An early-tenth-century letter in Hebrew from pre-Christian Kyiv

Cambridge Library

An early-tenth-century letter in Hebrew from pre-Christian Kyiv

In a late-fifteenth-century Russian collection called the Academy Chronograph (a kind of chronicle1), there is a story about the persecution of Israelites under Antiochus IV, the Seleucid ruler of the Hellenistic Syrian kingdom, whose attack on Jerusalem in 168 BCE led to an uprising and victory by the Maccabees—which gave us the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.

As part of their repression campaign, the Seleucid authorities were said to have “ordered Israel that everyone who has an ox should write on its horns that he has no stake in the God of Israel.” In response, to avoid committing idolatry, “the Israelites slaughtered their oxen.” Next, the Israelites were told that their daughters might “not go to bathe in the river”—thus prohibiting observance of the purity commandments that require women, after menstruating, to cleanse their bodies in a ritual bath (the mikvah) before sleeping again with their husbands. The Israelites then “withheld themselves from their women.” Hearing this, “the heathens rejoiced saying: now their women will come to us.” So the Israelite men decided to ignore the purity laws and said, “Let us come to our women without a bath so that the seed of Israel would not perish.” Whereupon, the Russian text explains,

a miracle happened to them and a water source appeared to each one of them in his house, and the daughters of Jerusalem went to bathe each one in her house, and they came to their men having bathed.

Not only does this Slavic text convey quite accurately Jewish values and beliefs of the time, it follows almost verbatim a medieval Hebrew text known as Midrash Ma’aseh Hanukkah. This midrash, or interpretive biblical commentary, which is extant in an early-fifteenth-century manuscript from southern Italy and based on a tenth-century Hebrew translation of an even earlier work, “The Scroll of Antiochus,” tells the story of Hanukkah. The account in the Academy Chronograph is evidently a direct translation from the medieval Hebrew version.

Yet at the time this manuscript was produced, Jews were not allowed to live in the Grand Duchy of Muscovy, or Muscovy, where this particular manuscript appears to have been created. Vasily I (1371–1425), the grand prince, did not allow Jewish merchants or immigrants; neither did his successors. Even some four centuries later, after the Russian Empire had acquired large swaths of land that had been part of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth, and until the end of the eighteenth century, Jews would be banned from interior Russia, their residency restricted to the empire’s newly gained areas, which came to be known as the Pale of Settlement. It was not until the twentieth century, during World War I, that Jews were permitted to reside in Russia without restrictions.

How did medieval Jewish texts such as the Midrash Ma’aseh Hanukkah end up translated into Slavic languages in regions from which Jews were banned? This is a puzzle Moshe Taube seeks to solve in The Cultural Legacy of the Pre-Ashkenazic Jews in Eastern Europe. Taube, an Israeli scholar of linguistics and Slavic philology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, who spent thirty years studying and comparing different manuscripts in Hebrew, Greek, and various old Slavic languages, unravels a fascinating if difficult to follow story of pre-Ashkenazi Jews’ presence in medieval eastern Europe and their intellectual contributions, which have been lost within Jewish culture but were preserved in east European Orthodox Christian society.

What makes the existence of this Slavic version of medieval Hebrew texts even more intriguing, Taube points out, is that Muscovy was then a backwater, its clergy “barely literate.” No “classical learning of the ancient Greeks and Romans penetrated the walls of pious obscurantism in Russian church institutions, including the monasteries.” If so few scholars had Greek, certainly none were trained in Hebrew. And even Kyivan Rus’, a region where Jews lived that was politically and culturally distinct from Muscovy, was a place known “as a source of furs and slaves,” not erudition.

The eastern Europe of the book’s title covers the territories of today’s Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, and parts of Russia, which were all once part of Kyivan Rus’—a veritable battleground of Russian and Ukrainian historiographies. Russia and Ukraine each claim the region in their search for a national origin: Ukraine to show its long political and cultural past, Russia to create a deceptively seamless imperial narrative and justify Moscow’s ascendancy over this historically significant land2 (with echoes in Vladimir Putin’s rationale for invading Ukraine).

