parts according to their own interests. We know this because when the manuscript arrived at El Escorial at the end of the sixteenth century, it was already in its present form. The book contains two different colophons, which describe the copying of parts of it in 1516 and 1518, and we therefore can surmise that the gathering of all materials was probably done later in the sixteenth century, sometime prior to the arrival of the manuscript at El Escorial in 1599. The different watermarks in the paper used for its many constituent parts also confirm this dating.

David Curbelo, a student under my supervision at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, edited the brief text of Maḳre dardeḳe in this manuscript in his Master’s thesis and discovered that the text of the El Escorial manuscript is an abridgment of the text printed by Gunzenhauser. The El Escorial text retains the biblical roots, the Judeo-Italian glosses (and on folio 24v, the Judeo-Arabic glosses, too) and the biblical verses, although most of the exegetical texts and references from the Naples edition are absent. For instance, the first root in both texts (אב) is followed by the first Judeo-Italian gloss (מיור/מיורי, ‘maggiore’, translated as ‘elder’) and the biblical verse including the word אב with this meaning, וישימני לאב לפרעה (Gen 45:8). Then, the text in the El Escorial manuscript skips Rashi’s explanations that appear in the Naples edition, and provides the reading for the following gloss for אב, which is פטרי (‘patre’, translated as ‘father’), and so on. 

Many questions arise from this manuscript witness of Maḳre dardeḳe. Was the scribe in possession of a copy of the Naples edition that served as a model? Was the scribe interested in the glosses only, given the fact that most of the exegetical passages were omitted? Or was the scribe copying from other manuscript witnesses not known to us but that were circulating along with the Naples edition? And why were the Judeo-Arabic glosses copied only on the last page, and not from the beginning of the text? This being the only manuscript version of Maḳre dardeḳe with both Judeo-Italian and Judeo-Arabic glosses that was produced shortly after Gunzenhauser’s printing, the El Escorial manuscript definitely merits a thorough study. This study should include the glosses, their comparison with the ones included in the Naples edition and the nature of the relationship between both witnesses.

Professor Javier del Barco
Associate Professor of Hebrew Language and Literature,
Research Fellow at Institute of Religious Sciences (,
Universidad Complutense de Madrid
Old Yiddish

Adapting the Sefer ha-Zohar in Old Yiddish

Dr Jean Baumgarten is the leader of the OCHJS’s current Oxford Seminar in Advanced Jewish Studies, entitled ‘Books in Judeo Languages: Popular Reading and Scholarship’ (Michaelmas Term 2022).


Between the beginning of the 17th and 18th centuries, there was a transformation of Jewish religious culture marked by the popularisation or vernacularisation of Kabbalah. A closed esoteric doctrine in the Middle Ages, studied and transmitted by a tiny intellectual elite, Kabbalah emerged in the early modern period and developed into the predominant theosophical, theological and ethical system used by Jews—and also Christian Hebraists—to understand creation, divinity, the interrelationship between the terrestrial and celestial worlds and the parallel between the human body and celestial bodies, all in terms of the end of the Jewish people’s exile and the advent of messianic times. 

Herein, I focus on a representative example of the appropriation of Kabbalah by less-educated Jews: the Naḥalat Tsevi (Frankfurt, 1711). This work, also known as Taytsh-Zoyer, is a translation and adaptation of the Sefer ha-Zohar into Old Yiddish and was edited by the kabbalist Tsevi Hirsh ben Yerahmeel Chotsch. It was printed by the Christian printer Anton Einscheit with the collaboration of Nikolaus Weinmann. 

Tsevi Hirsh ben Yerahmeel Chotsh, Naḥalat Tsevi, Frankfurt, 1711

In its title page in Hebrew, we read: 

‘A marvelous composition [comprised of] ethical words, stories and literal revelations in Yiddish copied, translated and compiled [. . .] from the dear Zohar composed by the great man among giants, the divine Tanna Rabi Shimon bar Yohai [. . .] edited by the great darshan Rabbi Tsevi Hirsh ben Yerahmeel Chotsch of Krakow.’ 

