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,
Amsterdam, 1723.
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 it exists.

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


The Book of Customs: A Complete Handbook to the Jewish Year
Scott-Martin Kosofsky, Foreword by Lawrence Kushner
HarperCollins Publishers, September 2004



Scott-Martin Kosofsky 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.


Interview with the author on the HarperCollins website

Artist 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.



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