restricted access Seyder Tkhines: The Forgotten Book of Common Prayer for Jewish Women (review)
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Reviewed by
Devra Kay Seyder Tkhines: The Forgotten Book of Common Prayer for Jewish Women Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 2004. 296 pp.

Seyder Tkhines, by Devra Kay, a scholar and instructor of Yiddish literature, is primarily devoted to a seventeenth-century Yiddish book of the same name, designated specifically for women and containing a kind of parallel to the standard Hebrew liturgy. Kay's book comprises two sections: The first part, 'Commentary,' is devoted to a historical and literary discussion of the Seyder tkhines and the genre to which it belongs, while the second part presents a translation of this work and a related text.

Notwithstanding some unique features, Seyder tkhines belongs to the extensive genre of tkhines ('entreaties') written in Central and Eastern Europe from the seventeenth through the early nineteenth centuries, when this genre—whose beginnings, as Kay notes (p. 4), go back to the ninth century—flourished in Europe. These books were written in Yiddish, and their target audience was Jewish women. However, Kay argues that Seyder tkhines differs in its purpose and in further important ways from other tkhines texts.

An Alternative to the Standard Liturgy

Seyder tkhines was first published in Amsterdam in 1648 and was subsequently published in forty more editions until 1723. In most of these editions, the Yiddish text is bound together with the Hebrew prayer book, rendering it unique among the tkhines books in that it offers itself as a parallel to the standard liturgy, and not merely as an optional addition. Indeed, Kay's principal thesis regarding Seyder tkhines is that it "provided a standard book of prescribed [End Page 289] prayers exclusively for women where none existed before and none have since on the same scale" (p. 51–52).

It is somewhat surprising that Chava Weissler did not mention this multi-edition tkhines book in her Voices of the Matriarchs: Listening to the Prayers of Early Modern Jewish Women (Boston, 1998), which dealt extensively with the phenomenon of the tkhines and with some of the prominent works in this genre. Both Weissler and Rachel Biale, who discussed the tkhines in Women and Jewish Law: An Exploration of Women's Issues in Halakhic Sources (New York, 1984), assert that the tkhines were personal, voluntary, and spontaneous in nature and were uttered by women when performing such rituals as lighting the Sabbath candles, separating the dough (hallah), and immersing in the ritual bath (mikveh), or on occasions such as visits to cemeteries. Beyond the traditional blessings, according to Weissler and Biale, such occasions find no expression in the framework of the obligatory standard liturgy.

Kay rejects this claim (p. 52–56). Arguing that the frameworks within which the tkhines were uttered should themselves be considered part and parcel of Judaism's standard venues of worship, she asks: Is lighting the Sabbath candles, accompanied by a tkhine, not an event that is connected to a certain time and anchored within the standard religious commandments? And should the ritual bath, cemetery, and synagogue, where most of the tkhines were uttered, not be viewed as predetermined, fixed frameworks? Moreover, many of the prayers in Seyder tkhines, claims Kay, are connected to synagogue activities such as entering and leaving the synagogue and the removal of the Torah scroll from the ark—that is, to the heart of Judaism's formal religious activities. The tkhines that are meant to be uttered in the household are also connected to religious duties rather than to routine daily chores. As for the personal nature of the tkhines, Kay shows that even those that are formulated for an individual woman praying alone are accompanied by statements of a more general, public nature, such as prayers for the people of Israel or the women of Israel.

What, then, is the nature of these tkhines? If they are not only personal and private, what was their place in relation to the standard liturgy? According to Kay, Seyder tkhines created a new, alternative daily liturgy, especially for women, which was based on the standard morning service:

The tkhine liturgy was based on the Hebrew liturgy and was set within its framework. . . . The Seyder Tkhines had additional, new elements relevant...