November 9, 1382, is the date of publication appearing on the “Cambridge Yiddish Codex,” a compilation of eight texts that to date constitutes the oldest known compilation of Yiddish writing. Adding to the mystery surrounding the collection is the fact that the codex was found not, say, in an archaeological dig in Germany, where Yiddish flourished among Ashkenazi Jews for hundreds of years. It was discovered in the Cairo Geniza, the storehouse of discarded Jewish documents that was found in the Ibn Ezra synagogue in Fostat, Egypt, late in the 19th century.
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How the Cambridge Codex – called that because it is today in the collections of the University of Cambridge, where it was brought by scholar Solomon Schechter in 1896 – came to be in Egypt remains a subject of speculation. Some postulate that there was already an Ashkenazi-Jewish community living in Egypt and Palestine by the 14th century, while other academics assume that it was left there by Jewish travelers who passed through Egypt.
Post-biblical epic poems
The documents included in the Cambridge Codex include four epic poems about biblical figures – “Moshe Rabeynu” (Our Teacher, Moses), “Gan Eden” (The Garden of Eden), “Yosef Hatzadik” (Joseph the Righteous) and “Avraham Avinu” (Our Father, Abraham). Their tales, though dealing with biblical subjects, reflect the way those subjects are presented in the midrash, post-biblical interpretative literature.
Additionally, there is an untitled fable about a sick lion that is said to be similar to a story written by the late 12th-century Jewish storyteller Berachia Hanatronai Hanakdan; a lengthy fragment from the epic, 13th-century German “Kudrun” cycle; and part of another epic, about the hero “Dukus Horant,” who is sent to the king of Greece, Etene, to seek the hand of his daughter, Hilde, and is sent off to prove his strength and skill. The codex also includes a list of names appearing in the weekly Torah portions.
These are not sacred texts, and outside of their titles, they include only one word identified as being in Yiddish or Hebrew, “tifluh,” a word derived from the Hebrew word “tefila,” meaning prayer, but used in Yiddish – which is largely derived from old German and Yiddish – as a somewhat derogatory term for a Christian place of worship. Although the letters used to write the texts are Hebrew, the language they employ is for the most part Middle High German.
This fact inevitably led, after the first modern publication of the codex, in 1957, to a spirited academic argument as to whether the codex should be considered a Yiddish document or a Germanic one. As Yiddish studies came into their own over the past few decades, that argument has probably been settled in favor of the case for Yiddish.
Although Schechter, who purchased the bulk of the contents of the Cairo Geniza, brought the treasure to Cambridge in 1896, it was only several decades later before the French-Jewish scholar Ernst-Henri Levy began to study the codex itself. Levy transcribed its texts into normalized Middle High German letters, to facilitate its reading, and was planning to publish a scholarly edition, when he was murdered by the Nazis in 1940. His unfinished work was lost at the time of his death.
The next scholar to work on the codex was Leo Fuks, a Polish-born librarian who was living in Amsterdam following World War II, who came upon the collection at Cambridge in 1953. Fuks produced a facsimile of the codex’s 84 pages, and although he claimed that it was not his intention to provide an interpretation of them, simply by referring to them as “the oldest known literary documents of Yiddish literature,” he set off the debate about how to classify them.
Subsequent to the discovery of the Cambridge Codex, an even older example of written Yiddish was discovered, an inscription printed in a holiday prayer book offering a blessing for the person carrying the book to synagogue. The prayer book, called the Worms Mahzor, is dated to 1272.