T HE J EWISH Q UARTERLY R EVIEW , Vol. 95, No. 1 (Winter 2005) 1–15
Accounting for the Self
Preliminary Generic-Historical Reflections on
Early Modern Jewish Egodocuments
J. H. CHAJES
A SADISTINCTLITERARYGENRE, autobiography is characterized by
the author’s intent to relate a retrospective narrative account of his or
her own life. Its emergence was long regarded as an indication of the
development of the modern concept of the individual self. 1 This view has
more recently fallen out of favor, however, undermined by the unmistak-
able expression of individual identity to be found in autobiographical
writing outside of the traditional canon, and in works written by women,
laborers, and non-Europeans. 2 The rise of a modern sense of history has
been suggested as having contributed to the emergence of the modern
autobiographical sensibility: as the attempt to relate a retrospective, nar-
rative history of one’s life, autobiography is most fundamentally a history
in which the author is his or her own subject. 3 In Jewish studies, the
genealogical relation of modern autobiographical writing to the tsava’ah ,
or ethical will, has been frequently asserted. 4 Marcus Moseley, however,
has argued that there simply is no such thing as premodern Jewish auto-
biography. Jewish autobiography per se emerged entirely in response to
1. This view was first championed by Jacob Burckhardt in The Civilization of
the Renaissance in Italy (Middlesex, 1990) and then developed by Wilhelm Dilthey
( Descriptive Psychology and Historical Understanding [The Hague, 1977]), George
Misch ( A History of Autobiography in Antiquity [London, 1950]), and others.
2. For a short history of scholarship, see Rudolf Dekker, ‘‘Introduction,’’ Ego-
documents and History: Autobiographical Writing in its Social Context since the Middle
Ages , ed. R. Dekker (Hilversum, 2002), 7–20.
3. See Aviad Kleinberg, ‘‘We Did Not Know That He Was Like That: Three
Medieval Autobiographies’’ (Hebrew), Alpaim 13 (1997): 44–64; Philippe Lej-
eune, L’autobiographie en France (Paris, 1971), 64.
4. See most recently Avriel Bar-Levav. ‘‘ ‘When I was Alive’: Jewish Ethical
Wills as Egodocuments,’’ in R. Dekker, ed., Egodocuments and History , 45–59.
The Jewish Quarterly Review (Winter 2005)
Copyright 2005 Center for Advanced Judaic Studies. All rights reserved.
JQR 95:1 (2005)
Rousseau, he contends; earlier egodocuments 5 were only recognized and
read as autobiographies retrospectively, after the assimilation of the
Rousseauian model. 6 Moseley regards most of these premodern works as
peculiar literary products for which Jewish culture had no use until the
rise of the Haskalah and its sensibilities. This position, although compel-
ling, does not answer the one question that will be the focus of this essay:
what did those who wrote autobiographically in earlier eras think they
were doing when they put pen to paper?
It is certainly the case that the cachet of Rousseau coupled with the
glamor lent to autobiography by the Burckhardt school spurred scholars
of Judaica to seek out and to publish would-be Jewish exemplars of the
genre. 7 Their mission did not stop with recovery, however—many schol-
ars went to great lengths to fashion autobiographies out of documents
that did not quite measure up to the gold standard. A brief example: in the
1929 Hebrew translation of Glikl of Hameln’s memoirs, A. Z. Rabinowitz
displaced the opening ethical will to the work’s conclusion so that we
might receive a work that begins, as should all autobiographies, with rem-
iniscences of childhood. 8 The organic links between Glikl’s work and the
ethical-will genre were thus muted, while its conformity to the classic
structure of autobiography was substantially enhanced. Examples could
easily be multiplied. 9
As for autobiographical writing of mystics, so central to the Christian
and Islamic mystical traditions, we find no significant parallel in Jewish
culture. Kabbalists were famously reticent about conveying their experi-
ence in the first person, generally preferring the objectified third-person
mappings of theurgic realms and the mechanics of their theurgical manip-
ulations. In Gershom Scholem’s classic adumbration of the seminal char-
acteristics of Jewish mysticism, this feature received special prominence:
the kabbalists, he wrote, ‘‘are no friends of mystical autobiography. They
aim at describing the realm of Divinity and the other objects of the con-
5. This term egodocument, coined by Jacques Presser in the early 1950s, may
be applied to autobiographical writing from notes, letters, diaries, and memoirs
and encompasses any text ‘‘in which an author writes about his or her own acts,
thoughts and feelings.’’ See Dekker, ‘‘Introduction,’’ 12.
6. See Marcus Moseley, ‘‘Autobiography: The Elusive Subject,’’ in this issue
( JQR 95.1 ); also M. Moseley, ‘‘Jewish Autobiography in Eastern Europe:
The Pre-History of a Literary Genre’’ (Ph.D. dissertation, Faculty of Oriental
Studies, Trinity College, Oxford, 1990). Moseley’s dissertation became available
to me after I completed this essay, and our views are largely complementary.
