Sunday 3 April 2022

378) The first Yiddish translation of Rashi’s Commentary – outreach, business venture, or disingenuous?


Sanvi, Sansanvi, and Semangelaf in Rashi?


In 1560, a Yiddish Chumash (liturgical Hebrew Bible) was printed in Cremona, Italy, the city later to become famous for its Stradivarius violins. The edition was produced by Yehuda ben Moshe Naftali, known as Leb Bresch, and it included the first published Yiddish translation of Rashi’s Torah commentary. Yiddish Chumashim were known as “Teitch[1] Chumashim”. I draw extensively on the research by Professor Edward Fram from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

The two earlier Yiddish Chumashim

Leb Bresch’s Yiddish Chumash with Rashi of 1560, was preceded by two earlier Yiddish Chumashim (without Rashi) which were both printed just sixteen years earlier in 1544. These two earlier Yiddish Chumashim were both printed, one with the help of and the other by, two apostates, or converts from Judaism to Christianity. The first of these apostates, who were obviously familiar with the needs and purposes of a Chumash, was Michael Adam in Constance and the second was Paul Aemilius in Augsburg, both cities in Germany.

The Constance edition was published by the Protestant Hebraist Paul Fagius, who with the help of his apostate consultant, Michael Adam, had ulterior motives in providing Jews with their first user-friendly Chumash – they were interested in converting Jews to Christianity. Just two years earlier, in 1542, Paul Flagius had published Sefer Amanah, which was clearly to prove to Jews that the way of the “Meshichiyim” (Christians) is the correct path for them. The title page of Sefer Amanah, formatted like any other religious Jewish book of that era, reads:

Sefer Amanah.

To show and to prove with complete and clear proofs that the faith of the Meshichiyim (Christians)…is without doubt based on the foundation of the Torah, Prophets and the Writings…and to enlighten the eyes of the Jews and lead them in the straight way…

However, Fram (2015:307) writes that, as opposed to the blatant missionary intentions of Sefer Amanah:

there is nothing to suggest that either of these biblical translations were part of a campaign to convert Jews through Yiddish.

Although the two earlier Yiddish Chumashim did not promote a missionary agenda, it is strange that these first two Yiddish translations of the Torah were produced by, or with the assistance of, apostates from Judaism - particularly the Flagius edition with an open agenda to convert Jews to Christianity (as we saw in its sister publication of Sefer Amanah). However, the first translation of Rashi into Yiddish, by Leb Bresch, which is our focus in this article, has nothing to do with apostates or missionary work whatsoever.

The abridged Rashi in Yiddish

Although there had been previous sporadic attempts at translating sections of Rashi into Yiddish, Leb Bresch was the first to print Rashi on the Torah, in Yiddish, albeit in an abridged form. It is apparent that Leb Bresch spent much time and money on his enterprise to translate Rashi into Yiddish. Yiddish is written in Hebrew characters and Leb Bresch developed new Hebrew fonts which in those days would have been very expensive.

Leb Bresch writes that he is undertaking the task of presenting a Yiddish translation of Rashi because he is concerned that people in his generation had forsaken Torah study. Either they never had the opportunity to study Rashi when they were young, or they if they did, they did not pay sufficient attention – and now they were embarrassed to participate in study sessions because they felt inadequate.

Fram (2015:312) points out that Leb Bresch was concerned that when men neglected basic Torah study, it had a ripple effect on the women who would see no reason to study if men didn’t. This shows that during the sixteenth century, women were also concerned about some degree of Torah literacy. This observation is something that seems to have escaped many who claim otherwise.

Leb Bresch the businessman

Leb Bresch was not only concerned about his readers’ spiritual well-being. He comes across as quite an astute businessman. He doesn’t hide the fact that he wants his books to sell and he wanted men, as well as women, to buy his Yiddish Chumash. As Fram (2015:313) puts it, he found a “cultural lacuna” and a “niche in the cultural marketplace”. Leb Bresch promoted his Chumash by saying that now women no longer needed to spend their Sabbath days reading “useless books”.

