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Prayer Books: The First Translations

Saadiah Gaon (882-942), the greatest of Babylonian scholars in the Geonic period, was a halakist, a philosopher, a grammarian, a Bible scholar, and a liturgist as well. Author of many highly praised piyyutim, some of which translated into Arabic were circulated throughout the Arabic-speaking Jewish world, he also compiled a comprehensive siddur containing prayers for the whole year. His Kitab Jami al-Salawot wa al-Tasebih (Collection of All Prayers and Praises) was written in Arabic, the first translation of the Hebrew prayer book into the vernacular. Since that tenth-century work, translations of "prayers and praises" into the vernacular have abounded. A brief sampling of ten of those in the Library's Hebraic Section follows:

1. Orden de las Oraciones de Ros-Ashanah y Kipur, London, 1740. The translation of the High Holy Days prayer book into Spanish is the work of Isaac Nieto (1687-1773), haham (rabbi) of the Sefardi community in London. Son of Haham David Nieto, he was in 1732 appointed to his late father's position. The translation is highly regarded for its literary style, as is that of the daily prayers, published in 1771.

A new translation of the prayer book for the High Holy Days in Spanish, for the Sefardi congregation in London, by its Haham (rabbi), Isaac Nieto.

Orden de Las Oraciones de Ros-Ashanah y Kipur, London, 1740. General Collection.
Orden de Las Oraciones de Ros-Ashanah y Kipur

2. The first translation of the prayer book into English was as part of a work on Jewish ceremonies, the Book of the Religion, Ceremonies and Prayers of the Jews, London, 1738, by the apostate Abraham Mears, who used the pseudonym Gamliel ben Pedahzur. It was not intended for liturgical use, so it is not in effect a prayer book. That distinction belongs to an American edition, of which the first part, Evening Service of Roshashanah and Kippur, appeared in New York, in 176 1, followed five years later by Prayers for Shabbath, Rosh-Hashanah and Kippur. The translator was Isaac Pinto, who published the translation only. The Hebrew text with translation by B. Meyers and A. Alexander was published in London in 1770, soon followed by Alexander's translations of the entire Ashkenazi and Sefardi liturgies in a stilted, pedestrian English. The Library displays Seder Tefilot Sukkot (The Tabernacles Service), London, 1775.

Hebrew text and Italian translation by Solomone Fiorentino, of the Daily and Sabbath prayer book, "for use by the Spanish and Portuguese Jews," i.e., the Sefardi rite. Though by 1802, the date of publication of this prayer book, there had been no Jews in Spain and Portugal for more than three centuries, the descendants of those exiled from those contries still retained their "place of origin" identities.

Orazioni Quotidiane, Basel, 1802. Hebraic Collection.
Orazioni Quotidiane

3. Solomone Fiorentino (1743-1815), an Italian poet of sufficient merit to be appointed court poet by Grand Duke Ferdinand III, taught Italian literature at the Jewish Academy in Leghorn and published, in 1802, Seder Tefillah (Order of Prayer), a Hebrew text with an Italian translation of the Sefardi daily and Sabbath prayer book which he called Orazioni Quotidiane per uso degli Ebrei Spagnoli e Portoghesi. in the same year there appeared an Italian translation by Samuel Romanelli of the prayers for the Sabbath according to the Sefardi rite, but without the Hebrew text.

Edited by S. I. Frankel and I. M. Bresslau for the newly established reform congregation in Hamburg. Unlike all the other prayer books we show, this was not a translation but a reordering of the liturgy, and unlike the others, it is paginated from left to right, indicating that its basic language was German, not Hebrew.

Ordnung der Oeffentlichen Andacht... (Order of Service ... ), Hamburg, 1819. Hebraic Section.
Ordnung der Oeffentlichen Andacht

4. For a German translation, we have chosen the first edition of the first Reform prayer book for public worship, Seder ha-Avodah ... Minhag Kehal Bayit Hadash (Order of Service ... According to the Rite of the New Temple Congregation), titled in German Ordnung der Oeffentlichen Andacht ... nach dem Gebrauche des Neuen Tempel-Vereins, Hamburg, 1819. Edited by S.I. Frankel and I.M. Bresslau, this prayer book was paginated from left to right, the Hebrew text was abridged and changed, and all references to a return to Zion and a restoration of Temple worship were altered or eliminated. The prayer book was severely criticized by the Hamburg rabbinate and publicly denounced in its synagogues.

5. The Dutch translation of Moses Lemans (1785-1832) — a Hebraist, mathematician, and long-time headmaster of Amsterdam's first school for boys of indigent parents — Gebeden der Nederlandsche Israeliten (Prayer Book for the Israelites of the Netherlands) was published in Amsterdam in 1822 with "rabbinic approval." The traditional Ashkenazi prayer book, it has a Hebrew text and vernacular translation.

Prayer book translated into Dutch by Moses Lemans, educator, author, translator, and mathematician. He served as headmaster of the school for the children of needy Jews in Amsterdam, compiled a Hebrew-Dutch dictionary, and translated the Bible into Dutch.

Gebeden der Nederlandsche Israeliten (Prayer Book for the Israelites of the Netherlands), Amsterdam, 1822. Hebraic Section.
Gebeden der Nederlandsche Israeliten

6. The first printing of the Hebrew prayer book with a French translation appeared in Metz in 1827. Previous translations of the Sefardi liturgy by Marduchee Venture and of the Ashkenazi daily prayers by D. Drach were published without the Hebrew text. The Metz edition, Rituel Des Prieres Journalienes, has the Hebrew text with a translation by Joel Anspach, the only brother of Philippe Anspach, who, as deputy attorney general, counselor at the Court of Appeals and the Court of Cassation in Paris, was the first Jew to serve in the supreme magistracy of France.