7. This point is made repeated in Moseley, ‘‘Jewish Autobiography.’’
8. A. Z. Rabinowitz, Zikhronot Glikl (Tel Aviv, 1929).
9. And they are, in Moseley, ‘‘Jewish Autobiography.’’
ACCOUNTING FOR THE SELF—CHAJES
templation in an impersonal way, by burning, as it were, their ships be-
hind them. They glory in objective description and are deeply averse to
letting their own personalities intrude into the picture.’’ 10 Unlike their
counterparts in Christianity and Islam, kabbalists left few richly intimate
revelations that might cast light on the social or psychological back-
ground of Jewish mysticism.
The excitement is palpable, then, when mystical autobiography pres-
ents itself in Jewish circles. This genre is generally regarded as having
emerged in sixteenth-century Safed, with works by R. Joseph Karo, R.
Elazar Azikri, and R. Hayyim Vital, though autobiographical fragments
by earlier kabbalists, including R. Abraham Abulafia, R. Isaac of Acre,
and others have been enthusiastically exposed and analyzed by scholars.
Still, these fragments are slight indeed when measured against the riches
of Karo’s Maggid mesharim , the journal-entries accompanying Azikri’s
Mille de-shamaya , and Vital’s profoundly neurotic Sefer ha- . ezyonot . Moshe
Idel has drawn special attention to the near simultaneous appearance of
these three works in sixteenth-century Safed, referring to them as ‘‘mysti-
cal diaries’’ constituting ‘‘a literary genre of confessional writing.’’ 11 Their
emergence, he has argued, was one of several indicators of the new ‘‘sub-
jective’’ turn in the Kabbalah of the mid-sixteenth century in which the
importance of the individual kabbalist—his personal soul history, his
unique path and mission, his charisma and revelations—is more pro-
nounced than ever before in the history of the Kabbalah.
Jewish mystics should not, however, be cast as the only medievals
who, for whatever reasons, left us little in the way of autobiographical
writing. A rather laconic few lines written by a fourteenth-century Jew
were thus sufficient to generate a well-known article by Israel Yuval some
years ago, perhaps misleadingly entitled ‘‘A German-Jewish Autobiogra-
phy of the Fourteenth Century.’’ 12
10. Gershom Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (3rd rev. ed., New
York, 1961), 15–16.
11. Moshe Idel, ‘‘On Mobility, Individuals and Groups: Prolegomenon for a
Sociological Approach to Sixteenth-Century Kabbalah,’’ Kabbalah 3 (1998): 145–
73, esp. 163.
12. Israel Jacob Yuval, ‘‘A German-Jewish Autobiography of the Fourteenth
Century,’’ Binah 3 (1994): 77–99. This is a translated adaptation of the original
Hebrew article that appeared in Tarbiz 55 (1986). The brief autobiography, found
in MS Oxford, Bodleian Library, Michael 74 (Neubauer Catalogue no. 1171),
was published by Yuval as an appendix to the article. Herman-Judah’s twelfth-
century autobiographical description of his conversion to Christianity is a more
substantial example of medieval ‘‘Jewish’’ autobiographical writing. See J. Her-
mannus and G. Niemeyer, Hermannus Quondam Judaeus: Opusculum De Conversione
Indeed, when viewed in a broader
JQR 95:1 (2005)
context, the mystics of sixteenth-century Safed would seem to have been
downright precocious: what nonmystics composed comparable first-per-
son accounts of their lives before the seventeenth century? Autobiograph-
ical writing among Jews seems to have taken wing in the seventeenth-
century, with the exemplars of R. Leone Modena and his grandson, Yits-
. ak Min ha-Leviim; of Glikl of Hameln; of Asher Levi; and the fantastic
first-person documents of Abraham Yagel and David ha-Reuveni. 13
Yet late medieval and early modern Jewish egodocuments rarely, if
ever, conform to the strict generic form of autobiography. Examining the
works of Karo, Vital, and Azikri, we find that not one attempts to relate
a coherent retrospective narrative of its author’s life. Moreover, each one
of these three works might well be in a class of its own. Karo’s Maggid
mesharim has been received in what appears to be a heavily redacted form,
perhaps one tenth of its original length, and rather forcibly redacted into
the structure of a Torah commentary. 14 Its content is a unique admixture
of mystical teachings, blandishments, and admonitions, communicated to
Karo by his angelic familiar, the eponymous Maggid . These latter cast
light on intimate facets of Karo’s life but do not make Maggid mesharim
the equivalent of a modern diary, let alone autobiography. The autobio-
graphical fragments associated with Azikri’s Mille de-shemaya hardly con-
stitute a coherent work at all, having been culled by Mordechai Pachter,
their industrious editor, from the side-margins of the manuscript of the
ethical treatise that is the true bearer of the name Mille de-shemaya . This
anthology of self-referential marginalia is optimistically referred to in the
historiography as Azikri’s ‘‘diary.’’ In his introductory comments, Pachter
explained the methodology behind the creation of this ‘‘diary’’:
I edited [the diary of R. Elazar Azikri] not according to the order of
the location [of the entries scattered in two manuscripts], but rather in
Sua (Weimar, 1963); K. F. Morrison, Conversion and Text: The Cases of Augustine of
Hippo, Herman-Judah, and Constantine Tsatsos (Charlottesville, Va., 1992).
