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East Slavic Texts

Two groups of literary works were translated from Hebrew into East Slavic in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The first group, earlier and shorter than the other, consists mainly of historical accounts integrated into Russian compilations, that is, into universal chronicles called chronographs. Notable among these are excerpts from the tenth-century Hebrew Yosipon (an anonymous Hebrew chronicle based on the works of Josephus Flavius) in the Akademicheskii Khronograf (Academy Chronograph) describing, for example, Zerubbabel and King Darius, Alexander the Great in Jerusalem, the persecutions under Antiochus Epiphanes, and the Maccabean revolt. Also among these is a complete translation of a later reworking of the last part of the Yosipon, preserved in Hebrew in a single manuscript dated to 1462, recounting the siege of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Second Temple. In Slavic, the latter is titled Plenenie Ierusalima Tretee, Titovo (The Third Sacking of Jerusalem, by Titus) and is integrated into the second redaction of the Ellinskii i Rimskii Letopisec (Hellenic and Roman Chronicler). The Paleia Tolkovaia (Interpreted Palaea) includes a translation of the Zhitie i voskhod Moiseia (Chronicle of Moses Our Teacher).

The texts of this early group show traces of Ruthenian (in Russian terminology, West Russian), the language of the area (corresponding to present-day Ukraine and Belarus) from which the Jewish translators must have come, as Jews were not allowed to settle in the principality of Muscovy. They also display dialectal features of the Russian of the Novgorod area, which the translations presumably acquired when they underwent editorial treatment and were integrated into Russian compilations. The circumstances that gave rise to the translations of this group remain unclear. The Interpreted Palaea contains numerous anti-Jewish interjections, and the author boasts of his knowledge of the Jewish historical accounts and sometime incorporates whole passages from the Talmud and the Midrash. This may indicate that the editor of the Palaea was a Jew who had converted to Christianity.

We do, in fact, know of an instance, sometime between 1464 and 1473, of a converted Jew baptized as Feodor, who produced a “Psalter” that was actually a collection of Jewish prayers in the Ashkenazic-Polish recension, disguised as a Christian Orthodox Psalter. The prayers were translated from memory, with varying degrees of accuracy depending on the frequency of their liturgical use, and collective prayers, rendered in the first-person plural in the original, were transformed into personal “psalms” by this converted Jew.

The second group of translated works dates from the second half of the fifteenth century and is rather different in nature. It includes mainly scholarly, in fact scientific, texts. Among these were translations of the first two sections of al-Ghazālī’s Intentions of the Philosophers, based on an anonymous Hebrew translation of the work; and of MaimonidesTreatise on the Art of Logic (known in Hebrew as Milot ha-higayon), an exposition of Aristotelian logic as it was known to Arabs, mainly through al-Fārābī. This work was translated three times into Hebrew in the thirteenth to fourteenth centuries—by Mosheh ben Shemu’el ibn Tibon, by Aytub of Palermo, and by Yosef ibn Vives of Lorca. In Muscovy, Maimonides’ Treatise was combined with the section on theology in al-Ghazālī’s Intentions into a single text, titled Logika.

Three medical works of Maimonides (Treatise on Sexual Intercourse; On Poisons and Their Antidotes [excerpt]; and Book of Asthma [chapter 13, on ecology and hygiene]) augment a translation into Slavic of the Hebrew translation of pseudo-Aristotle’s Secret of Secrets, which, while presented as having been composed by Aristotle for his disciple Alexander the Great, was in fact a tenth-century Arabic work. In addition to several cosmographical and astronomical works—among them tables for the calculation of the New Moon called Shesh kenafayim (Six Wings; Isa. 6:2), which were written in Hebrew by Emanu’el ben Ya‘akov Bonfils in about 1365—there is a collection of Old Testament Hagiographa in a unique sixteenth-century Vilnius codex. Of the nine books, six (Esther, Lamentations, Ruth, Ecclesiastes, Job, Proverbs) were translated directly and exclusively from the Hebrew Masoretic text; two (Daniel, Song of Songs) were translated using the Hebrew along with earlier translations. The Psalter in the same codex, translated from the Latin, is not a Jewish translation.

This second group, consisting of Ruthenian translations—some of which underwent a degree of Russification when copied and glossed in Muscovy—is traditionally called Literature of the Judaizers, and reflects the linkage made by scholars between this corpus of translations and the Heresy of the Judaizers, which started in Novgorod in the 1470s and then spread to Moscow until its demise in 1505. This link remains a matter of controversy, however, as does the very nature of the heresy. Polemical letters of the period eagerly anticipated the end of the world in the year 7000 from creation, which according to the Christian Orthodox calendar corresponded to the year 1492; while Judaizers, on the basis of Jewish sources, rejected this calculus. In this context, Shesh kenafayim is mentioned by Archbishop Genadii of Novgorod.

