Voices of the Matriarchs: Listening to the Prayers of Early Modern Jewish Woman

Voices of the Matriarchs: Listening to the Prayers of Early Modern Jewish Woman

by Chava Weissler

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Finalist for the National Jewish Book Award for 1998

With Voices of the Matriarchs, Chava Weissler restores balance to our knowledge of Judaism by providing the first look at the Yiddish prayers women created during centuries of exclusion from men's observance. In Weissler's hands, these prayers (called thkines) open a new window into early modern European


Finalist for the National Jewish Book Award for 1998

With Voices of the Matriarchs, Chava Weissler restores balance to our knowledge of Judaism by providing the first look at the Yiddish prayers women created during centuries of exclusion from men's observance. In Weissler's hands, these prayers (called thkines) open a new window into early modern European Jewish women's lives, beliefs, devotion, and relationships with God.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
Reclaims a significant piece of Jewish women's spiritual legacy. —Jewish Woman

"Weissler's breadth of knowledge and command of her extraordinary archive of materials will not be surpassed soon. . . This book, with its insistent acknowledgment of the domestic spirituality of the early modern Jewish world, forces us to ask questions about the circumscription of spirituality in the American Jewish context today." —Scott Mendel, JUF News

"Thoughtful and important. . . . Weissler offers us both a careful examination of the tkhines as well as a meticulous feminist analysis of their meaning for women and their place in Jewish culture." —Dianne Ashton, The Jewish Studies Book Review

"Her study reveals a nearly lost genre of Jewish literature. . . . Weissler deftly blends historic poetry and scholarly text in this look at an important facet of Jewish history." —Publishers Weekly

"An important addition to the field of women's studies." —Idelle Rudman, Library Journal

"Essential reading for all interested in Jewish spirituality." —Paula E. Hyman, editor of Jewish Women in America

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
A heartfelt tkhine--a plea to God--to bless the Sabbath bread as it is placed in the oven provides a fitting opener for this book in which Weissler (Religion, Lehigh) delves into the prayers of Jewish women in early modern Europe. Her study reveals a nearly lost genre of Jewish literature. She recovers and showcases the words of Yiddish women who prayed faithfully and frequently for blessings during everyday occurrences, such as the lighting of the Sabbath candles, and when preparing for the holidays, especially for the Days of Awe--Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Weissler examines the tkhine not only as lovely prose but as a reflection of the devotional lives of 17th-19th century Jewish women. Individual chapters focus on tkhines for pregnancy, childbirth, candle lighting and death, and a number of tkhines are reproduced in all their beauty and simplicity: "May it be Thy Will, Lord our God, God of our Fathers, to bring on the coming month for our good and blessing." Weissler deftly blends historic poetry and scholarly text in this look at an important facet of Jewish history. (Nov.)
Library Journal
In this important addition to the field of women's studies, Weissler (religious studies, Lehigh Univ.) focuses on the devotions, or tkhines, Jewish women used to express their beliefs. Since they were not taught Hebrew or included in the religious ritual that revolved around the prayer-house, women created tkhines in Yiddish in order to participate in the spirituality that surrounded them. Weissler carefully studies the few known authors (though the vast majority of tkhines were written anonymously) after setting the stage by explaining how the three great spiritual movements that influenced Jewish religiosity in the 17th and 18th centuries created a welcoming atmosphere for individual expressions of devotion and spirituality, to which women responded. She then looks at tkhines written on these shores by immigrant women in Yiddish and by contemporary women in Hebrew and English. This scholarly work is essential for any collection that focuses on Jewish studies, religion, spirituality, and women's studies.--Idelle Rudman, Touro Coll. Lib., Brooklyn, NY
In counterbalance to the male focus of Judaic studies, Weissler (religious studies, Lehigh U.) examines tkhines, Yiddish devotional prayers, the only religious source materials traditionally available to women, as a lens into the construction of gender and mystical spirituality in Askenazic Judaism from the 17th century to its American feminist transformation. Annotation c. by Book News, Inc., Portland, Or.

