Sunday, June 29, 2008

Zimmun in Pseudo-German

In Dr. Seligmann Baer's Seder [Siddur on the binding of the recent Israeli reprint] Avodat Yisrael (Rödelheim 1868, 1901), most of the instructions and comments are in Hebrew. Some--but very few--of the instructions are in German transliterated into Hebrew letters, with an orthographic system almost identical to that of Moses Mendelssohn's translation of the Bible. Most of the Hebrew comments are in Rashi script. Words in Hebrew or Aramaic that are meant to be uttered are in block letters, sometimes menuqad. The German, whether or not it's meant to be uttered, is in a font that I haven't seen before and is very hard on my old eyes. Addendum: Thank you, Mississippi Fred MacDowell, for pointing out in a comment that this font is called Vaibertaitsch. In my comment to his comment, I said I think I thought otherwise (at least I think so), but I now believe Fred was right. B"N, a post on this topic will follow.

Warning: Before you go any further, I disclose that this is all based on the assumptions (1) that the German I learned in high school in the late 1960s is reasonably similar to the German of Dr. Baer and his contemporaries and (2) that I remember any of it correctly. Supporting assumption 1 is the fact that both were a long time ago.

The introduction to the German zimmun in Dr. Baer's siddur is interesting in that it isn't really in German, either in vocabulary or in idiom. The words (with one or two--literally either one or two--exceptions) are German, but the phrasing is a direct translation of the traditional Yiddish zimmun. In what follows, Rashi script is the default, [block letters are in square brackets], {and the German with its odd font is in curly brackets}. Exclamation marks are in the original (following the German style for imperatives). Italics (added by me) indicate words that are incorrect, idiosyncratic, or with an ambiguous letter but nevertheless definitely not correct German.

Here is what appears before the zimmun in the siddur (p. 554):

שלשה שאכלו כאחת חייבים
בזמון. וכיצד מזמנים? המזמן
אומר [הב לן ונברך!] או בל״א [רבותי] {וויר
וואָללען בענטען/בענשען!}׃

בל״א is an abbreviation for bilshon ashkenaz, "in the language of Ashkenaz." It's a little misleading; in more traditional siddurim it means in Yiddish, while here it means in German.

The zimmun itself follows, with embedded instructions regarding a minyan in Hebrew only. After the zimmun we have

יחיד מתחיל. {ווער פֿיר זיך אַליין בעטעט פֿאָנגט היער אַן.}׃

כאחת should be ונברך. כאחד is usually פֿאָנגט. ונבריך represents the German fängt. In the Hebrew-lettered German of Mendelssohn and Baer, אֶ is used for both ä and ö. So this is an actual error: פֿאָנגט should be פֿאֶנגט. This orthographic system doesn't deal with umlauts well. The same character is used for both ä and ö; for ü, they simply used a yod, as here in פֿיר (für). (Mississippi Fred MacDowell recently reproduced a manuscript of a letter to Julius Fuerst [Fürst] with an umlauted vav in the greeting. It appears in the last word in the first line of the manuscript reproduced in this post.)

I point out these errors only because they show that we shouldn't assume that the slashed and italicized בענטען/בענשען is correct in German. To me, with the combination of a smeared character, a difficult font, and my eyes, the fourth letter is ambiguous. If the fourth letter is a shin, then we have בענשען (benshen) here--a non-Germanic Yiddish word. If it is a tet, there are two possibilities: (1) the tet is supposed to be a shin, in which case it would be a misspelling of בענשען; or (2) the first nun could be superfluous, in which case it would be a misspelling of בעטען (beten), German for "to pray." Given that the German following the zimmun has the correctly spelled word בעטעט (betet) (3rd sing. present of beten), I'm prepared to textually emend the German introduction to

רבותי וויר וואָללען בעטען! ׃

רבותי, wir wollen beten!

(But only if we assume it's German, which we're not assuming. See below.)

Wir wollen beten! means "We want to pray," or, less likely, "We intend to pray." (Contrary to what your high school German teacher and mine taught us, wollen doesn't only mean "to want"; it can also mean "to intend," according to the big dictionary I recently looked it up in. But our teachers' main point, that it doesn't indicate future tense, was correct.) Be that as it may, I'm not prepared to say that "Wir wollen beten!" is an incorrect way to say "Let's pray"--my knowledge of German is far too limited to have any confidence about that. But I am reasonably confident that a more conventional way of saying it would be "Beten wir!"

So why would Dr. Baer have written "Wir wollen beten!" instead? Possibly for the same reason that רבותי appears in an allegedly German phrase--it's a verbatim translation (except for the first word, which isn't translated) of the familiar Yiddish

רבותי מיר וועללען בענשען! ׃

And it's possible that my emendation to beten was incorrect. After all, it was based on the assumption that the phrase is German. But it may not be. Perhaps Dr. Baer was as reluctant to part with בענשען as he was to part with רבותי. Or with the Yiddish zimmun in general.


Besides the question of whether the German is really German, another interesting matter is why some of the instructions are translated into German and some are not. The mezammen is told to say "Let's benedict" in German, and the lone eater is told in German where to begin benedicting, but the instructions to the mezammen to say "Elokeinu" only in the presence of a minyan are in Hebrew only. If it's assumed that some users of the siddur will need the German for "Let's benedict," why not also assume they need to be told in German when to change the wording if there's a minyan?


This is a true story about my acquaintance Arbuthnot (not his real name), who asks that I spread the word on this.

Arbuthnot is a member of a small Shabbat-and-holiday-only shul with no office staff, and in fact no office. Everything that's done is done by volunteers, and Arbuthnot's job is to check the voice mail. Sometimes he's quite conscientious, checking the messages every day. Most of the time there are no messages, and most of the messages are junk mail--someone wants to sell something to whoever is at the phone number. He often lets a day or two slide by, and no harm is done.

Friday, June 27, after a few days of not checking, Arbuthnot phoned in for the voice mail. There were a few messages from Wednesday, June 18; more days than he'd realized had gone by. A gentleman was calling for Rabbi Ploni. His mother was dying; she used to attend the shul, and she wanted the rabbi to officiate at the funeral.

Had Arbuthnot gotten the message in a timely way, he would have contacted the rabbi immediately. Since it was already nine days later, he called the gentleman instead. Arbuthnot apologized, said he was the voice-mail person from the shul, and asked how the man's mother was. The man said his mother had died, and he had managed to get in contact with the rabbi.

Arbuthnot's message to the readers of Consider the Source is that it's important to be scrupulous in fulfilling one's obligations.