13. A. Z. Aescoly, Sippur David ha-Reuveni (Jerusalem, 1993); M. Ginsberger,
ed., Die Memoirien des Ascher Levy aus Reichshofen im Elsaß (1598–1635), (Berlin,
1913); D. Carpi, ed. Medaber tahpukhot (Tel-Aviv, 1985); Mark R. Cohen, ed. The
Autobiography of a Seventeenth-Century Venetian Rabbi (Princeton, N.J., 1988); Beth-
Zion Abrahams, ed. The Life of Gl ¨ ckel of Hameln, 1646–1724 , Written by Herself
(London, 1962); David Ruderman, ed. A Valley of Vision: The Heavenly Journey of
Abraham Ben Hananiah Yagel (Philadelphia, 1990). See especially the introductions
to The Autobiography of a Seventeenth-Century Venetian Rabbi and A Valley of Vision for
extensive discussion of and further bibliography on seventeenth-century Jewish
14. R. J. Zwi Werblowsky, Joseph Karo: Lawyer and Mystic (2d ed., Philadel-
phia, 1977), 24–37 (Hebrew edition of 1996, 36–49).
ACCOUNTING FOR THE SELF—CHAJES
chronological order. This is the fundamental and essential structure of
a diary qua diary. . . . I did all this in order to give the text before
us—even in its external aspect—the form of a diary in all respects. 15
Pachter’s perseverance has provided the modern reader with convenient
access to marginalia providing a window into the personal suffering of a
distinguished rabbinic figure consumed by the death of his children, but
this convenience should not be mistaken in the historiography for what it
is not. Finally, Vital’s Sefer ha- . ezyonot comes the closest of the three to
conventional autobiographical form. Vital opens with a retrospective
glance at his childhood before proceeding to note significant chapters of
his adult life in discrete entries. 16 Much of the work is devoted to the
recording of dreams and visions: Vital’s, as well as those shared with him
by others, in which he figured prominently.
Recognizing that many of these early modern egodocuments are not
autobiographies, many scholars have referred to them as ‘‘diaries,’’ or
‘‘ yomanim .’’ This modern Hebrew neologism, like the words ‘‘diary’’ and
‘‘journal,’’ derives from the root meaning ‘‘day.’’ It would thus seem to
have just the right amount of ambiguity to make it useful, as it may serve
for daily entries of intimate revelations, for example, ‘‘Dear Diary . . .’’ as
well as for ‘‘to do’’ lists of a more prosaic order ( ‘‘ journal ’’ is also the
technical term referring to the daily transfer of transactions from the
memorandum book in double-entry bookkeeping 17 ). That said, we would
be well advised to avoid unselfconsciously referring to Azikri’s fragments,
or to any of the other egodocuments of the period, as diaries. To avoid
anachronism, the question must be asked: ‘‘What did the author think he
or she was writing?’’
In some cases, the answer is fairly clear, as with the documents that
are clearly ethical wills written for the sake of the readers, be they descen-
dants or disciples of the author. Indeed, the ethical will and other pre-
15. Mordechai Pachter, ‘‘The Diary of R. Elazar Azikri’’ (Hebrew), From
Safed’s Hidden Treasures: Studies and Texts Concerning the History of Safed and its Sages
in the Sixteenth Century (Jerusalem, 1994), 121–86. Quotation from 121–22.
16. Hayyim Vital, Sefer ha- . ezyonot , ed. A. Z. Aescoly (Jerusalem, 1954). On
the work as autobiography, see Michal Oron, ‘‘Dream, Vision and Reality in
Hayyim Vital’s Sefer ha- . ezyonot ’’ (Hebrew), Me . kere Yerushalayim be-ma . shevet Yis-
rael 10 (1992): 299–309. An English translation has been published in Morris M.
Faierstein, Jewish Mystical Autobiographies: Book of Visions and Book of Secrets , The
Classics of Western Spirituality (New York, 1999).
17. Stuart Sherman, Telling Time: Clocks, Diaries, and English Diurnal Form ,
1660–1785 (Chicago, 1996) , 59.
JQR 95:1 (2005)
modern varieties of egodocuments that evince concern for a reader need
to be distinguished from the personal mystical documents published as
‘‘diaries,’’ when they appear to have been written for the author alone.
And again, it would seem that scholars are inclined to fashion diaries even
from recalcitrant materials. In one case, a document originally published
as ‘‘notes’’ was simply republished as a ‘‘diary,’’ proving that by another
name the rose might indeed smell sweeter. 18 Most recently, two ledger
books have been published by Michal Oron as ‘‘diaries’’ ( yomanim ). 19 But
the books, as well as the comments of their original inheritors and editors,
may offer the sharpest insights into the intentions of their writers.
