(Yiddish, from Heb. teḥinot, meaning supplications), private devotions and paraliturgical prayers usually in Yiddish, primarily for women, published beginning in the early modern period. Tkhines were written by both women and men, and the constant reprinting of tkhine booklets demonstrates the extraordinary popularity of the genre.
The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries saw the rise of fresh rituals and genres of religious literature, directed at new audiences. This phenomenon was partially a result of certain developments within Kabbalah during this period, but was particularly facilitated by the rise of printing. For the first time, book production was inexpensive enough so that broad masses of people could have access to published materials. Guides to the ethical life, books of pious practices, and new liturgies and rituals (often in abridged and simplified form) were published both in Hebrew, for an audience of men with a basic education in classical Jewish texts, and in Yiddish, for women and for those men “who are like women,” meaning those without much knowledge of Hebrew. Many of the new publications (including Hebrew teḥinot, supplemental prayers for men) developed out of and popularized a mystical pietism that had originated among the kabbalists of Safed.
Tkhines were an important form of women’s participation in this pietistic revival and its popular literature. Indeed, this religious movement was accessible to women precisely because it was spread largely by literary means. Interestingly, however, tkhines from the end of the eighteenth century show little evidence of influence from Hasidism. Hasidic teachings, especially in the early years of the movement, were transmitted orally from master to disciple in small groups that excluded women.
Characteristics and Early History
In printed tkhine collections, each individual prayer begins with a heading directing when, and sometimes how, it should be recited: “A pretty tkhine to say on the Sabbath with great devotion”; “When she comes out of the ritual bath”; “What one says on the eve of Yom Kippur in the cemetery.” Scholars are divided as to whether these prayers were meant as a women’s substitute for the Hebrew liturgy, or as supplementary, voluntary prayers, recited when women wished. Although some tkhines were intended to be recited in the synagogue, and a few were specifically for male worshipers (“A lovely prayer for good livelihood to be said every day by a businessman”), the majority were associated with women’s spiritual lives in the home or other unspecified locations: prayers to be recited privately for each day of the week; for Sabbaths, festivals, fasts, and New Moons; for the three “women’s commandments” (ḥalah, separating and burning a small portion of the dough of the bread for the Sabbath; nidah, marital separation during menstruation followed by ritual immersion; and hadlakat nerot, kindling the Sabbath and festival candles); for pregnancy and childbirth; for visiting the cemetery; for private occasions of grief such as childlessness and widowhood; for recovery from illness; for sustenance and livelihood; and for confession of sins. While domestic concerns run through these prayers, so, too, do grander themes from Jewish thought, especially the hope for messianic redemption and the end of exile.
Although there are manuscript tkhines, the genre gained popularity with their appearance in print. There are two main groups of tkhines: first, those that were printed anonymously in Western and Central Europe in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which were probably written or compiled by men for women; and second, those that were published in Eastern Europe in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries, often with named authors or compilers, some of whom were women. Many of the eighteenth-century collections that first appeared in Western Europe were reprinted in Eastern Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The language of the tkhines is relatively fixed and increasingly archaic.
Western European tkhines were published in collections of between 35 and 125 prayers, either in small books or as appendixes to Hebrew prayer books, often prayer books with Yiddish translation. The first major collection, Tkhines, was published anonymously in Amsterdam in 1648. Numerous reprints (usually titled Seyder tkhines), expansions, and additional collections followed. In the mid-eighteenth century, Seyder tkhines u-vakoshes (Order of Supplications and Petitions; 1762, although there may be one or two earlier editions), a comprehensive collection incorporating several earlier works and containing 123 individual tkhines, emerged and was repeatedly reprinted with alterations over the next 150 years, first in Western and then in Eastern Europe. These various West European texts convey the holiness to be found in the domestic and the mundane, and in the activities of a wife and mother, though they also depict angels, the patriarchs and matriarchs, heroes and heroines of Jewish history, and the ancient temple that stood in Jerusalem.
The very earliest East European tkhines were published in Prague. Eyn gor sheyne tkhine (A Very Beautiful Tkhine; ca. 1600) is one of the first to claim female authorship and is attributed to “a group of pious women.” Two other Prague imprints, one from the turn of the eighteenth century and the other from 1705, are attributed to women: to Rokhl, daughter of Mordekhai Sofer of Pińczów, and to Beyle, daughter of Ber Horowitz. One notable work, Seyder tkhines (Prague; 1718), was written by a man, Matityahu ben Me’ir Sobotki, formerly rabbi of Sobota, Slovakia, explicitly for a female audience. This work contains 35 prayers on a variety of topics, with many prayers for the Days of Awe and for pregnancy, childbirth, and infertility, most of which were later incorporated into Seyder tkhines u-vakoshes. Surprisingly, this male author introduces personal subjectivity in a female voice into many of these tkhines. They are written as the prayers of women struggling with misfortune (infertility, widowhood) or danger (for a husband on a hazardous journey). Sobotki’s name disappears from later editions of this work, and the book became known simply as Preger tkhine (The Prague Tkhine).