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Read an Excerpt


    This [the woman] says when she puts the loaf of berkhes into the oven:

    Lord of all the world, in your hand is all blessing. I come now to revere your holiness, and I pray you to bestow your blessing on the baked goods. Send an angel to guard the baking, so that all will be well baked, will rise nicely, and will not burn, to honor the holy Sabbath (which you have chosen so that Israel your children may rest thereon) and over which one recites the holy blessing--as you blessed the dough of Sarah and Rebecca our mothers. My Lord God, listen to my voice; you are the God who hears the voices of those who call upon you wholeheartedly. May you be praised to eternity.

    This lovely prayer is a tkhine, one of the supplicatory prayers in Yiddish recited by Central and Eastern European Jewish women. As a historical document, it gives a bit of evidence about the lives of Jewish women, about what they might have been thinking as they performed their religious duties and household tasks.

    Tkhines--Yiddish prayers for private devotion--are the subject of this book. Like other genres of popular religious literature in Yiddish, these prayers began to appear in print in the sixteenth century and flourished during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Because tkhines, as well as ethical works, collections of pious tales, and Bible paraphrases, were in Yiddish, the vernacular of Ashkenazic Jews, they were available to women, who rarely mastered Hebrew, the sacred tongue and the language of scholarly works. An analysis of women's religious lives forms a necessary corrective to the overwhelming majority of studies of the history of Judaism that rely primarily on sources produced by and for learned men, always a small minority of the Jewish people. Taking the religion of women--and other nonlearned Jews--into account significantly revises our understanding of Ashkenazic Judaism.

Chapter One


Shloymele's mother Sarah was frail and slight, with small, white hands crisscrossed with tiny purple veins, and the pale face and thin lips of a pious woman. She seemed to be pure spirit, to float rather than walk. She was a learned woman, who knew all kinds of prayers [tkhines], prayers of the Land of Israel and prayers of Sarah Bas Tovim; she was well-versed in the laws of khala, menstruation, and candle lighting, which are the particular province of women, and she read such books as Tsena Urena, The Shining Candelabrum, and the like. It was she who showed the women how to pray: what hymns to say, when to rise, when to stand on tip-toe in the kedusha prayer. In the women's gallery of the synagogue, she kept a lemon and other pungent remedies to revive herself or the other women whenever they felt faint. And in fact it was hardly possible to keep from fainting when Sarah read. She would read with great emotion, her melody melting the soul and pulling at the heart strings. When she wept, everyone wept with her; her tears would have melted a stone.

Here we meet a Jewish woman of some learning, a spiritual soul and a leader of other women. Yet the history of Jewish spirituality as it has been written is chiefly the history of the religious life of the educated, male elite, and indeed, the most important sources for this history are the written works produced by learned men. More generally, our understanding of the history of Judaism in any particular period has been based primarily on the writings of these small numbers of men. The result has been the relative neglect of the religion of ordinary people, those who produced no works of religious philosophy, legal rulings, or mystical speculation. But did not ordinary Jews, too, rejoice on the Sabbath and holidays, repent of their sins, hope for redemption, and express their devotion to God in prayer? To understand the religious history of the Jewish people more fully, then, we must also understand these ordinary Jews--including women.

    Because so few women received more than the rudiments of Jewish education throughout the ages, they left only a scant literary legacy of their own, with the result that the spiritual life of women as a group has been perhaps the most neglected area of the history of Jewish spirituality. Few women learned Hebrew, the holy language of scholarly communication, and fewer still left any written works, even in the vernacular. Further, women were excluded from the major arenas of Jewish public life: the government of the kehillah (the organized community), the Talmudic academy, the house of study, the rabbinical court, the kabbalistic conventicle, the Hasidic gathering. And in the synagogue women did not count as one of the minyan, the ten adults required to make a quorum for public prayer; they were not permitted to lead the service or to read from the Torah (the scroll of the biblical text read in the synagogue); and they sat screened from men's eyes behind a partition, on a balcony, or in a completely separate room.

    Some modern critics of the role of women in Jewish life have concluded from these exclusions that women had no religious lives to speak of or that their religion was only a pale shadow of the religious lives of men, who had the more direct access to the great classics of Jewish tradition and to the important spheres of Jewish religious life. Others have suggested that women did have a religious culture of their own, influenced by the scholarly and male formulations of Judaism but also in part independent of them, or that women adapted the religious language created by men for their own purposes. Because of the paucity of sources, it is nearly impossible to assess for many periods of Jewish history which of these views might be correct.


