This beautifully illustrated book of Jewish customs explains the yearly cycle of festivals and traditions in early modern Jewish family life. The woodcuts reveal the vibrant culture of the Jewish community in Venice, at a time when Jews could not openly practise their religion in England. They show us the celebrations, the power of learning and worship, and the prominent role of women in 16th-century Jewish families. They might also remind us of the endurance of these customs in modern Jewish culture.

A Christian-Jewish collaboration

While the headings are in Hebrew, the commentary is in Yiddish – spoken at that time by many European Jews – a mixture of medieval German and Hebrew, with some borrowing from other languages. It is Shimʿon Levi Gintsburg’s translation of the Minhogim of Isaac Tyrnau, a 14th-century Austrian rabbi. The printer, Giovanni di Gara, was Christian, but there is some debate over the religion of the printmaker. Several critics have suggested that the woodcuts show a limited knowledge of Jewish customs, because in images depicting people holding texts there are squiggles and dots rather than accurate Hebrew letters. Other critics point to ways in which the book displays an awareness of its Jewish readers. In the image of Moses receiving the Law, only God’s hands and forearms are depicted. Traditionally, Jews don’t show representations of God, so this seems to be a compromise, portraying him, but not in full bodily form.

This glimpse of Jewish culture may be mediated through Christian eyes, but it is also a testament to the collaboration between Jews and Christians. Although almost all Jewish presses were banned in Venice in this era, the book still made it into print. It seems to have been popular, since this was the third edition of a work first written in 1589.

What are the images shown here?

  • A service in a synagogue with the rabbi giving a sermon (p. 18r)
  • People baking matzah (unleavened bread) in preparation for Passover (p. 22v)
  • A barber cutting a man’s hair during Lag b’Omer. This is a day of temporary respite during the Omer – a 49-day period between the festivals of Passover and the Feast of Weeks – when many Jews observe mourning customs to remember a plague which devastated Jerusalem in the 2nd century CE (p. 40v)
  • A woman lighting the Sabbath and festival candles (p. 60v)
  • Moses receiving the Ten Commandments (p. 64v)
  • The ceremony of Havdalah, marking the end of Sabbath or festivals, in which blessings are made over spices, wine and a candle, often held by the youngest child (p. 64v)
  • On the evening after Yom Kippur (a 25 hour fast), the fast ends when you can see three stars in the sky (p. 65r)
  • A blessing over wine and a holiday meal during the festival of Tabernacles. The setting is probably a Sukkah, a temporary dwelling with a porous roof made from branches (p. 67v)
  • Men in costume for the festival of Purim, which celebrates the defeat of an attempt to wipe out the Jews of Persia. This image clearly reflects the Venetian setting since they wear the masks of the Italian commedia dell’ arte
  • A couple being given seven marriage blessings under the Chuppah, the wedding canopy (p. 86r)