Jerusalem Series: An Ashkenazi Maḥzor from Amsterdam and Diasporic Longings for Jerusalem

Ashley Conde FCRH’21

The Maḥzor ʻim kaṿanat ha-paiṭan in Fordham’s Special Collections was published by Kashman ben Joseph Baruch Printing House in Amsterdam in 1767.  It contains prayers for the holiday of Sukkot and was designed for the prayer leader’s personalized use.  The prayer leader is identified in the Maḥzor’s cover page as the “paytan,” which is a term that means a liturgical poet and refers to the person who leads services.  This Maḥzor features texts written in different types of script: traditional Hebrew block script, Rashi script, and Yiddish cursive script (see figure 1).  It was intended for Ashkenazi Jews living Amsterdam and elsewhere in Europe.  The copy in Fordham’s collection contains 93 leaves with leaves 6 or 7 and leaf 9 missing from the digitized item.  It contains solely printed pages.  Unlike the printing house’s other publications, this Maḥzor does not bear the printer’s mark.

The Maḥzor s cover page claims to be “better than other maḥzorim today” and states that “nothing of its sort has been printed until now.”[i]  It advertises the addition of Yiddish explanations to and commentaries of the Hebrew prayers.[ii]  The prayers and Torah readings in traditional Hebrew script act as the headers of each leaf, followed by a smaller text in Rashi script, and concluding with commentary in Yiddish (see figure 2).  There are also smaller instructions inserted between prayers that detail the specific intentions and directions for the prayer leader (and for those using the prayer book as individuals as well).  Despite the Maḥzor’s lengthy commentary, it is possible that the book was also meant for the broader Ashkenazi community.  The numerous Yiddish books printed in 18th-century Amsterdam sometimes featured “marginalia in Yiddish explaining the order of the service, local liturgical customs, and various rules about worship.”[iii]  Ashkenazi Jews were encouraged to read the Yiddish explanations and recite the Hebrew prayers in synagogue.[iv]

Figure 1: Maḥzor ʻim Kaṿanat ha-paiṭan (Amsterdam: Kashman ben Yosef Barukh ha-ḥotem Hirts Levi Rofe ṿa-ḥatano Kashman, 527 [1767]). Title page of with examples of different scripts used. SPEC COLL JUDAICA 1767 1|V.3
Figure 2: Maḥzor ʻim kaṿanat ha-paitan. First page of the prayer text, featuring the “ma tov hu” prayer with commentary.

Amsterdam’s Ashkenazic community had been growing since the 17thcentury.  Individuals fled Germany after the Swedish invasion during the Thirty Years’ War in the 1630s and established themselves at the margins of the thriving Sephardic community already present in the city (who themselves settled in Amsterdam following the expulsion of Jews from Spain in the late 15th century).[v]  The Sephardic Jews in Amsterdam regarded the more recent Ashkenazi Jewish arrivals as a social blight but nevertheless provided minimal economic support for them.  Ashkenazi Jews continued to move to Amsterdam in waves. Jews from Lithuania and Poland left their home countries for Amsterdam in the 1650s.[vi]  As they became outnumbered by the Ashkenazim, the Dutch Sephardic Jews “encouraged the separatist tendencies” among Eastern Europeans in order to weaken intracommunal Ashkenazic relations.[vii]  Whereas Ashkenazim numbered around 500 in the 1640s, a century later Ashkenazim outnumbered their Sephardic brethren by 80 percent: of the 13,000 Jews living in Amsterdam, 10,000 were Ashkenazic.[viii]

Maintaining a strong sense of cultural identity was important to the Dutch Ashkenazim who were disconnected from their home countries and alienated by the contemptuous Sephardic Jews.  The Ashkenazim were more likely to retain their traditional attire than the Sephardim, as Dutch artists depicted Ashkenazi Jews as visually distinct from the assimilated Sephardic Jews.[ix]  Publishing texts in Yiddish allowed the Ashkenazim to further distinguish themselves from the Sephardim.  Yiddish books were previously printed in Poland and Italy, but many of these publishing houses had collapsed by the 1750s. Amsterdam printers thus filled the market void left by these printing centers.[x]

