TEKHINES . Tekhines, a Yiddish word from the Hebrew Teḥinnot, "supplications," are Jewish private devotions and paraliturgical prayers in Yiddish written by both women and men but recited primarily by women. As texts in the vernacular, tekhines are important sources for the history of popular Judaism in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, and they are particularly useful in studying the history of women's religion.
Most Jewish men of the period attained basic literacy in Hebrew, and a few elite went on to full mastery of the classic literary tradition. Only a small number of women, however, learned more than the rudiments of Hebrew, and those central and eastern European Jewish women who could read usually were literate only in the vernacular Yiddish. Jewish liturgy and other devotional and scholarly works were written by men and were almost always in Hebrew, making them inaccessible to most women. Furthermore because women were excluded from most areas of public religious leadership and participation (they could not serve as rabbis, cantors, judges, or advanced teachers and did not count in a quorum for public prayer), they left behind a scant literary legacy. Tekhines therefore, as an enormously popular devotional genre, allows scholars a valuable window into women's religious lives.
In books of tekhines each individual prayer begins with a heading that describes when and sometimes how it should be recited: "A pretty tekhine to say on the Sabbath with great devotion"; "A tekhine that the woman should pray for herself and her husband and children"; "A confession to say with devotion, not too quickly; it is good for the soul"; "When she comes out of the ritual bath"; "What one says on the Eve of Yom Kippur in the cemetery"; "When the shofar is blown on Rosh Hashanah, say this." Scholars are divided as to whether these prayers were meant for women as a substitute for the Hebrew liturgy or as a supplement, recited as occasional and voluntary prayers. Although some tekhines were intended to be recited in the synagogue and a few were written for male worshippers ("A lovely prayer for good livelihood to be said every day by a business man"), the majority were associated with women's spiritual lives in the home: prayers to be recited privately on each day of the week and on Sabbaths, festivals, fasts, and new moons; for the three so-called "women's commandments" (namely lighting Sabbath candles, removing a small portion of bread dough with a prayer recalling the priestly tithes in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, and observing menstrual avoidances and purification); for pregnancy and childbirth; for visiting the cemetery; for private grief such as childlessness and widowhood; for recovery from illness; for sustenance and livelihood; and for confession of sins. Tekhines framed women's domestic lives and roles as sacred, and they also connected them with the grander themes of Jewish thought, especially the hope for the messianic redemption and the end of exile.
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries new rituals and genres of religious literature emerged whose audience was a sort of intellectual middle class. This development parallels the emergence of similar literature in Christian Europe, enabled in part by the rise of publishing after the invention of the printing press. Guides to the ethical life, books of pious practices, and new liturgies and rituals, often in abridged and simplified form, were published both in Hebrew, for an audience of men with a basic education in classical Jewish texts, and in Yiddish, the vernacular, for women and nonscholarly men. Many of these new publications (including the Hebrew teḥinnot, or supplemental prayers for men) developed out of and popularized a mystical pietism that had originated among the sixteenth-century qabbalists of Safed in Palestine. Tekhines allowed women to participate in this pietistic revival and its popular literature. By contrast, however, tekhines published in the eighteenth and nineteenth century show little evidence of influence from Hasidism, the great eastern European Jewish religious revival movement that originated in the mid–eighteenth century.
History of the Genre
Although there are some handwritten tekhines, most of them were professionally printed. The earliest versions—a few small, anonymous collections—appeared in the late sixteenth century in Prague. Two main groups of tekhines exist, however: those that were printed in western Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which, although published anonymously, were probably written or compiled by men for women, and those that appeared in eastern Europe in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries, often with named authors, some of which were written or compiled by women.
Most western European tekhines were published in collections addressing many topics, either in small books or as appendices to Hebrew prayer books. The first major collection (containing thirty-six prayers), titled simply Tekhines, was published in Amsterdam in 1648; reprints, expansions, and additional collections followed. In the mid–eighteenth century a comprehensive collection containing 123 prayers emerged, titled Seyder tkhines u-vakoshes (Order of supplications and petitions, 1762), although there may be one or two earlier editions. This tekhine was reprinted many times, with alterations, over the next 150 years, first in western and later in eastern Europe. The western European texts not only depict the holiness to be found in the domestic and mundane activities of a wife and mother, but they also describe for women the angels, the patriarchs, the heroes of Jewish history, and the ancient Temple that stood in Jerusalem.
The earliest eastern European tekhines were published in Prague. Eyn Gor Sheyne Tkhine (A very beautiful tekhine, c. 1600) is one of the first to claim female authorship: it is attributed to "a group of pious women." Two other Prague imprints, one from the beginning of the eighteenth century and the other from 1705, are also attributed to women: Rachel, daughter of Mordecai Sofer of Pinczow, and Beila, daughter of Ber Horowitz. Like many other eastern European texts, all three of these Prague tekhines were quite short, and each of them dealt with a single subject, such as a tekhine "to be recited with devotion every day." One notable work, however, Seyder Tkhines (Prague, 1718), was written by a man—Matthias ben Meir, the former rabbi of Sobota, Slovakia—explicitly for a female audience. "My dear women," he writes, "… I have made this tekhine for you in Yiddish, in order to honor God and … to honor all the pious women. For there are many women who would gladly awaken their hearts by saying many tkhines." This work contains thirty-five prayers addressing a variety of topics.
