Written and first published in the late 16th century, and taking its title from a verse in the Song of Songs, the Ts’enah Urenah is a Yiddish Pentateuch that draws freely on midrashic and medieval interpretations, folklore, and rabbinic ethical literature to produce something far more than a translation. The resulting work, in the words of Adam Kirsch, is, on the one hand, “didactic” and filled with “useful moral lessons” and, on the other hand, able to “adorn biblical stories with imaginative details, bringing them to more vivid life by piling new myths and miracles on the old ones.” The book’s intended audience was Jewish women, although many men read it as well. There is no doubt, Kirsch writes, that it did much to shape the worldview of Glikl of Hameln (1646-1724), a well-to-do German Jewish woman who documented her remarkable life in her even more remarkable diaries:
The Ts’enah Urenah power comes from the way it manages to make the biblical stories at once more exotic, by emphasizing or inventing supernatural details, and more domestic, by extracting useful advice about ethics and conduct. A reader could marvel at the miracles God performed for Abraham and Moses, and yet recognize something of her own life in the details about motherhood and matchmaking and moneymaking.
Most important, perhaps, the generations of Jews, men and women alike, who relied on this book for their knowledge of Judaism’s holiest texts were taught not just a collection of tales, but a way of reading. . . . In this way, the Ts’enah Urenah initiated common readers into the classic Jewish approach to texts, so that even if they never read a page of Talmud—much less a philosophical treatise by Maimonides—they would have some sense of what it means to read as a Jew. . . .
[For Glikl,] the sad end to her prosperous career [brought about when her second husband went bankrupt and then died] gives ample opportunity to remind her children, her intended readers, of the evanescence of wealth and the inscrutable wisdom of Providence. . . . Just as she [remarked] at the beginning of the Memoirs, Glikl is not a saint. . . . Like most of us, she is more concerned with respectability and success than with the fate of her eternal soul.
But when it comes to ultimate values, she continually upholds what she learned from the Ts’enah Urenah and books like it. She knows that wealth is meaningless, that God is watching over the universe, that the best Jewish life is one of prayer and study. Her achievement, like that of generations of Jews, was to be able to hold in productive tension the real and the ideal, the world she lived in and the world as God wanted it to be. As she told her children: “Put aside a fixed time for the study of Torah, as best you know how. Then diligently go about your business, for providing your wife and children a decent livelihood is likewise a mitzvah—the command of God and the duty of man.”