There does exist, however, a rich array of sources for writing the religious history of women of at least one period--the Ashkenazic world of the Netherlands, the Germanic lands, Poland, and Russia from the sixteenth through the nineteenth century. In common with Jews all over the globe, Ashkenazic Jews used Hebrew, an ancient Semitic tongue and the language of the Bible, and its linguistic cousin Aramaic, the language of the lion's share of the Talmud, much as medieval Christians used Latin: as the language of worship, study, and scholarship. Together, Hebrew and Aramaic were known by Ashkenazic Jews as loshn-koydesh (the holy tongue). During this period, the vernacular of Ashkenazic Jews was Yiddish, a language with a Germanic grammatical base, and Germanic, Romance, Semitic, and, especially in Eastern Europe, Slavic vocabulary. Despite its predominantly European roots, Yiddish was written in Hebrew characters.

    Formal education consisted almost entirely of mastering classical works written in Hebrew and Aramaic. Further, formal education was primarily for boys, almost all of whom received at least a few years of schooling. Thus, its goal was to enable males to recite the prayers, read the holy books, and, if they had the intellectual gifts, to become scholars of the classical rabbinic literature in the holy tongue. Some girls received no formal education at all, while others simply learned the mechanics of reading with little stress on actual comprehension of the Hebrew words. However, knowledge of the Hebrew alphabet enabled them to read the vernacular Yiddish. And a small number of girls, especially those from wealthy or scholarly families, received far more elaborate education.

    The early modern Yiddish-speaking culture of Ashkenazic Jews stretched across a vast expanse in space and time. In the search for women's religious lives within this culture, popular religious literature in Yiddish is a precious historical resource. In the sixteenth century, not long after the invention of printing, there began to appear a voluminous literature in Yiddish, including homiletical, ethical, and devotional material and biblical paraphrases. Much of this literature consisted of adaptations of similar popular religious works in Hebrew, intended for a male readership, that were being published at about the same time. It is clear, however, from information on the title pages of the Yiddish works and from contemporary accounts that the chief audience for most of these collections was found among women, who, since they rarely mastered Hebrew, usually did not have access to literature in the sacred tongue.

    Literate women could read (and unlettered women could have read to them) these pious and edifying tales, which told them of the role models and heroes (though rarely of the heroines) of Jewish tradition--whether rabbis from the time of the Mishnah (second century), medieval saints and martyrs, or, later, the wonder-working hasidic leaders of the eighteenth century. The ethical literature instructed them in conducting their relations with family, servants, and neighbors in godly fashion, as well as providing a guide for proper Sabbath and holiday observance and ethical business dealings. The Tsenerene, the collection of Yiddish homilies on the weekly Bible reading for the synagogue that was first published around 1600, was an extremely popular work that appeared in well over three hundred editions. Women read it for inspiration and catharsis, often weeping over the text, as a regular part of their Sabbath afternoon activity.


Alongside these various genres, collections of Yiddish prayers or tkhines, also began to be published. The genre takes its name from the Hebrew root le-hithanen, to supplicate; tkhines (in Hebrew, tehinnot) are supplications. Written for a wide variety of occasions, these prayers structured women's devotional lives by defining a range of topics considered suitable for women and by establishing a realm of discourse for addressing these topics. Women chanted these prayers from small books or little booklets, often at home, sometimes with other women in the synagogue or cemetery. (The Yiddish word "tkhine" can refer either to an individual prayer or to a booklet of such prayers.) Each individual tkhine begins with a heading directing when and sometimes how it should be recited: "A pretty tkhine to say on the Sabbath with great devotion"; "A tkhine that the woman should pray for herself and her husband and children"; "What one says when one comes into the synagogue"; "A confession to say with devotion, not too quickly; it is good for the soul"; "When she comes out of the ritual bath"; "The Seven Praises tkhine to say with great devotion, corresponding to the Seven Heavens"; "What one says on the Eve of Yom Kippur in the cemetery"; or "A tkhine for Sabbaths and festivals after candle-lighting." That at least some tkhines were written by women stands in contrast to other Yiddish religious genres, which were almost exclusively written by men.

    The tkhines are a rich source of data for interpreting the meanings that various religious acts held for women. I have written "meanings" in the plural intentionally: we will see that different texts could portray the same act in different ways--whether it was lighting Sabbath candles, undergoing ritual immersion after menstruation, preparing for the Days of Awe, or greeting the new moon. Indeed, to generalize about the tone of the tkhines would be to imply that the spirituality of traditional Ashkenazic women was monolithic. It was not, any more than it was for men.