Abraham Horowitz (c. 1550–1615), whose famous ethical will Yesh no-
. alin (Amsterdam, 1701) influenced generations of writers in this genre,
referred to immortalizing his tsava’ah for the members of his household
(and descendants) in a ‘‘hidden scroll’’ ( megillat setarim ), 20 a term which
has a long history going back to talmudic literature. For centuries it was
used to refer to privately held notebooks, ostensibly containing material
of a halakhic nature. Such works might simply contain ‘‘class-notes’’ that
were not intended for publication, or be brief written records of teachings
in ages where the transmission of such things was primarily oral. 21 They
might also be works that never entered the public domain because of the
controversial nature of their contents. According to Rashi (1040–1105),
such documents were suppressed or hidden because they contained con-
troversial—but legitimate—‘‘individual opinions’’ that were best kept out
of public view without being forgotten. 22 No longer using it in its sense
of halakhic compendium, Horowitz nevertheless retains the private, per-
sonal, and perennial senses of the term. The rebbe of Komarno, Yits . ak
Isaac Safrin, used Megillat setarim as the name of his dream-journal, a
18. I refer to Isaiah Tishby’s ‘‘A Mystical-Messianic-Experiential-Visionary
Diary by Rabbi Moshe David Valle’’ (which originally appeared in M. Idel, W.
Harvey, and E. Schweid, eds., Sefer ha-yovel li-Shelomoh Pines: Bi-melot lo shemonim
shanah [Jerusalem, 1990], 2:441–72. Reprinted as ‘‘Yoman misti-mes . ihi . avay-
ati ve- . ezioni le-rabi Moshe David Vale,’’ in I. Tishby, Studies in Kabbalah and its
Branches (Jerusalem, 1982), 3:847–910.)—which was ‘‘upgraded’’ to ‘‘diary’’ in
the title in his collected articles from the less committed ‘‘notes’’ ( reshimot ) in the
19. Michal Oron, Mi-‘Ba‘al shed’ le-Ba‘al Shem’: Shmuel Falk, ha-Ba‘al Shem mi-
London (Jerusalem, 2002). I discuss these extremely interesting documents below.
20. Avraham Halevi Horowitz, Yesh no . alin , Sadilkov 1835, p. 7a. I would like
to thank Prof. Joseph Davis for alerting me to Horowitz’s usage of the term.
21. See the responsum of the Babylonian Gaon, Rav Natronai, in Robert
Brody, ed., Teshuvot Rav Natronai bar Hilai Gaon (Jerusalem, 1994), §385.
22. See Rashi on bShab 6b, lemma megillat setarim.
ACCOUNTING FOR THE SELF—CHAJES
work seemingly modeled on Vital’s Sefer ha- . ezyonot. 23 It is interesting to
note that an analogous term, libro segreto , was used by Florentine business-
men in the late Middle Ages to refer to the secret ledger book in which
they recorded information of special significance for themselves and their
heirs that they did not wish to be known to outsiders. 24 The term megillah
was also used in early modern Ashkenaz to refer to family scrolls written
in Yiddish; these told of tragedy or deliverance experienced by a member
or members of the family and thus were of a memoiristic character. Like
Megillat Esther , these scrolls were written with a liturgical context in mind,
to be read annually on a ‘‘family Purim’’ celebrating the deliverance from
an oppressor. 25
Another variety of personal writing is invoked by R. Hayyim Vital’s
grandson Moshe in his introduction to Sefer ha- . ezyonot . In this work, his
grandfather had written
of all the things that happened to him [R. Hayyim Vital] from the day
of his birth until the day of his death. And all of the dreams that he
dreamed, and that others dreamed about him he wrote in one kuntres
and hid them in his archive ( ginzem be-vayt genazav ). And the aforemen-
tioned rabbi, out of his great modesty, did not want this kuntres pub-
Moshe Vital refers to his father’s manuscript as a kuntres , something of a
medieval neologism apparently derived from quinternus , a quire of five
23. See Faierstein, Jewish Mystical Autobiographies.
24. See Gene Brucker, Two Memoirs of Renaissance Florence: The Diaries of Buo-
naccorso Pitti and Gregorio Dati (New York, 1967), 9–10.
25. Examples include Megillat Shemuel (describing the imprisonment of R.
Samuel Tausk of Prague (written in 1720); Megillat evah by Yom-Tov Heller
(1579–1654); Megillat Gans (Germany, mid-seventeenth c.); Megillat Rabbi Meir
(1631; published in Kovetz ‘al yad , 1904). See I. Zinberg, A History of Jewish Litera-
ture: Old Yiddish Literature from Its Origins to the Haskalah Period , trans. B. Martin
(Cincinnati, 1975), esp. 240–41. See also Moseley, ‘‘Jewish Autobiography in
Eastern Europe,’’ 199–204.
26. From ‘‘Introduction of R. Moshe Vital zt’’l to Sefer ha- . ezyonot ,‘‘ (Manzur
edition, Jerusalem, 2002).
27. Malachi Beit Aryeh, Hebrew Codicology: Tentative Typology of Technical Prac-
tices Employed in Hebrew Dated Medieval Manuscripts (Jerusalem, 1981), 44–45, n.