Printing was an economic enterprise that elevated Ashkenazic Jews whom the Sephardim had deemed tramps and beggars.[xi]  Jewish printers in Amsterdam produced an unprecedented number of Yiddish books and “declared that Dutch Yiddish books were better than those produced elsewhere.”[xii]   The Fordham Mazor reflects this pride in Dutch Yiddish identities when it proclaims itself superior to other maḥzorim.  The flourishing Yiddish printing industry in Amsterdam attracted literary agents from throughout Europe[xiii] and led the Dutch Ashkenazim to market to Jews in Europe.[xiv]  It is likely that copies of the Mazor in Fordham’s collections were distributed outside of Amsterdam.  As Dutch printers realized the potential for a broader European market, they developed an interest in reporting news in Yiddish— the first known Yiddish newspaper was published in Amsterdam.[xv]  Shlomo Berger posits that the Yiddish press’ ability to unite Ashkenazim both in Amsterdam and abroad “[testifies] to an interest in Jewish life outside the Holy Land that attaches a unique importance to Jewish existence in Europe.”  The ability to read Yiddish connected diasporic Jews who were unable to read Hebrew fluently. Furthermore, Yiddish offered a more contemporary appeal than Hebrew, which the Ashkenazim deemed archaic. Indeed, 18thcentury Jewish printer Hayyim Druker claimed that “building a Yiddish literary corpus was… about being involved in a process of change.”[xvi]

The Mazor in Fordham’s collection was thus part of a movement to modernize Jewish liturgical practice and strengthen Ashkenazic identity.  Amidst these changes, Ashkenazi Jews still maintained a sense of belonging to the city of Jerusalem.  The particular Mazor in Fordham’s Special Collections contains prayers for the festival Sukkot.  Jeffrey Rubenstein recounts how the biblical harvest festival of autumn gave way to the rabbinic festival of Sukkot, which celebrates God’s protection of the Israelites following their flight from Egypt.  Sukkot has long been linked with Jerusalem, as evidenced by King Jeroboam’s efforts “to prevent Israelites of the northern kingdom from making pilgrimage to Jerusalem” during the autumnal festival.[xvii]  During the time of Jerusalem’s First and Second Temples, Sukkot was one of three pilgrimage festivals. Jews traveled to Jerusalem to make the obligatory sacrifices involved with Sukkot,[xviii] and the sukkah built on Sukkot “originated as the temporary shelters erected by pilgrims.”[xix]  Even the timing of Sukkot links celebrants to Jerusalem, as Sukkot occurs at the “time of year that inaugurates the rainy season in the land of Israel.”[xx]

Beyond its pilgrimage ties to Jerusalem, Sukkot is intimately associated with the memory of the First and Second Temples.  Torah readings for Sukkot include accounts of the sacrifices that were brought by priests in the temple on each of the days of the holiday.  One of the haftorahs in the Mazor is 1 Kings 8: 2- 21, which contains Solomon’s Temple dedication address.  This liturgical reading connects Sukkot with the time of the dedication of Solomon’s Temple, and reminded those who attended synagogue services and heard the Torah chanted of their connection with Jerusalem and its temple.[xxi]  The dedication of the second temple also fell around Sukkot.[xxii]

Rubenstein claims that Sukkot “gave expression to fundamental beliefs of the Israelites: the revelation and theosophy, salvation of Israel, the exodus, renewal of the covenant, and the inviolability of Jerusalem.”[xxiii] Observance of Sukkot, which survived the traumatic destruction of the First and Second Temples, continues to assert Jerusalem’s sanctity.  It is possible that Sukkot, with its themes of displacement, God’s protection, and Jerusalem’s “inviolability,” appealed to Ashkenazic Jews in Amsterdam.  Like the Israelites fleeing Egypt, the Ashkenazim left conflict and persecution in countries such as Germany, Lithuania, and Poland.  Another haftorah in the Mazor, Zechariah 14: 1-21, declares that Jewish survivors of a cataclysmic war must go to Jerusalem annually to pay homage to God during Sukkot.[xxiv]  The scripture associated with Sukkot refers to war, something with which the Dutch Ashkenazim were familiar.  Salvation from war, both in Zechariah’s time and the 18thcentury, involves reflecting on Jerusalem’s memory.

