Lost for a Century, the Minhogimbukh Returns

By Shira Levine

Published September 10, 2004, issue of September 10, 2004.
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There was once an Eastern European tradition to cook chicken livers on Rosh Hashanah because their name in Yiddish, leberlakh, sounds like the injunction “leb ehrlikh,” to “live honestly.”

In fact, there were loads of other customs worldwide — some communities shunned vinegar while celebrating the New Year, because of its sour taste, while still others stayed away from nuts because they calculated (incorrectly!) that the numerical value of the Hebrew word for nut was the same as that of the word for “sin” — that have been all but lost to modern Jewish practice.

This may all change now with the publication of “The Books of Customs: A Complete Handbook for the Jewish Year” (HarperCollins), by a book designer with a tale almost as fascinating as those told in his new release.

Fifteen years ago, while researching a project, Scott-Martin Kosofsky happened upon a series of unique Renaissance woodcuts depicting Jewish customs practiced in the European diaspora. The source turned out to be an edition of something called a Minhogimbukh, or “customs book,” a guide to the Jewish year — part farmer’s almanac, part prayer book — written in Yiddish, the language of the people.

More amazingly, as Kosofsky learned later, he had discovered a widely used, uniquely important artifact of European Jewish life from 1590 to 1890. Minhogimbukhs — which detailed the rituals, liturgies and texts of the entire Jewish year, from the Sabbath and festivals to the major life-cycle events such as weddings, births, bar and bat mitzvahs and deaths — were published in dozens of editions and revised throughout the centuries in Venice, Prague, Amsterdam and Germany, as well as in Poland and Russia as of the 19th century. By the late 19th century, use of the Minhogimbukh waned as Jewish practice became polarized between the secularist and traditionalist views.

Stacking various editions of Minhogimbukhs next to each other presents a virtual history lesson in the evolution of Jewish custom throughout three centuries. Inspired by this, Kosofsky set out to create the first new edition of a Minhogimbukh in more than a century, illustrated by the original woodcuts that started him on the journey.

“This book is a digest of all the texts,” Kosofsky said in an interview with the Forward. “The prayer book isn’t a document one can read front to back. There’s a tremendous amount of repetition, and in the era of short attention spans and narratives, this is very useful. It’s difficult to find information on the Jewish year without jumping from book to book. Before this book, you needed several books to find answers.”

One adaptation is that, in the Minhogimbukhs, Jewish custom is often explained through folkloric-style teachings, but Kosofsky wanted contemporary and more practical clarity.

“I wanted the words that came out of people’s mouths and not heavy folklore,” he said. “Midrash [exegesis] can be a distraction. People don’t know the difference between law and custom, Midrash and Torah. It’s all melded into one by rabbis. We need facts.”

In that spirit, here are some facts about High Holy Day customs:

• Many people know that on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, it is customary to throw breadcrumbs into a nearby body of water in a symbolic gesture of casting off one’s sins. But an unusual Kurdish variant required adherents to throw their whole bodies into the water.

• It is forbidden to throw away the old water and put fresh water in the vase in which one leaves the four species, or lulav, on Sukkot. One is allowed to add fresh water to the old, though.

• On Hoshanah Rabbah, the seventh day of Sukkot, some have the custom to cover themselves in a sheet and go to a place where the moon can be seen and then throw off the sheet, standing naked in the spot. “They stand straight, with all their limbs spread out, and they examine their shadow in the moon,” Kosofsky writes. If one’s head is missing, he will lose his head. If his fingers are missing, that refers to his relatives. If his right hand is missing, that means his son. If his left hand is missing, that means his daughter.”

Kosofsky believes that by revealing the rituals performed by actual people throughout history, this book might be able to put today’s Jews in touch with their heritage.

“There are people who aspire to do more these days, to have some ideas of Judaism as it is lived on the ground,” he said. “I wish I’d had this book when I was younger.”

Kosofsky’s next project for 2006 is a collaboration titled “Great Occasions in American Jewish History — The American Jewish Experience As Seen Through Eighty Key Events, Documents, People and Ideas.”

“[The Book of Customs] changed my daily consciousness in a very complete way. I can live the Jewish year with this resource and have stuff to think about when doing it,” he said. “It helped me to understand who I am.”

Shira Levine is a freelance writer based in New York.

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