A Medieval Prayer Book Contains the Oldest Known Example of Written Yiddish

Sept. 12 2018

Written in the city of Würzburg in 1271 and 1272, the Worms maḥzor (High Holy Day prayer book) gets its name from the city that housed it for most of its existence—which was also home to one of the three original communities of Ashkenazi Jewry. The illuminated manuscript, now on display at the National Library of Israel, is written mostly in Hebrew, but contains the oldest extant example of the Yiddish language in the form of a brief prayer for whoever brings it to synagogue. Ilan Ben-Zion writes:

The prayer book, with its medieval European cityscapes, bird-headed humans, and menagerie of beasts, was used by the Worms Jewish community for centuries, up until the rise of Nazi Germany in the 20th century. . . .

[The curator Yoel] Finkelman said the Yiddish inscription is not only an important glimpse of the language in its early form but also suggests to historians that “beautiful maḥzorim were owned by individuals and used by communities, unlike today where the synagogue owns the siddurim.” A family might own a [regular] prayer book, but a tome of this size would cost “a flock of sheep and a year’s worth of scribal work and decoration,” making it more than most people could afford. . . .

The early glimpse of the Yiddish language in its infancy [found in the maḥzor] is extremely rare. “You have to realize that after this inscription from 1272, we have to make a leap of 110 years till the next dated document in Yiddish, that is 1382,” said Avraham Novershtern, [a leading expert on the history of Yiddish], referring to the Cambridge Codex, a Yiddish text found in the Cairo Geniza. . . .

The Worms synagogue was destroyed in Kristallnacht in 1938, ending centuries of the maḥzor’s use on Jewish holidays.

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More about: Books, Haggadah, History & Ideas, Yiddish

Syria’s Downing of a Russian Plane Put Israel in the Crosshairs

Sept. 21 2018

On Monday, Israeli jets fired missiles at an Iranian munitions storehouse in the northwestern Syrian city of Latakia. Shortly thereafter, Syrian personnel shot down a Russian surveillance plane with surface-to-air missiles, in what seems to be a botched and highly incompetent response to the Israeli attack. Moscow first responded by blaming Jerusalem for the incident, but President Putin then offered more conciliatory statements. Yesterday, Russian diplomats again stated that Israel was at fault. Yoav Limor comments:

What was unusual [about the Israeli] strike was the location: Latakia [is] close to Russian forces, in an area where the IDF hasn’t been active for some time. The strike itself was routine; the IDF notified the Russian military about it in advance, the missiles were fired remotely, the Israeli F-16s returned to base unharmed, and as usual, Syrian antiaircraft missiles were fired indiscriminately in every direction, long after the strike itself was over. . . .

Theoretically, this is a matter between Russia and Syria. Russia supplied Syria with the SA-5 [missile] batteries that wound up shooting down its plane, and now it must demand explanations from Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad. That won’t happen; Russia was quick to blame Israel for knocking over the first domino, and as usual, sent conflicting messages that make it hard to parse its future strategy. . . .

From now on, Russia will [almost certainly] demand a higher level of coordination with Israel and limits on the areas in which Israel can attack, and possibly a commitment to refrain from certain actions. Syria, Iran, and Hizballah will try to drag Russia into “handling” Israel and keeping it from continuing to carry out strikes in the region. Israel . . . will blame Iran, Hizballah, and Syria for the incident, and say they are responsible for the mess.

But Israel needs to take rapid action to minimize damage. It is in Israel’s strategic interest to keep up its offensive actions to the north, mainly in Syria. If that action is curtailed, Israel’s national security will be compromised. . . . No one in Israel, and certainly not in the IDF or the Israel Air Force, wants Russia—which until now hasn’t cared much about Israel’s actions—to turn hostile, and Israel needs to do everything to prevent that from happening. Even if that means limiting its actions for the time being. . . . Still, make no mistake: Russia is angry and has to explain its actions to its people. Israel will need to walk a thin line between protecting its own security interests and avoiding a very unwanted clash with Russia.

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More about: Hizballah, Israel & Zionism, Israeli Security, Russia, Syrian civil war