    Rather, this literature reveals an intensely lived religious life and a richly imagined spiritual world. We see from the many occasions on which women recited tkhines what the important religious events in their lives were and how they understood these events. Consider a tkhine for lighting the Sabbath candles (a ritual performed primarily by women), for example: it may contain prayers for protecting the woman's husband and children from evil spirits, or it may contain images of the candelabrum in the ancient Temple. There are tkhines for folk customs, as well, practices not mandated by Jewish law--such as making memorial candles for the dead. Finally, unlike Hebrew prayers, tkhines contain many references to the matriarchs--Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah--and other women of the Bible; these women are figures with whom the female reader can identify.

    Despite the paucity of important women in Jewish, especially post-biblical, literature and despite their total absence from the liturgy, the women's devotional literature singles out both well-known and obscure biblical women. It draws upon their portrayal in midrashic literature, the body of legend and theological reflection created by rabbis and sages over a period of almost a thousand years, and connects them to the lives of Ashkenazic women, whose lives centered around the family and the home. Hence, in one eighteenth-century tkhine, for blowing the ram's horn on Rosh Hashanah, Rebecca is depicted as a daughter, knowing what it is to be torn away from one's parents at an early age. Thus, the worshiper feels she can call upon her for protection for her own aging parents. Another eighteenth-century text depicts Rachel as a powerful advocate for the people of Israel, pleading with God to end the exile. The tkhines presented images of important women--role models--living religious lives.

    There are two main groups of tkhines: first, those that appeared in Western Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and that were probably written or compiled by men for women; and second, those that originated in Eastern Europe in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries, some of which were written or reworked by women. Western European tkhines were published in collections addressing many topics, either in small books or as appendices to Hebrew prayerbooks, often prayerbooks with Yiddish translation. By contrast, Eastern European tkhines were typically much shorter, published in little booklets addressing one or two topics, usually on inexpensive paper with small, difficult-to-read type. Despite the differences, the Western and Eastern materials constitute a single genre. They use a special variety of Yiddish, sometimes called tkhine-loshn ("tkhine language"), and do not, as a rule, reflect local dialectical differences. Further, they use a common stock of terms of address for God and draw upon a broad range of shared images and concerns. Finally, the term tkhines appears on the title pages and tables of contents of both Western and Eastern European imprints, and some of the same texts were published and republished in various parts of the Ashkenazic world over more than two centuries. Thus, the two groups of tkhines are most fruitfully considered in relation to one another. We shall examine each group in detail below and compare them at the conclusion of the chapter.


Although one can say that prayers illuminate something of how Jews, both men and women, organized their religious lives, the distinctiveness of tkhines as prayers specifically for women can be thrown into greater relief by comparing them with the prayers of the standard Hebrew liturgy of the siddur, the prayerbook. The differences are striking.

    Most obviously, the prayers of the Hebrew liturgy are composed in the sacred, scholarly language. They are fixed and obligatory, regulated by clock and calendar: men prayed three times a day, reciting a set liturgy that was expanded on Sabbaths and holidays. This liturgy marks the daily transitions at dusk and dawn, sanctifies the separation of the day of rest from the workday week, and celebrates the turning of the seasons and the formative events of Jewish history. The preferred setting for worship is with a congregation, defined primarily as a community of men. Indeed, the prayers of the siddur are typically phrased in the plural.

    Tkhines, by contrast, were in the vernacular Yiddish and were voluntary and flexible, recited when the woman wished, most typically at home. They were almost always phrased in the singular, and often had space for the petitioner to insert her own name, thus making them a very personal address to God. It should be noted that, according to some authorities, women were exempt from the duty of recitation of all or part of the liturgy--and by all accounts from communal prayer. Nevertheless, some women recited the Hebrew liturgy daily at home and attended synagogue on Sabbaths and holidays; some women even attended synagogue daily. In fact, there was a special prayer leader, a learned woman known as the firzogerin or zogerke, who led the women's section of the synagogue in reciting the liturgy and the tkhines. But whether in the synagogue or not, women, too, participated in the overarching rhythm of Jewish life, in the feasts and fasts of the liturgical calendar and in the passages of the life cycle. Yet to the extent that women also recited tkhines, they resonated to an alternative rhythm and participated in another religious world, with its own set of concerns. It is a world structured not only by the communal events of the Jewish calendar but also by the private events of a woman's domestic life. Consider the following example. Both men and women "remember[ed] the Sabbath day to keep it holy" (Exod. 20:8). But men welcomed the Sabbath in the synagogue at the Friday evening service, while women greeted it by lighting candles at home. As the burden of Sabbath preparations fell on women, so it is for the women's observances that there are tkhines--for baking the Sabbath loaf, lighting the candles, even making kugel, the Sabbath pudding.

