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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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