Pirke Avot Haggadah and Bible:

The cryptoJewish community in Italy published a number of Ladino translations of traditional Jewish texts the earliest of which is the Ferrara Libro de Oracyones de todo el año (the prayer book for the entire year) printed by Yom Tov Atias in 1552 A year later the same print shop in Ferrara published the complete Old Testament in Ladino Both books were published in Latin characters and do not contain the original Hebrew texts Beginning about 1540 in Constantinople and Salonika printers began publishing Ladino translations of the Old Testament in Hebrew characters placing the original Hebrew alongside the translation

Although several famous print shops existed in Italy such as Soncino no other Ladino translations were published until the beginning of the seventeenth century From that time forward various Ladino translations of Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) and the Passover Haggadah were published in Italy These translations were printed in either Hebrew or Latin characters and were placed beside the original Hebrew texts The first Ladino translation of Pirke Avot (other than the version in the aforementioned prayer book) was published in Venice by Giovanni di Gara in 1601in Hebrew letters; eight years later in 1609 the Passover Haggadah was published

The two translations of Pirke Avot (1601) and the Haggadah (1609) are linguistically unique and were clearly intended for Jews and not conversos (Crypto Jews) unlike the early prayer book (Mazor) and the Old Testament (from here on: the Bible) Later versions of Pirke Avot and the Haggadah from Italy were published for conversos (A list of the translations of Pirke Avot can be found in my book The Ladino Translation of Pirke Avot Jerusalem: Magnes 1989 Chapter 2 A list of the Ladino translations can be found in Yudlov’s The Haggadoth Thesaurus: A Bibliography of the Passover Haggadoth Jerusalem: Magnes 1997)

Three issues are raised in connection with the various Ladino translations: 1 Orthography if a translation was done in Hebrew script is it possible to know whether it was intended for conversos or not? 2 Linguistics what are the salient features of the Ladino translations that distinguish the language used in Jewish Ladino translations from converso Ladino translations? 3 Explanation how can these differences be explained?

    1. 1 Orthography

      Texts written in Latin script were originally intended for the converso communities Although overtly Christians members of these communities concealed their practice of Judaism out of fear of their Catholic neighbors and the Inquisition They secretly observed many Jewish customs but as they could not study the classical literature in Hebrew they did not live with it diglossically Moreover to hide the fact that they were secretly Jewish their overt linguistic behavior must have complied with the Christian norms This explains why the language of the conversos had almost no Jewish markers but was instead identical to the Spanish or Portuguese of their contemporaries Furthermore as they could not read Hebrew they only used translated texts in Latin characters following Ladino translation principles already established by their Jewish predecessors for liturgy

      How can it be claimed that Ladino translations written in Hebrew characters were intended for the expelled Jews and not the conversos? Two arguments will be given in this context both based on the front pages of Ladino translations of Pirke Avot: (1) In the title page of Venice 1696 the translator claims that he changed the existing translation into a more regular (normative) one translating the Hebrew that appeared in previous versions into Ladino This means that despite using Hebrew script he made the translation closer to Spanish and avoided Hebrew words It is clear that the translator of Pirke Avot of 1696 strove to make the translation appear more Spanish for the benefit of the community that spoke Spanish and Portuguese rather than JudeoSpanish This is a sign of converso translation


  1. In the title page of the 1739 Venice translation of Pirke Avot three words appear in Portuguese rather than in Spanish: os for los ’the (plm) ques for quales ’that (plm) and a for la ’the (sgf) These three forms prove that the mother tongue of the translator is Portuguese the language of the conversos in Italy Moreover he uses both the word Ladino and lengua española next to leshon sefarad Ladino is the special type of translation The language of the translation is Spanish as it was the custom of the Portuguese conversos to use Spanish in liturgical textsTherefore although translations in Hebrew characters can be found in Italy it is clear that the majority of the translations were intended for the conversos Moreover all the translations in Hebrew characters are vocalized (with Niqud the vowel signs) whereas many of the Jewish Ladino translations from the Ottoman Empire appear in Rashi script with no vocalization The vocalization is critical for people who are not familiar with the Hebrew alphabet as was the case with the conversos a point which strengthens the argument as to the target population


2 Linguistic Features: Converso vs Jewish Translation

The Ladino translations vary from a linguistic perspective The translations intended for the conversos in Italy include fewer Hebrew words than their counterparts in the Ottoman Empire The Hebrew words appearing in all the Italian texts are proper names titles like Rebi or Ribi and words indicating Jewish concept that are irreplaceable like Shema The grammar resembles contemporary Spanish more than JudeoSpanish; finally the vocabulary looks very Spanish

The translations in Latin script are the closest to Spanish norms The other Italian Hebrewscript versions try to avoid the use of Hebrew words as much as possible and also use standard Spanish forms (eg nuestro rather than muestro) The Ottoman Empire versions distinctly reflect the JudeoSpanish tradition