Kyivan Rus’ had been a principal power from the ninth century until the mid-thirteenth century, when Mongols swept through Europe. It was superseded by the Duchy of Lithuania, which survived the Mongol invasion and gradually expanded, entering a union with the Crown of Poland and dominating the region (see maps below). Muscovy did not begin to emerge as a distinct principality in the northern Volga regions until the late fourteenth century, rising to prominence in the fifteenth and remaining a vassal state under Mongol rule until 1480, when it overtook the Duchy of Lithuania. Most lands that had been part of the former Kyivan Rus’ were controlled by Poland–Lithuania, and the city of Kyiv itself remained within its boundaries until the second half of the seventeenth century, when, together with the left bank of the Dnipro River, it came under Muscovite rule.


Maps of eastern Europe in 1236 and 1350

Clockwork Mapping

Maps of eastern Europe in 1236 (top) and 1350, from the Centennia Historical Atlas, created by Frank Reed, Clockwork Mapping

Muscovy’s history was not directly connected to Kyivan Rus’—a problem recognized even by Russian imperial historians engaged in inventing a chronology of succession. In 1547 Ivan IV (the Terrible), seeking to project his power, began to use the title “tsar grand duke ruler of all Rus’” and connected Muscovy (though he did not annex it) to the legacy of Kyivan Rus’, a process amplified by sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Muscovite chroniclers and historiographers. Only in 1721 did Peter the Great decide to rename the territories under his rule a “Russian Empire” and articulate, according to the historian Serhii Plokhy, an “ideology” that defined it “in national—Russian—terms.” From then on the lands of Muscovy would be known as “Great Russia”; what is now Ukraine would be called “Little” or “Lesser” Russia, or “southwestern Russia.” A simultaneous process of cultural Russification began to take place as well.

Taube tries to sidestep these political issues of geographic terminology by largely eschewing both the anachronistic yet common shorthand “Russia” to describe territories that were variously part of Muscovy, Novgorod, Ukraine, or Belarus and the modern national nomenclature for those that would in the twentieth century become independent states. Instead, he generally uses historically accurate names—Muscovy, Volgograd, Lithuania.

Although the book contains an occasional slippage to Russian-centered place-names, Taube, a linguist, is more careful when describing languages. The translations his book examines were made from Hebrew into a variety of medieval east Slavic languages, but predominantly into that spoken in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and known as Ruthenian. The Latin-derived designation, Taube explains, helps avoid politically charged phrases such as “simple speech” (prosta mova) or “Rusian speech” (Ruska mova); in Belarusian scholarship, “Old Belarusian speech”; in Ukrainian academic works, “Old Ukrainian speech”; or, even, by Russian scholars, “West Russian” language. In modern times, the east Slavic languages would become Belarusian, Ukrainian, and Russian.

Some of these medieval Slavic translations of Jewish texts come via Greek versions of Hebrew texts, but the vast majority of their sources are not known in any but Hebrew versions. For example, the Tolkovaia Palaea, the “Explanatory” or “Interpreted Palaea” (which Taube infelicitously calls here “Commented Palaea”),3 a collection of stories drawing on parts of the Hebrew scriptures and dated to the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, contains excerpts from the medieval work Divrei ha-yamim le-Moshe rabenu (Chronicles of Moses our teacher), recounting episodes not found in the Bible. In one story, which seeks to explain his supposed speech impediment, the three-year-old Moses snatches a crown from Pharaoh’s head and puts it on his own.4 Seeing this, one of Pharaoh’s advisers suggests the child be beheaded, but with divine intervention Moses is put to a sanity test and given “a shiny precious jewel and a fiery coal” to see which he will choose. When he reaches for the jewel, an angel pushes his hand toward the coal. Moses picks it up and brings it “toward his face,” burning his mouth, thus becoming, as the biblical text notes, “heavy of lips” and “heavy of tongue.”

The Tolkovaia Palaea also contains a story of “the miraculous finding of Joseph’s coffin in the Nile on the eve of Exodus,” which tells how Egyptians had placed Joseph’s bones in a casket and submerged it in the river. While making final preparations to depart from Egypt, Moses does not want to leave the remains behind but doesn’t know where they are. A young girl shows him the spot, and Moses admonishes the Nile to give up the bones—to no effect. Only when he writes God’s ineffable name on a parchment and immerses it in the river does the coffin surface. The story contains elements found both in the Babylonian Talmud (Sotah 13a) and in Genesis Rabbati, an eleventh-century Midrashic compilation attributed to a scholar from southern France, Moses ha-Darshan of Narbonne.

