Monthly Archives: June 2016

Spanish and Portuguese Ladino Prayer Books in the Bodleian

Guest Blog Entry by Dr Aron Sterk

Jewish liturgy is a rather neglected area of study, and even more so the translations of the liturgy. However prayer books can tell us much about the spiritual and devotional life of a community. Not only the prayers themselves and the various ways in which they are presented on the page, but the very bindings say much about how such devotional literature was used in daily life. The successive editions of the ‘Ladino’ translation of the Prayer Books (Siddur and Mahzor) used by the Western Spanish and Portuguese Jews from the mid 16th to late 18th century are particularly well represented in the Bodleian collections.

This Sephardic liturgy was first translated and printed in Ferrara in 1552, only sixty years after the expulsion from Spain. Printed on the same presses as the famous Ferrara Bible by Yomtob Atias and Abraham Usque it was meant for the use of ‘Marranos’ who had escaped the peninsula after the establishment of the Portuguese Inquisition in 1536 in order to return to Judaism. Most had been cut off from the Hebrew language and Jewish life since the forced conversion in Portugal in 1497. Over the next three centuries, with the centre of Jewish printing shifting to Amsterdam, and a constant stream of new Jews fleeing Iberia for the tolerant North, this version continued to provide an accessible translation for both men and women and formed the basis of dozens of subsequent versions each of which attempted, in different ways, to help the worshipper in following the prayers of the synagogue and private rituals as easily as possible, even including transliterations of portions of the Hebrew (in themselves an interesting linguistic study).

Evidently the literary prestige of the Spanish language and a cultural nostalgia for Sepharad had lent the Spanish text a certain sanctity of its own for the Portuguese-speaking Jews, and they continued to use the 16th century Spanish version despite the fact that the vocabulary, style and pronunciation became increasingly antiquated.

Although the Jews were not officially readmitted into England until after the 1656 mission of R. Menasseh ben Israel to Oliver Cromwell, a first copy of this Spanish liturgy – a neat, little 32mo of Menasseh ben Israel’s own 1636 edition – found its way to Oxford shortly thereafter, for, judging from John Selden’s motto ‘περὶ παντὸς τὴν ἐλευθερίαν’ (“above all liberty”) written across the title page, this copy must have been among Selden’s books donated to the Bodleian in 1659.

[Orden de las Oraciones del mes. Menasseh ben Israel, Amsterdam,
1636 Bod 8° M 31 Th. Seld]

The Manasseh ben Israel edition is very much a ‘pocket’ edition but its binding is rather plain. More typical of the fine bindings often found on these Prayer Books is that of this similarly ‘bijou’ edition printed by Isaac Judah Leon Templo – the son of Judah Leon Templo famous for his reconstruction of the Hebrew Temple – with its fine gauffered (tooled and gilded) fore edges:

[Orden de las Oraciones Cotidianas. Ishac Jehudah Leao Templo, 1734 Bod.954.g.1]

However it was some time before the Jews in England felt a need to publish an edition of their own. The first official publication, the Prayer Book for Rosh haShana and Kippur, came out in 1740 and this edition was a completely new Spanish translation by Isaac Nieto the Haham of the London Spanish and Portuguese Jews, successor and son of the renowned scholar and rabbi David Nieto. The language was a refined and literary, contemporary Castilian Spanish. In the preface addressed to the “pious and devout reader” Nieto states that the previous editions were unfit for prayer being full of “barbarous, uncouth and archaic expressions” in a jargon that was “neither Castilian nor Hebrew.”

[Orden de las Oraciones de Ros-ashana y Kipur, Isaac Nieto, London, 1740  LM   collection. Note the prominent con licencia de los Señores del Mahamad – “with the permission of the gentlemen of the Mahamad”]

An incentive to Haham Nieto’s translation may well have been an illicit and unauthorised publication of the Prayer Book in London nineteen years earlier by a certain Joseph Messias of whom little is known beyond the fact that he had been on the list of destitute Jews receiving charitable assistance in Amsterdam and was sent out of the way to Dublin a few years previously in 1712-13.[1]  As the publication of any book on any subject by a member of the community required the imprimatur of the Mahamad, the ruling committee of oligarchs of the synagogue, and as Messias had not requested this, the publication was repressed and only one copy of the print run is known to have survived. In 1951 the purchase of this Prayer Book for Bevis Marks Synagogue was organised by the Honourable Archivist Richard Barnett, at the time Keeper in the Department of Western Asiatic Antiquities at the British Museum, on the occasion of the synagogues 250th anniversary. This has now passed to the Leopold Müller Library as part of the Weiss Sephardi Collection – a truly unique addition to a fascinating collection at Oxford.

[Orden de las oraciones cotidianas Joseph Messias, London, 1721 PB 347]

[1] I am much indebted to the archivist Mr Ton Tielen in the Netherlands for unearthing this revealing snippet of information from the records of the Amsterdam community.




Aron Sterk
did his doctorate in Jewish Studies at Manchester University. From October this year he will be based at the University of Lincoln for a project in association with the Royal Society and the Science Museum researching the life and work of the 18th century Jewish naturalist and secretary of the Royal Society Emanuel Mendes da Costa. While doing background research on a manuscript English translation of the Spanish and Portuguese Prayer Book in the Gaster collection of the John Rylands Library of Manchester University he had occasion to check out the holdings of the Bodleian Library and the Leopold Muller Memorial library in its lovely new building.

For further details of the Rylands manuscript see the John Rylands Institute Conference.