77; Daniel Sperber, A Dictionary of Greek and Latin Legal Terms in Rabbinic Litera-
ture , Dictionaries of Talmud, Midrash, and Targum 1 (Ramat-Gan, 1984). My
thanks to my friend Dr. Hillel Newman for his assistance with these references.
See the use of kuntresim in Sifre ba-midbar 134 (in the sense of ‘‘public record’’).
This was a fairly generic appellation that could be used for all
JQR 95:1 (2005)
sorts of documents, most famously perhaps applied to Rashi’s talmudic
commentary by the Tosafists . Scholars have also suggested commentarius
as the etymology of kuntres , making it an apt appellation for Rashi’s com-
mentary indeed. 28 In addition to its sense as commentary, in classical
Latin commentarius could signify just the kind of texts we are exploring: a
notebook, a private or historical journal, a register, or a memo. 29 While
Moshe Vital claims that his grandfather did not wish these personal testi-
monies to be published, the occasional direct appeal to a reader does
indicate that Vital had more in mind for this kuntres than oblivion. That
his project was unusual, however, is evident from these same appeals. In
one case, Vital writes, ‘‘Do not be surprised that I write my dreams’’ 30
and justifies his odd project by invoking a talmudic story in which R.
Yohanan’s view of his student R. Asi changed forever in the wake of a
Examining a later dream-journal kept by the Sabbatean prophet R.
Mordecai Ashkenazi (1650–1729), we find that its first reader, Ashken-
azi’s teacher, R. Abraham Rovigo (1650–1713), referred to it as having
been written in a pinkas , a notebook often used to keep accounts. This
term derives from the Greek πυαksi a writing tablet. 31 (Scholem faithfully
retained this classification, publishing his study of the text as ‘‘On the
Dream- Pinkas of R. Mordechai Ashkenazi.’’) Thus Rovigo explains his
redaction of the material: ‘‘Here is relevant that which is written below
. . . but it was not written in this pinkas . So that it would not be lost, I
joined them in one pinkas . And it was already written up to that point,
and for that reason they are not in order.’’ 32 In addition to providing a
contemporary genre-name to the dream journal, Rovigo’s comments shed
light on a further salient characteristic of much of this writing: it is scat-
tered across multiple notebooks, and frequently out of order. Notes might
be written in different pinkasim depending upon available space, thus
breaking up entries that came from one period of writing. As was the case
with Pachter’s reconstruction of Azikri’s personal marginalia, Rovigo’s
In the sense of ‘‘document, memorandum,’’ see Yalkut Shimoni Tehillim , Remez 749.
Midrash tehillim 45.5 (ed., Buber, 271) reads khiρτη (cf. Jastrow, s.v. kuntres ).
28. Ernest Klein, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language
for Readers of English (Jerusalem and Haifa, 1987), s.v. kuntres.
29. Samuel Krauss, Griechische und lateinische Lehnw ¨ rter im Talmud, Midrasch
und Targum, 2 vols. (Berlin, 1898).
30. Vital, Sefer ha- . ezyonot , 80.
31. Menahem Haran, ‘‘Codex, Pinax and Writing Slat,’’ Scripta Classica Israe-
lica 15 (1996): 212–22.
32. G. Scholem, .
alomotav shel ha-Shabtai R’ Mordechai Ashkenazi (Jerusalem,
ACCOUNTING FOR THE SELF—CHAJES
redaction was necessary to introduce coherence and chronological flow
to Ashkenazi’s pinkasim .
If one ‘‘writes’’ a kuntres , one ‘‘writes in’’ a pinkas . The pinkas was a
ubiquitous accoutrement of urban Jewish life going back to antiquity,
the ledger book of every shopkeeper, as in the oft-invoked . envani who
swears [to the correctness] of his pinkas in mShevu‘ot 7.1. Writing in a
pinkas was a serious matter that could have weighty legal implications;
debts recorded in a pinkas could even be extracted from the unfortunate
debtor’s orphaned children. 33 Throughout the Middle Ages, individuals
(shopkeepers and traders) as well as communities (synagogues and com-
munities) maintained pinkasim as ledger books tracking all matters of fi-
nancial consequence. 34 A pinkas would typically include entries denoting
when money was borrowed or lent, and when objects were pawned or
redeemed. Significantly, thoughts and feelings do not seem to be recorded
in Jewish pinkasim before the early modern period. Only then did evalua-
tion find its place alongside impersonal documentation, itemization hav-
ing opened the way for narration. 35
A similar trajectory may be seen in the development of libri di ricordanze
or livres de raison (among other names), which grew out of ‘‘record books
in which the household life and economy and the extrahousehold business
were combined, enriched by the details that had been told around the
fire.’’ 36 These domestic memoirs first emerge in fourteenth-century Flor-
ence. In fifteenth-century France, notaries, burghers, and even rural trad-
ers kept them; and by the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries they
became quite common in middle- and upper-class French and English
society. A significant multiplication of egodocuments from the sixteenth
century onward has also been identified by Dutch scholars, who have
worked collaboratively to study well over a thousand egodocuments. Be-
ginning around 1750, they argue, it became fashionable to keep a diary
33. See, e.g., Shul . an ‘arukh, . oshen mishpat §91,5.
34. The geniza preserves four sorts of pinkasim : individual ledger books of
shopkeepers and traders, and collective ledger books of synagogue beadles and
communities. The earliest reference to a communal pinkas dates to the early elev-
enth century. My thanks to Prof. Menahem Ben Sasson for succinctly summing
this up for me.
