Jewish Languages and Literature

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Jewish Languages and Literature

Jewish authors of the Renaissance wrote in three major languages. The first, Hebrew, was the ancient language of the Jews. In Spain, Jews had developed a tongue called Ladino, a mix of Hebrew and Spanish words. After Spain expelled the Jews in 1492, many of the exiled Jews took Ladino to their new home, the Ottoman Empire*. In Germany, the blend of local words and Hebrew produced a third language, Yiddish, that spread to other areas. Jews in northern Italy, Poland, Lithuania, the Netherlands, and several areas of the Ottoman Empire spoke versions of Yiddish.


Jews living in many parts of Europe produced works in Hebrew. Italy had a strong tradition of Hebrew literature throughout the Renaissance. Until the Jews were expelled from Spain and Provence (part of presentday France), Hebrew literature existed in both areas. Later, Hebrew literature flourished in the Ottoman Empire, where many Jews settled. Literature in Hebrew sprang up in Amsterdam around 1600.

In Italy, Jews and humanist* Christian scholars viewed Hebrew, like Latin and Greek, as a classical* language. Some Christian scholars took lessons from Jewish teachers, learning Hebrew grammar, the Old Testament, and sacred Jewish books. They also produced Hebrew dictionaries. Professors taught Hebrew studies in the Italian universities of Rome and Bologna.

Hebrew Verse. Hebrew poetry changed dramatically over the course of the Renaissance. Early writers had used the Bible as the sole source for vocabulary. However, later writers gradually began to draw on philosophical and non-Hebrew sources for words. Some poets wrote in more than one language, switching between lines of Hebrew and another language, such as Italian. They also experimented with meter, adapting Hebrew, Spanish, and Italian meters as well as creating new ones.

The writings of Immanuel of Rome (ca. 1260–ca. 1328) helped to make Hebrew poetry a part of Renaissance culture. Immanuel's Notebooks (ca. 1300) contains rhymed stories and poems, including 38 sonnets* in Hebrew—the first to be composed in a language other than Italian. To give these poems the musical quality of Italian sonnets, Immanuel combined elements of Italian and Hebrew-Spanish meters. He also adopted the literary styles of his day, practiced by Italian authors such as Dante Alighieri. His sonnets addressed a broad range of subjects, including sexual love, and his characters—both male and female—displayed a variety of traits, desires, and dreams. Immanuel's sonnets fell from favor after his death, but interest in them revived with the publication of his works in 1492. However, Jewish religious leaders banned Immanuel's writings in 1565.

Much Hebrew poetry of the Renaissance focused on religious themes. One common form was liturgical poetry, written for use in religious services. Liturgical poetry thrived in Spain until the banishment of the Jews. In Italy, poets wrote works of this form until after 1500. After the invention of the printing press, however, the patterns of religious services became fixed, and few new liturgical poems were necessary.

Immanuel and other poets of his time wrote personal, nonliturgical Hebrew poems on religious subjects. Later, Italian poets also took up this kind of poetry. The most prominent kind of Hebrew religious verse during the Renaissance came from the Near East. There, Kabbalists* such as Israel Najara wrote poems that gained an enthusiastic following. Their works were most popular in the Near East and in North Africa. Italian poets also wrote Kabbalah-inspired religious poetry. They intended their poems to form a part of mystical* meetings.

Nonreligious Hebrew poetry flourished in Spain during the 1300s and 1400s. The publication of Immanuel's Notebooks in 1492 sparked a revival of Hebrew love poetry and sonnets. Other nonreligious poetry of the Renaissance covered a variety of topics. Many Jews wrote verses in praise of their Christian friends, referring to the common beliefs they shared. Others penned lines of grief about the persecution of Jews. In the late 1500s, poems for special occasions—such as weddings and funerals—became popular.

Other Forms. Medieval* and Renaissance writers did not consider writing that had rhythm and rhyme, but lacked a verse form, to be poetry. Instead, they called such writing rhymed prose. After the 1300s, Hebrew rhymed prose in Spain and Provence began to reflect the styles of Christian literature. Authors borrowed familiar characters from Christian works, such as foolish husbands, evil doctors, and lustful old men. Jews used rhymed prose for humor, satire*, adventure stories, proverbs, and defenses of Judaism.

Unrhymed Hebrew prose covered a wide range of forms, including letters, treatises*, and sermons. Hebrew scholars of the 1400s wrote extensively about their language, which they saw as the mother tongue. They composed Hebrew grammars and treatises about the language. Hebrew dictionaries appeared in the 1500s. The theory of poetry was also a popular topic for Hebrew writers. The most notable writer on poetic theory was Samuel Archivolti of Italy, who discussed the use of meter in Immanuel's poetry. Archivolti's work became a manual for writing Hebrew poetry.