Except for the Prague imprints, the East European tkhines were usually printed as small pamphlets on rough paper with crabbed type, often with no imprint, making their bibliographic history difficult to trace. Books of tkhines originating in eighteenth-century Eastern Europe, especially in Galicia, Volhynia, and Podolia, tended to deal with a limited number of subjects and were often attributed to a single, female author. Important examples include Tkhine imohes fun rosh khoydesh elul (Tkhine of the Matriarchs for the New Moon of Elul [and the entire penitential season]; n.d.), by Serl, daughter of Ya‘akov ben Volf Kranz (the famed Preacher of Dubno; ca. 1740–1804), which calls on the four biblical matriarchs to come to the aid of the worshiper and plead her case before the heavenly court; two short tkhines by Leah Dreyzl (mid-eighteenth century), daughter of Mosheh of Zholkve (Ukr., Zhovkva; Pol., Żółkiew) and Neḥamah Naytshe, which, in the form of powerful sermons, call on women to repent their sins; Tkhine imohes (Tkhine of the Matriarchs) for the Sabbath before the New Moon, by Leah Horovitz (eighteenth century), which argues for the power of women’s prayer and quotes from rabbinic and kabbalistic sources; and Shloyshe sheorim (The Three Gates), composed by Sore bas Toyvim (eighteenth century), which contains three sections: one for the three women’s commandments, one for the high holidays, and one for the Sabbath before the New Moon. In contrast to West European texts, the tkhines of Leah Horovitz and Sore bas Toyvim suggest that women should take part—in some fashion—in such traditionally male activities as synagogue prayer and Torah study. Both of these authors write, as well, of hopes, prayers, and rituals to bring about the coming of the Messiah. Serl and Leah Dreyzl, by contrast, focus on the inner life and repentance of the individual woman.
A Changing Role for Later Tkhines
By the mid-nineteenth century, different forms of tkhines appeared. As East European Jewish family structure changed, and the age of marriage rose, tkhines were composed that expressed an entirely new sensibility, influenced by the rising ideal of the bourgeois family, with its stress on sentiment and emotional family ties and its new definition of gender roles.
Moreover, tkhines themselves became vehicles for various reformist programs. Ben-Tsiyon Alfes (1850–1940), an Orthodox author and activist, composed Shas tkhine khadoshe (A New Tkhine of Six Orders) as an integral part of his project to spread love for traditional Jewish life, hoping thereby to counteract the influence of secularism. His tkhines repeatedly point to the critical role of women in maintaining a Jewish home and raising Jewish children. Further, his view of the family was influenced by the image of the ideal bourgeois family of his day.
In addition, maskilim wrote tkhines to reach traditional women with their reform program. For example, maskilic tkhines imploring God to restore the health of an ill child also stress the importance of proper domestic hygiene. Unlike earlier tkhine authors, maskilim scorned their audience and the genre, and wrote the prayers in a highly emotional style they thought would appeal to their audience. They often attributed their works to female authors, either those who had actually written tkhines a century earlier, or to creations of their own imagination. Because the maskilic practice of using female pseudonyms was well known, earlier scholars were skeptical about any attributions to female authorship.
Alongside these newer maskilic tkhines, older texts and collections continued to be reprinted in Eastern Europe in numerous editions, often revised or garbled by the printers, up until the Holocaust. Both the texts of tkhines and descriptions of women reciting them were incorporated into literary works by Mendele Moykher-Sforim, Y. L. Peretz, Chaim Grade, and other authors. Tkhines were collected orally by early twentieth-century folklorists, suggesting the existence of an oral tradition alongside the printed works. In the early decades of the twentieth century, tkhines in Yiddish were also published in North America and other areas to which East European Jews migrated, and they continue to be published today among Hasidim and other traditionalist groups.
Jean Baumgarten, Introduction to Old Yiddish Literature, ed. and trans. Jerold C. Frakes (Oxford and New York, 2005), pp. 260–295; Jerold C. Frakes, ed., Early Yiddish Texts, 1100–1750 (Oxford and New York, 2004), pp. 824–829, 834–842; Devra Kay, ed. and trans., Seyder Tkhines: The Forgotten Book of Common Prayer for Jewish Women (Philadelphia, 2004); Samuel Niger, “Di yidishe literatur un di lezerin,” in Bleter geshikhte fun der yidisher literatur, pp. 35–107 (New York, 1959); El‘azar Shulman, Sefat yehudit-ashkenazit ve-sifrutah (Riga, 1912/13), pp. 67–69; Chava Weissler, Voices of the Matriarchs: Listening to the Prayers of Early Modern Jewish Women (Boston, 1998); Israel Zinberg, A History of Jewish Literature, vol. 7, Old Yiddish Literature from Its Origins to the Haskalah Period, pp. 249–259 (Cincinnati: 1975).