A Judeo-Provençal New Year’s Eve Dinner in the 18th Century

Dr Peter Nahon will be teaching Judeo-Provençal at the OSRJL.


In the shadow of great literary monuments, documents of humbler appearance often provide precious glimpses into the past of a language. This phenomenon is even truer when it comes to Jewish languages: since most communities used Hebrew as their written language, their vernaculars were recorded in writing only on a few casual occasions. Linguists must look carefully for the slightest marginalia that may conceal relevant linguistic facts, especially as the sort of documents in question are more likely than others to have been discarded over time. 

Judeo-Provençal—the vernacular of Jews from Avignon and the Comtat Venaissin in south-eastern France—is no exception. Among its speakers, Hebrew was still the primary written language up until the beginning of the 19th century. Even correspondence, account books and administrative birth records were still mostly written in Hebrew. Only in a few cases did the sacred language of Jews give way to the vernacular; one such instance was naming things for which the Hebrew vocabulary learnt at school was neither rich nor precise enough. 

This use of the vernacular is reflected in a manuscript I found unexpectedly in an 18th-century Hebrew prayer book for the New Year according to the rite of Carpentras, printed in Amsterdam in 1739 and kept today in a private collection. One of its flyleaves bears these handwritten annotations:

Handwritten marginalia in a copy of the Seder le-yamim noraim
ke-minhag q”q Carpentras
, ed. Abraham Montel, Amsterdam, Hirtz Levie
Rophe, 1739. Private Collection, Avignon

Written in a Provençal semi-cursive hand, five blessings in Hebrew—each beginning with יהי רצון (‘may [God’s] will . . .’)—are preceded by the Judeo-Provençal vernacular names of food items on which the blessing is to be recited. The foods can be transcribed as follows: line 1—cooulé ‘cabbage’; line 2—pori(t) ‘leek’; line 3—espenhar ‘spinach’; line 4—daité ‘date’; and line 5—coucourdo ‘pumpkin’. Consistent with other Judeo-Provençal sources, these few words exemplify the peculiarities of the Provençal writing system: letter ב beth is used for the semivowel [w] or [u̯] as the second segment of a diphthong, as in כֳבְלֵי *[ˈkou̯le]; letter ש šin stands for [s], and the vowel ֳ  can be used both for [o] and [u]. The word porit, for *[ˈpori], retains an etymological -t (ט) that was probably silent in the spoken language, but is reminiscent of older orthography (the same occurs in several 17th- and 18th-century Judeo-Provençal manuscripts).

How do these words compare with those in cognate non-Jewish dialects? For each, let’s look at the local form recorded in the Linguistic Atlas of France (ALF). Geolinguistic point 864, Fontaine-de-Vaucluse—a few kilometres from Carpentras—may serve as a point of comparison. For ‘cabbage’, the form recorded in ALF (card n°283) at point 864 is [ˈkule]; our Judeo-Provençal form represents an earlier phonetic stage where the etymological diphthong [ou̯] had not yet monophthongized to [u]. For ‘leek’, ALF (card n°1048) gives [ˈpore] and for ‘spinach’ (card n°475), [esˈpiɲar]. For both these words, the comparative Judeo-Provençal forms display vocalic variation that affects [e] and [i]. This variation may either reflect real phonetic features proper to the Jewish ‘lect’ or be due only to the imprecision of the Hebrew spelling. The fourth word, not documented in ALF, must be looked for in the lexicography: standard Provençal for ‘date’ is datti (FEW 3, 2b), which suggests that the Jewish cognate underwent metathesis. The last word (ALF card n°296) is [kuˈkurdo], identical with that listed in the Jewish source. 

This quaint list of food items reflects the local form of the Jewish custom of simanim ‘symbols’: foods whose names evoke good omens or auspicious scriptural references and that are served during the New Year’s Eve supper to symbolise good wishes and hopes. The nature of these simanim vary from one community to another, and sometimes even within a single community between different families. 

It so happens that two other slightly different lists of vernacular simanim from Provence are known. The first of these, probably written in the same decades as the manuscript discussed above, appears in a 1712 manuscript prayer book for the New Year according to the rite of Carpentras and copied by Emmanuel b. Gad de Milhaud. In a different and later hand, a previous owner of the book—possibly Ṣemaḥ David Astruc (whose name appears on the flyleaves in similar lettering)—added the following blessings on a blank folio:

Columbia Ms. X 893C J 55 vol. 5, fol. 157v.; Photo P. Nahon

The foods and blessings listed herein appear in the same order as those in the first manuscript, though with a few variants. The words cooulé ‘cabbage’, daiti ‘date’ and coucourdo ‘pumpkin’ reflect identical pronunciations despite slightly different vowel spellings. Furthermore, pori lacks here the etymological ט, confirming that this letter in the other version is silent. Lastly, spinach is replaced with another leaf vegetable of the same family, בִּלִידוֹ bilido (cf. Provençal bledo in FEW 1, 344a), which can mean either chard or orache. 

The final example I would like to present herein is printed in the Seder ha-qunṭeres, a booklet containing occasional prayers and hymns for the rite of the Comtat Venaissin. This booklet was compiled by Isaïe Vidal and Mardochée Venture and issued in 1765 at Avignon. At folio 28v, we find the list of simanim and blessings:

Seder ha-qunṭeres, fol. 28v.; Private Collection, Paris

Again, a few variants are present: while the spellings for daiti and coucourdo represent pronunciations that are identical with those in the previous two manuscripts under consideration, caoulét ‘cabbage’ retains an etymological t (ט) while porés ‘leeks’, as in the second manuscript (Columbia), does not. Indeed, porés is given in its plural, with a final -s (פוריש). Here again, chard or orache (with a variant form: בלייטוה bléito with -t- probably due to the influence of the French cognate blette ‘chard’) is preferred to spinach, though a former owner of the book—who added the French names of each item in the margin—wrote epinar, the French for ‘spinach’! Here, are we dealing with variations in local customs, individual preference or material circumstances? Chard and orache are both less challenging to grow and yield bigger harvests than delicate and expensive spinach: they may have been preferred in less well-off households. 

Judeo-Provençal and the liturgy of the Comtat Venaissin both became extinct during the 20th century as a result of Nazi genocide and assimilation, and have left only scant linguistic and cultural traces in the living memories of today’s French Jews. Most of this once flourishing tradition is today concealed in old printed books and manuscripts. We must turn to such documents to recover some details of these vanished communities’ daily lives and distinctive ways of speech.

Dr Peter Nahon
OSRJL Judeo-Provençal Teacher; Research Fellow in Romance Dialectology and Linguistics, University of Neuchâtel
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