Worms Machzor, Wurzburg, Germany, 1272
According to the inscription written on the front of the Worms Machzor, it was written by “Simchah ben Yehudah the Scribe for his uncle Baruch ben Yitzchak.” A machzor is usually a prayer book which contains the specific prayers for the High Holidays. Some machzorim have been produced for other major festivals: Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. This machzor is unique as it contains prayers for all of the festivals, as well as for Shabbat, and it is, as a result, particularly heavy, containing 224 folios.
The Worms Machzor contains what is thought to be the first written Yiddish text. It can be found on page 55 and is written inside the large letters of the text of part of the Passover prayer services. It reads:
גוּט טַק אִים בְּטַגְֿא שְ וַיר דִּיש מַחֲזוֹר אִין בֵּיתֿ הַכְּנֶסֶתֿ טְרַגְֿא
A good day will be available (or lit up) for he who carries this machzor to the synagogue.
What is Yiddish?
For centuries Yiddish was the main language spoken by Jews from Central and Eastern Europe (Ashkenazim). While most languages are spoken by people who live in a certain area or belong to a certain nationality, Yiddish was spoken by millions of Jews of many different nationalities; in many cases Yiddish was their only language.
An amalgam of German, Hebrew, and local languages, Yiddish became a written language in the sixteenth century. It is written in Hebrew characters but has its own grammatical structure. People called it the mama loshen (mother tongue), while Hebrew and Aramaic were referred to as the loshen hakodesh (holy language).
Before the Holocaust, Yiddish was spoken by about 11 million Jews. Although the Holocaust and assimilation almost wiped out spoken Yiddish, it has not, in fact, disappeared. As they did five centuries ago, ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities around the world continue to use Yiddish as their daily tongue, saving the holy language of Hebrew for ritual and prayer. In recent years, there has been a Jewish mainstream revival of Yiddish with Yiddish courses at universities, Yiddish theater groups, and even a Yiddish-speaking organic farming community in New York.
Teachers of Jewish Culture and Heritage could use relevant pages from this machzor when discussing the Jewish calendar and the various festivals. It could also be used in History classes on medieval Ashkenazi Jewry and the community of Worms in particular. Teachers of Foreign Languages could use this source to compare the earliest form of Yiddish to its more modern counterpart and thus demonstrate the evolution of language. Art teachers could compare the machzor to other illustrated manuscripts and have students create their own versions of an illuminated prayer.
What languages can you identify in this source?
What is striking about the writing?
Why do you think some words are written in large letters?
What is a machzor?
Have you ever seen a machzor before?
How does it compare to this?
What other types of illuminated manuscripts have you seen?
In what ways are they similar or different to this one?
This machzor includes the first known printed Yiddish text.
What is Yiddish?
Who speaks Yiddish today? Do you personally know any people who speak the language?
Links to additional information
The Worms Machzor, the National Library of Israel
Illuminated manuscripts, The J. Paul Getty Museum
DID YOU KNOW?
Although the machzor became known as the Worms Machzor, it was originally used in the Wurzburg community in Bavaria. It is thought that the machzor was brought to Worms by refugees from Wurzburg after the community’s destruction in the Rindfleisch persecutions of 1298. It was used for centuries in the Worms Synagogue until its destruction on Kristallnacht, November 1938, when the city’s archivist hid the machzor in the cathedral. In 1957, the manuscript was transferred to the National Library in Jerusalem.