Image courtesy of the Chronicles of the Vilna Ghetto
Vilno Tsene Rene Image courtesy of the Chronicles of the Vilna Ghetto
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The Mother Tongue

In an excerpt from ‘The People and the Books,’ a portrait of Glückel of Hameln, the 17th-century Jewish woman whose access to Judaism’s foundational stories was through the Tsenerene, a Yiddish retelling of the Torah

Adam Kirsch
September 28, 2016
Image courtesy of the Chronicles of the Vilna Ghetto
Vilno Tsene Rene Image courtesy of the Chronicles of the Vilna Ghetto

The Zohar built its theology on the idea that God was feminine as well as masculine. Yet its own readership—like that of most classic Jewish texts—remained strictly limited to men. Indeed, only married men past the age of forty were supposed to be initiated into the Zohar’s mysteries, since they would presumably be pious and settled enough not to be shocked into heresy by its secrets. In any case, to read the Zohar or to study the Talmud—the text at the heart of traditional Jewish education—required a knowledge of Aramaic, which only some men and almost no women possessed. Even Hebrew, the language of the Bible, was not part of a Jewish woman’s education. Women played a central role in the practice of Judaism, since they were responsible for observing all the laws of the home, from keeping the sabbath to cooking kosher food to obeying the rules of niddah, sexual purity related to the menstrual cycle. But how could they participate in Judaism’s textual heritage, which did so much to define men’s experience of their religion?

For Jewish women living in Germany and eastern Europe, the answer had to involve Yiddish. Yiddish emerged along with the earliest Jewish settlement in western Germany and eastern France, around the tenth century CE, fusing German with Hebrew to create a new, distinctively Jewish language. As Ashkenazi Jews—whose name comes from the traditional Hebrew name for Germany, Ashkenaz—migrated to eastern Europe, they took Yiddish with them. Hebrew remained the Jews’ holy tongue, which boys learned at school so they could read the Bible, and it remained the language of international scholarly discourse. But Yiddish was the mama-loshn, the mother tongue, which all Jews learned growing up and in which the business of ordinary life was conducted. This meant that if a text was to reach women—and a large proportion of men, too, who were not educated enough to read Hebrew on their own—it had to be written in Yiddish.

The spread of the printing press in the sixteenth century transformed Jewish book culture no less than its Christian counterpart. A new market for Yiddish books opened up, composed largely of female readers, which publishers hurried to satisfy—often by publishing translations of secular romances. But the book that did most to connect Jewish women to Judaism’s traditional sources was the Tsenerene, which became such a standard text that it is sometimes referred to as “the Yiddish Women’s Bible.” First published in the 1590s, the Tsenerene would go through more than two hundred editions, making it one of the most popular Yiddish books of all time. Few Ashkenazi Jewish households were without a copy.

The book’s title gives a hint as to its intended female audience. Tsenerene is the Yiddishized pronunciation of the Hebrew words Tz’enah ur’enah, “Come out and see,” which are quoted from a verse in the Song of Songs: “Come out and see King Solomon, O daughters of Zion.” In choosing this phrase, the book’s author—Joseph ben Isaac Ashkenazi, from Janov in Poland—signaled that he was writing primarily for women. Yet the title page of the 1622 edition states that the Tsenerene was written “in order to enable men and women to find a balm for their souls, and to understand the words of the Living God in simple language.” Any Jew who could not read the Bible in Hebrew could approach it through the humble Yiddish of the Tsenerene, and many Jewish children would have first absorbed the Bible’s stories through their mothers’ reading aloud from its pages.

The Tsenerene, however, is not simply a translation of the Bible; if it were, it might never have become so popular. What Joseph ben Isaac Ashkenazi produced, instead, was a free paraphrase and interpretation of the Five Books of Moses, drawing on a wide range of sources to give the reader a sense of how Jewish tradition understood the text. The Tsenerene is divided into the weekly Torah portions read aloud in the synagogue, with the accompanying readings from other parts of the Bible known as the haftorah. This allowed the reader to keep up with the community’s Torah reading, which otherwise she might not be able to understand. For each portion, the Tsenerene offers a verse-by-verse commentary and interpretation of the kind known as midrash—an imaginative expansion on the biblical text. The book regularly quotes the Talmud, other classic rabbinic sources, and later commentators like Rashi and Nachmanides—the kind of authorities that young men would learn as part of their advanced education. Reading it, we are hearing not just the ideas of Jacob ben Isaac Ashkenazi, but the accumulated wisdom of the sages dating back more than a thousand years. By translating all of this into Yiddish, the Tsenerene opens up the world of textual interpretation to the common reader, male and female. Today, when traditional Jewish ways of reading the Bible are completely unknown to many Jews, the Tsenerene—still in print after four hundred years, under the English title The Weekly Midrash—continues to be an ideal introduction.


The Bible is a book of stories, not a book of moral lessons, and it is not shy about presenting even the most venerable figures in an ambiguous light. When Abraham pretends that Sarah is his sister, encouraging Pharaoh to try to seduce her, or when Jacob tricks his brother Esau out of his birthright, they do not exactly seem like role models. This willingness to portray the patriarchs and matriarchs of Judaism realistically, with their own weaknesses and failures, is one reason why the Bible stories remain so vital and pertinent after thousands of years.

