JHOM - Bookshelf - Book of Customs
by Scott-Martin Kosofsky
Part 1: A Discovery
While researching Jewish imagery years back, award-winning
book designer Scott-Martin Kosofsky happened upon a 1645 edition of
the Minhogimbukh (Book of Customs) a beautifully designed
and illustrated guide to the Jewish year written in the Yiddish vernacular.
Captivated, he investigated further and learned that from 1590 to 1890,
this cross between a prayer book and a farmer's almanac was immensely
popular in households all across Europe.
Using the 1593 Venice edition as a model, Kosofsky has revived the Book
of Customs for modern usage, including all of the original woodcuts
(12 of which depict agricultural life of several hundreds years ago).
He added a number of discursive elements, including introductions to
the book's major divisions and concepts, descriptions of the prayers
and prayer ritual and of many Biblical readings, and a general chapter
on Jewish law and custom.
We include here selections from the introduction to his new book, describing
the history and evolution of the Minhogimbukh.
Fifteen years ago, while looking for illustrations to use in my first Judaica
project, I came across reproductions of several Renaissance woodcuts in an
old Jewish encyclopedia. Their source was given as “Sefer Minhagim,
Amsterdam, 1645.” What I had stumbled upon was the Book of Customs.
I was charmed at first sight. I had in my hands something I had never seen
before: a compact guide to the Jewish year, complete with over forty delightful
illustrations of the main holidays and rituals. I knew this because, despite
the Hebrew title by which it was cataloged, the book was in Yiddish with prayers
in Hebrew. So rather than a lofty Sefer minhagim or Sefer haminhagim,
it was in reality a humble Yiddish customs book, the Minhogimbukh.
Havdalah ceremony, Minhogimbukh,
Note the ceremonial objects: wine goblet,
double-wicked candle, and spice box.
Note also the characteristic white-and-black
Dutch floor tiles and windows.
I noticed interesting differences in the six editions I saw
at Harvard, which inspired me to ask about the books at other institutions
and before long I saw some thirty more at the libraries of the Jewish Theological
Seminary, Hebrew Union College, and Brandeis University and still others from
the Bodleian Library at Oxford. Their dates were spread across the range of
the book’s history, 1566 to 1874.
I was surprised to discover that while a few of the illustrations were known,
having been reproduced here and there, the book itself had no reputation.
It was just one of the myriads of old Jewish books. I learned from a few Judaica
librarians that it was especially well neglected because scholars of Judaism
have paid little attention to books in Yiddish, written as they were for the
unwashed and unlettered; Yiddish scholars, as a rule, are interested in literature,
not in religion. That the early editions are in Old Yiddish, before the Slavic
influences had become so much a part of the language, placed it even further
from mainstream interests.
Interestingly, the first and only surviving Yiddish manuscript is an illustrated
customs book from northern Italy that was made by or before 1503 (a back page
records a death in that year). The manuscript is at the Bibliothèque
Nationale in Paris. The calligraphy and the illustrations appear to be the
work of the same hand. One imagines that it was made for teaching purposes
or perhaps as a mock-up for a more elaborate illumination, though none resembling
The variations in the editions are found mainly in minor customs and additional
liturgies, especially in the choice of liturgical hymns (piyutim),
which often follows local tradition and the taste of the clergy. The seasonal
references made in the captions to the zodiac woodcuts are missing entirely
from the later, unillustrated editions.
Learn more; See Table of Contents above
Book of Customs: A Complete Handbook to the Jewish Year
Scott-Martin Kosofsky, Foreword by Lawrence Kushner
HarperCollins Publishers, September 2004
is an award-winning book and typeface designer in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
For the past fifteen years he has worked increasingly in the field of
Jewish studies, having produced such notable books as The Harvard
Hillel Sabbath Songbook, The Jews of Boston, A Survivors' Haggadah,
and Esther's Children, a lavishly illustrated history of the
Jews of Iran.
with the author on the HarperCollins website
Michal Bergman has produced serveral pieces of artwork drawing upon the
woddcut illustrations in the Books of Customs. We have readpated
some of her work to create new
e-greeting cards for JHOM's affiliate Judaica e-greeting card site.