    On the one hand, then, the tkhine literature reflects the general themes of Jewish life; on the other hand, it reflects the interests more particular to women. The fact that women were situated in certain social roles influenced the entirety of their religious life, even those observances shared with men. In the tkhines the two worlds were forged into one, rooted in women's social reality. Yet what was the role of women authors in shaping this reality?


Some earlier scholars claimed that all tkhines were written by men, even if they were attributed to women. As we shall see, this is erroneous. Nonetheless, the issues surrounding the authorship of the tkhines are not simple. The majority of tkhines were published without attribution to a named author. Certainly, much of this literature was written by men for women, and the question of whether or not any of the texts attributed to female authors were actually written by women has been a vexed one. We know that beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, Jewish intellectuals influenced by the Enlightenment (maskilim)--men who had no real interest in devotional literature--fabricated tkhines to which they attached, for commercial motives, fictitious women's names. And although these works were enormously popular among women, certainly those written by men represent men's conceptions of women's religious lives. But some of the earlier, eighteenth-century texts were indeed written by women. Leah Horowitz, who lived in Bolechow, Poland, in the early eighteenth century, is mentioned in contemporary sources as the author of "The Tkhine of the Matriarchs." Other eighteenth-century authors as well, such as Leah Dreyzl, greatgranddaughter of Hakham Tsevi Ashkenazi, and Serl, daughter of the Maggid (preacher) of Dubno, Jacob ben Wolf Krantz, can be readily documented.

    All of these women came from noted rabbinical families. This is hardly surprising; few men outside of such families wrote for publication. Further, for the first time, noted rabbis and scholars were themselves writing for a broader public, whether in Hebrew or Yiddish. The women who wrote tkhines can be seen as part of this phenomenon. In addition, we know that the male relatives of all the women mentioned above were involved in the vigorous controversies and vibrant religious movements of their day. How were the tkhines connected to the larger religious climate?


The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the period during which the tkhines and other Yiddish devotional genres flourished, were a time of dynamic change within European Jewish life. The heretical Sabbatian messianic movement arose in 1665, subsequently went underground, and was partially succeeded in the eighteenth century by Frankism. A vibrant religious revival movement, Hasidism, made its appearance in the mid-eighteenth century. These large movements are discussed in the introduction. But other changes in piety more directly influenced the rise of the tkhines by creating an atmosphere in which many forms of expression of religious devotion became available to ordinary Jews, and not only to scholars and mystics. This epoch saw the rise of religious contrafraternities (groups devoted to pious works); the creation of new liturgies for midnight and dawn devotions, for visiting the cemetery, for preparing corpses for burial, for observing the eve of the new moon as a penitential fast, and for other events; the beginnings of "study" of mystical texts as ritual rather than intellectual exercise; the publication of guides to pious practices for groups and individuals; and even the incorporation of mystical doctrines into synagogue architecture and interior decoration.

    What were the factors motivating these changes, and how can we understand the place of Jewish women within them? First, this was a time of technological change and religious and intellectual ferment in Christian Europe as well: the invention of printing, which made possible the inexpensive dissemination of ideas through books and broadsides, helped to bring about both the Renaissance and the Reformation. The rise of the printed book had a decisive influence on Judaism as well. For the first time, book production was cheap enough that broad masses of people could have access to published materials. This led to two results. First, halakhic, mystical, and philosophical teachings that had been the province of small elites were much more widely disseminated, if not without controversy. Second, a new kind of literature emerged, one whose audience was the intellectual middle class. They were the primary consumers of guides to the ethical life, books of pious practices, and new liturgies and rituals, often in abridged and simplified form. Toward the bottom, one could say, of this middle class, were the consumers of such works in Yiddish paraphrase or translation, women along with artisans and traders.

