How the Yiddish translation of the Torah, Megillot and Haftarot became associated with women.
What's in a Name?
The name of this extremely popular Yiddish work derives from the beginning of the verse "O maidens of Zion, go forth and gaze…" (Song of Songs 3:11) which appears in the frontispiece after the title: "The five books of the Pentateuch, the Megillot and the Haftarot in Yiddish".
Notwithstanding the feminine form of its adopted name, the work was originally intended by its author, R. Jacob ben Isaac Ashkenazi (16th century) of Janow (Poland), for men and women alike, as stated in the oldest extant edition: "This work aims to enable men and women…to understand the word of God in simple language," since they lacked a sufficient mastery of the Hebrew language to understand the original.
Association with Women
Although the Tzenah Urenah gained universal acceptance among Ashkenazi Jews and was often recommended to readers of both genders by rabbinical and spiritual leaders, at a certain point in time unknown to us the book began to be considered as the principal and fundamental reading matter for women. Intended primarily for the Sabbath and holidays, the appropriate sections were mainly read at home either silently and individually or aloud for the benefit of other members of the family. These women's readings became an inseparable part of the yearly cycle's customary practice in the traditional home throughout the Ashkenazi Diaspora, at least until World War II.
For many generations the Tzenah Urenah played a major role in the informal education of women and their children by broadening their knowledge of many and varied Hebrew sources, leading them in the ways of Jewish thought and behavior and presenting them with a treasure of stories and narratives. The impact the Tzenah Urenah made on its readers' spiritual world, on their reading habits, on their literary taste and on their written and spoken language still awaits research, together with many other aspects of this important work.
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