35. See Sherman, Telling Time , 57.
36. Natalie Zemon Davis, ‘‘Ghosts, Kin, and Progeny: Some Features of Fam-
ily Life in Early Modern France,’’ The Family , ed. A. Rossi, J. Kagan, and T.
Hareven (New York, 1978), 87–114, esp. 97. For examples of livres de raison from
the late fourteenth to early sixteenth centuries, see Marie Rose Bonnet, Livres de
raison et de comptes en Provence: Fin du XIVe si`cle-d´but du XVIe si`cle (Aix-en-
JQR 95:1 (2005)
and to write an autobiography. 37 Most of these early autobiographies and
diaries were written by authors from the bourgeoisie, who had become
wealthy as well as politically powerful in the Golden Age. Clerics, profes-
sors, and lawyers were particularly well represented among these au-
thors, occupations that not incidentally regularly required writing.
Egodocuments from those who wrote much less in the course of carrying
out their professional duties were also discovered, including diaries by
artisans, shopkeepers, fisherman, and farmers. Dirck Jansz, a Friesian
farmer whose diary was analyzed by the researchers, used pages of it to
practice his signature, and a Dutch journalist, Justus van Effen, wrote in
1734 that ‘‘even simple farmers kept a ‘family book,’ a precursor of the
diary.’’ 38 Only a thorough study of extant Jewish egodocuments would
enable us to determine to what extent a similar development from pinkas-
ledger book to personal diary took place in early modern Jewish so-
PINKASIM AND THE DISCIPLINING OF RELIGIOUS LIFE
While for centuries pinkasim seem to have been used exclusively for fi-
nancial record keeping, broader conceptions of the pinkas are suggested
in classical rabbinic literature that would become significant for early
modern readers. First, there is the ancient metaphorical signification of
the pinkas as a kind of heavenly Selbstzeugnis : a documentary witness to
the self. 40 This sense was implied on the cosmological level in the rabbinic
dictum ‘‘Even light conversation between a man and his wife is written
upon the man’s pinkas and they read it to him at the hour of his death’’
(LevR 26.7). 41 In the rabbinic imagination, each person’s life is chronicled
in a heavenly ledger-book kept by spirit-scribes. This text is read to him
as he approaches death and judgment. 42
It is the story of his life, each
37. Rudolf Dekker, Childhood, Memory and Autobiography in Holland: From the
Golden Age to Romanticism (Basingstoke and New York, 2000), 12.
38. Dekker, Childhood, Memory and Autobiography, 13–14.
39. Hundreds of individual pinkasim await inspection at the Ma . on le-Tazlume
Kitve Yad . A substantial percentage of these are the record books of mohelim (242
by initial count using the computerized catalog), though tens or hundreds are by
Jews of other professions.
40. Selbstzeugnis is used interchangeably with Egodokument in German-lan-
guage historiography. See Dekker, ‘‘Introduction,’’ 9.
41. On this ‘‘heavenly book’’ or ‘‘fate book’’ ( schicksalbuch ), see Kraus, Lein-
w ¨ rter, s.v. pinkas .
42. Contemporary study of so-called near-death experiences has dealt with
this ‘‘life review’’ extensively. For a recent discussion taking into consideration
cross-cultural and neurological studies, see Mark Fox, Through the Valley of the
ACCOUNTING FOR THE SELF—CHAJES
entry a weight on the cosmic scales, his fate hanging in the balance. This
cosmic pinkas is part balance sheet, part biography—a retrospective re-
view of one’s life in all its gory (and banal) details.
The rabbis do not imagine the religious dimension of the pinkas to re-
side solely with the angels, however. The classic story that conveys the
potential of the pinkas for religious self-chronicling is to be found in the
tractate Shabbat of both Talmuds.
Rabbi Ishmael (first half of the second century C.E. ) said: I will read
[by the lamp on Shabbat] and will not incline it. He forgot and almost
inclined it, and said, ‘‘Great are the words of the Sages, for they said,
‘Lest one forget and incline.’ ’’ Rabbi Nathan said, ‘‘He actually in-
clined it, and wrote in his pinkas and said, ‘I, Ishmael son of Elisha read
and inclined the lamp on Shabbat; when the Temple is rebuilt, I will
bring a sin offering.’ ’’ (yShab I 3b; bShab 12b reads ‘‘fat sin offering.’’)
Despite this precedent, some fourteen hundred years would elapse before
rabbis would transform R. Ishmael’s behavior into a model for emulation.