The Tsenerene, however, has no use for this kind of narrative ambiguity. It is a didactic book whose goal is to draw useful moral lessons from the biblical text. Indeed, like Pirkei Avot, it advances a whole ethical worldview, presenting definite views about what makes a good person and a good Jew. But where Pirkei Avot is devoted to rabbis and Torah scholars, and places Torah study at the center of its vision of the ideal Jewish life, the practical ethics of the Tsenerene are meant for a wider audience. In its pages, the Bible is harvested for maxims that will prove useful to husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, businessmen and homemakers. It makes the connection, which often seems elusive, between the characters in the Bible and the needs of the common Jewish reader.

In keeping with its intended audience, the Tsenerene is especially interested in using the Bible’s female characters to model feminine virtues. The lives of the matriarchs and of figures like Eve and Miriam demonstrate the qualities that Jewish tradition honors and seeks to inculcate in women: piety and charity, humility and obedience. At the same time, however, the Tsenerene acknowledges that the Bible’s treatment of its female characters is often sternly judgmental. We are meant to learn not just from the matriarchs’ virtues but also from their faults and failures. This presents the Tsenerene with a rhetorical problem: how to write about women, for women, while still acknowledging the many moments in which the Bible seems to hold women in low regard.

This dilemma is never more acute than right at the beginning of Genesis, with the story of Adam and Eve. God created woman by putting Adam to sleep and taking a rib from his side, which was then fashioned into Eve. What is this episode supposed to teach us about the proper relationship between man and woman? We might suppose that it says something about the primacy of man, relegating woman to a secondary, even servile position. But that is not the way the Tsenerene reads the story. Rather, the first moral lesson it derives from the creation of Eve is one binding on husbands: “God made Adam sleep to teach us that a man should not constantly fight with his wife. If he sees that she does something which displeases him, he should pretend that he does not see it and ‘sleep’ through it.” The sleeping Adam becomes the model husband, one who does not monitor his wife’s behavior too closely but knows when to shut his eyes.

The Tsenerene takes seriously God’s rationale for creating woman: to be a helpmate for man. But here, too, it manages to interpret the text in a way that does not relegate the wife to being merely her husband’s assistant. Rather, a wife’s moral character is seen as determining her husband’s character and thereby his fate; the woman sets the moral direction for her family. As it frequently does, the Tsenerene makes its point with a fable: “There is a story of a righteous man who had a wife who was a very good woman. They had no children, so they divorced. She then married an evil man and made him righteous, and he married an evil woman who turned him evil.”

In this story, men are the raw material, morally speaking, and their wives have the power to shape them for good or ill. This means that men need marriage more than women do. “A man seeks a wife: a woman does not seek a husband,” the book continues. This is not because men are active and women passive, or because women must preserve their chastity at all costs. Rather, it is because women are more self-sufficient than men: “Woman was taken from man, and so he searches for her. But the woman has not lost anything and therefore need not search.” A similar lesson can be drawn from the fact that Adam was created from the dust of the earth, while Eve was created from Adam’s rib: “A woman is strong by nature because she was created from a bone, and a man is weak for he was created from the earth, and dissolves quickly.” Likewise, “women have sweet voices, because they were created from a bone. Strike one bone against another and it tinkles and echoes, but if you strike earth against earth it makes no such sound.”

When it comes to the story of Eve and the serpent, the Tsenerene faces a bigger hurdle. Here, at the start of the Jewish tradition, is a story that seems to blame woman for the introduction of sin and death into the world. How can women’s honor be redeemed in a way that still remains faithful to the text of Genesis? What explanation can we find for Eve’s violation of God’s simple command not to eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge? In fact, the Tsenerene can find several. Perhaps “according to her understanding, the woman did not lie: she simply misunderstood.” Eve thought that the fruit of the Tree was forbidden only when it was still on the branch “in the center of the garden,” as God had described it, but that fallen fruit was permitted to eat. Or perhaps her mistake was thinking that God had forbidden her from even touching the fruit, so that when she touched a piece and nothing bad happened, she assumed that the ban was an empty threat. Still, the Tsenerene cannot gainsay the fact that Eve sinned. Does it follow, however, that she was more to blame for eating the fruit than Adam was? The Bible story puts the blame on the woman for giving the man the fruit to eat: “God asked Adam why he had eaten from the fruit, and Adam answered that his wife had given it to him.” To which the Tsenerene adds, impatiently, “What kind of answer is that? If his wife had given it to him, did that make him guiltless? God Himself had forbidden the fruit to him. … Was Adam so stupid that he listened to his wife after God had forbidden him to eat?” At least let Adam bear his own sin, rather than forcing Eve to be responsible for both of them.

And perhaps Eve had some reason for making Adam share her sin, other than simple wickedness. After all, God created Eve to be Adam’s wife and commanded them to be fruitful and multiply. But this would be impossible if they had no sexual desires, and it was not until eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge that desire appeared. “My wife,” Adam explains, “therefore gave me the fruit so that I would desire her.” In a roundabout way, Eve was simply trying to follow God’s command, to create the necessary conditions for the human race to exist. Alternatively, the Tsenerene ventures, once she had eaten the fruit and knew she would die, she gave Adam the fruit because she couldn’t bear the thought of him outliving her: “She thought to herself that if she would die, let her husband die too and not take another woman as a wife.” On this explanation, it was love, rather than wickedness, that made Eve ensnare Adam.

