The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

Jewish “Lands” in Post-Expulsion Ashkenaz: The Evidence of Liturgy

As an eminently local matter, Ashkenazic liturgy had to be affected by the wave of expulsions that marked the end of the Middle Ages in German-Jewish history. In the age of print, it consolidated into two major branches, a western and an eastern one. Of the wider range of local variety that is attested in medieval manuscripts, however, relatively little survived.

One exception lies in the field of selihot. Of the penitential prayers recited during the fall season of repentance, thirteen different rites reached print – eight of the western, five of the eastern Ashkenazic variety. While the selihot editions of the Ashkenazic diaspora in northern Italy, of Prague, and of Krakow were among the earliest Hebrew books printed in the respective localities and represent the rites customary there at the time, the situation within Germany was less straightforward. It was not until 1587 that the selihot rite of the largest community that had remained in western Ashkenaz, that of Frankfurt am Main, was first brought to press, and it took another century before it was joined by editions representing the rites of other German communities.

To what extent, then, did these editions hark back to medieval traditions? Comparing their contents to earlier manuscripts, I will argue that they offer important evidence of the pockets of local tradition that sometimes remained in place when rural Jews continued to uphold the rite of a historical region, or medinah, even after the urban community that had served as its center had ceased to exist. Moreover, the fine print in some of the earlier editions preserves traces of additional rites that must have existed at the time but later disappeared due to specific developments at the local level. Liturgical sources thus shed unexpected light on processes of Jewish resilience in post-expulsion Germany.