The Tolkovaia Palaea is not a neutral text. It contains invectives against living “Jews,” a word typically deployed in most European languages to describe Jews in the postbiblical period and to distinguish them negatively from the biblical Israelites, who are described in the Tolkovaia Palaea as “people of God.” (Jews referred to themselves as “Israel” in the postbiblical period.) The Tolkovaia Palaea is, as one scholar put it, “a comprehensive, basically Christological commentary to books of the Old Testament in an anti-Judaic vein.” A copy dated to 1406 says:


But you, Jew, living today, why are you not jealous of the Israelites of old, on whose account Egypt was punished? You are today punished and delivered into servitude under the hand of the gentiles. They were once glorified by God, whereas you have now become profaned and subjugated among the nations. They crossed the abyss of the Red Sea, whereas you collect excrement and filth, panting like a swine living in the manure.

Jews are then reproved:

Why do you not understand, why do you not wake up from the Pharaonic hard-heartedness? For just as he, being hard-hearted towards the people of God, perished, so will you, hardening yourselves against the Law chosen by God, surely perish; vomiting miserably your lives, you will be committed to the eternal fire.

But this can be averted if Jews

throw off the spell and put on a new garment, which is the Holy Baptism…. The prophecies you have read, the time of Creation you know. Renovate your body, regain the sight of your eyes, throw off the decayed garment which is incredulity, become renewed through the Holy Baptism, rush to Christ and become one with us.

The combination of deep familiarity with Jewish writings, anti-Jewish tone, and conversionary zeal suggests that the translator or translators might have been Jewish converts engaged by Christians to translate texts pertaining to “many Old Testament figures of interest to a Christian audience.” If these were the intermediaries, not much is known about them, and the translations into Russian would represent a special puzzle, given the absence of Jews in Muscovy. Discussing another text, Taube suggests that perhaps the Russian versions come from Novgorod, “an area in which, unlike in Moscow, Jews could occasionally be found, at least until its annexation by Muscovy in 1478.”

If one can understand Christian interest in these tales about biblical figures, it is much more difficult to explain the existence of fifteenth-century Ruthenian translations of texts in science, medicine, and philosophy, which were originally written in Arabic, or Judeo-Arabic—then the native language of the Jewish population in the Islamicate world (where Muslims were culturally, but not specifically religiously, dominant)—and typically written in Hebrew characters. Translated into Hebrew in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, they were Russified and preserved in multiple Muscovite copies.

Jews would not have needed translation into Ruthenian—those educated enough to read such texts would have known Hebrew. A Christian from the region, even one interested in sciences, would likely not have known enough Hebrew or Judeo-Arabic to make these texts available to Slavic readers. As Taube notes, these translations are “quite remarkable” given that, to quote his frequent collaborator William Ryan,

no complete major work of Greek antique philosophy or science was translated and no sophisticated ancient Greek or Byzantine work of history or literature…was available in Slavonic until comparatively modern times.

(There is a much closer connection between Greek/Byzantine culture and Slavonic Orthodox Christians.)

And yet there are medieval Ruthenian translations of works such as The Intentions of the Philosophers by the Persian Muslim philosopher al-Ghazali (d. 1111); Six Wings, an astronomical calendrical work by Immanuel ben Yakov Bonfils (1300–1377), a Provençal mathematician and astronomer; a medieval pseudo-Aristotelian work, Secret of Secrets; and several books by the rabbinic scholar and physician Moses Maimonides (1138–1204), including Logical Terminology, On Poisons and the Protection Against Lethal Drugs, and Treatise on Asthma, as well as sections from his On Coitus, written

for an unnamed, high-ranking official, who inherited from his father a large harem with pretty maidens, and needs advice from his physician on how to maintain, sustain, and entertain his harem without ruining his health.

This is an impressive medieval scientific and philosophical library. All of these works—and more—came into Ruthenian and Russian not directly from Arabic or Judeo-Arabic but via previous Hebrew translations. But it is also a distinctly non-Ashkenazi Jewish library, suggesting that the medieval Jewish translators in eastern Europe were Jews who arrived in the region via the Mediterranean and the Black Sea and who may have preceded the arrival of Ashkenazi Jews from the West and their subsequent cultural domination. At the very least Taube demonstrates the presence of an intellectually active group of highly educated Jews in the region whose origins were not in the German lands and who left a mark—just not on Jewish culture in eastern Europe as it has been traditionally understood.