Even if you grant that Eve sinned, however, there is something unfair and excessive about the idea that all women should share her punishment. “Not all men suffer from the curse of Adam,” the Tsenerene observes: not every man has to sweat for his bread, since some are rich and live at leisure. But “all women, rich or poor, are cursed” to give birth in pain, and in fact, “rich women suffer more in childbirth and pregnancy” because their bodies are weaker and unused to travail. This represents a kind of divine mercy toward the poor and hardworking: “Women who are forced to work have easier pregnancies because God pities them.”

But is it fair that all women should suffer, to the end of time, because of Eve’s mistake? “If Eve had not eaten from the Tree every woman would have given birth easily, much like a hen, which lays its eggs painlessly.” The Tsenerene offers the formula for a prayer that protests this injustice: “Master of the Universe, because Eve ate of the Tree of Knowledge, must we women all give birth in deathly pain? If I had been there I would have had no enjoyment from the fruit.” In this way, a Jewish woman disclaims the notion of original sin and demands to be judged on her own actions and merits. She refuses to share responsibility for Eve’s misdeed, which she is able to recognize as wrong.

By the time the Tsenerene finishes its extensive interpretation of the Adam and Eve story, the implications of that story have become significantly more friendly to women. The primacy of husbands over their wives is, of course, upheld, but in a complex way that allows for mutuality, equal dignity, and affection. “Another kindness which God shows is that although woman is cursed in that she must obey her husband as a servant obeys his master, still she does not dislike him. God has made her love her husband, despite the fact that he rules over her,” the book concludes. Marriage is not an equal relationship, but it is one informed by love, and that lessens the sting of subordination. Still, subordination is a curse, and the Tsenerene’s willingness to say so may explain why women readers placed so much trust in it as a guide to scripture and to life.

The next woman to emerge into the spotlight of the biblical narrative is Sarah, the wife of Abraham. In chapter 12, we read of the highly irregular episode in which Abraham, traveling with Sarah in Egypt, tells her to pretend to be his sister, lest Pharaoh have him killed so that he can lay claim to her. To justify himself, Abraham says, “Behold now, I know you are a beautiful woman to look upon”—that is why she is at risk of attracting Pharaoh’s attention. The midrashic method of interpretation, however, does not always read the biblical text in its narrative context. Rather, it isolates individual words and uses them to anchor new chains of interpretation. This results in readings that sometimes feel strained or sheerly invented to the modern reader. But if you assume that God placed each word in the Bible for a specific reason, then this focus on the implications of every word begins to make more sense.

Thus the Tsenerene seizes on the word “now” in Abraham’s speech. Why does he say, “Behold now, you are a beautiful woman”? The reason, we learn, is that only “now” has he realized what Sarah looks like: “Abram and Sarai were modest, and Abram had never seen Sarai’s skin uncovered. But as they traveled over water, Sarai was forced to lift the hem of her dress. Abram then said, ‘Now I know that you are beautiful.’ ” This interpretation is really an imaginative extension of the Bible story, adding new details and episodes that are nowhere to be found in the text; but this midrashic technique is seen as revealing the full truth of the text rather than embellishing it. In this case, it is used to draw a lesson about feminine modesty. If Sarah kept her entire body covered at all times, even in front of her husband, then the ordinary Jewish woman can learn from her to practice modesty in dress.

Later, we are told that Sarah’s virtue was rewarded by various miracles that go unmentioned in the biblical text. “Our Sages say that during Sarah’s lifetime her candles burned from one Shabbat eve to the next; the dough she kneaded was blessed; and a cloud hovered over her tent.” These signs bring the matriarch close to the latter-day Jewish woman reader, whose ritual responsibilities were the same—lighting candles on Friday evening and preparing the dough for bread. Further, though she lived to be one hundred and twenty-seven years old, “Sarah had no need of cosmetics. She was as lovely at twenty years as a young girl of seven.” The greatest blessing in Sarah’s life, however, was becoming a mother to Isaac, when she was already so old that childbearing seemed impossible. This is one of the major themes of the Genesis story, but the Tsenerene underscores it by quoting a rabbinic interpretation that depends on gematria—the assigning of numerical values to Hebrew letters and words. The word for “was” in the verse “The life of Sarah was one hundred and twenty-seven years” has the numerical value of thirty-seven; from this we learn that “Sarah actually lived a real life for only thirty-seven years, from the time of Isaac’s birth until the sacrifice, when he was thirty-seven years old. The years before his birth were not considered true life, for a person who is childless is compared to the dead.”

If motherhood is the defining achievement of a woman’s life, the Tsenerene suggests, matchmaking—finding a mate for herself and, later, for her children—is its central drama. Thus the book makes much of the story of Eliezer, Abraham’s servant, who goes to find a wife for Isaac and meets the virtuous Rebecca. The retelling of this episode is full of practical advice about matchmaking, using the Bible story to state Jewish folk wisdom on the subject. For instance, when Abraham insists on finding his son a wife from his own family back in Mesopotamia, rather than from among the “daughters of Canaan,” the Tsenerene says this has less to do with avoiding idol-worshippers than with domestic harmony: “When a man takes a wife from his own family there is peace between them for one cannot taunt the other with a lack of family prestige.”

