Me’ah Berakhot: A Miniature Prayerbook from the 18th century

Kristen McCarthy FCRH’24

The facsimle of Me’ah berakhot, an eighteenth-century compendium of “one hundred blessings,”in Fordham’s collection was published by Facsimile Editions in London in 1994. The Me’ah berakhot was printed on fine vellum in a limited edition of 550 copies, of which 500 are numbered 1-500, and 50 Ad personam copies are numbered I-L. The first 400 hundred copies were issued on vellum. Fordham’s copy is numbered 4. It was donated to Fordham University by James Leach, M.D., on September 16th, 2021.

Figure 1:
Me’ah berakhot= One hundred blessings: an illustrated miniature liturgical compendium in Hebrew and Yiddish from 18th-century central Europe (London: Facsimile Editions, 1994)

The edition includes the facsimile of the prayer book, containing 35 leaves, or 70 pages, in Hebrew and Yiddish, and an additional volume, 109 pages long, with commentary in English, which includes a transcription of Hebrew with a parallel English translation. (Figure 1)

The original book, which remains in a private collection, was made as a small miniature illustrated volume measuring 1.4″ x 1.6″ (or 3.6cm x 4 cm) a small prayer book in manuscript that included prayers from the 18th century. The facsimile mimics traditional bookmaking. The vellum was prepared as in the past, the binding sewn in precisely the same way as the original manuscript. The binding with silver clasps and morocco leather exquisitely tooled with 23 carat gold (Figure 2). Twenty-one out of thirty-five pages included color illustrations, they show, as pictured in this illustration of the blessing for reading the scroll of Esther, Megillat Ester, on Purim (Figure 4). The tiny size of the manuscript, according to Iris Fishof, made it possible only to include one illustrated panel on each page, above which is the blessing to be recited in Hebrew and any instructions concerning it in Yiddish, as shown in the illustration of the blessing before reading the scroll of Esther (fig. 3).[i]

Fig. 2: The cover in perspective. Image courtesy, Facsimile Editions.
Fig. 3: Me’ah Berakhot, blessing on the reading for the book of Esther, Yiddish instructions (r), Hebrew blessing (l). Image courtesy, Facsimile Editions

The original Me’ah berakhot is a unique miniature prayer book handwritten and hand-painted by an unknown scribe for an anonymous Jewish woman about 250 years ago.. Berakhot,in Hebrew “benedictions” or “blessings,” are prayers of thanksgiving or praise that Jews recite as they perform specific religious duties as a course of their everyday life. The Me’ah berakhot opens with prayers to be recited upon waking in the morning, followed by benedictions to be said after performing bodily functions like washing one’s hands, eating, and finishing meals. There are then twenty-two shorter benedictions to be recited on various occasions.[ii] There also prayers recited before sleep at night and the blessing over the appearance of the new moon. The final prayer included in the book is one to be used before departing on a journey.

Though many blessings the book contains would have been said by a man, the inclusion of the three special blessings for women to be recited when performing the three “women’s commandments” (mitzvot): ḥallah, setting aside a portion of the dough, niddah ritual immersion at the end of the menstrual cycle and hadlakat ha-ner, lighting candles to usher in the Sabbath and festivals suggests that Me’ah berakhot was perhaps created to be presented to a young woman on the occasion of her wedding.[iii] The woman’s life is revolved around household tasks, whether they be cooking, cleaning, childbearing, or tending to the children with a minimally independent life outside of the home, and that was also reflected in the printed books available to women in the early modern period, such as the Yiddish Seder mitsvot nashim by Benjamin Slonik, which was also published in an Italian translation.[iv]

The origin of the one hundred blessings seems to stem from a declaration of Rabbi Meir in the Mishna that it was everyone’s duty to recite one hundred blessings. And while the earliest efforts to create prayer books can be dated to the ninth century, the first examples of the prayer books titled me’ah berakhot come only from the seventeenth century. The earliest appears to be Seder Me’ah berakhot, printed in Venice by Giovanni di Gara in 1607.[v] Other versions were

Printed in Venice in 1648 and in 1780, Livorno in 1652. Among Ashkenazi Jews, there was an edition in Frankfurt in 1712.[vi] These editions were not illustrated. But an 1687 edition of benedictions, published in Amsterdam in a bilingual Spanish-Hebrew edition, Me’ah Berakhot, Orden benedictiones, included some illustrations on the frontispiece.[vii]The eighteenth-century manuscript of Me’ah berakhot demonstrates that Me’ah berakhot shows is that despite the availability of printed prayer books, people continued to produce elegant manuscripts for their personal use.