Recognizing their documentary and disciplinary potential, rabbis in the
sixteenth century begin to recommend the use of pinkasim to record ev-
erything: business transactions, dreams, and, like Ishmael ben Elisha,
transgressions. Hayyim Vital, who we know was committed to the prac-
tice of committing his dreams to writing, adduced the passage from tract-
ate Shabbat at least twice, though without framing it as a practice to
emulate. Vital thought the passage significant in light of the requirement
to keep all 613 commandments, including those related to the sacrificial
cult of the Temple. One would certainly be reincarnated after the rebuild-
ing of the Temple in order to complete the 613. For Vital, then, the jour-
naling of one’s sins (be they of commission or omission) was of next-
worldly no less than this-worldly consequence. 43
Seventeenth-century rabbis go the final step in transforming the prac-
tice of Ishmael ben Elisha into a hanhagah, a religious practice to imple-
Shadow of Death: Religion, Spirituality, and the Near-Death Experience (London and
New York, 2002), esp. 103, 156–60.
43. See R. Hayyim Vital, Sha‘ar ha-gilgulim, hakdamah 16, ed. Brandwein (Je-
rusalem, 1988). In its discussion of repentance, the medieval Sefer Hasidim de-
scribes the recording one’s sins as a practice of the ‘‘first pious’’ (hasidim
rishonim). The Parma manuscript (published by J. Wistinetzki, Berlin, 1891–93,
§72) also stresses the importance of writing in a cryptic style to insure privacy.
This addition seems to have been directed to contemporaries whom the author
hoped would adopt the ancient practice.
JQR 95:1 (2005)
ment. R. Meir Poppers (d. 1662) promoted the recording of one’s
charitable contributions in a pinkas as a ‘‘practice of the pious’’ ( midat ha-
. asidim ). 44 Others followed R. Ishmael’s example more literally. R. Isaiah
Horowitz (1565?–1630) urged every Jew to keep careful track of sins
for which one was technically required to offer a sacrifice. These were to
be recorded in one’s pinkas so that they might be remembered in the event
that one merited to see the rebuilding of the Temple and could thus bring
that sacrifice. In a similar vein, though without the eschatological opti-
mism, Joseph Yuspa Hahn of Frankfurt (1570–1637) advised readers of
his Yosif Omets to review their sins and then ‘‘to record them in a book for
a remembrance’’ ( ya ‘aleh otam ‘al sefer le-mazkeret ) until they could consult
a sage for pentitential instruction. 45
This new emphasis on the possibilities of religious self-chronicling is
not without contemporary parallels. In the late sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries, Christian religious authorities begin to argue for ‘‘a practice of
self-chronicling . . . The practice was the daily ‘ Diurnall ,’ and the trope
depicted it as a kind of narrative ledger book.’’ 46
Thus in one Puritan
treatise on diary keeping, John Fuller wrote:
Tradesmen keep their shop books. Merchants their Accompt books . . .
Some wary husbands have kept a Diary of dayly dispursements. Trav-
ellers a Journal of all they have seen, and hath befallen them in their
way. A Christian that would be exact hath more need, and may reap
much more good by such a Journall as this. 47
Advancing an innovative explanatory paradigm, Stuart Sherman has ar-
gued that this new practice should be understood in the context of tradi-
tions of religious self-examination, astrology, and bookkeeping that were
transformed as a result of revolutionary advances in chronometry in the
second half of the seventeenth century, when ‘‘a new technology for
counting time on clocks emerged simultaneously with a new paradigm
for recounting it in prose.’’ 48
Like the printing press then, and the com-
44. Hanhagot tsadikim , s.v. Meir Poppers, §31. A pietistic concern for keeping
track of one’s finances is also found in Jehiel Meir Epstein’s (d. 1706) Kizzur
shelah , Amsterdam, 1707, p. 11c.
45. Isiaha Horowitz, Sefer Shene lu . hot ha-berit ha-shalem , ed. M. Katz (Haifa,
1992) ( Yoma—Derekh Hayyim Tokhehat Mussar §160), 2:444 (first published 1649,
Amsterdam); Joseph Yuspa Hahn, Yosif Omets (Frankfort, 1928), 204 (§921).
46. Sherman, Telling Time , 49.
47. The Journal or Diary of a Thankful Christian (London, 1656; cited in Sher-
man, Telling Time , 49.
48. Sherman, Telling Time , xi.
ACCOUNTING FOR THE SELF—CHAJES
puter today, the new clock was a technology the influence of which knew
no confessional borders; we must therefore be mindful of its potential
influence on Jewish writing habits no less than Sherman has been for
Finally, let us consider two documents recently published by Michal
Oron. 49 In these documents, written by mystical—or at least mysteri-
ous—figures, the authors expose themselves, often prosaically, in the first
person. At least one of the two figures, R. Samuel Falk (1710–82), was a
kabbalist who devoted much of his time to magico-mystical pursuits. His
assistant, Zvi Hirsh Kalish, if not himself a kabbalist, was party to many
all-night vigils of mystical prayer and study and observed his master’s
various forays into the more plastic arts of alchemy, metallurgy, and the
secret rites of kabbalistic freemasonry.
While not devoted to religious self-examination, the pinkas of Zvi Hirsh
of Kalish exemplifies the integration of ledger-book and life chronicling.