When Eliezer arrives in Mesopotamia, he declares that he will wait by a well for a woman to approach; if she charitably offers to water his camels, he will know she is a fitting match for Isaac. Meeting a young girl on her own to assess her suitability, however, struck the author of the Tsenerene as a violation of etiquette. Ordinarily, girls would be met by prospective grooms or matchmakers only in the company of their parents: “Why [did] Eliezer want to meet the young girl at the well to see if she was kind? He could have met her at her father’s house and seen whether she was pious and clever.” The book offers a canny explanation: “The reason is that at a parent’s house one cannot really discern if a child is bright. The child may be stupid, but parents show a child how to present himself in his best light in front of a guest. Eliezer therefore wanted to see her at the well, when she was by herself, to see if she would act properly of her own accord.” This explanation speaks volumes about the jockeying for position and the self-advertising that was involved in arranging a traditional Jewish match. Still, the reader is reassured that just as God sent Rebecca to the well so she would meet Eliezer and marry Isaac, so “all matches are from God. Indeed, the Sages say that forty days before a person is born an announcement is made in heaven that he shall marry so-and-so’s daughter.”

In the next generation, the story of Jacob—who worked for Laban for seven years in order to marry Rachel but was tricked into marrying Leah instead—offers more opportunities for the Tsenerene to discuss the relations between men and women. When Jacob agreed to the long period of service, the Bible says that the days seemed to pass quickly because he loved Rachel so much. But to the Tsenerene, “this is a difficult statement to understand. As a rule when one loves a woman then each hour, each day, is long, until they can be together. Why does it say here that it seemed like a few days?” Here the book is troubled by what seems like psychological inaccuracy, just as at other moments it tries to resolve problems with biblical chronology. It responds by offering an alternative interpretation that accords better with the reader’s instinctive sense of how a man in love is supposed to behave: “The answer is that once the seven years were through, it then seemed to Jacob that he had only worked a few days, because of his great love for her.”

The Tsenerene is equally troubled by what seems like Jacob’s crudeness when he asks Laban “Bring me my wife … so that I may go to her”—a seemingly explicit statement of sexual desire. Surely a patriarch should not speak so indecorously about his wife-to-be? “Even the most boorish man would not say such a thing,” the book exclaims. But we are assured that Jacob was not motivated by lust, only by a pious desire to start bearing children for the sake of God. “The answer is that he said, ‘I am already eighty-four years old, and I am destined to have twelve children. It is time for me to take a wife.’ His thoughts were only for his children.”

As the story goes on, the Tsenerene works hard to smooth over the sharp edges, the naked emotions, that the Bible is comfortable displaying. The Bible explicitly says, for instance, that when Leah had children and Rachel could not, Rachel was jealous. But how could an ethical paragon be so ungenerous? “Rashi writes that she did not envy Leah her many children,” the book reassures us. “This would be incomprehensible behavior on the part of such a righteous woman. Rather, she envied her good deeds, thinking that Leah must be very righteous to deserve a greater portion. And this it is permissible to envy.”

A greater problem arises when it comes to the story of Jacob’s flight from his father-in-law, Laban. When Rachel joined Jacob in running away, we read in the Bible, she stole her father’s teraphim, his idols or household gods. It looks very much as though Rachel, despite having married into God’s chosen people, was still attached to the idols she had grown up worshipping, and she couldn’t bear to be separated from them. Of course, this idea was totally anathema to the traditional Jewish interpreters whose views we read in the Tsenerene. The book prefers Rashi’s view that “she stole them in order to put an end to his idol worship”: Rachel was actually serving God by making it harder for Laban to pray to idols. Alternatively, she stole them “so that people would see that they had allowed themselves to be stolen, and were not divine.”

In the next generation, that of Jacob’s children, comes the terrible story of the rape of Dinah by Shechem, which Dinah’s brothers avenged by slaughtering the entire male population of the rapist’s city. The Tsenerene seizes on this story to inculcate some lessons about female modesty. Why does the Bible describe Dinah as “Leah’s daughter,” rather than naming her father as we might expect? This is no idle decision—for traditional Jewish exegesis, nothing in the Bible is there by accident—but a way of hinting that Dinah was “a forward girl, just like her mother, who had gone out to meet Jacob and had told him to come to her tent.” Just so, Dinah’s rape was the result of her failure to stay modestly at home, and so essentially her own fault. The Tsenerene drives the point home relentlessly: “The Midrash states that a woman whose home is always kept warm by her presence atones for the sins of her entire household. … Just like the vine which grows within the house and sends its branches outside, so too should your wife grace her home from within, sending her children out into the world to study Torah.” One wonders if this insistence on what amounts to a Jewish form of purdah was so extreme precisely because actual Jewish women did not stay modestly at home, as they were supposed to. If the Tsenerene is so anxious to police the conduct of Jewish women, that may be because they remained, like the matriarchs themselves, too human to fit any pious ideal.


The Tsenerene’s focus on women, its consciousness that it is speaking to women readers, is evident throughout the book. “One should not hold women in low esteem,” it emphasizes when discussing the song that Miriam, Moses’s sister, sang at the Red Sea. “They are just as worthy as righteous men. … One must hold women in high esteem, for when a woman is righteous, her goodness is boundless.” Yet as this suggests, female honor is conditional on strict observance of the constraints of modesty. Indeed, the book goes on to say that even while Miriam was singing her song, she took care to beat a drum to drown out her own voice, because “it is sinful for a man to listen to a woman’s singing.”