Except for the Prague imprints, the eastern European tekhines were usually small pamphlets printed on bad paper with crabbed type, often with no imprint, making their bibliographic history difficult to trace. Books of tekhines originating in eighteenth-century eastern Europe, especially in Galicia, Volhynia, and Podolia (now parts of Poland, Belarus, and the Ukraine), tended to deal with a smaller number of subjects (such as the high holidays and the penitential season), were often written by a single author, and were usually fewer than twenty pages. Because a significant number of these authors were women, these texts capture women's voices directly. Important examples include: Tkhine imohes (Tekhine of the [biblical] matriarchs), for the Sabbath before the new moon, by Leah Horowitz (eighteenth century), which argues for the power of women's prayer and quotes from rabbinic and qabbalistic sources; Tkhine imohes fun rosh khoydesh elul (Tekhine of the matriarchs for the new moon of Elul [and the entire penitential season], n.d.) by Serl, daughter of Jacob ben Wolf Kranz (the famed Preacher of Dubno, 1741–1804), which calls on the four biblical matriarchs (Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah) to come to the aid of the worshipper and plead her case before the heavenly court; and Shloyshe sheorim (The three gates), attributed to the legendary Sarah bas Tovim (who probably lived in Podolia in the eighteenth century), which contains three sections: one for the three "women's commandments," one for the high holidays, and one for the Sabbath before the new moon. In contrast to the western European texts, some eastern European tekhines suggest that women should take part—in some fashion—in such traditionally male activities as synagogue prayer and Torah study.
By the mid–nineteenth century the genre had undergone significant changes. Jews in central and western Europe had largely abandoned Yiddish; books comparable to tekhines were published first in Germanized Yiddish, then in German in Yiddish characters, and finally in German. These texts expressed an entirely new sensibility, however, influenced by the rising ideal of the bourgeois family, with its stress on sentiment and emotional family ties and its new definition of gender roles. Similarly in eastern Europe the ideal of the bourgeois family came into play but in a rather different fashion. Maskilim, "enlighteners," or men who wished to reform eastern European Jewish life, wrote tekhines to reach the "benighted" traditional women with their reform program. Unlike earlier tekhine authors, female or male, they scorned their audience and the genre. Often because they thought they could sell more books, they attributed their works to female authors, either those who had actually written tekhines a century earlier or to creations of their own imagination. (Because the maskilic practice of using female pseudonyms was well known, earlier scholars were skeptical of any attributions to female authorship. Many seventeenth- and eighteenth-century women authors have been authenticated, however.) In addition to these newer maskilic tekhines, older texts and collections—both those that were originally published in western Europe and those printed in eastern Europe—continued to be reprinted in eastern Europe in numerous editions, although they are often revised or garbled by the printers.
The tekhines reveal a whole world of women's religious lives, concerns, customs, and settings for prayer. These texts are deeply spiritual, no less than the complex and esoteric works produced by qabbalists and Hasidic masters. The women (and men) who composed these prayers for women addressed the spiritual issues of their day, whether on the level of domestic piety or national redemption. The tekhines themselves are at home in the literature produced for the intellectual middle class of this period; they fit well among the guides to the upright life, books of customs, condensed guides to pious practices, and digests of mystical teachings that were read by householders and artisans. Indeed the tekhines show how much women belonged to this intellectual and spiritual world. Finally, the tekhines provide worshipers with a direct experience of passionately emotional individual prayer that is mostly absent from the more collective and formalized male worship experience.
As the use of Yiddish declined among emigrants from eastern Europe in the late nineteenth century and the twentieth century and the Yiddish-speaking heartland was destroyed by the Holocaust, the genre of tekhines nearly disappeared, except among Hasidim and other isolated traditional, Yiddish-speaking populations. After the 1980s, however, the tekhines aroused new interest among both scholars and members of the Jewish public. Jewish women in particular have sought to find a usable past in which to root themselves. Orthodox women have turned to the traditional tekhines as a direct expression of their predecessors' spirituality. This movement has occurred despite the fact that, unlike their European ancestors, many young Orthodox women in the United States in the early twenty-first century are well-educated in the Hebrew prayer book and classical sources in Hebrew and may not speak or read Yiddish at all. Liberal Jewish feminists have also sought role models in the historical tekhines uncovered by scholars, and many of them have also written and published new tekhines, some of which have been incorporated into new editions of Conservative and Reconstructionist prayer books.
Gender and Religion, article on Gender and Judaism; Judaism, articles on Judaism in Northern and Eastern Europe to 1500 and Judaism in Northern and Eastern Europe since 1500; Liturgy.
Kay, Devra. Seyder Tkhines: The Forgotten Book of Common Prayer for Jewish Women. Philadelphia, 2004.
Kratz-Ritter, Bettina. Für "fromme Zionstöchter" und "gebildete Frauenzimmer." Hildesheim, Germany, 1995.
Weissler, Chava. Voices of the Matriarchs: Listening to the Prayers of Early Modern Jewish Women. Boston, 1998.
Chava Weissler (2005)