Although Jewish teachings forbade most forms of drama, they allowed performances for the religious festival of Purim. The oldest surviving Hebrew drama, A Comedy of Betrothal (1550), is a Purim play. Judah Sommo, a stage director and writer of Italian drama, composed the comedy in perfect, unrhymed Hebrew. Its plot is a complex love story typical of Renaissance drama. Other Hebrew plays, such as Foundation of the World, have religious themes and resemble Spanish autos—plays that celebrate the victory of the faith. In Foundation, playwright Moses Zacuto used a wide range of verse forms, including sonnets.


Ladino was the spoken and written language of Renaissance Jews in several areas of Spain. Used within the Jewish community, Ladino blended local Spanish dialects with terms from Hebrew and Aramaic, an ancient Jewish tongue. Many of these added words related to religious belief and practice. People usually wrote Ladino in the Hebrew alphabet.

Ladino included old Hispanic words that had disappeared from the Spanish language. After Spain expelled the Jews in 1492, many Ladino speakers settled in the Ottoman Empire. For hundreds of years, their language preserved characteristics of the Spanish tongue as it had been spoken before the Renaissance.

The Spanish burned most literature that was written in the Hebrew alphabet. Only three Ladino works in Hebrew script survive from the 1400s. Some Ladino manuscripts in the Latin alphabet, however, survived the burnings. Because of this, some Ladino translations of the Scriptures, as well as writings on philosophy and ethics*, still exist.

Ladino literature from the mid-1500s through the end of the Renaissance included a variety of forms. Some were religious in nature, such as translations of the Bible, prayer books, and works on Jewish religious practices. In the early 1500s, translations focused on the texts that synagogues and religious schools needed the most. The first complete Ladino translation of the Scriptures did not exist until the 1700s. Other works include adaptations of Hebrew historical accounts and religious legal codes from the Middle Ages. A few poetic works about biblical figures, associated with holidays such as Purim and Passover, also survive.


Because people spoke Yiddish in many different countries, foreign words entered the spoken form of the language. Along with the earlier German influences, the Yiddish language included Italian, Slavic, Dutch, Arabic, and Turkish words in different areas. However, Yiddish writers made efforts to keep written Yiddish free of these regional influences. This pure written form of the language connected all Yiddish speakers to the same body of literature, no matter where they lived.

Most Yiddish literature was religious in nature. Most Yiddish writers focused on translating Hebrew works so that Yiddish-speaking Jews could understand them. For example, they produced Yiddish versions of Hebrew prayers and books of the Bible. They also translated Hebrew works on ethics, as well as composing original ethical works in Yiddish. Topics included a person's duties on Jewish holidays or other special occasions, such as weddings and funerals. Fables and tales with religious sources also instructed people in how to live. Many books focused on the roles and religious duties of women, providing special prayers for all events in a woman's life cycle.

Literature in Yiddish also served to spread knowledge. New works and Yiddish translations of Hebrew texts described distant places and the historical past. Because there was no Yiddish newspaper until the 1800s, Yiddish-speaking Jews in the Renaissance used songs to spread news and information. These pieces combined the style of German historical songs with elements of Hebrew tradition.

Yiddish, with its Hebrew alphabet and its mix of Hebrew and German words, gave its speakers footholds in two languages. Those who could read Yiddish could also read Hebrew, although they often did not understand it. At the same time, many Yiddish speakers understood German. However, they did not read it because they disliked using the Roman alphabet, which they associated with Christian priests. Instead, the few Jews who could read the Roman script rewrote German epic* poems in the Hebrew alphabet so that other Jews could read them.

Yiddish-speaking communities in northern Italy were active in literature and printing. During the 1400s and 1500s, Yiddish authors in these areas published both single-story booklets and larger collections. They also introduced the use of illustrations in Yiddish books. Many of their works were adaptations of Italian popular literature.

(See alsoAnti-Semitism; Jews; Ottoman Empire; Religious Thought; Translation. )

* Ottoman Empire

Islamic empire founded by Ottoman Turks in the 1300s that reached the height of its power in the 1500s; it eventually included large areas of eastern Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa

* humanist

referring to a Renaissance cultural movement promoting the study of the humanities (the languages, literature, and history of ancient Greece and Rome) as a guide to living

* classical

in the tradition of ancient Greece and Rome

* sonnet

poem of 14 lines with a fixed pattern of meter and rhyme

* Kabbalist

believer in a mystical Jewish religious system that involves reading encoded messages in the Hebrew Scriptures

* mystical

based on a belief in the idea of a direct, personal union with the divine

* medieval

referring to the Middle Ages, a period that began around a.d. 400 and ended around 1400 in Italy and 1500 in the rest of Europe

* satire

literary or artistic work ridiculing human wickedness and foolishness

* treatise

long, detailed essay

* ethics

branch of philosophy concerned with questions of right and wrong

Dialogues on Love

The Portuguese-born writer Judah Abravanel, better known as Leone Ebreo, helped to shape European views of God and love. In Dialogues on Love (composed in Italian around 1502), he explains that love connects all living things to each other and to God. His ideas had little impact on Jewish thinkers, but they spread widely in Christian communities, where they strongly influenced many later philosophers and writers.

* epic

long poem about the adventures of a hero

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Jewish Languages and Literature

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