Similarly, when it comes to the story of the Golden Calf in the book of Exodus, women are acquitted of that sin because the “women had refused to give their jewelry for making the Calf,” while they willingly donated their gold and jewels to build the holy Tabernacle. “There was no woman among the worshippers of the Golden Calf,” the Tsenerene assures us. Yet just a few pages earlier, it relays the unflattering Talmudic dictum that “ten portions of speech were given to the world; women took nine portions, leaving one for the rest of the world.” Women are said to be especially prone to talking too much in synagogue: “The Torah tells us not to work with fire [on Shabbat], to teach women—who attend synagogue especially on Shabbat—not to discuss their cooking while there, as they are wont to do … for in the synagogue … one is forbidden to indulge in idle talk.”

This unstable mixture of attitudes toward women—admiration and suspicion, reverence and reproof—makes the Tsenerene a revealing document of traditional Jewish views about the sexes. The book’s didactic purpose, however, extends beyond specifically female behavior to embrace all Jewish readers. It sets out a classically Jewish ideal of ethics and behavior, using the biblical stories to drive home messages about how Jews should act in all areas of life.

Like Pirkei Avot more than a thousand years earlier, this ideal places Torah study at the center of Jewish spirituality. “Let your speech be principally of Torah, and not of passing matters,” the Tsenerene advises in interpreting a verse from Deuteronomy. Indeed, so central is the Torah to the Tsenerene’s worldview that it portrays the major personages of the Bible studying Torah long before the Torah itself had been given to Moses. Early in the book of Exodus, for instance, we learn that the tribe of Levi was not forced into slave labor like the other Israelite tribes. This was because “Pharaoh had commanded that the tribe of Levi be left free to study the Torah, so that they could teach the people the commandments.” Yet at this point in Jewish history there was no Torah to teach; Mount Sinai and its revelation still lay in the future.

Even earlier, in Genesis, the Tsenerene offers a description of Sarah kneading dough “the day before Pesach”—although Pesach, the holiday of the Jewish deliverance from Egypt, would not be instituted for hundreds of years. It is as though the Jewish interpreters whose views are incorporated in the Tsenerene projected the Judaism they knew, with its rituals, holidays, and Torah study, back into the time of the patriarchs regardless of the anachronism. They simply could not envision Jewish life otherwise.

In general, the Tsenerene likes to imagine a high degree of continuity in Jewish history, at times using mythical means. In Exodus, when Moses returns to Egypt after receiving God’s commands from the burning bush, the Bible says that he “took his wife and sons and set them upon a donkey.” The Tsenerene immediately connects this donkey with other biblical donkeys, insisting that they are one and the same: “Moses … placed them on the same donkey upon which Abraham had placed Isaac when going to sacrifice him. And on that same donkey the Messiah will ride upon his arrival.” This miraculously long-lived donkey becomes a witness to the preordained patterns of Jewish history: each of these journeys becomes a version of the others, using the self-same animal. Similarly, the Tsenerene says that the ram’s horn that the Israelites blew at Mount Sinai came from the ram that was sacrificed in Isaac’s place many generations earlier. And the oxen that pulled the wagons carrying the Tabernacle during the Israelites’ wandering in the desert were the same ones that King Solomon sacrificed when he built the Temple centuries later.

The Tsenerene’s ethical advice extends beyond exhortations to Torah study. “The study of Torah itself is not the most important thing: rather, to do good deeds,” the book explains, a message that would be especially pleasing to an audience of Yiddish-speaking laypeople. In fact, one of the Tsenerene’s constant concerns is the proper attitude toward wealth and worldly success, matters that concern the businessman more than the scholar. Wealth is not to be despised: “Wealth can be a crown to the wise,” enabling a person “to do a host of mitzvot, including the giving of charity.” By the same token, however, wealth presents a variety of temptations that can turn it into a curse. “In the hands of the wicked wealth becomes foolishness and is his downfall,” the book warns. “He gives no charity and thinks very highly of himself, refusing to speak with others. People begin to hate him and avoid him, and despise him for not wanting to do favors. … He gives himself a bad reputation and everyone talks about him.”

The key to enjoying wealth wisely, the Tsenerene says again and again, is to recognize that it was not earned through one’s own merits, but is strictly a gift from God. “When God gives a person wealth, he must realize that God, in His goodness, has granted it to him. He should not feel that he himself earned the wealth, or that God gave it to him because of his good deeds; rather, it was simply God’s act of mercy.” The words in Deuteronomy that are part of the Shema prayer, “You shall love the Lord your God … with all your might,” the Tsenerene interprets to mean “with all your resources”: “You should love God with your money. Your money should not be more beloved to you than a mitzvah.” It goes on to tell the story of a rabbi who paid the exorbitant sum of 1,000 gulden for an etrog, the fruit used in the Sukkot rituals; there can be no better use of wealth than to carry out God’s commandments.

There is no area of life, however modest, that cannot benefit from moral lessons drawn from the Five Books of Moses. “God gave His commandments in connection with every one of a person’s actions,” the Tsenerene says, and it takes any opportunity to apply those commandments to everyday situations. “Do not take vengeance and do not bear a grudge,” the Torah says, and the Tsenerene offers a humble illustration: “If a neighbor comes to borrow a utensil, do not be vengeful and say: ‘You didn’t want to lend me your ax, so I won’t lend you my sieve.’ This you may not do.” From the biblical description of the garments of the priests, we learn “that when a person prays or fulfills a commandment he should dress neatly and be scrupulously clean.” God will bless the desert for hosting the Israelites during their wanderings; “how much more will He repay a landlord who has a scholar stay with him in his house, and gives him food honorably.” After the description, in Leviticus, of how to deal with cases of leprosy, the Tsenerene notes that the spirit too suffers from certain illnesses, above all “the ‘illness’ of speaking ill of others. … For this reason, a person should not get used to talking too much.”

