The People of the Books
This column seems recently to have aroused in many of you questions about Yiddish words or phrases that you remember hearing long ago from parents or grandparents. The latest such query comes from Marcia Bender of Forest Hills, Queens. She asks: “When my grandmother was very old, I used to help her light the Sabbath candles. Besides the traditional blessing, I can remember her murmuring in Yiddish a prayer that began, ‘Lekoved got, lekoved dem libn shabbes … ‘ [‘In honor of God, in honor of the dear Sabbath….’] The rest I can’t recall, and I don’t know what prayer this was. Can you help me?”
The full prayer — or at least the version of it that I found in a siddur, a prayer book, called “Korbn Minkhe” — goes: “Lekoved got, lekoved unzer gebot, lekoved dem libn shabbes koydesh vos unzer her got hot uns gegebn un hot uns gebotn di libe mitsve, ikh zol zi rekht kennen mekayem zayn un zi zol gevogn zayn vi kol taryag mitsves, omen, ken yehi rotsoyn.” An English translation of this would be: “In honor of God, in honor of our commandment [of lighting the candles], in honor of the dear, holy Sabbath that our Lord God has given us along with the dear commandment, may I observe it properly and may it count as much as all 613 commandments, amen, may it be God’s will.”
“Korbn Minkhe” was a siddur designed especially for women, and the copy I have, which I inherited from my father’s library, must have come to him from my grandmother. Published in Vienna in 1921 and no doubt bought in New York, to which his family immigrated from Russia in 1914, it’s printed on thin, brittle paper of the kind that was widely used in Europe between the two World Wars and that today, nearly a century later, literally comes apart in one’s hands. There are many better-quality editions of “Korbn Minkhe,” which was reprinted dozens of times all over Europe in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. One reason for this was that it was a common wedding gift to brides from their mothers or mothers-in-law.
A Yiddish prayer for a specific day of the year or ritual occasion that is recited solely by women, such as this one for lighting the Sabbath candles, is known in Yiddish as a tkhineh — a Hebrew-derived word meaning “supplication.” Although tkhines probably existed in oral form earlier, written ones first cropped up in Central and Eastern Europe in the 17th century. Since women in those days rarely received any Hebrew education (men generally were given some, even if only rudimentary), tkhines allowed them to pray meaningfully in a language they understood rather than simply recite the Hebrew liturgy by rote.
In some cases, tkhines appeared in separate volumes devoted entirely to them, like the popular “Shloyshe She’orim,” “The Three Gates,” written by the legendary figure of Soreh bas Toyvim, a woman who supposedly lived in Ukraine in the 18th century. (Tkhines were composed by men and women alike, sometimes by one sex masquerading as the other.) In other cases they were printed, together with Yiddish translations of the standard Hebrew prayers, as part of the siddur, as they are in the “Korbn Minkhe.”
The wish that lighting the Sabbath candles should “count as much as all 613 commandments” reflects the fact that of all the many mitzvot aseh, as they are called by the rabbis, the commandments to perform specific ritual acts (as opposed to the mitzvot al ta’aseh, the commandments not to do something), women are, in Jewish tradition, excused from all but three, which are their responsibility alone: lighting the Sabbath candles; baking the Sabbath challah while setting aside part of its dough as an offering, and observing the laws of menstrual purification.
These three mitzvot had many tkhines written for them. The one for candle lighting has a continuation that goes: Riboynoy shel oylem, mayn mitzve fun di likht ontsundn zol azoy ongenumn zayn vi di mitzve fun dem kohen godel ven er hot di likht in libn beys hadmikdesh ongetsundn … un zol ongenumn vern az mayn kinders oygn zoln laykhten in der liber, hayliger toyreh — that is: Master of the Universe, may my commandment of lighting the candles be as acceptable [to You] as the High Priest’s lighting the candles in the dear Temple … and as acceptable as my children’s eyes lighting up in [the study of] the dear, holy Torah.
The simple, homey, intimate language of this prayer, quite different from the more formal language of the Hebrew prayers of the siddur, is typical of the tkhines that were recited by women for hundreds of years.
Today, when, even in the most traditional, Yiddish-speaking ultra-Orthodox circles, girls are given a far better Hebrew education than they received in the past, tkhines have lost much of their rationale and importance. And yet at the same time, feminist concerns and the spread of Jewish gender studies have led to a scholarly interest in them that never existed in the past and that has created a growing literature about them.
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