While family genealogical lists and printed almanacs stimulated the writ-
ing of many personal chronicles, most early diaries are, like Zvi Hirsh’s,
devoted primarily to the recording of financial transactions. Alongside
these, prosaic reminders and noteworthy events are also recorded. And if
the literary qualities of Tzvi Hirsh’s and Falk’s journals leave something
to be desired (Solomon Schechter opined of Falk’s that ‘‘the language
used was Hebrew, but the writer does not seem to have been on good
terms with Dr. Syntax’’ 50 ), it is some consolation to realize just how typi-
cal their laconic style was: ‘‘Most diaries consist largely of scribblings that
were recorded as aides m´moires . Only a few authors made daily entries.
Impressions were usually freshly noted.’’ 51
Zvi Hirsh wrote to remember. His ‘‘reminders’’ were written in note-
books that, with time, became precious to him. He used a fresh pinkas for
one trip to Holland, not wanting to take with him the notebook he used
for his daily affairs in London. Thus his entry for Friday, the seventh of
Cheshvan 5511 ( November 6, 1750): ‘‘At this point, I began to write
in a red pinkas because I traveled to Holland and didn’t want to take this
pinkas with me. The events until after Tisha‘ be-Av are written there. Now
I will write here, because that pinkas is already full.’’ 52
Zvi Hirsh assumed that others wrote to remember as well, as they
49. Michal Oron, Mi-‘Ba’al shed’.
50. Solomon Schechter, ‘‘The Baalshem Dr. Falk,’’ The Jewish Chronicle, Sep-
tember 3, 1888, 16. Cited in Oron, Mi-‘Ba’al shed’ , 65.
51. Sherman, Telling Time , 16.
52. Oron, Mi-‘Ba’al shed’ , 179. Cf. Ashkenazi’s pinkasim according to Rovigo
JQR 95:1 (2005)
undoubtedly did. Indeed, in one of two places where he refers to the
notebook as anything other than simply a pinkas , he uses the term ‘‘ Sefer
zikhronot ,’’ or ‘‘Book of Memories.’’ (In the other place, he calls it a yalkut ,
his ‘‘collection’’ of jottings. 53 ) Clearly ‘‘memories’’ here is not meant pri-
marily in sentimental, or even simply retrospective, terms, but in the
sense of ‘‘reminders’’—for the future. Thus, having agreed to lend an
acquaintance a sum of money, Zvi Hirsh notes in his entry recording the
transaction: ‘‘And regarding this he promised me with solemn vows that
he would write this [borrowing] in his book of reminders so as not to
forget that which I did for him.’’ 54
If these notebooks are far removed from the retrospective life histories
of full-fledged autobiographies, they offer a perspective of their own on
the uses of memory. What did these scribblers deem necessary to remem-
ber? ‘‘Cookie recipes’’ is actually part of the correct answer. Falk pro-
vides a number of them, evincing a special fondness for sesame seeds and
rose water in his butter cookies. 55 The d ´ class ´ account book model
works especially well for Zvi Hirsh, whose entries are largely devoted to
recording his various deposits at local pawn shops, and the occasional
redemption of those items. Because so many of these financial transac-
tions were related to his services to Falk, Falk himself became a natural
object of additional, nonfinancial entries in the pinkas . In these irregular,
nonfinancial entries, Zvi Hirsh primarily remarks upon the long magical
vigils undertaken by his master, and his roles in many of them. These
pinkasim thus offer unique insight into the social and economic back-
ground of Jewish magic, which I hope to discuss elsewhere.
As the personal documents we have surveyed are of many types, and
refer to ‘‘diverse forms and modes of writing,’’ the historian James S.
Amelang has warned that we must ‘‘carefully distinguish their character-
istics and meanings if any sense is to be made of the act of authorship.’’ 56
Rather than fall prey to what Phillipe Lejeune has called ‘‘the retrospec-
tive fallacy’’ by anachronistically reading these egodocuments as autobi-
ographies—and even aggressively editing them into the formal shapes of
modern genres—we must begin with the generic forms available to early
53. Oron, Mi-‘Ba’al shed’ , 192. Falk also refers to his journal as a pinkas , pp.
54. Oron, Mi-‘Ba’al shed’ , 120.
55. Cf. the mouth-watering but transgressive leg of tref animal saut ´ ed in but-
ter and onions described on p. 124 (though no recipe provided).
56. James S. Amelang, The Flight of Icarus: Artisan Autobiography in Early Mod-
ern Europe (Stanford, 1998), 15.
ACCOUNTING FOR THE SELF—CHAJES
modern authors. 57 As we have seen, pinkas, kuntres, yalkut, and megillah
are among the emic terms used by early modern Jews to refer to the
media of their (self-) accounting. The material and generic forms of such
egodocuments seem to have been largely coterminous, as each distinct
format appears to have been conducive to a particular manner of self-
expression. A history of this redeployment of traditional media for self-
accounting, religious and secular alike, is yet to be written.
57. Phillippe Lejeune, L’autobiographie en France, 41–44. Cited in Moseley,
‘‘Jewish Autobiography in Eastern Europe,’’ 149.