Still, if the Tsenerene were nothing but a collection of maxims and advice, it probably would not have become such a popular book. Much of its fascination derives, rather, from the way it adorns the biblical stories with imaginative details, bringing them to more vivid life by piling new myths and miracles on the old ones. Take the story of Aaron’s rod, in the book of Numbers, which is made to blossom and grow almonds as a sign that Aaron is God’s anointed priest. This seems marvelous enough, but the midrash adds to it:

Another miracle is that there were two almonds upon the stick, one on the right side and one on the left side. The one on the right side was sweet, and the one on the left side was bitter. When Israel sinned the almond on the right side lost its color, and became pale and thin, and the one on the left side became beautiful in color and plump. When the people were pious, though, the almond on the right side became beautiful in color and the nut on the left side thinned out and was pale. Thus through the stick it could be seen when Israel was pious or wicked.

Elsewhere the reader learns about the shamir, the magic worm that was used to engrave the gemstones on the high priest’s breastplate, and about Abraham’s magic sword engraved with God’s name, which Jacob sold to Esau in exchange for the birthright. None of these details can be found in the Bible itself; they are all midrashic additions, ways of elaborating the text in accordance with later commentators’ sense of what was meaningful and appropriate.

Other kinds of lore reveal the secrets of what happens before birth and after death. When the Torah speaks of the ritual purity laws pertaining to a woman who has given birth, the Tsenerene quotes a midrash about how a child in the womb is taught the entire Torah by an angel: “When the time comes for the child to go out into the world the angel hits him on the mouth and he forgets all. For this reason the child wails as soon as it is born.” When Korach, the rebel against Moses’s authority, is swallowed by the earth, we learn about the Dante-like punishments in Hell, Gehinnom, which is “half fire and half hail and snow. The wicked jump from the fire to the hail, and from the hail to the fire, and are utterly exhausted, but never achieve rest.”

Often the Tsenerene’s mythic tales take the form of just-so stories. Why do old men have gray beards? “Before Abraham’s time, one could not recognize who was the father and who was the son; no one had beards or signs of age. Came Abraham and prayed that men should grow beards, and old men should have gray hairs, so that it would be recognized who was the father, and who the son. Abraham was the first to have a gray beard, a feature that beautifies an elderly man.” Similarly, before Jacob, old people did not get sick before they died; “they would simply sneeze and fall down dead, even on the street or on a journey.” Sickness, which we might regard as a curse, was actually a blessing, given in response to Jacob’s prayer: “Jacob prayed that he should become weak before death, so that he should know when to leave his children his last will and testament.”

Throughout, the book instructs the reader in what might be called practical magic, or else just superstition: “One who drops bread crumbs on the ground brings poverty upon himself.” One must stay away from wicked people because “when the Angel of Death is given permission to kill, he kills whomever he encounters,” and he might slay an innocent person who is too close to the guilty one. Later, in Deuteronomy, we learn that “out of any hundred people, one dies another death, and the remainder through the evil eye.”

The Tsenerene’s power comes from the way it manages to make the biblical stories at once more exotic, by emphasizing or inventing supernatural details, and more domestic, by extracting useful advice about ethics and conduct. A reader could marvel at the miracles God performed for Abraham and Moses, and yet recognize something of her own life in the details about motherhood and matchmaking and moneymaking. Most important, perhaps, the generations of Jews, men and women alike, who relied on this book for their knowledge of Judaism’s holiest texts were taught not just a collection of tales, but a way of reading—one that delved below the surface of the Torah to discover additional meanings in its stories, its words, even its individual letters. In this way, the Tsenerene initiated common readers into the classic Jewish approach to texts, so that even if they never read a page of Talmud—much less a philosophical treatise by Maimonides—they would have some sense of what it means to read as a Jew.


In its commentary on the book of Numbers, the Tsenerene offers a parable to explain the value of God’s commandments to human beings. “There is a parable told of a person who falls overboard from a ship into the sea. The captain of the ship then throws him a long rope, and tells him to hold onto it, for it will save him. So did man’s soul fall overboard from beneath the Holy Throne, into this world. And thus did God tell us: ‘Hold tightly to My commandments and you will stay alive, in this world and in the World to Come.’”

In 1690, a Jewish woman named Glückel, in mourning for her beloved husband, began to write an account of her life. And she started it with a recollection of this story from the Tsenerene, which she must have read over and over during her long lifetime. Her book would “be no book of morals,” she wrote, half regretfully, half proudly. “Such I could not write, and our sages have already written many. Moreover, we have our holy Torah in which we may find and learn all that we need for our journey through this world to the world to come. It is like a rope which the great and gracious God has thrown to us as we drown in the stormy sea of life, that we may seize hold of it and be saved.”

This allusion suggests how deeply the Tsenerene penetrated into the consciousness of Jewish women readers. For in many ways Glückel was a representative Jewish woman of her time and place. Born in Hamburg in 1646, she devoted her life not to philosophical speculation or Talmudic analysis, like the men whose works make up so much of the Jewish tradition, but to the ordinary business of life: making money, raising a family, surviving dangers, and grasping opportunities. Certainly, Glückel does not hold herself out as any kind of Jewish exemplar: “Not that I wish to put on airs or pose as a good and pious woman. No, dear children, I am a sinner,” she writes at the beginning of her book. “Alas, the care of providing for my orphaned children, and the ways of the world, have kept me far from that state.”

