Wednesday, September 15, 2010

How did people pray before printing? A fascinating piece of evidence from a 17th century commentary on Rav Alfasi.

Summary: How did people pray before printing? A: The men memorized the prayers in Hebrew and the women memorized them in Italian or another vernacular.

Giuseppe Almanzi (1801-1860) was one of the great 19th century Jewish book collectors. He inherited the nucleus of his collection from his father. Baruch Chaim, his father, purchased a great library from the son of another great book collector - the Chida. Rabbi Chaim Yosef David Azalai's son Raphael Isaac sold it to him. It is interesting, because I had assumed that he sold it after the Chida died, but according to Shadal who wrote the catalog of the Almanzi Library the sale took place in 5506 (1805 or 1806), while the Chida died in March of 1807. I'm not sure what to make of that - did he give it to his son (Rabbi Raphael Isaac) while still living, or did he authorize him to sell it on his behalf? Who got the check?

In any event, Almanzi embellished and eventually inherited this great collection, his father dying in 1837. As a scholar and a man of wealth and taste he greatly expanded it into an even great library. He wrote and published poetry in Hebrew, as well as biographical articles and writings by Ramchal, who apparently was a favorite of his, among others. A fellow citizen of Trieste and virtually the same age, he was a very close friend of Shadal (who writes that the two forged a ברית נאמנה which lasted 38 years). The latter was naturally granted total access to his library, which he used to great effect all his life.

In the 1850s he began to catalog it for Almanzi, and the results were published piecemeal in Moritz Steinschneider's bibliography journal המזכיר, or, Hebræische bibliographie, blätter für neuere und ältere literatur des judenthums. In 1864 the collection was put on auction, so the complete catalog was published in a separate volume called יד יוסף, or by its French title Catalogue de la bibliothèque de littérature hébraïque et orientale de feu Joseph Almanzi. Most of the manuscripts were bought by the British Museum, where it still remains as the Almanzi Collection (albeit now the BM is called the British Library). Most of the books were bought by Temple Emanu-El in New York, but it eventually gave them to Columbia University.

Although the catalog is useful, the version in המזכיר is much more interesting because Shadal included many interesting summaries of some of the entries. For example, below is the entry to one such manuscript in the catalog, and below it the same ms. is described in המזכיר:

This particular manuscript includes four documents bound together. The first is a small lexicon of unusual words in the Targum, which Shadal believed is the "Aruch Katan" of one Rabbi Shmuel Shaar Aryeh. The second is a eulogy for a good woman. The third, rabbinic legislation against the "מצחקים" - gamblers, and the fourth is novellae on the Rif on Berachos and Bava Kamma written by Rabbi Shlomo Shaar Aryeh, the brother and student of the Shmuel. I'm not quite sure of exact dates when they lived, but they belonged to the famous Italian Jewish family Portaleone, one of the more famous members being the author of שלטי הגבורים, and he signed his name שער אריה or משער אריה in Hebrew. These brothers were also Portaleones (Shaar = porta = gate, Aryeh = leone = lion). There is some doubt when exactly they lived, were they personalities of the 16th and 17th centuries, or more or less the 17th century? The date is somewhat relevant because of what was shown above and will be translated below.

Shadal quotes what is probably the most historically interesting comment in this commentary. Rabbenu Yonah, commenting in his commentary on the Rif to Berachos 13a,[1] had written that the custom is that the women pray in other languages (= not in Hebrew). He gave an explanation according to the French rabbis. On this, R. Shlomo Shaar Aryeh suggests a different, historical reason:
"It is possible to give a reason for this, because necessity is the mother of invention: average women are not learned enough to learn the prayers by heart in Hebrew like men. In earlier times there was no printing, so they would teach women the prayers by heart in the vernacular, because it is much easier to learn it that way. This continued for awhile even after printing was invented, and the original custom was maintained. However nowadays when the problem has been addressed through siddurim which are printed quite easily, by far the majority of women pray (in a siddur) according to the fixed Hebrew text. However it seems to me that the original custom was very proper and beautiful, because that way they knew what they were saying. But now that they pray in Hebrew most of them are just chirping, and they have no idea what they're chirping."
Wow! Although it would be great to have an exact date when this was written, here we see history happening before our eyes. In the time of this writing most Italian Jewish women had siddurim and learned to read Hebrew. But apparently some women continued the earlier custom, which was the practice out of necessity before printing: they prayed in Italian from memory. Why were women taught to pray in Italian? Because most people had no text to read the prayers from. Books were expensive. So most people had to memorize the prayers. Since most women didn't understand Hebrew, it was obviously easier for them to learn to pray by heart in the language they spoke. Men, on the other hand, understood Hebrew (or at least were in synagogue constantly so they heard the prayers all the time) so they would memorize the prayers in Hebrew. This changed with printing. Now praying wasn't a matter of memory, but reading. So the women could learn to read and most of them in his time no longer prayed in Italian from memory, but in Hebrew from a siddur - but without understanding their prayers!

[1] Shadal writes 9a, but he is not referring to the Gemara. He is referring to an early printed edition of the Rif, presumably the 1521 Venice edition. However, I checked and in this edition it's actually on page 8a-8b, so he was off slightly. In our own "standard" Rif printed at the back of the Vilna Shas it is on page 18a, first column.


  1. I believe you mean ברית נאמנה, as found in the book you cited, Catalogue de la bibliothèque de littérature hébraïque et orientale de feu Joseph Almanzi (one of the last pages, which is the Hebrew הקדמה).

    Thank for a very interesting post!

  2. Ha, of course. In my defense the cockeyed way I type Hebrew is using unicode. That means that in order to produce ברית נאמנה I type bryt n)mnh and use a unicode converter to produce the Hebrew text. Since aleph is ) and ayin is ( it is easy to mix them up. Of course not looking at what I typed carefully is my own fault. I will correct.

  3. The fact that people had to pray out of thier memory contibuted to the lack every individual being able to do so, that is why the Shat"z was such an important thing, not only to lead the paryers but to actually be "Yotze" the folks that were not able to so on thier own.

    Good post

  4. Absolutely. I wonder if it also was in some part responsible for the plethora of nuschaos. There are probably tens of versions of seemingly basic tefillos.

  5. "because necessity is the mother of invention". Great idiomatic translation of the actual hebrew phrase. What do you think, Dan K?


  6. It does read much better than a literal "compulsion establishes a law for itself."

  7. This is not totally related though it reminded me of something I once learned about the order of the aliyot that we read on Shabbos. The 7 can be set up in a pyramid form, where the 4th aliyah is the pinnacle of the story. The 1st and 7th have a connection, the 2nd and 6th and the 3rd and 5th. It was set up this way because since people did not have a copy of their own, this break up allowed for a build up of the story. (I heard this from a speaker that once came to my community. It is actually interesting to do some aliyot analyses on the parsha etc).

    The second thing that this reminded me of was of the ladino songs that many sephardic families used to sing (and some still do). For example "Bendigamos", though it was written in their vernacular, it was used as "birkat hamazon" to the extent that some say that you can't sing that fully because it might count as birkat hamazon.

  8. According to Meir Benihu, Sefer HaChida, the sale took place in 5576 (1816).



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