Tehines: Women's Prayers

Not part of the fixed liturgy, women used these prayers to commemorate special holidays and special times in their lives.

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Excerpted with permission from Daughters of the King: Women and the Synagogue, edited by Susan Grossman and Rivka Haut (Jewish Publication Society).

It is difficult to determine exactly when people started to recite Yid­dish tehines…. The first tehineh to appear in print was one for a woman to say before immersion in the mikveh [ritual bath]. This tehineh, which was apparently translated from Hebrew, was included in Seyder Mitsves Nashim [loosely translated as "Guide to Women's Rituals and Commandments] by Benjamin Aaron Selnik, published in Cracow in 1577.

Although few tehines from this time period have survived, Yiddish tehines must have already been a well-known form. In the introduction to his book Seyfer Shir ha-Shirim, published in Cracow in 1579, Isaac Sulkash discussed the issue of tehines and the language of prayer. He suggested that women recite tehines in Yiddish rather than in Hebrew so that they would understand what they were saying. Sulkash could not have made his suggestion unless a substantial body of tehines was already extant in Yiddish.

Early Publications

The first known edition of tehines that was printed as an entity unto itself was a bilingual (Hebrew and Yiddish) edition published in Prague, probably in 1590. Printed editions of Yiddish tehines became widespread in the 17th century. One such edition was published in 1666, ap­parently in Venice. By 1880 the bibliographer Benjacob noted that tehines for women were too numerous to count and list in a book.

Benjacob's terse comment, however, fails to give a complete explana­tion of this statement. One popular format for printing tehines was as small, pocket-size books. Many tehines were printed individually on single sheets of paper or in pamphlets of just a few pages, with no mention of the pub­lisher or place and date of publication, thus making it almost impossible for a bibliographer to record them. Moreover, the diminutive nature of these items caused them to be fragile and easily lost or destroyed. Al­though problematic for bibliographers, these items were convenient for users since they contained one or two tehines for specific occasions. The proliferation of editions of tehines that Benjacob described attests to their popularity and indicates that tehines fulfilled certain needs.

Pipeline to God

Tehines were a popular and powerful medium of communication. They offered women a direct pipeline to God. The tone of tehines is con­versational, addressing God respectfully but as a Yiddish-speaking friend or neighbor who will listen in time of need. The subject matter of tehines is varied. There are tehines to suit every occasion in personal and religious life, which were really one in the eyes of the tehineh. Tehines could also be said in various locations: the kitchen, the home, the ritual bath, the syn­agogue, and the cemetery.

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Shulamith Z. Berger is Curator of Special Collections for the Yeshiva University library.