But, of course, it is precisely her “ordinariness” that makes her, in the Jewish literary tradition, so unique. Copies of the manuscript of the Memoirs of Glückel of Hameln, written originally for the edification of her own children, survived for generations after her death in 1724. It was not until 1896 that the book was first published, in the original Yiddish, and not until the twentieth century that it was translated into German and eventually English. By then, it was recognized as an indispensable document of the experience of Jewish women in Ashkenazi society—an experience that finds virtually no representation in classic Jewish literature. (No wonder one of its translators was the pioneering Austrian Jewish feminist Bertha Pappenheim, who also happened to be one of Glückel’s descendants.) No Jewish women (and for that matter, few Jewish men) are so vividly themselves on the page.

One constant in Glückel’s life, the Memoirs reveal, was insecurity. When she was not yet three years old, the Jews of Hamburg were expelled by the burghers who ran the city. The Jews settled in nearby Altona, which was under the more tolerant rule of the king of Denmark. But since their business remained in Hamburg, the men were forced to smuggle themselves back into the city: “Naturally, many a poor and needy wretch would try to slip into the city without a pass. If the officials caught him, he was thrust into prison, and then it cost all of us money and trouble to get him out again. … Coming home, our poor folks often took their life in their hands because of the hatred for the Jews rife among the dockhands, soldiers, and others of the meaner classes. The good wife, sitting home, often thanked God when her husband turned up safe and sound.” Much of Glückel’s adult life would be spent in Hamburg, but the Jews remained there only on sufferance, which could be revoked at any time: “from time to time we enjoyed peace, and again were hunted forth; and so it has been to this day and, I fear, will continue in like fashion as long as the burghers rule Hamburg.”

Yet this insecurity—which sometimes erupts, in the Memoirs, into stories of outright persecution and murder—does not at all seem to define the tenor of Glückel’s life. It remained a kind of background noise, which she, like Jews in so many times and places, had no choice but to tune out. What absorbs her, rather, are the two enterprises to which she devoted her life: the business of making a living, and the equally demanding business of making good matches for her children. These were inextricably linked in Glückel’s society, just as they were for the marriageable girls in Jane Austen’s novels. Money and marriages were the ways Glückel could measure the success of her family and the respect that her community afforded her.

The longing for such respect is one of the most notable features of Glückel’s character, as we come to know it in the Memoirs. Late in life, after losing two husbands and most of her money, Glückel barely manages to survive on her own. Yet when one of her sons-in-law invites her to live with him, she refuses, having “many reasons for wishing never to live with my children.” The main reason, she makes clear, is fear of being treated disrespectfully, of not being given the recognition and privileges she deserves. “My children’s bread … seemed bitterer than the bread of strangers, for my children, God forbid, might have cast it in my teeth, and the thought of this was worse than death.” We can gauge her anxiety by how relieved she is when her son-in-law and daughter turn out to treat her well: “Shall I write you of how they treated me? There would be too much to tell. May the Father of goodness reward them! They paid me all the honors in the world. The best of everything was placed on my plate, more than I wanted or deserved.” The examples of good treatment she gives are touchingly modest: if she were not at home at lunchtime, Glückel writes, her daughter would save her portion of the meal, so that “I always found my dinner awaiting me, three or four of the most tasty dishes.” Plainly, it is not the food that matters, but the deference and respect that it represents.

So, too, with the money Glückel often has occasion to discuss. Hardly a man is introduced in the pages of the Memoirs without an estimate of his net worth, and she has a remarkable memory for the details of business transactions—the deals that succeeded and the ones that ended in disastrous losses. (One of the torments of her later life was the incompetence of her son Loeb, who made a botch of his career as a merchant and ended up in debt.) Yet Glückel, as a good reader of the Tsenerene and other edifying Yiddish books, knew that it was a sin to desire money for its own sake. She regularly punctuates her story with admonitions to her children not to care too much about money, using her first husband, Chaim, as an example. “The whole day he ran about upon his business, still he never failed to set aside a fixed time to study his daily portion of the Torah,” Glückel writes. She brings up one occasion when Chaim refused to interrupt his prayers to entertain a business proposal: “He once missed a bargain in this way, to the loss of several hundred thalers. He never regarded these things, but served God faithfully and called upon Him with diligence; and He repaid him for all, two and threefold over.” Just as the Tsenerene teaches, money is a gift from God, and Glückel quotes that book almost verbatim when she writes, “It is not enough to serve God with all our soul; the commandment adds, ‘and with all thy might,’ meaning with all our possessions.”

Chaim was a trader in jewels and precious metals, and we see in the Memoirs how Jewish businessmen thrived thanks to their international network of relatives and acquaintances. In a business that was so speculative and relied so heavily on trust and credit, these kinds of personal connections were the oil that made the machine work. But Chaim was unusual, it seems, in relying on his wife’s business judgment, allowing Glückel to play an active role in her family’s fortunes. “Not that I mean to boast,” she writes proudly, “but my husband took advice from no one else, and did nothing without our talking it over together.” After his death, Glückel was compelled to go into business for herself, and she assures us that she made a success of it: “My credit grew by leaps and bounds. If I had wanted 20,000 Reichsthalers … during a session of the Bourse, it would have been mine.”

