Two Yiddish Bibles printed in Amsterdam
THE FIRST TWO Yiddish translations of the complete Old Testament appeared
almost simultaneously in Amsterdam in 1678 - 1679. Yiddish translations
and glossaries of parts of the Hebrew Bible had occupied an important place
in Yiddish publishing from its beginnings in the first half of the sixteenth
century. The earlier texts only covered those sections of the Old Testament
which are part of the liturgy: the Torah (Pentateuch), the haftarot (selected
portions of the Prophets and the hagiographer which are read in synagogue
after the weekly portions of the Torah), the five megillot ('Scrolls',
i. e., Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, and Esther), and
Uri Fayvesh Halevi, the first publisher to start printing a complete Yiddish Old Testament, had been influenced by the example of Sephardi Jews and Christians because they possessed good translations. In Amsterdam, where contacts between Ashkenazi Jews, Sephardim and Christians were more extensive than elsewhere, he became aware of the fact that others had a better knowledge of 'their' Bible than they themselves had. The influence of the official Dutch Bible translation, the Statenvertaling, was particularly important. Its first edition had appeared in 1637 and within decades it had acquired great authority and was a publishing success. Since there were many Yiddish speakers in Europe who were literate but did not understand the Hebrew original well enough to comprehend it, Uri Fayvesh assumed that there would be considerable demand for a Yiddish Bible.
Uri Fayvesh commissioned Jekuthiel ben Isaac Blitz to produce a translation. Since Blitz was not an accomplished Hebraist, he relied heavily on other translations into Gerrnanic languages: Luther's German translation and the Dutch Statenvertaling. This went very far: in places the text is closer to either of these texts than to the Hebrew original and the break with the existing Yiddish translation tradition is abrupt. Blitz, who had a penchant for polemics, also inserted attacks on Christianity in his translation. Furthermore, the text is full of Dutch and Low German words (Blitz hailed from Witmund in northern Germany), which would have rnade it hard to understand for the intended Polish-Jewish market.
One of Uri Fayvesh's financiers, the Sephardi publisher Joseph Athias, withdrew from the enterprise while this translation was being printed because he was unhappy with Blitz's work. Athias ordered one of his typesetters, Joseph ben Alexander Witzenhausen, to produce another translation. Witzenhausen was a more scrupulous translator than Blitz. His translation is closer in style to the traditional Yiddish translations. Nevertheless, it was a great improvement on earlier Yiddish versions. Witzenhausen also made use of the Statenvertaling, but he only consulted the Dutch version to solve translation problems.
Evidence of the strife between the rivalling publishers and translators can be found within the Bibles themselves. In his preface, Uri Fayvesh complains about someone he trusted but who later exploited his idea to publish a Yiddish translation of the complete Old Testament, and in the other Bible Joseph Witzenhausen makes fun of mistakes in Blitz's translation. Uri Fayvesh and Joseph Athias obtained conflicting copyrights in the Netherlands and in Poland. Copyrights were secured by publishers to prevent others from publishing the same or a similar text within a specified period. Before Athias started printing his own Yiddish Bible, he took the pages of Blitz's translation which, as one of its financiers, he had for safekeeping and used them to obtain a'privilegie' from the civil authorities from the Province of Holland. In it, he is granted protection 'because he fears someone else might steal his idea [!]'. Later, he incorporated the pages of Blitz's Bible he still had in his possession into Witzenhausen's translation (foIs. 21-36). Athias may have objected to the mistakes and stylistic inconsistencies in Blitz's translation, but those sheets represented a large sum of money which he did not want to waste.
Uri Fayvesh finished printing Blitz's translation in late 1678, not long before Witzenhausen's version came off the press (1679). Although large sales had been anticipated - both Bibles were printed in editions of rnore than 6,000 copies - neither was a commercial success.
Marion Aptroot, Bible Translation as Cultural Reform: The
Amsterdam Yiddish Bibles (1678 - 1679) (Oxford 1989).
I.H. van Eeghen, De Amsterdamse boekhandel 1680 - 1725. VoI. 4 (Amsterdam 1967) p. 211 - 217.
L. Fuks, 'De twee gelijktijdig te Amsterdam in de 17e eeuw verschenen Jiddische bijbelvertalingen', Het Boek, Nieuwe reeks 32 (1955-1957) p. 146 - 165 (cf. the Hebrew version in Gal-ed, I (1973) p. 31 - 50).
Erika Timm, 'Blitz and Witzenhausen' in: Israel Bartal, Ezra Mendelsohn & Chava Turniansky, eds., Studies in Jewish Culture in Honour of Chone Shmeruk (Jerusalem 1993) p. 39* - 66*
Marion Aptroot, "'In galkhes they do not say so, but the taytsh is at it stands here". Notes on the Amsterdam Yiddish Bible Translations by Blitz and Witzenhausen', Studia Rosenthaliana 27 (1993) p. 136 - 158.