Fram shows that encouraging woman to read must have been a common marketing technique at that time because even the earlier Yiddish Chumash, produced with the help of the apostate Michael Adam, encouraged women to study Torah instead in engaging in “foolish books”. Fran (2015:313) writes:

Were the non-Jews who prepared the Constance translation – including a convert! – truly concerned about the piety of Jewish women? Probably not. More likely, they included this as a selling point – offering women alternative reading material that could bring them to the “fear of Heaven” while at the same time helping their edition…

For some reason, Leb Bresch did not offer the Hebrew text of the Chumash nor the Hebrew text of Rashi. His edition only offered the Yiddish translations. This is in contrast to the earlier Fagius and Michael Adam’s Yiddish Chumash which did include the original Hebrew text. It is strange that Leb Bresch did not produce a side by side Hebrew-Yiddish Chumash as that would have fitted his claim of wanting to get more people involved with Torah study. A side by side Hebrew-Yiddish version would have been essential in creating self-reliance in terms of the self-education that he was advocating.

The book size

While Leb Bresch claimed he was presenting the “Teitch” or Yiddish Chumash for the less scholarly, the Chumash itself did not present a less scholarly image because it was produced in a large format. The physical size of the volume was 29.35 × 19.5 cm which was fairly large. Most other Yiddish works directed towards the less scholarly were smaller works. Paul Grendler has shown that at that time, a larger format book was seen as a type of status for the more scholarly as it conveyed importance and indicated that it was a book for serious readers.[2]

The Yiddish translations of the Torah

All those concerned with the three Yiddish Chumashim we have dealt with, the earlier Constance and Augsburg editions of 1544 and Leb Bresch’s Rashi Chumash of 1560, are very guarded about where they took their Yiddish translations from. The Constance edition of Fagius and Michael Adam claimed to take their sources from several “learned Jews” and rabbis; the Augsburg edition of Paul Aemilius claimed he took it from “an old Pentateuch written a long time ago”; and Leb Bresch’s edition never attempted to identify its source other than saying that he corrected existing Yiddish translations.

We may, however, have a clue as to where Leb Bresch took his Yiddish translation of the Torah from and that may be the Augsburg edition because he repeated a simple careless mistake. Genesis 49:8 refers to בני אביך (“your father’s sons”), but the Augsburg edition mistranslated that as דיינר מוטר (“your mother’s sons”). This same mistake was duplicated by Leb Bresch.

But Leb Bresch did not just rely on earlier Yiddish translations because he also added midrashic material which he interpolated into the biblical text and his readers would have thought they were reading the Torah text itself. Fram (2015:322) writes:

Here Leb Bresch made the rabbis’ reading of the text…part of the fabric of the translation of the biblical text for sixteenth-century Yiddish readers.

The important frontispiece

The early book publishers were surprisingly aware of marketing techniques that we generally only associate with modern times. The opening page or frontispiece (Sha’ar blat) went a long way to show the esteem the book wished to convey. Leb Bresch made sure to use a very important woodcut for his opening page. It happened to be the same one used by the famous Giustiniani press in Venice, when it printed its edition of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah in 1551. The same woodcut had also been recently used on the Cremona edition of Sefer haZohar in 1558, as well as the Arba’ah Turim by R. Yakov ben Asher, son of the Rosh. This way, the Yiddish Chumash with unattributed midrashic interpolations in the Torah text, abridged Rashi and no Hebrew, presented as a large book with a very important frontispiece - conveyed the impression that it was one of the authentic Torah classics.

Leb Bresch’s creativity with the Rashi texts

The linguistic style of the Yiddish translation of the Torah text is different from the style of the translation of the Rashi text. This indicates Leb Bresch’s freedom and originality when it came to dealing with Rashi’s commentary. He also abridged and left out much technical material from Rashi and only included literary substance that would have held the reader’s interest. He had to do so because he was competing with other popular secular “foolish” and “useless” works available to the Yiddish readers.