If she had been born centuries later, perhaps Glückel would have had her own career in business or finance. But as a woman in seventeenth century Germany, inevitably the main occupation of her life was bearing and raising children, no fewer than twelve of whom survived. Childbearing began in her teens and continued until middle age; on one occasion, Glückel and one of her grown daughters were both in labor at the same time. “Every two years I had a baby, I was tormented with worries as everyone is with a little house full of children,” she writes. “I thought myself more heavily burdened than anyone else in the world and that no one suffered from their children as much as I.” Not until later, when she lost Chaim, did she come to look on this life as a happy one: “Little I knew, poor fool, how fortunate I was when I seated my children ‘like olive plants round about my table,’” she reflects, quoting the Psalms.

When Chaim lay dying, Glückel writes, he was reluctant to call a doctor because he didn’t want the world to know that he was sick: “He clung to the foolish fancy that it might do his children harm; people would say that the weakness was in the blood. For he never had thought of else than his children.” This is a telling example of the overwhelming concern for children, for the status and prospects of the next generation, that determined so much in Glückel’s life. Money was valuable to her not so much for what it could buy as for what it represented; and what it represented above all was security for her children.

For this reason, negotiations over marriages were highly unsentimental affairs in which the parties quickly got down to brass tacks. One of Glückel’s daughters is offered a match with a young man who possessed “5,000 Reichsthalers cash, besides half a house worth another 1,500 Reichsthalers, and silver Torah decorations and other things.” At first she agrees to the match, then hesitates when her investigations discover that the boy in fact only has 3,500 thalers to his name: “I wanted to break the match, since it did not fulfill the promises made in the wedding contract.” The negotiations stretched on for more than a year, until “I was, God be my judge, dragged into it by the hair of my head and forced to take my daughter to Berlin and marry her forthwith.” Another episode in the Memoirs concerns a proposed match between one of Glückel’s daughters and Moses Krumbach, “son of the rich Abraham Krumbach of Metz.” The match nearly unravels when Glückel receives “letters from several hands, warning me not to conclude the match, for the lad had many, many failings.” For the Jewish bourgeoisie, marriage was like a business deal—highly speculative, based on imperfect information, and capable of causing ruin if it went wrong. Loeb’s business failure, for instance, is blamed largely on his father-in-law, who “far from keeping a steady eye on him, let him run like a loose sheep.”

It makes sense, then, that successful weddings are the most exciting and significant events in the Memoirs. Every detail of the etiquette surrounding a wedding—where it was held, what was served, the cost of the presents—sent signals regarding the family’s status and wealth. When she herself was married as a young teenager, Glückel recalls, there was a contretemps when her groom-to-be’s family sent peasant carts, rather than fine carriages, to pick up the bridal party: “Despite her anger, my mother could do nothing about it.” Far different was the wedding of her own daughter Zipporah, a splendid affair that was honored by the presence of the prince of Cleves: “Never a Jew received such high honor in a hundred years,” Glückel writes with satisfaction. Ironically, for a woman who devoted so much care to arranging her children’s matches, it was her own decision to take a second husband that led to Glückel’s downfall. For fourteen years after Chaim’s death, she refused to get remarried out of loyalty to his memory—“I could never find a second Chaim Hameln”—and, perhaps, because she enjoyed the social and financial independence of widowhood. But eventually money troubles overwhelmed her, and at age fifty-four she decided to accept one of the many offers with which, she assures us, she was showered. Hirz Levy of Metz was an appropriate-seeming match: a widower himself, he had the reputation of being a wealthy man, and during the wedding festivities he made all the right moves, impressing Glückel by giving her expensive treats like “lemons and Portugal oranges,” as well as “a gold chain with a gold trinket.”

Glückel had low expectations of her second marriage: all she wanted was material comfort enough to “live out my days in peace, and do somewhat too for the good of my soul.” Her children, too, were part of her calculus: “I believed I was marrying a man who with his means and distinguished station could have aided my children and put them in the way of great wealth.” But it was not to be; “the Most High God laughed at my plans and proposals.” Instead of assuring her security, Hirz Levy ended up going bankrupt, plunging her into the disgrace she feared more than anything else. Glückel writes about him with great bitterness, even seeing his death as a kind of betrayal: “He went to eternal peace, and left me sitting with my cares and woes.”

This sad end to her prosperous career gives Glückel ample opportunity to remind her children, her intended readers, of the evanescence of wealth and the inscrutable wisdom of providence: “I thank my Creator for showing me more mercy and grace in my heavy punishment than I, unworthy sinner, merit or deserve, and teaching me patience with all my sorrows.” Just as she promised at the beginning of the Memoirs, Glückel is not a saint. The world, not Heaven or Torah, is what fills her thoughts. Like most of us, she is more concerned with respectability and success than with the fate of her eternal soul. But when it comes to ultimate values, she continually upholds what she learned from the Tsenerene and books like it. She knows that wealth is meaningless, that God is watching over the universe, that the best Jewish life is one of prayer and study. Her achievement, like that of generations of Jews, was to be able to hold in productive tension the real and the ideal, the world she lived in and the world as God wanted it to be. As she told her children: “Put aside a fixed time for the study of Torah, as best you know how. Then diligently go about your business, for providing your wife and children a decent livelihood is likewise a mitzvah—the command of God and the duty of man.”

From The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature by Adam Kirsch, to be published by W.W. Norton in October 2016.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.