Kristen McCarthy is an undergraduate student at Fordham University at the Rose Hill Campus. She wrote this paper in Professor Magda Teter’s class “Jews in the Modern World” in the fall of 2021.


Bibliography

Bromer, Anne. Miniature Books: 4,000 Years of Tiny Treasures. New York: Abrams in association with Grolier Club, 2007.

Colclough, Stephen. “Pocket Books and Portable Writing: The Pocket Memorandum Book in Eighteenth-Century England and Wales.” Yearbook of English Studies 45 (January 2015): 159–77.

Fishof, Iris, Linda Falter, Michael Falter, and Jeremy Schonfield. Meʼah Berakhot = One Hundred Blessings: An Illustrated Miniature Liturgical Compendium in Hebrew and Yiddish from 18th-Century Central Europe. Facsimile Editions, 1994.

Fogel, Joshua A. Grains of Truth. [Electronic Resource] : Reading Tractate Menachot of the Babylonian Talmud. Hamilton Books, 2014.

Fram, Edward. My Dear Daughter: Rabbi Benjamin Slonik and the Education of Jewish Women in Sixteenth-Century Poland.  Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 2007.

Ramos-González, Alicia. “Daughters of Tradition: Women in Yiddish Culture in the 16th-18th Centuries.” European Journal of Women’s Studies 12, no. 2 (May 2005): 213–26.

Seyder Tkhines: The Forgotten Book of Common Prayer for Jewish Women. 1st ed.

Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2004.

Sherman, Stuart. Telling Time : Clocks, Diaries, and English Diurnal Form, 1660-1785. University of Chicago Press, 1996.

Sirat, Colette. Hebrew Manuscripts of the Middle Ages. Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Slonik, Benjamin. “The Order of Women’s Commandments” 1 (2004): 12.

Weissler, Chava. Voices of the Matriarchs : Listening to the Prayers of Early Modern Jewish Women. Beacon Press, 1998.

Weissler, Chava. “Women’s Studies and Women’s Prayers: Reconstructing the Religious History of Ashkenazic Women.” Jewish Social Studies 1, no. 2 (Winter 1995): 28–47.


Notes

[i] Iris Fishof, Linda and Michael Falter, Jeremy Schonfield, Meʼah Berakhot = One Hundred Blessings: An Illustrated Miniature Liturgical Compendium in Hebrew and Yiddish from 18th-Century Central Europe (London: Facsimile Editions, 1994).

[ii] Fishof, Me’ah Berakhot, 11.

[iii] Fishof, Me’ah Berakhot, 15.

[iv] Edward Fram, My Dear Daughter: Rabbi Benjamin Slonik and the Education of Jewish Women in Sixteenth-Century Poland (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 2007).

[v] Fishof, Me’ah Berakhot, 17.

[vi] Fishof, Me’ah Berakhot, 17. Me`Ah Berakhot : Ke-Minhag Sefaradim (Venice: Andrea Vendramin, 1649),  Sefer Meah Berakhot: Kol Ha-Omer Meah Berakhot Be-Khol Yom ([Frankfurt am Main?]: Shimon Volf be Avraham, 1712); Seder Meah Berakhot : Ke-Minhag K.K. Sefaradim (Venice: Stamperia Bragadina, 1780).

[vii] Me’ah Berakhot: Orden Benedictiones (Amsterdam: Albertus Magnus, 5447 [1687]), available at the Center for Jewish Art at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, https://cja.huji.ac.il/gross/browser.php?mode=set&id=35331