The Identity of the Translators

The translations of these works were products of collaboration between Jews and Slavs. The texts were clearly translated by learned Lithuanian Jews with adequate knowledge of medieval Jewish philosophy, but with less than adequate knowledge of the literal, massively calquing Hebrew of the translations from Arabic. Since the Jewish translators presumably did not know Arabic (although there is no indication of their being Ashkenazic), their only recourse in cases of difficulty was to consult commentaries to the works translated, or to other works dealing with similar subjects. Traces of these channels of recourse can be found in the Slavic translations.

The process of the actual work of translation can be reconstructed as follows: the Jewish translator had in front of him a Hebrew version, or several Hebrew versions, of the text to be translated, and dictated the translation to his Slavic collaborator, who put it down in writing, occasionally “correcting” it according to the scribal conventions he was accustomed to. The dictating was typically done by a learned Jew, versed in Hebrew medieval philosophy but not in the Slavic literary or scientific tradition, to a Christian proficient in the writing traditions of Ruthenian, perhaps one belonging to the circle of people interested in this literature. The translation was characteristically formed into a vernacular, heavily Polonized Ruthenian, presumably the only variety of Slavic that the Jewish translator was familiar with. Unmistakable marks of such a method of translation are doublets, not just of single words but of clauses—reflecting self-correction by the translator, with both wordings noted down by the scribe.

The Ideology of the Translators

The choice of texts considered worthy of translation, along with details in the translations themselves—especially in passages that do not derive from a Hebrew version—allow for some inferences about the mindset and values of the translators. Apart from the biblical books, the corpus is made up of scholarly or scientific texts that are completely devoid of specific theological doctrine favoring any of the known religions. They display a tendency, common among medieval rationalists, to enlist the tools of rationalism, in particular logic and syllogism, to prove the existence of a creator in terms common to all. Significant also is the absence of any catechistic or moralizing elements, apart from praise of basic moral values common to all humans.

These characteristics can best be seen in departures from the text of Maimonides’ Treatise on the Art of Logic, which are unattested in either Arabic or Hebrew. Thus, in the discussion of the seventh science, that of theology, the Slavic text departs from the Hebrew to read:

The seventh wisdom is Theology, which is the crown of all seven as well as their core in importance. For through it will the human soul survive into eternity. And this a man of any creed will admit, that he who is ignorant, cannot be with the Lord. . . . And these seven wisdoms are not in accordance with any religion, but rather in accordance with humanity. And a man of any creed can embrace them. . . . As King David said: The Lord is near unto all who call upon him, to all who call upon him in truth.

Such added passages most reveal the ideology and perspective of the persons who produced the Slavic translation. The ideas expounded therein are typical of the Jewish rationalists—disciples and followers of Maimonides. Basically they draw upon traditional sources of reference, ultimately the Bible and the Talmud, adducing in a skillful manner citations that had been successfully invoked in the past in discussions about wisdom and faith. The translators thus added to the text an ideological credo of a progressive and universalistic, indeed cosmopolitan, nature, which they thought would impress and please their intended readership.


Several Russian and Ukrainian scholars have suggested that the translations were carried out for internal Jewish purposes. Such speculations are absurd. The texts, whether on astronomy, logic, theology, sex, or medicine, were not the kind of literature likely to be translated for undereducated Jewish men or women. This type of literature was only known to, and read by, a few highly cultivated Jewish scholars who were ipso facto fluent in Hebrew and consequently did not need a translation.

On the other hand, indications that the translations were intended for a non-Jewish audience interested in Jewish writings can be derived from a detailed analysis of passages in the translations where the Slavic is deliberately modified or censored, in order to remove or rectify statements that might not suit a Christian readership. Thus, in the Logic section of al-Ghazālī’s Intentions, in discussion of the difference between true negation and privation, the Hebrew text, as was true of the Arabic original, explains that one cannot assign positive attributes to a nonspecific or fictitious subject—for example, to “God’s Associate.” This statement as written presents no difficulty for a Jewish or Muslim reader, for the example provided is immediately grasped as illogical or fictitious, owing to the deeply established notion of God’s unity in these two monotheistic religions. It was considered by the translator unfit for a Christian reader, however, who might be confused by the familiar dogma of hypostasis, according to which one deity can actually contain three. The translator into Slavic consequently dropped the fictitious “associate,” leaving only God—and thus distorting the whole sense of the passage.