The translators had quite a task at hand. With few works of philosophy available in Ruthenian, there was no adequate vocabulary to convey the abstract ideas contained in these works; the way to express them had to be invented by using neologisms or assigning new meanings to everyday words. This at times resulted in distorted translations that became only more corrupt as Slavic copyists struggled to grasp the texts’ meaning. Often, the translations became interpretations in a new language, effectively new texts.

Unlike the Tolkovaia Palaea, which contained explicitly anti-Jewish conversionary statements, some of the scientific and philosophical texts present ideas that had the potential to be deployed polemically against Jews by Christians but from a perplexingly Jewish perspective. The Laodicean Epistle, for example, is an apocryphal letter written in the name of Paul, which had circulated in the Western Christian world but was rejected in the Eastern Church and which seems to have been translated into Ruthenian through a now lost Hebrew version.5 The letter presents “religion” as “a [set of] commandments,” conveying an explicitly Jewish idea of their primacy that was vociferously rejected by Christians since Paul’s teaching about the superiority of faith. It casts “the Pharisee way of life” in a positive light—as a

life of temperance, of abstention from excess, from worldly pleasures (but distinct from Christian asceticism), a life whose goal is learning, in order for one to understand, each according to his ability, the greatness of God manifest in the creation of the world.

Since in Christianity “Pharisees” acquired a pejorative connotation as meaning legalistic “hypocrites,” who “shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces” (Matthew 23:13), portraying the “Pharisaic way of life” as an undertaking to “understand” “the greatness of God” provides a strong clue that the translator or translators here would have been Jewish.

Taube’s book is a work of linguistic and textual archaeology, grounded in a painstaking comparison of different versions of a text. It has to work around evidentiary gaps. To decipher the translations and map out the paths of transmission—for instance, to demonstrate that texts, such as biblical books, that exist in other languages were translations from Hebrew—Taube turns to phonetics of proper names and syntactic, semantic, and phraseological “calques,” word-for-word translations of sentences, words, or phrases that retain the structure and meaning of the original language but seem awkward in translation. In Greek “the Hebrew hushing sound sh” is not available, so if the Slavic translation contains “sh,” not “s”—as in Shushan in Hebrew vs. Susan in Greek, or Achasveros (Ahasuerus from the Book of Esther)the translation was likely made from Hebrew. (Examples of the parallels between medieval Hebrew texts and their Slavic versions in the original languages, with the English translation, are published as appendices at the end of the book.)

The Slavic translations also help reconstruct some now lost Hebrew texts, such as one titled The Third Capture of Jerusalem by Titus, which survived in fragments. The only Hebrew reworking of this text that is known to exist, now at the Bodleian Library at Oxford, is dated to 1462 and missing six folios. The earliest surviving east Slavic version, now in St. Petersburg, comes from the last quarter of the fifteenth century and “conserves portions of the text” missing from the Hebrew manuscript, suggesting perhaps another now nonexistent full manuscript.

Taube’s book approaches the east Slavic region from a new direction—the southeast. It shifts the perspective away from the legacy of Russian imperial historiography, which looks down from Moscow in the north, and away from the history of Ashkenazi Jews, which looks eastward from the German lands, telling the story of a migration “in ever growing waves in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries with their superior erudition and dominant tradition.” In this telling, there was little learning among local pre-Ashkenazi Jews, and if there were any Jewish traditions, they were then “practically obliterated.”

Even with the ascent of east European Jews, who by the sixteenth century had boosted the intellectual status of the region, modern Jewish historians—many though not all of them German—had assumed that this culture had little to offer beyond works on Jewish law or the Kabbalah. They presented its people as uninterested in science and philosophy, as insular and backward. For these historians, as John Efron discussed in his German Jewry and the Allure of the Sephardic (2016), the superior Jewish culture lay in medieval Iberia, where Jews pursued the sciences and studied and wrote philosophy and poetry. Even Simon Dubnow himself, the doyen of east European Jewish historiography, eager to show that Jewish settlements in eastern Europe predated Christianity there, did not have much to say about pre-Ashkenazi Jews and their culture.6 According to Dubnow, these Jews “lacked rabbinical authorities of their own, addressed their inquiries to the Jewish scholars of Germany, or sent their studious young men to the West to obtain a Talmudic education.” And later, after eastern Europe emerged as a Jewish intellectual center, the study of philosophy, Dubnow claimed, was “anathematized,” “secular studies were not included in the curriculum,” and the “mere presence of a secular book was regarded as a profanation.”

