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

The Reasons for Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Staying Power

Nov. 20 2018

This week, Benjamin Netanyahu seems to have narrowly avoided the collapse of his governing coalition despite the fact that one party, Yisrael Beiteinu, withdrew and another, the Jewish Home, threatened to follow suit. Moreover, he kept the latter from defecting without conceding its leader’s demand to be appointed minister of defense. Even if the government were to collapse, resulting in early elections, Netanyahu would almost certainly win, writes Elliot Jager:

[Netanyahu’s] detractors think him Machiavellian, duplicitous, and smug—willing to do anything to stay in power. His supporters would not automatically disagree. Over 60 percent of Israelis tell pollsters that they will be voting for a party other than Likud—some supposing their favored party will join a Netanyahu-led coalition while others hoping against the odds that Likud can be ousted.

Opponents would [also] like to think the prime minister’s core voters are by definition illiberal, hawkish, and religiously inclined. However, the 30 percent of voters who plan to vote Likud reflect a broad segment of the population. . . .

Journalists who have observed Netanyahu over the years admire his fitness for office even if they disagree with his actions. A strategic thinker, Netanyahu’s scope of knowledge is both broad and deep. He is a voracious reader and a quick study. . . . Foreign leaders may not like what he says but cannot deny that he speaks with panache and authority. . . .

The prime minister or those around him are under multiple police investigations for possible fraud and moral turpitude. Under Israel’s system, the police investigate and can recommend that the attorney general issue an indictment. . . . Separately, Mrs. Netanyahu is in court for allegedly using public monies to pay for restaurant meals. . . . The veteran Jerusalem Post political reporter Gil Hoffman maintains that Israelis do not mind if Netanyahu appears a tad corrupt because they admire a politician who is nobody’s fool. Better to have a political figure who cannot be taken advantage of than one who is incorruptible but naïve.

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More about: Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel & Zionism, Israeli politics