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Yiddish manuscripts in the British Library

Leonard Prager and Brad Sabin Hill


FEW Yiddish manuscripts predating the age of printing have survived the storms of Jewish and general history. The oldest extant dated Yiddish document is a rhymed inscription of a dozen words in the Worms Mahzor ('festival liturgy') of 1272, now in the Jewish National and University Library, Jerusalem. By far the most important Yiddish manuscript is the dated 1382 Cambridge Codex from the famous Cairo Genizah in Fostat, Egypt. The Cambridge Codex has been the centre of a heated linguistic debate, Yiddishists maintaining that the language is Old Yiddish and many Germanists claiming it is High German in Hebrew letters. The historiography of this more than merely terminological question is itself a gripping chapter of cultural history, and one linguist has mounted what at present seems to be an unassailable defence of the Yiddishist position. This question of language is fundamental to bibliographical as well as linguistic investigation, and librarians have often been puzzled as to how to classify Yiddish materials. Today, librarians no longer describe Yiddish books as 'Judaeo- German', as was common practice in the British Museum Library and elsewhere until about fifty years ago. Yiddish, quite rightly, is classified linguistically among the Germanic languages; but owing to the script in which Yiddish has almost always been written - the Hebrew alphabet - Yiddish books and manuscripts are often found in Hebrew or Oriental collections.

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