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.
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.