Yet Taube reveals not only the presence of a pre-Ashkenazi Jewish population in the region but also its cultural connections with Jews in the Mediterranean and the areas bordering the Black Sea. The existence, in eastern Europe, of an impressive, previously unknown medieval Jewish medical and philosophical library, as indicated by the Slavic translations of Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic texts, shows that philosophy and science could indeed be found there—just not among Ashkenazi Jews. Moreover, these evidently “highly cultivated” pre-Ashkenazi Jewish scholars left a cultural legacy—albeit not in Jewish writings but in Slavic translations.

Taube links some of the translations of Jewish scientific and philosophical texts to a late-fifteenth-century Judaizing heresy that coincided with Orthodox Christian expectations of the end of times for September 1492, which marked the completion of seven thousand years since Creation. Easter was not worked out in calendars beyond that year. But Hebrew books such as the Six Wings proposed different calculations. The archbishop of Novgorod complained that Muscovite “heretics were mocking the Orthodox believers,” pointing to dates found in one of the translated Jewish texts and “casting doubt” on the Christian calendar.

The Orthodox Christian “Y7K problem,” as Taube puts it, intersected with some Jews’ own eschatological forecast. Moses ha-Goleh (literally “Moses the Exile”) of Kyiv also reckoned the year of redemption (Ge’ulah) for 1492 (5252, according to the Jewish calendar) and argued for “the importance of proselytes to bringing it about” through “a mystical union” between Jews and non-Jews, as “the proselyte has shed off his garment of impurity and brought about the union of [the assembly of] Israel with its partner.” The years leading up to 1492 thus spurred an unprecedented number of translations, perhaps in an effort to convert non-Jews. Rabbi Moses’s “mission to the Slavs,” Taube speculates, might be “the missing link connecting the Muscovite heretics” of the late fifteenth century “with the Ruthenian translations of scientific texts from Hebrew.” While this hypothesis helps explain the translations from the late 1400s, it does not explain those that had been made earlier.

The Cultural Legacy of Pre-Ashkenazic Jews in Eastern Europe is a frustrating book, requiring a patient reader. On the one hand, it offers a fascinating story of lost manuscripts, a forgotten culture, and unknown cultural exchanges. It reveals a multidimensional period and a topic with potentially meaningful ramifications for our understanding of the history of this region and its ethnic and cultural makeup. It also offers a new perspective on medieval Jewish history. On the other hand, it is dense and not very accessible, with narrative trails abruptly ending to be picked up at different points, and with broader conclusions about the significance of these cross-cultural connections left for readers to make.

Not all history has to have a subsequent relevance, but even this little-known history of medieval Slavic translations of largely Jewish texts touches upon concerns and ideologies of our times. In 2005 Alexander Krutov, a member of the Russian State Duma representing the far-right nationalist party Rodina, marked anniversaries of several “victories of our great-grandfathers and fathers”: 1,040 years had passed since “the defeat of the Khazar Khanate,” a polity whose ruling class apparently accepted Judaism; more than six hundred years since “the victory on the Kulikovo Field” in 1380 over the Golden Horde; over five hundred years since “the liberation from the Tatar-Mongol yoke” in 1480; the same since “the victory over the heresy of the Judaizers”; and sixty years since “the victory in the Great Patriotic War.” For Krutov every date was “a symbol…a call to us from the great heroic past. Will we hear that call?”

The “Judaizing heresy” discussed in Taube’s study of Slavic translations of Hebrew books has in the twenty-first century become—alongside the victory over the Nazis—a building block of nationalist Russian identity centered around Russian Orthodox Christianity that expels anything not aligning with it. And yet the history of the region—as Taube’s study shows—complicates such simplistic nationalist accounts of the past and highlights its multicultural and multiethnic connected legacy. Sometimes even obscure histories have contemporary implications.