At the time of the Mazor’s printing, Jerusalem’s temples were long-destroyed and Jerusalem was under Ottoman rule.  The Ashkenazim yearned both for their homelands and Jerusalem.  As a commercial object produced by Ashkenazic printers for Ashkenazim around the world, the Fordham Mazor demonstrates the unique methods Jews employed in relating to one another as well as their Holy Land.  Reading texts in Yiddish allowed diasporic communities to understand and continue their religious practices despite their distance from Jerusalem and inability to read Hebrew.  At the same time the Ashkenazim were, as Druker believes, modernizing their language and faith, they were maintaining Jerusalem’s memory through their rituals.

The Mazor for Sukkot belongs to the exhibit’s “Regional Relations” section.  The objects in “Regional Relations” span different eras of Jerusalem’s occupation.  From Roman bottles to medieval European indulgences, the objects demonstrate how Jerusalem established itself in the imaginations and practical lives of those outside the city.  The Mazor is at once an emblem of a successful Ashkenazic printing industry and a symbol of diasporic longings for Jerusalem. 


Ashley Conde is a FCRH senior English and Theology major from Los Angeles, CA.  She is interested in Jewish Studies and enjoys listening to music and playing Animal Crossing.

This blog post was originally written for Prof. Sarit Kattan Gribetz’s “Medieval Jerusalem: Jewish Christian, Muslim Perspectives” course; the Maḥzor and this essay will be featured in an upcoming exhibition at Fordham’s Walsh Library.  


Bibliography:

Baskind, Samantha. “Distinguishing the Distinction: Picturing Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews in 

Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Amsterdam.” Journal for the Study of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewry 1, no. 1 (2007): 1-13.

Berger, Shlomo. “Books for the Masses: The Amsterdam Yiddish Book Industry.” European 

Judaism: A Journal for New Europe, 42, no. 2 (2009): 24-33, accessed online December 7, 2002. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41444027.

“First Days of Sukkot: Haftorahs in a Nutshell,” Chabad.org, accessed online December 2, 2020, 

https://www.chabad.org/parshah/article_cdo/aid/742779/jewish/First-Days-of-Sukkot-Haftorahs-in-a-Nutshell.htm.

Kaplan, Josef. “Amsterdam and Ashkenazic Migration in the Seventeenth Century.” Studia 

Rosenthalia 23, (1989): 22-44, accessed online December 7, 2020. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41481726.

Mazor for Sukkot, 1767, Shvidler Chair in Judaic Studies— Judaica Collection, Fordham 

University Archives and Special Collections, Fordham University Libraries. https://www.library.fordham.edu/digital/item/collection/p17265coll5/id/5220

Rubenstein, Jeffrey L. A History of Sukkot in the Second Temple and Rabbinic Periods.

Providence: Brown UP, 2020, accessed online December 2, 2020. https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctvzpv502.1.

“Sukkot in LBI Collections,” LBI.org, accessed online December 13, 2020, 

https://www.lbi.org/collections/jewish-holidays-lbi-collections/sukkot-lbi-collections/.


[i] Conversation with Professor Gribetz, December 2, 2020

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Berger, “Books for the Masses, “25.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Kaplan, “Amsterdam and Ashkenazic Migration in the Seventeenth Century,” 25.

[vi] Ibid, 37- 38.

[vii] Ibid, 38.

[viii] Baskind, “Distinguishing the Distinction,” 7. 

[ix] Ibid, 10.

[x] Shlomo Berger, “Books for the Masses,” 25.

[xi] Ibid, 27.

[xii] Ibid, 27.

[xiii] Ibid, 28.

[xiv] Ibid, 30.

[xv] Ibid, 31.

[xvi] Ibid, 28.

[xvii] Rubenstein, A History of Sukkot in the Second Temple and Rabbinic Periods, 19..

[xviii] Ibid, 25.

[xix] Ibid, 27.

[xx] “Sukkot in LBI Collections.” 

[xxi] “First Days of Sukkot Haftorahs in a Nutshell.”

[xxii] Rubenstein, A History of Sukkot in the Second Temple and Rabbinic Periods, 41. 

[xxiii] Ibid, 21. 

[xxiv] “First days of Sukkot Haftorah in a Nutshell.”