Tsene-rene: In the Language of Ashkenaz

Jeffrey Veidlinger

Khust Synagogue interior. Courtesy of the Archives of Historical and Ethnographic Yiddish Memories (AHEYM).
Khust Synagogue interior. Courtesy of the Archives of Historical and Ethnographic Yiddish Memories (AHEYM).
Among piles of decaying Talmud folios, prayer books, and rabbinical commentaries that had been stored in the great synagogue of Khust (Huszt), I stumbled upon an edition of the Tsene-rene, published in Piotrków in 1889. It was 2005 and the baroque synagogue in this Carpathian town was being refurbished. Workers were repairing leaks in the roof as we chatted with Shimen Repkin, who shared with us the history of the community. The synagogue was built, he told us, in the 1860s and was once the pride of Hungary. Following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it became the pride of Czechoslovakia. When the Germans occupied the town in 1944, they used the synagogue to store the property they confiscated from Jews all over the Carpathian region; they sent the property owners to Auschwitz. In later decades, the Soviet Communists tried to turn the synagogue into a social club for the adjacent shoe factory. Locals recall that a group of Jewish women protected the synagogue and the books it held, and prevented the Communists from expropriating it. Repkin invited us to sift through the books and take what we wanted; there were no locals left with any use for them. I stuck the Tsene-rene in my backpack together with a copy of Shivhei ha-Besht (In Praise of the Baal Shem Tov).

Title  of the author’s copy of the Tsene-renefrom the Khust Synagogue. Courtesy of the author.
Title of the author’s copy of the Tsene-renefrom the Khust Synagogue. Courtesy of the author.
The Tsene-rene is often mischaracterized as a Yiddish translation of the Bible, a mistaken formulation that probably came from the text's original title, "The Pentateuch in the Language of Ashkenaz with the Five Scrolls and the Haftarahs." It is also known as the "Taytsh-khumesh," a term that means both the "Pentateuch in Yiddish (taytsh)" and "the translated Pentateuch." The common name of the text, Tsene-rene, comes from the Song of Songs verse ze'eneh u-re'enah benot Ziyon ("Go forth and look, daughters of Zion"), with which the book was subtitled.

The original text was written sometime in the late sixteenth or early seventeenth century by Yankev ben Yitskhok Ashkenazi of Janow, about whom we know very little. In fact, we don't even know which of the various Janows that appear on the map was his birthplace. One reasonable candidate is a town in Lublin district, which would put him near the cosmopolitan center of the Polish- Lithuanian Commonwealth, where the famed Lublin Fair attracted visitors from near and far, and where the Council of Four Lands met as a governing council for Polish Jewry. The Tsene-rene was one of several attempts of the period to render the Pentateuch more accessible to Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazic Jews; it was part of a democratization of Jewish knowledge made possible by the advent of the printing press and the ethos of the era.

The text was ostensibly directed toward women, "daughters of Zion," and therefore is also sometimes called a women's Bible. In Yankev ben Yitskhok's words, he wrote the Tsene-rene so that:

all the people of the land, both small and great, might themselves know and understand how to read all of the twenty-four books. For the people hear sermons in the synagogues and do not understand what the sermon is. They speak too rapidly in the synagogue, but in the book one can read slowly, so that one can understand by oneself.

By the early twentieth century, the Tsene-rene had become one of the most popular texts among eastern European Jews. It was often bound together with other essential works of devotional literature, rendering the tome a complete Jewish library for the common reader. The copy I have was bound together with a prayer book, segments of the Nakhalat Tsevi (an eighteenth-century Yiddish adaptation of the Zohar by Tsevi Hirsh Hotsh), and Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers). It also included selections of several other texts that were printed on the bottom half of the page. If you only had one book, the Piotrków 1889 edition of the Tsene-rene would be a good candidate.

While women undoubtedly read the Tsene-rene, men did as well. The Russian and Hebrew writer and publicist Yehuda Leib-Binyamin Katzenelson (Buki Ben Yogli, 1846–1917) noted the role this book played in his enlightenment:

The Tsene-rene really opened my eyes. As I noted above, in the kheyder I studied only discontinuous sections of the Pentateuch, with no relation or connection between them. Through the Tsene-rene, a complete and elaborate picture from the lives of our ancestors was disclosed to me, a picture seasoned with fine and wonderful aggadot [fables], which captured my heart.

