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November 9: The Oldest Yiddish Story

November 9, 2014
Solomon_SchechterThe oldest extensive and extant document written in Yiddish, the Cambridge Yiddish Codex, found in the Cairo genizah (storeroom) in 1896, was dated November 9, 1382. The incomplete manuscript contains a Yiddish version of the medieval Germanic epic “Dukus Horant,” as well as a retelling of the Binding of Isaac story from the Bible. Scholars have debated whether the language of the document should be regarded as a variant of Middle High German or early Yiddish — but it is commonly agreed that the Codex is the oldest known set of works we have (apart from a few short 13th-century inscriptions) written in the vernacular that would eventually evolve into the Yiddish language. “Dukus Horant,” composed in four-line rhymed strophes, tells the story of a nobleman who has to prove his abilities in a series of adventures in order to win the hand of a princess. The Cairo genizah, brought to popular attention in Europe by Solomon Schechter at the end of the 19th century, was attached to the Ben Ezra Synagogue and contained over 300,000 documents that traced a millennium of Jewish life in the Middle East. The photo above shows Schechter studying documents in the genizah. “The oldest known complete Yiddish sentence, dated 1272, occurs in an illuminated festival prayer-book manuscript known as the Worms Maḥzor (Vórmser mákhzer); the words contain a blessing for the person who will carry the book to the synagogue.” —YIVO Encyclopedia