Lillit and the two creation narratives

Most interesting, if not disingenuous, was the way Leb Bresch sometimes put words into Rashi’s mouth that Rashi clearly did not say or intend, without attributing them to himself as his own textual innovation.

Genesis 1 and 2 is known for its two apparently different creation narratives.

·         Genesis 1:27, tells how G-d created man and woman simultaneously on the sixth day, זָכָ֥ר וּנְקֵבָ֖ה בָּרָ֥א אֹתָֽם, “Male and female He created them”.

·         Genesis 2:21–22, however, suggests that man was created before woman because G-d took one of man’s bones to fashion her, וַיִּקַּ֗ח אַחַת֙ מִצַּלְעֹתָ֔יו Implying that the creation of man was before the creation of woman, and involved the process of the woman being built from the man’s rib.

Rashi, typically, creates a harmony of what appears as two disparate narratives. Rashi reconciles the difficulties by explaining that Genesis 1 simply speaks of when humans were created – on the sixth day; Genesis 2 provides the details of how it took place.

Leb Bresch, however, had his own interpretation, drawing on the Alphabet of Ben-Sira, but not telling his readers that what they were reading was no longer Rashi: There were two incarnations of different women in the stories. Genesis 1 speaks of the first creation of a demon-like woman, Lillit. Like man, she was made from the earth. But Lillit fled and never returned to Adam. In order to provide Adam with a mate, Genesis 2 describes how another woman had to be created. Fram (2015:330) explains:

Leb Bresch inserted a much different source, a version of the story of the creation of Lilith, her flight from Adam, and her agreement with the three angels who went after her – Sanvi, Sansanvi, and Semangelaf – that she would not harm children in any house in which these angels or their names were present.

This was very much a departure from what Rashi had written. There are other examples of Leb Bresch adding extra mythology into the Rashi commentary. These involved the insertion of mystical ideas which he knew would attract the readers’ attention. In one case he drew upon a work entitled Tzeror haMor by the mystical Spanish exile, Rabbi Abraham Saba (1440–1508) concerning the four rivers mentioned in Genesis 2 and compared them to four exilic periods. Fram (2015:331-2) writes:

Rashi made no mention of such possibilities, yet they were included at length in Leb Bresch’s translation under Rashi’s name… Under the cover of Rashi’s name, and hidden in the vernacular where the rabbinic elite might not bother looking, Leb Bresch was able to place relatively new ideas into the minds of Yiddish readers. Reading about the secrets of creation and the exiles of Israel also made Rashi more appealing to potential readers. 

Leb Bresch’s standing in the rabbinic world

Not much is known about Leb Bresch other than that he seems to have been a scholar of some standing. Around 1565 he was asked to sign an excommunication order issued by the Beit Din (Jewish ecclesiastical court). The Beit Din of Venice issued an excommunication edict against a man who had tried to revoke his bill of divorce and Leb Bresch was evidently considered important enough to be asked to sign the excommunication document of the esteemed court.


It is astounding how, compared even to secular literary and ethical standards today, not just any books but Torah works, could be freely published where attribution of sources seemed to hold no sway whatsoever. One could put words into the mouth of a foundational biblical exegete, add a degree of extra mysticism and even mythology, have your work published with chashivut and authority, and presented as being on a par with works like Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah and the Zohar.

It is disturbing how innocent and sincere readers would have read such writings and gone away thinking that they had simply read Rashi in Yiddish.


Further reading







[1]Teitch” is Yiddish for “translated”.

[2] Paul Grendler, P., 1993, ‘Form and Function in Italian Renaissance Popular Books, Renaissance Quarterly 46, no. 3, 451–85.

1 comment:

  1. I think the real scandal is that Rashi didn't write his commentary originally in Yiddish.