    There were also internal Jewish factors leading to these religious changes. The sixteenth century saw the creation of a brilliant center of Jewish mystical and pietistic activity in the small Galilean town of Safed, in Palestine. Among its major figures were the great legist and mystic Joseph Karo, the prolific mystical systematizer Moses Cordovero, and the charismatic ecstatic Isaac Luria, who died young and left almost no writings of his own, but a legacy of myth and symbol that was transmitted and transformed by his disciples. The mystical community in Safed, which also included scores of other eminent mystics and scholars, gave rise to a mystical pietism that spread rapidly throughout the Jewish world. Because of Luria's central role in the community, this pietism is sometimes referred to as the Lurianic revival, and the mystical system that emerged from Safed is called Lurianic kabbalah. Scholars have debated the extent to which Luria's esoteric teachings were in fact known. However, at the popular level, the complexities of Luria's thought were often lost, and Cordovero's system of thought was equally influential. (Thus, scholars have more recently come to prefer the term "Safed revival.") Moreover, Zeev Gries has persuasively argued that Ashkenazic pietism during this period transformed the Lurianic "mythos" to a lived and ritualized "ethos." That is, the Lurianic myth, however imperfectly understood, of an exile within God that parallels the exile of Israel on earth, and of the imperative for human beings to mend both the world and the Godhead through their prayer and performance of mitsvot, gave rise to the pervasive ritualization of Jewish life which we have discussed above.

    Women, too, were influenced by the pietistic currents of the times. They, too, wished to participate in extra ritual activities. In addition to composing tkhines, learned women were among those who helped to make other literature originating in the Safed revival available in Yiddish. At the beginning of the eighteenth century, Ellus bas Mordecai of Slutsk published her translations of an abridged version of Maavar Yabbok, a guide to dealing with the dying and the dead, and Shomrim la-boker, a liturgy for dawn devotions. As she says in her introduction to Shomrim la-boker, "many men and women chirp like birds," reciting the Hebrew prayers without understanding them; she has therefore provided a translation. And a Yiddish version of an important collection of mystical Hebrew devotions (known as tehinnot), Nathan Nata Hannover's Shaarei Tsiyyon was published in Prague at about the same time. The title page describes the translator as follows: "Because of her modesty, she would not let her name be published, but her learning and expert knowledge are renowned far and wide." This "important woman" provided the translation "for the pious women who only understand Yiddish," so that they too would be able to say these prayers. It was also during this period that women began treating the Sabbath before the new moon as a time of special piety, perhaps taking their inspiration from men's observances of the eve of the new moon as a day of penitence.

    It is indubitable that the rise of tkhines as a genre was also born of women's desire to shape their own form of participation in the pietistic practices of the day. As we shall see below, the introduction to an early collection of tkhines, published in Amsterdam in 1648, says explicitly that women wanted to recite the Hebrew tehinnot but could not understand them, and that therefore the (unnamed) editor acceded to the requests of these pious women and provided tkhines in Yiddish. The tkhines takes their origins, in particular, from the rise of the mystical Hebrew tehinnot.


Private devotions in Hebrew, known as tehinnot, formed part of the mystical literature that flowered in the wake of the Safed revival. These devotions, along with guides to the spiritual life, afforded an important channel for the popularization of hitherto esoteric kabbalistic ideas. Two significant works of this genre are the devotional manuals Shaar ha-shamayim (Gate of Heaven) and Shaarei tsiyyon (Gates of Zion). The former, composed by the eminent halakhist and kabbalist Isaiah Horowitz (1565?-1630), is an extensive kabbalistic commentary on the prayer book and includes prayers of Horowitz's own composition. (It was first published in 1717 by the author's great-grandson.) Shaarei tsiyyon, compiled by Nathan Nata Hannover (d. 1683), was published in 1662 and reprinted numerous times. Its seven chapters contain prayers for a variety of liturgical and nonliturgical occasions.