3 Explaining the Differences

The Ladino translations demonstrate various changes in time All the early translations eastern and western written in Hebrew or Latinscript continue the orthographic norms used in Medieval Iberian Spanish

The target population explains a number of the linguistic differences between the Ladino translations The expelled Jews from Spain were linguistically different from the converso Jews When the Jews left Spain and settled in the Ottoman Empire they continued to speak Spanish among themselves in dialects containing a large number of ancient linguistic forms and Hebrew elements They continued using Hebrew characters for orthography Once the language was detached from its source new words were coined based on the original Spanish structure and the language kept changing due to foreign influence Many of the special phenomena we find in the Ladino translations are merely a reflection of this special language which contains archaic elements vulgar medieval Spanish forms new forms coined based on the old ones and loan words

When the conversos left Spain and Portugal their language did not carry any Jewish markers particularly if they were second or third generation conversos As they did not know Hebrew they needed Hebrew education after returning to Judaism in the 16th and 17th centuries Furthermore being mainly merchants financiers and diplomats the conversos kept their commercial and diplomatic contacts with Spain and Portugal even after returning to Judaism so that they continued using the spoken varieties of Iberian Spanish and Portuguese Therefore most of their publications in the early years after the expulsion were in Spanish and Portuguese written in Latin characters rather than in Hebrew Moreover as their knowledge of Hebrew was not that strong they added vowel signs to the Ladino texts that were written in Hebrew characters Whenever possible they would replace regular Hebrew words with equivalent Spanish terms Hence the lexicon and grammatical structures of the Italian communities are closer to Iberian Spanish and more than those of the eastern communities who were not in contact with Spain

The variations then occur not only in orthography It is clear that the later the translations the more influenced they are by the spoken varieties of the languages used These trends are particularly salient in the eastern translations because the western translations are more Hispanicized in nature and attempt to adjust to Modern Spanish Nevertheless we do find some differences along the time axis

Three main texts were continually translated into Ladino and published in various locations the Bible the Passover Haggadah and Pirke Avot The translations differ not only in time and place of publication but also according to the nature of the texts There are some basic differences between the Bible Haggadah and Pirke Avot which are manifest in their translations:


    1. The law referring to the Haggadah is already given in the Bible (Ex 13:8) though the final version(s) of the Hebrew Haggadah was formulated between Mishnaic times to the Middle Ages The actual custom of reading a portion each week from the Pentateuch and the Megillot (scrolls) had already been known in Talmudic times with different traditions observed in Israel and Babylonia (threeyear (and a half) vs oneyear cycle) Pirke Avot was written during the time of the Mishna but only in the Middle Ages did it become part of the liturgy


    1. The Haggadah entails other requirements as well eg not eating leavened bread keeping a sevenday holiday (eightdays outside of Israel) ceremonial customs while reading the text etc whereas the Bible and Pirke Avot entail only reading and studying the text


    1. The Haggadah requires the participation of all family members including women and children whereas the Bible and Pirke Avot are almost exclusively read by the male members


    1. Reading the Bible and the Haggadah is obligatory whereas reading Pirke Avot is only recommended


  1. Jews read the Bible and the Haggadah all over the world at the same time Reading Pirke Avot distinguishes Sephardic from Ashkenazi communities as Sephardic communities study it a chapter a week each Saturday from Passover through Shavuoth whereas the Ashkenazi study it every Saturday from Passover through Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year)

Since the tradition of reading the Bible and the Haggadah is older and stricter than that of Pirke Avot the sanctity of the Hebrew texts was transferred to the Ladino translation and many old Medieval Iberian Ladino features were more steadfastly retained in them than in Pirke Avot Moreover being quite a traditional popular text the familial Haggadoth made it more difficult to produce major linguistic changes in the Haggadah text as opposed to Pirke Avot In my opinion the fact that women who are known to be linguistically more conservative than men participated actively in the Seder made the changes in that text more difficult

The differences among the texts derive from the fact that the Mishnaic text of Pirke Avot was not considered as sacred as the Bible and was thus treated less literally In terms of the Haggadah because it was inspired by the biblical commandment and includes numerous biblical citations its translation retained the more conservative norms of the Bible Consequently the Haggadoth are less distinct from the Jewish Ottoman Empire translations than the other texts

Hence the differences between the Ladino translations of liturgical Hebrew texts must also be explained by the text’s nature and their relative religious value: The more sacred the text the fewer variations occur across time and place of publication

ORA (RODRIGUE) SCHWARTZWALD is Professor Department of Hebrew and Semitic Languages Bar Ilan University Israel She has adapted this article from a paper she delivered at SCJS’s recent conference