Liturgy and thought of Medieval French and Ashkenazi Jews

 

I was engaged in the Institut de Recherche et d'histoire des Textes, CNRS and Vajda assigned me the descriptions of the liturgical manuscripts at the BnF (I am glad this catalogue was not published: it was much below what I ask now from a catalogue).

In Judaism, all worshipers recite the prayers and children learn them off by heart. The manuscripts of prayers fall into two main types:

1. Those of the daily service, frequently with supplements for the Sabbath and festivals

2. Manuscripts of prayers for the festivals only, which include not only the standard prayers but also liturgical poems, which vary from one community to another.

 

In the Middle Ages, the liturgy of European Jews fell into four main families: the Spanish, Italian, Ashkenazi (German) and French rites. The first three traditions have survived, but the French rite gradually disappeared after the final expulsion of the Jews from France in 1394, although it partly survived until 1900 in three villages of North Italy (Asti, Fossano, Moncalvo, APAM rite).

 

Almost from the outset I developed a special interest in liturgical manuscripts from northern France. It is poorly known; the prayers were never printed and it was thought that few manuscripts survive (in fact, after many years of research, I have a list of 88 manuscripts), for their survival is sometimes a real miracle. For example, the BnF possesses seven “Hebrew manuscripts believed to have been in the Treasury from the time of Philip the Fair” (Hébreu 633–Hébreu 639). After the expulsion of the Jews and confiscation of their property, in 1306, these small-format manuscripts seem to have been placed in small drawers in a cabinet in the Treasury, where they were forgotten until 1801. When they were rediscovered after the French Revolution they were deposited Archives of the Empire and given afterwards to the National Library.

 

The manuscripts of the French rite display four remarkable characteristics:

  1. Great diversity, which no doubt corresponds to the large number of small Jewish communities dispersed all over France in the 13th century;
  2. The tendency to expand the standard text of the prayers, a taste for which the French Jews were scolded by the rabbis of the Rhineland, who were influenced by the German Pietists; (The Pietists attached an obligatory symbolic meaning to the number of letters and words in each of the traditional prayers.)
  3. Some of these manuscripts have the material and esthetic features of the small Latin bibles of the 13th century.
  4. The use of the French language. The French glosses that Rashi incorporated into his biblical and talmudic commentaries, as well as the Hebrew-French glossaries employed in study of the Bible (see the publications by Menahem Banitt), are well known. We scarcely know that parts of the service were chanted in French. Echoes of at least eight 13th century Jewish chants, in French and in Hebrew, survive today and a concert was recently performed (see and listen...).

            

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