We are honoured to launch today The Jewish Languages Bookshelf, an online blog series of short articles on specific manuscripts, printed books, notes, documents and ephemera written in any of the multitude of Judeo-languages from late antiquity until today. This new series of brief and accessible yet scholarly articles is a publication of the Oxford School of Rare Jewish Languages (OSRJL), recently created by the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. As of October 2021, the OSRJL offers free, online classes in twelve different rare Jewish languages, some still spoken today, others known only from texts, and most of them threatened by extinction.
For the past two thousand years in all the communities of the Diaspora, Jews spoke the vernacular languages of their non-Jewish neighbours while using their ancestral Hebrew and Aramaic for education, religion and literature. With time, these spoken vernaculars acquired linguistic specificity and began shaping Jewish culture and identity. While originally means of communicating with the world outside Jewish communities, these languages eventually became the means of expressing emotions and daily concerns within Jewish families themselves.
These “mothers-tongues”—reputed to convey frivolous messages such as magic recipes; wedding songs; lullabies; tales and stories of knights, princesses and dragons; or special, simplified adaptations of Biblical accounts for the supposedly less educated women and children—were nonetheless often committed to writing. The vernacular sounds of home and street seeped through the walls of synagogues, institutions of learning and printing houses to penetrate the learned spheres of liturgy, education and literary creation.
Manuscripts, books, almanacs, newspapers, magazines, tracts and written notes on a variety of mundane and intellectual subjects written in Judeo-languages, usually in Hebrew letters, became inseparable companions of the Jews throughout their history. The Jewish Languages Bookshelf celebrates these writings and their roles in shaping Jewish life. The editors are delighted to share with our readers the insights and discoveries of little-known writings, and invite the growing community of scholars of Judeo-languages to contribute to The Bookshelf. We are proud to open the series with a glimpse at the Judeo-language treasures of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, as detailed by Dr César Merchán-Hamann.