Indeed, most eastern European Jewish readers understood that a translation of the Pentateuch into "the language of Ashkenaz" did not denote merely a translation of the biblical text, but rather had to incorporate, at the very least, khumesh mit Rashi (the Pentateuch with Rashi), and additional midrashic commentaries. Without commentary there could be no translation. Indeed, early modern approbations commended Yankev ben Yitskhok for translating and interpreting Scripture in its context and with homiletics. But he selectively included translated midrashic material from a variety of sources rather than merely translate an existing compilation. The Tsene-rene is a translation without an Ur-text.

Seforim in Khust Synagogue. Courtesy of the Archives of Historical and Ethnographic Yiddish Memories (AHEYM).
Seforim in Khust Synagogue. Courtesy of the Archives of Historical and Ethnographic Yiddish Memories (AHEYM).
I had long been interested in translations of world literature into Yiddish. I had researched how Yiddish rendered Tolstoy, Dickens, Heine, and Dumas, but hadn't really considered what it did for the Tanakh. Spurred by the book I had salvaged from the Carpathians, I started a small Tsene-rene reading group with some graduate students. We would take turns reading and translating the singsong text into English. The vernacular Yiddish intended to ease access to the Torah for generations had now itself become a holy tongue, which we were rendering into our own vernacular, translating and interpreting what Yankev ben Yitskhok had himself translated and interpreted. It had truly become der heyliker ivre-taytsh (the sacred Hebrew-Yiddish translation).

We started in the beginning. The text of the Tsene-rene does not begin with the familiar passage "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth," as one would expect of a Bible translation. Rather it begins with the prefatory sentence, in Yiddish, "here it will be explained why the Torah begins with the letter ב and with the word בראשית (breyshis)." From its first words, the text asserts its interpretive function. Only after raising this issue does the Tsene-rene launch into the familiar phrase, now in loshn koydesh (the holy tongue, Hebrew): "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth." The text then reverts to Yiddish, as though providing a translation, but instead offers commentary: "In the original creation of the heaven and the earth, the earth was wild and empty and the throne glory floated in the air over the water." This midrashic detail, borrowed from Rashi's commentary on the word מרחפת (meraḥefet) from Genesis 1:2, reinforces the image of an anthropomorphic God. The text consciously interprets as it translates, often politely declining to provide a literal translation and even denying that thing could exist.

The question of why the Torah begins with the letter ב is one that vexed the early sages, who assumed that the Torah should naturally begin with the first letter of the alphabet, א. Midrashic literature overflows with explanations for this occurrence, as though each sage was required to test his chops by providing a novel rationalization for this invented incongruity. The Tsene-rene provides a sampling of interpretations, adapted from a variety of midrashic sources. First, the text proposes that the letter ב is closed on three sides and open on the fourth, just as God created the world to be closed on three sides, but open to the north. The Tsene-rene then provides the well-known alternative explanation from Midrash Tanhuma, that ב is the first letter of the word ברכה (brokhe; blessing), whereas א is the first letter of the word ארור (arur; cursed). The text seamlessly jumps from loshn koydesh to taytsh. How can such a discussion be adequately translated?

The text continues to explain how the Bible foretold the destruction of the temple. It interprets the phrase tohu va-vohu to refer to the future, when the earth will become wild and laid waste (a khurbn) and the presence of God will disappear. I could think of no better explanation for the likely fate of the erstwhile owner of my own copy of the Tsene-rene, who was murdered in the Nazi khurbn. But the Tsene-rene's rendering of the next phrase, "let there be light," is reassuring. It promises, the Yiddish text explains, that there will ultimately be redemption and that the temple will be rebuilt in the times of the Messiah. Again, I thought of Khust, where the leaky ceiling has since been replastered, and from where I had salvaged the book to read and translate, again, with a new generation.