7. Atirot Yeshurun or Israel Fomaszai (Prayers of Israel), the Hebrew text with Hungarian translation by Herman Fekete, was edited by Moricz Rosenthal and published in Posony (Bratislava or Pressburg) in 1846. The midnineteenth century saw the confrontation between the Orthodox and liberal religious forces in Hungary. This translation was a product of those who advocated modernity in language, culture, and way of life, yet it was published in Posony, the center of Orthodoxy in Hungary and the seat of Rabbi Moses Sofer, leader of the traditionalist forces.

Left: The translation of this "new edition, reviewed and corrected," is by Joel Anspach. The prayer for the government is not the usual one, "Thou who givest dominion to kings," but an invocation for the monarch, Charles X, King of France and Navarre, followed by six special blessings to which the congregation responds "Amen!"

Rituel Des Prieres Journalieres (Ritual for Daily Worship), Metz, 1827. Hebraic Section.
Right: The translation of this prayer book into Hungarian by Herman Fekete was edited by Moricz Rosenthal and published in 1846 in Pressburg, a center of orthodoxy in Hungary.

Atirot Yeshurun, Israel Fomaszai (Prayer of Israel), Posony (Pressburg, Bratislava), 1846. Hebraic Section.


8. Tefilot Yisrael (Prayers of Israel), "Translated for the First Time into the Russian Language," as its subtitle proclaimed, appeared in Warsaw in 1869. Its translator was Joseph Hurwitz, a well-regarded poet who was then serving as the Kazyonny Ravvin (Official Rabbi) of the city of Grodno. Though this office was imposed upon the Jews by the Czarist government from 1857 to 1917, its occupants were never accepted as spiritual leaders by the Jewish community. A variety of individuals, some admired and respected, but most no more than tolerated, held the office, among them a foremost authority on the history of the Jewish legal tradition, Chaim Tchernowitz in Odessa, the Zionist leader Shemaryahu Levin in Grodno, and famed Yiddish author Shalom Aleichem in Lubny.

Though the government defined their function, "to supervise public prayers and religious ceremonies," most were no more than keepers of vital statistics; but others made significant contributions to communal well-being and cultural creativity. Joseph Hurwitz no doubt felt that he was serving both through his translation of the prayer book into the vernacular.

Not till 1869 was the prayer book translated into Russian, because Russian Jewry, which was by far the largest Jewish community in the world, was A the most traditional. The translation which it found useful was the Yiddish and that, as is often stated in Yiddish translations of sacred texts, was for "women and the young." The translation was published in Warsaw, the capital of the Polish provinces of the Russian Empire, which was the place of residence the majority of its Jews. The translator was Joseph Hurwitz, the Kazyonny Ravvin, the governmentally appointed rabbi of Grodno.

Tefilot Yisrael (Prayers of Israel), Warsaw, 1869. General Collection.
Tefilot Yisrael

9. The Jewish Propitiatory Prayers: Or A Prayer for the Forgiveness of Sins. It was translated from Hebrew into Marathi by Joseph Ezekiel Rajpurker, teacher in David Sassoon's Benevolent Institution; published by the Bene-Israel Improvement Society, Bombay, and printed at Gunput Krushnajee's Press, 5619 ( = 1859).

This is the first of the more than twenty Rajpurker translations of Hebrew liturgical works into Marathi. At the time of publication, he was a teacher at the school which the Iraqui-Indian merchant and philanthropist David Sassoon had established for the Bene-Israel. The origins of this ancient community of Jews is clouded in legend. By the time it came to the attention of world Jewry at the end of the eighteenth century, its cultural assimilation in dress, language, and way of life was almost complete. The community, however, retained its distinctive religious identity and, with the help of Near-Eastern Jews who settled in Bombay in the nineteenth century, became reunited with world Jewry. During that century, Joseph Ezekiel Rajpurker (1834-1905) was its leading scholar and teacher. For forty years he served as the principal of the Sassoon School, and in 1871 he was appointed Hebrew examiner at the University of Bombay.

The Library's copy once belonged to Rabbi Henry Cohen of Galveston, Texas.

Left: Unlike the other prayer books which were translated from Hebrew into the vernacular, this prayer book was translated by the French scholar Joseph Halevy into Hebrew from its original Ge'ez, the sacred language of the Falasha Jews of Ethiopia.

Seder Tefilot ha-Falashim (Order of Prayers of the Falashas), Paris, 1876. Hebraic Section.
Right: Joseph Ezekiel Rajpurker, a teacher in David Sassoon's Benevolent Institution in Bombay, India, translated more than twenty liturgical works into Marathi, of which this was the first. The ownership inscription is that of Henry Cohen, Galveston's famed rabbi.

The Jewish Propitiatory Prayer, Bombay, 1859. Hebraic Section.

10. An even more exotic community of Jews were the Falashas of Ethiopia. Like the Bene-Israel, they traced their origins to biblical days, and their assimilation was even more complete. Yet here, too, a distinct religious identity persisted in observances of Sabbath, holidays, dietary and purity laws, and the use of liturgy. In 1868 French orientalist and Hebrew writer Joseph Halevy (1827-1917) was sent to Ethiopia by the Alliance Israelite Universelle to study the Falashas. He affirmed their Jewishness and translated their liturgy from Ge'ez into Hebrew, publishing Seder tefilot ha-Falashim (Order of Prayers of the Falashas) in Paris in 1876. Like their neighbors, the Falashas spoke Amharic but their sacred texts are in the ancient Ge'ez.

Sources: Abraham J. Karp, From the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress, (DC: Library of Congress, 1991).