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The Lost Culture of Pre-Ashkenazic Eastern European Jews

Reviewing: “The Cultural Legacy of the Pre-Ashkenazic Jews in Eastern Europe” by Moshe Taube. University of California Press. 2023. 154 pages. ISBN-13: 978-0520390782.

While many of us think of Ashkenazim as ubiquitous to Eastern Europe, there was a time when the Jews who lived in the areas now called Poland, Russia, Lithuania, Ukraine and Belarus were not actual descendants of the original Ashkenazim who lived in France and Germany about a millennium ago. Before the rise of such rabbinic luminaries as Rabbi Yaakov Pollak (1460-1541), Rabbi Shalom Shachna (1510-1558), Rabbi Shlomo Luria (1510-1573) and Rabbi Moshe Isserles (1530-1572), the Jews native to Eastern Europe were a simple and rather ignorant folk. This community is not well known, squarely because it failed to produce any important rabbis or scholars. Rabbi Yitzchok Ohr Zarua of Vienna (1200-1270) already decried the ignorance of the Jews living in Poland, Hungary and Russia in his times.

The first Jews of Eastern Europe were of a distinct variety who spoke a Judeo-Slavic dialect known to scholars as Knaanic. This dialect was later rendered obsolete by the arrival of German and Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazim, whose language became somewhat influenced by Knaanic, but also essentially caused it to fizzle out. These Slavic Jews came from the south, that is, areas that were under the Byzantine Empire, as well as from Persia and Babylonia. The presence of these Jews in Eastern Europe even predated the Christianization of Kievan Rus, as these Jews are already attested to starting from the 10th century. Interestingly, the pre-Ashkenazic Jews in Eastern Europe had their own onomastic traditions, which included peculiar personal names that are neither Ashkenazic or Sefardic (like Chanukah, Sinai, Gostyata, Kibar and Kupin).

Dr. Moshe Taube has written extensively on this little-known Jewish community, and this book specifically focuses on one particular aspect of that community: translations produced under their auspices.

The dearth of scholarship coming from pre-Ashkenazic Eastern European Jews makes whatever small pieces of their literary output that do exist all the more interesting. Even though as far as we know, these Jews did not produce much original scholarship, they apparently engaged in translating. Thus, the “cultural legacy” alluded to in this book’s title refers to three groups of texts produced by these early Russian Jews, which show their engagement with intellectual scholarship.

The first translated text that Taube discusses is a rendering of the Biblical Book of Esther in the Ruthenian dialect of Eastern Slavic. In a lengthy discussion on this specimen, Taube argues that this translation does not prove that the early Russian Jews in question were familiar with Hebrew, because he finds that this translation was actually of a Judeo-Greek rendering of the biblical book, and was therefore not directly translated from Hebrew.

The second group of translated texts that Taube addresses are Slavic renderings of Hebrew books like Yossiphon (written in 10th-century Italy, but loosely based on the writing of the Jewish-Roman historian Flavius Josephus) and the pseudo-Midrashic work “Divrei HaYamim L’Moshe Rabbeinu.” These translations were written in Cyrillic and while the textual interpolations show that the editors or translators were learned in Jewish texts, they also contained anti-Jewish Christological teachings. Regarding these texts, the author argues that they were probably written for a Christian audience by Jews who converted to Christianity. Part of his reason for making this argument is that unlike in Europe where a Christian Hebraist movement sprung up at various times and places, in the East Slavic lands no such phenomenon existed, such that if somebody could read Hebrew, he was most likely Jewish.

Finally, a third group of texts were translated from Hebrew into East Slavic in the 1400s. These texts are largely scientific (mathematical, astrological and medical) and philosophic works, with some biblical texts as well. Some of those works were originally written in Arabic and then translated into Hebrew, so that the Slavic translations were actually translations of translations. Taube concludes that some of these texts were produced as collaborations between Jewish translators and Slavic scribes from the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

Regarding the biblical texts that these translators produced, some scholars have claimed that they were written for Christians living in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania who wanted to read the Bible in its original Hebrew alongside a translation in their Slavic vernacular, while other scholars claim they were produced for Jews living in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania who did not know Hebrew. Taube rejects both of those theories as unsupported by the evidence available.

Interestingly, Taube notes that when it comes the Biblical Book of Daniel, the Ruthenic translation only translated the Hebrew parts of that book into the contemporary dialect of East Slavic, but the Aramaic parts of the book were rendered in the Old Church Slavonic, which was by then considered largely archaic.

In the book’s final chapter, Taube introduces the reader to the first rabbinic authors in Eastern Europe who—surprisingly—were not of Ashkenazi descent. The earliest of these was Rabbi Moshe HaGolah of Kiev (1449-1520), who originally hailed from Constantinople. He wrote more than five seforim and was known for helping establish the Crimean nusach, which incorporated elements of the Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Italian and Persian rites. Another figure from that time was a Jewish scribe and copyist named Zechariah (Scharia/Skhariya) ben Aharon HaKohen. Taube associates the latter with the so-called Heresy of the Judaizers that was strongly persecuted by local church officials. That Jewish “mission to the Slavs,” Taube surmises, was based on the eschatological views of Rabbi Moshe HaGolah, who saw the End of Days as arriving on or near 1492. Based on all of this, Taube suggests that perhaps the third group of translations were associated with these proselytizing Jews.

All in all, Dr. Moshe Taube (professor emeritus of linguistics and Slavic studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem)—who is considered one of the world’s leading experts on pre-Ashkenazic Eastern Europe Jewry—has produced an interesting study on a topic that is not well known outside of the circle of scholars who study it.


Rabbi Reuven Chaim (Rudolph) Klein has authored and researched several books and articles and currently works as an editor/translator for various organizations. He holds a master’s in Jewish education from the London School of Jewish Studies/Middlesex University and lives in the West Bank city of Beitar Illit.

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