    Intended for men, this mystical devotional literature, like the tkhines, provides for prayer outside the framework of the fixed liturgy. As we have noted, such devotions were only one genre of the wave of publications rooted in Safed pietism. Along with ethical guides, booklets of new rituals, and books of pious customs, both Hebrew tehinnot and Yiddish tkhines flourished in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Moreover, there are actual points of contact between the two: Solomon Freehof has demonstrated that both Shaarei tsiyyon and Shaar ha-shamayim deeply influenced the mid-eighteenth-century Western European tkhines collection Seder tkhines u-vakoshes (discussed at length later in this chapter). The prayers for the days of the week found in this tkhine collection (and in the earlier Tkhines published in 1648 in Amsterdam) reflect the themes of the prayers for those days found in Shaarei tsiyyon, and some fifteen tkhines in all are translated or paraphrased from one or the other of these works.

    Nonetheless, despite certain commonalities and the fact that some tkhines originated in kabbalistic works, and despite Freehof's insistence that the tkhines contain what he calls "the usual Cabalistic ideas, the angels, the mysteries of God's name and the Kavvanoth," the spiritual world of the tkhines differs sharply from that of Shaarei tsiyyon, for example. While Shaarei Tsiyyon was indeed intended for "middle class" intellectual consumers, it nonetheless retains many of the esoteric teachings of Lurianic kabbalah, if in somewhat simplified form. Central to the Lurianic myth was the idea that a primordial flaw occurred in the process of divine self-expression that led to the creation of the cosmos, and that therefore a part of the Godhead, as it were, is in exile from the rest. The people of Israel, however, have the power to aid in repairing that flaw by engaging in certain mystical techniques in prayer and in religious activity. This belief was at the heart of much of the new ritual and liturgy created in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Thus, many of the prayers in Shaarei Tsiyyon seek to affect the inner world of the Godhead by means of mystical concentration on permutations of divine names. These kavvanot (intentions), which are at the heart of the Lurianic conception of prayer, disregard the literal meaning of the liturgy and seek to transform and ultimately to redeem the cosmos by rearranging, as it were, relations among the sefirot, the ten emanations, or aspects, of the Godhead. The prayers of Shaarei tsiyyon are thus suffused with a consciousness of this mystical system and often a sense of their own theurgic efficacy in bringing about the desired transformations.

    These explicit mystical techniques are entirely absent from the Western European tkhine literature. They do, of course, make reference to demons, angels, and the evil eye, the existence of which was assumed in this era. However, they convey no clear sense of the nature of the hidden Godhead, an esoteric reality sharply at odds with the apparent reality of this world and the literal meaning of the words of prayer and sacred texts. A case in point is the tkhine for the blessing of the new moon, no. 66 in Seder tkhines u-vakoshes, which is based on the prayer for Tuesday among the prayers for the days of the week in Shaarei Tsiyyon. While the Hebrew source is replete with permutations of divine names, the Yiddish adaptation avoids even the mention of the technical term "Name" and contents itself with obscure references to the "power" of, for example, biblical verses. In one passage, the Hebrew refers to "the power of the great light that spreads out from the Supernal Chariot, whose Name is [the permutation is given]." The Yiddish substitutes "the power of the holy [the syntax demands a following noun, but none occurs] that shines strongly and spreads out from the Supernal Chariot."

    What kind of sense does the Yiddish make without the Name? With no exact knowledge of kabbalistic beliefs about the mystical significance of verses, letters, and divine Names, the passages in Yiddish would be very difficult to understand. What is assumed is a passive and nonspecific knowledge that such doctrines exist, even if the reciter of tkhines cannot herself engage in full-fledged mystical prayer.

    Further, although, as Freehof points out, the tkhines do stress the importance of kavvanah (in the sense of the desirable state of devotion during prayer), they contain virtually no kavvanot (in the Lurianic sense described above). Even the very prayers for the days of the week, which Freehof cites as indicative of kabbalistic influence, are missing the Lurianic kavvanot. Further, the Western European tkhines contain no obvious references to the sefirot. I have found only one tkhine, in Seder tkhines u-vakoshes, that speaks of permutations of divine names, but it specifically denies the ability of the reciter to engage in them:

Lord of the whole world, you are an almighty and merciful God. You know well that we are only flesh and blood, and we have no power to be able to engage in mystical intentions, or to permute your holy names, or [concentrate on] all the intentions in all the prayers and all the blessings....

    Yet the tkhine does not intend to assert that no one is able to pray mystically, for it concludes:

May my prayer ascend before you, to make a crown for your head, with the other prayers of Jews who do know how to engage in mystical intentions, and to permute all the intentions and combinations of the holy names which are appropriate for each prayer and each blessing, which will bring together unity and holiness even unto the seventh heaven, Amen.