The fact that the translators tried to obscure the Muslim origin of al-Ghazālī’s Intentions provides further evidence that the translations were intended for a non-Jewish audience. Such concealment was achieved either by simple deletion, or by replacing the names of places and persons, including the name of the author, with Jewish names, so that when reading the Slavic text alone one might have the impression of reading a Jewish work. Thus the name of al-Ghazālī, which appears in the Arabic and Hebrew versions as Abū Ḥamīd, is Judaized in the Slavic version into Aviasaf; while Zayd and ‘Umar, preserved in the Hebrew, were converted in Slavic into Abraham and Jacob.

The Link between the Translations and the Muscovite Heresy

An argument put forward in the controversy over whether the translations are related to the Muscovite heresy is the fact that the translations were carried out in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, whereas the heresy was centered in Novgorod and later in Moscow. This, however, is but a natural result of the fact that Muscovy had no Jewish population at that time, while Lithuania did. Translators with a knowledge of both Hebrew and Slavic would thus naturally be found in Lithuanian–Ruthenian lands. Although it cannot be discounted that the original initiators of this translation project on the non-Jewish side were Ruthenians, there remains the fact that the texts ended up being copied in Muscovy, where copyists tried to russify the text. One of them added glosses, trying to guess the meaning of Ruthenian forms or unfamiliar philosophical terms; mostly, however, these glosses were wrong.

Slavic sources indicating a linkage between the Ruthenian translations and the heresy include a 1489 letter from Archbishop Gennadii of Novgorod to Ioasaf, ex-archbishop of Rostov, in which he mentions the books in the possession of the heretics, among them Shesh kenafayim and the Logika. A more specific connection is apparent in the person of Skhariya, the “learned Jew fluent in astrology and magic,” who, according to Iosif Sanin, abbot of Volokolamsk and main persecutor of the Judaizers, instigated the heresy in Novgorod, when he visited the city in 1471 in the retinue of the Kievan prince Mikhailo Olel’kovich. Skhariya has been identified as Zekharyah ben Aharon ha-Kohen, copyist and glossator of several Hebrew scientific and philosophical texts. Some of those copies were made for Mosheh ben Ya‘akov ha-Goleh (ca. 1449–1520), a Talmudist, linguist, liturgical poet, and biblical exegete. Goleh was leader of the Jewish community of Kiev, and after his exile, of Kefe (Feodosiia) in Crimea.

Zekharyah was no simple copyist (if such a term is at all applicable to medieval Jewish culture). He was a scholar who added variants from other versions in addition to his own glosses and lengthy comments in the margins of the manuscripts he was copying or reading. All five manuscripts carrying his name are written in a distinctive Byzantine (not Ashkenazic) handwriting.

A preface to a sixteenth-century Ruthenian Psalter preserved in the National Library in Kiev provides an almost contemporaneous independent testimony explicitly linking Zekharyah not simply to translations from Hebrew, but specifically to the Logika. On folia 415v–416 of this Psalter (ms. 117, Aa, 1287) there is a list of authors (or translators) and the terminology they use for different sciences. It lists the names of the seven sciences in two columns, one of them containing the traditional names in Church Slavonic, attributed to “Thomas the Greek” (probably the twelfth-century Byzantine scholar Thomas Magister), whereas the other column is attributed to “Skhariya.” The names of the sciences in this second column are practically identical to those found in the translation of Maimonides’ Treatise on the Art of Logic.

A Possible Motivation for the Translations

It would seem, on first consideration, that we could content ourselves with the assumption that the translations of the second group were the result of an intellectual encounter between scholars pursuing truth and wisdom. The Kievan Jew Skhariya and the Muscovite diplomat Feodor Kuricyn, head of the Moscow Judaizers, were both unusual figures in their respective milieus. Zekharyah was a scholar interested in philosophy and astronomy, while Feodor, chief diplomat to Ivan III and his protégé, was a man who, unlike most of his contemporary countrymen, had traveled abroad and was acquainted with other cultures. Such an intellectual bond might explain why a Jew would translate philosophical and scientific literature for Christians, but it would hardly explain why he concealed their Muslim origin and presented them as Jewish. What we are looking for, then, is motivation on the part of the Jewish partner to collaborate in this enterprise of translation. Some scholars, in discussing the eschatological fervor in Muscovy around the year 7000 from creation (a 1492), point out that Jewish “calculators of the end” also predicted that the end would occur in the year 5252 in the Jewish calendar: 1492.