Chotsch emphasizes the literal commentary (peshat), ethical lessons (musar) and narrations (sippurim) in this volume. The work constantly plays on the dialectical tension and, simultaneously, rhetorically constructed illusion between the uncovered, exposed parts and revealed way (derekh nigle) of the Sefer ha-Zohar and its concealed way (derekh nister), or hidden secrets (soydesfarborgene zakhn). In his introduction, Chotsch relays the main stages in the history of the Zohar’s reception: 

‘After the destruction of the Temple, the Jewish people were dispersed in exile and the Torah was forgotten, God forbid. It was decided in heaven that the Mishnayes and the Gemore should be written down. Therefore, they hid secrets, which were revealed in the Gemore in the form of stories, according to the understanding of [common] people. They are a garment (levush) for great secrets. And as the (knowledge) of the Torah decreased, the world faded from existence. Since the secrets were not studied, God sent R. Shimon bar Yohai and his companions (averya) to reveal the good secrets. And Daniel (12:3) said about them: And the intelligent people (Maskilim) shall shine like the light of the firmament. R. Shimon bar Yohai and his circle will shine like the great light that has been hidden since the six days of creation to such an extent that the sun is only a part of the three hundred and forty-three parts of that light and their reward will be great. He and his circle compiled the Zohar in order to reveal it. . . . And the Zohar was again hidden until the time of redemption (zman geule) came so that it would be revealed for the first time, for redemption cannot come except through Kabbalah (durkh di kabole).’ 

The introduction of the Naḥalat Tsevi suggests a common practice of reading: ‘He who has no time during the week shall read the Parashah on Shabbat’. We might imagine a single individual silently reading on Oneg Shabbat or a semi-private reading in the domestic space with family or in a small study group. Or, perhaps, there was a reading among little ḥavrutot composed of followers of Sabbatai Tsevi. According to Gershom Scholem, Chotsh was a ‘moderate sabbatean’. Little clues in this regard are, for example, scattered throughout his commentary of the Tikkunei ha-Zohar, the Ḥemdat Tsevi (Amsterdam, 1706). 

Tsvi Hirsh ben Yerahmeel Chotsh, 
Ḥemdat Tsevi, Amsterdam, 1706. 

On the frontispiece of the volume, we see two deer and, on top, a crown and quotation (Isaiah 28:5), as well as a reference to Sabbatai Tsevi. We could imagine that the Naalat Tsevi was among the few Old Yiddish books read by disciples of the ‘false Messiah’. 

I conclude with a short example of the adaptation of the Zohar from the Parashat Noah, concerning the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11:5): 

‘Rabbi Hiyya begins: And Adonai said (Gen 11:1): All the earth had one language and the same words. They found the place of the generation of the flood, in order to turn away from God and to rebel against him. And they succeeded in their enterprise [because] they were one people and one language. United with each other. They spoke the Holy language. But what they spoke with their mouths was only in order to continue and make their enterprise successful. The Holy One, blessed be He, says: Since they are a people with one heart and one will and they speak the Holy language, then they will do all that they had the will to do. I will confuse their language. And their heavenly degrees [the degrees or sefirot of emanation and the seven higher levels of midot]. And the Holy One, blessed be He, created a confusion [of tongues] and scattered them throughout the world. And moreover, they served idols. For they were united in heart. They spoke the Holy language, but no Law (din) could have authority over them until the Holy One, blessed be He, caused the confusion. We and our fellow men who were united in one heart engaged in the Torah and all the more so, in the Holy tongue. But among them, the measure of Law (midat ha-din) did not dominate [. . .] And the Holy One, blessed be He, mixed up their language. So the Lord scattered them from that place (Gen 11:8). But when the Messiah will come, it is written: Then I will also give all the peoples a pure tongue, so that they will all call on the name of the Lord (Zephaniah 3:9), and we read: The Lord will be king over all the earth; in that day the Lord will be one and unique will be his name (Zechariah 14:9).’

The Naḥalat Tsevi contains a vast amount of information which sheds light on important aspects of Ashkenazi society, culture and religion. Though often considered minor works of literature, Jewish vernacular texts such as this one deserve more nuanced assessments than have been afforded them, so that we might gain a more global and complex understanding of Jewish popular culture in the early modern period.

Dr Jean Baumgarten
Leader of Oxford Seminar in Advanced Jewish Studies Michaelmas Term 2022 ‘Books in Judeo Languages: Popular Reading and Scholarship’, OCHJS; Directeur de Recherche Emeritus,
    Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS, Paris)
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