Thus, it is the reciter of tkhines in particular who is unable to engage in mystical contemplation: the kabbalistic mysteries of prayer, it seems, were not deemed appropriate for women. Nonetheless, as we see here, some tkhines presuppose the existence of mystics and their worldview, while excluding their reciters from full participation in mystical prayer. These tkhines do not present themselves as theurgically efficacious, even though they may on occasion refer, whether clearly, or more usually, obscurely, to mystical techniques of prayer. That obscurity of reference is important: tkhines that gloss over, simplify, or omit technical kabbalistic material can be very difficult to understand, even with the passive knowledge that a mystical approach to prayer exists. Perhaps this implies that the recitation of such tkhines, even though they are in Yiddish, could be seen as a ritual in which performance is more important than comprehension. Or perhaps they serve to reinforce a sense of mystery in the reciters.

    The kabbalistic and tkhine prayer literatures also differ in the settings and occasions they presume for prayer. First, although Sha'arei tsiyyon contains some prayers that could, on occasion, be recited privately, such as tikkun hatsot, the midnight service bewailing the destruction of the Temple and the exile of the Shekhinah (God's presence, the tenth sefirah), much of its contents are to be recited in a public setting, such as the synagogue or house of study. Thus, for example, the confession of sins and declaration of faith on the part of one awaiting death but still of sound mind is addressed by the man to a bet din, a rabbinical court. The same material reworked in Yiddish for the woman is addressed privately to Almighty God (Seder tkhines u-vakoshes, no. 38).

    In addition, and despite some similarities, the prayers in Sha'arei tsiyyon cluster around occasions that are different from those that figure in the tkhine collection. Sha'arei tsiyyon reflects, naturally enough, the religious life of a man and a kabbalist. The majority of the work is essentially taken up by the Lurianic kavvanot of prayer, along with poems and songs based on the permutations of divine names. The collection also includes prayers to be said before study and to retain what one has learned, before giving a sermon, before putting on phylacteries and the prayer shawl, before setting out on a journey, and before sexual intercourse. Since women did not study, give sermons, or wear phylacteries or prayer shawls, there are no tkhines for these activities. Despite the fact that women must sometimes have taken journeys, Seder tkhines u-vakoshes contains tkhines to be said only while one's husband is on a journey. Although both women and men engaged in intercourse, the tkhines are in general less concerned with sexuality and more with the reproductive life. Thus, even though material from Sha'arey tsiyyon and other kabbalistic works reworked in Yiddish is found in the Seder tkhines u-vakoshes (and some other tkhine collections as well), the two literatures betray significant differences in their concerns.

    We turn next to a detailed examination of the development of the tkhine literature, first in the West, and then in the East.


Books of tkhines, usually nicely printed on good paper (although poorly proofread), began to appear in print in Western Europe in the midseventeenth century. Beginning in 1648 and up through the first few decades of the eighteenth century, various collections, entitled Taytshe tkhines (Yiddish tkhines), Naye tkhines (new tkhines), or simply Tkhines, each containing about thirty tkhines, were published in Amsterdam, Prague, and various German towns. Around the middle of the eighteenth century, several of these collections were combined into one longer standard edition, usually entitled Seder tkhines u-vakoshes (Order of Supplications and Petitions), containing about 120 tkhines. Such shorter and longer encyclopedic collections of tkhines on many topics were the main form in which these devotions were published in Western Europe. These works rarely offer any statements about their authors or compilers, and many of the texts they contain are reworkings or paraphrases of Hebrew literary models, whether of mystical devotional literature, or earlier texts such as psalms.

    Seder tkhines u-vakoshes was widely reprinted with only minor variations well into the nineteenth century, first in Western Europe and then in Eastern Europe. Excluding nineteenth-century Western European editions, which became "germanized," this work therefore constituted a consistent literary corpus for more than two centuries and became a standard collection; the prayers it contains can therefore be considered to define a typical range of concerns for women's piety. We'll unpack this work by investigating the three major sources that became its component parts. Each has a different tale to tell about the possibilities for women's piety in seventeenth and eighteenth century Western Europe.

Meet the Author

Chava Weissler is professor of religion studies at Lehigh University, where she holds the Philip and Muriel Berman Chair of Jewish Civilization.

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