Others draw attention to the important figure Mosheh ben Ya‘akov, the leader of the Kievan Jewish community, who studied in his youth in Constantinople after 1453, when the city was already under Muslim rule. This rationalist, interested in astronomy and philosophy and for whom works had been copied by students and followers (including, as previously observed, Zekharyah), was also a fervent mystic. He was the author of a kabbalistic work, Shoshan sodot, in which he was the first to quote from two kabbalistic works written in Constantinople in the fourteenth century: Sefer ha-peli’ah and Sefer ha-kanah. The extensive quotations include passages predicting the coming of the Messiah in the year 1490, according to a kabbalistic exegesis of Job 38:7: be-ron yaḥad kokhve boker (when the morning stars sang together). The numerical value of the first word, be-ron, is 250—that is, [5]250 from creation according to the Jewish calculus or 1490, if one does not count the initial preposition be-; or 252 ( 1492), if one does count it. In this context, Mosheh quotes another passage from Sefer ha-peli’ah, where it is said that proselytes are more important for the process of redemption than those born Jewish, “for the proselyte shed his garment of impurity and donned a skin of purity,” whereas the Jews, who were present at Mount Sinai, made the golden calf and thus “shed the garment of God’s law and donned a skin of impurity.”

Mosheh adds here a kabbalistic interpretation, to the effect that by shedding his impure garment, the proselyte brought about “the union of the Ecclesia Israel with its partner.” Proselytes, then, are the ones who will enable the mystical union necessary for redemption to occur. And Mosheh’s beliefs in this regard may point to a theological–eschatological motive for a Jewish “mission to the Slavs” in the context of the eschatological fervor around the year 1492. They may supply the missing link connecting the Muscovite Judaizers with the Slavic translations from Hebrew.

Suggested Reading

Moshe Altbauer, The Five Biblical Scrolls in a Sixteenth-Century Jewish Translation into Belorussian (Vilnius Codex 262) (Jerusalem, 1992); Moshe Altbauer and Moshe Taube, “The Slavonic Book of Esther: When, Where and from What Language Was It Translated?” Harvard Ukrainian Studies 8.3–4 (December 1984): 304–320; Samuel Ettinger, Ben Polin le-Rusyah, ed. Israel Bartal and Jonathan Frankel (Jerusalem, 1994), pp. 37–71; Horace G. Lunt and Moshe Taube, “Early East-Slavic Translations from Hebrew?” Russian Linguistics 12 (1988): 147–187; Robert Romanchuk, “The Reception of the Judaizer Corpus in Ruthenia and Muscovy: A Case Study in the Logic of Al-Ghazzali, the “Cipher in Squares,” and the Laodicean Epistle,” in Speculum Slaviae Orientalis: Muscovy, Ruthenia and Lithuania in theLate Middle Ages, ed. Vyacheslav V. Ivanov and Julia Verkholantsev, pp. 144–165 (Moscow, 2005); William F. Ryan, “The Old Russian Version of the Pseudo-Aristotelian Secretum Secretorum,The Slavonic and East European Review 56.2 (1978): 242–260; Moshe Taube, “On Certain Unidentified and Misidentified Sources of the Academy Chronograph,” in Russian Philology and History: In Honour of Professor Victor D. Levin, ed. Wolf Moskovich et al., pp. 365–375 (Jerusalem, 1992); Moshe Taube, “The Slavic Life of Moses and Its Hebrew Sources,” in Jews and Slavs, vol. 1, ed. Wolf Moskovich et al., pp. 93–114 (Jerusalem and St. Petersburg, 1993); Moshe Taube, “The Kievan Jew Zacharia and the Astronomical Works of the Judaizers,” in Jews and Slavs, vol. 3, ed. Wolf Moskovich et al., pp. 168–198 (Jerusalem and St. Petersburg, 1995); Moshe Taube, “Posleslovie k Logicheskim terminam Maimonida i eres’ zhidovstvuiushchikh,” in In memoriam: Sbornik pamiati Ia. S. Lur’e, ed. N. M. Botvinnik and E. I. Vaneeva, pp. 239–246 (St. Petersburg, 1997); Moshe Taube, “The Vilnius 262 Psalter: A Jewish Translation?” in Jews and Slavs, vol. 14, ed. Wolf Moskovich et al., pp. 27–38 (Jerusalem, 2004); Moshe Taube, “The 15th C. Ruthenian Translations from Hebrew and the Heresy of the Judaizers: Is There a Connection?” in Speculum Slaviae Orientalis: Muscovy, Ruthenia and Lithuania in the Late Middle Ages, ed. Vyacheslav V. Ivanov and Julia Verkholantsev, pp. 185–208 (Moscow, 2005); Moshe Taube, “The Book of Job in Vilnius 262,” in Jews and Slavs, vol. 15, ed. Wolf Moskovich et al., pp. 281–296 (Jerusalem and Sofia, 2005); Constantine Zuckerman, “The ‘Psalter’ of Feodor and the Heresy of the ‘Judaizers’ in the Last Quarter of the Fifteenth Century,” Harvard Ukrainian Studies 11.1–2 (1987): 77–99.