Moses ben Issachar ha-Levi Sertels
In 1604, Moses ben Joseph Bezalel Katz published two Yiddish glossaries to the Bible by Moses ben Issachar ha-Levi Sertels: Be’er Moshe to the Pentateuch and The Five Scrolls and Lekah Tov to Prophets and (remaining) Writings. The glossaries are enhanced by short annotations in Hebrew from well-known commentators, especially David Kimhi, sometimes disputing the Christian understanding of certain passages. It seems Sertels’ work had already been circulated (in manuscript?) before the first Prague edition judging by a ruling of the Talmud Torah Association in Krakow from the end of the 16th century that no teacher should use any other commentary for his lessons in the Pentateuch than Be’er Moshe since it is written in the language “that we speak here.”
Moses Sertels shows up at the turn of the 17th century as one of the most active figures in Prague Yiddish (and Hebrew) book printing; as such, he deserves more of our attention. His family, and likely he himself, came from Germany. Given his name, his father came from around Würzburg, and his paternal aunt lived in the Regensburg area. A son, Issachar, died in 1625 Vienna, and a daughter, Shendel, in 1631 in Prague: a typical Ashkenazic Jewish family that was forced to be much more mobile than was the norm for the settled Christian population. The surname Sertels – alternatively written as Sertl[e]in, Sertl, Sertln – was after his mother, Sarah. The prefaces to his works give us a general outline of his years searching for teachers in Germany and his intellectual interests and pursuits in Prague and Krakow, where he died in 1614 or 1615.
With the glossaries, Sertels put to use his long years of interest in translation and experience as a teacher. In addition, he prepared editions of several texts, which, as he stated, he collected and copied during his youth in various “old books,” later publishing them often at his own expense with the Gersonites or other printers. The first of his editions that we know of is Sefer ha-Gan (1597) by Isaac ben Eliezer (15th century), whose comforting and edifying reading for the soul (which will be “like a watered garden”) is written in the spirit of Ashkenazic Hasidism. Its re-edition in 1612 by Jacob Bak demonstrates the book’s popularity. A year later Moses published Hesped al Petirat Hakham (1598, s.t.n.), a sermon on the passing of Akiba Günzburg (Frankfurter), which was delivered in Prague in 1597 by the Maharal. Sertels might have had a closer relation to Frankurt am Main and to Günzburg himself, who served here as a darshan: as a young man in Frankfurt Sertels had copied an old manuscript of kabbalistic commentary on the Bible by Zalman Runkel, Hatan Damim, which he later printed at Moses Katz’s shop in 1606.The Maharal’s son-in-law, Isaac ben Samson Katz, helped prepare the text for publication, filling in lacunae in the commentary. Two Sertels translations of books of the Bible were also published: the aforementioned Jeremiah (Sefer Yirmeyah); and as part of Be’er Moshe and in lieu of a glossary (as with the other books of the Bible) a translation of Song of Songs with commentary. Toward the end of his publishing career Sertels focused on ethical writings in Hebrew: Sefer ha-Yir’ah by Jonah Gerondi (published with Moses Katz in 1606 along with several other texts); and Tzori ha-Yagon by Shem Tov ibn Falaquera (Jacob Bak, 1612).
In the preface to Be’er Moshe, he outlines his intention and refers to a method – which maybe he observed in his youth – that was used by his respected teacher, and the Maharal’s brother, Hayyim Friedberg to teach his children the Bible. His observations from this period served him many years later as he was preparing his glossary. Rabbi Friedberg was known, like his brother Rabbi Loew, whom Sertels cites a few lines later, for the stress he put on Torah study and the importance he attached to textual comprehension, which is exactly what the glossary was meant to facilitate. In the title-page text to Lekah Tov, Sertels even mentions extraneous factors as to why such a guide was necessary: Jewish families were dispersed across the countryside and teachers often did not have at hand all the requisite commentaries (Rashi, David Kimhi, etc.). In the preface to Be’er Moshe, he suggests that the book could stand in for a teacher, as rabbis wander from place to place and have no time to go through the whole text (all the sedarot) with children. Surely if Sertels is invoking such authorities as the two brothers, he would not want to undermine their esteem and yet in the heading of Song of Songs he is being somewhat arch in stating, “each may understand [it] from here and will have no need to go to any rabbi,” while calling on all fathers, teachers, and women to obtain a copy.
In this context, we can view Sertels’ Massekhet Avot, published in 1599 with Yiddish translation and commentary (a unicum, in a private collection in Los Angeles, as yet unregistered),as a counterpart to the Maharal’s commentary to Pirke Avot, titled Derekh Hayyim and published along with the Mishnaic text in 1589 in Krakow (Massekhet Avot, Isaac Prostitz 1589). The title-page text, which runs over onto the next page as already a preface, is highly interesting as a factual source, and it again demonstrates how taken Sertels was with old manuscripts. Was he interested in them because age was simply a guarantor of textual worth? Or was it from a modern awareness of the flow of time and history that ushered in the Renaissance and the modern era? As he describes in detail, he published the text from a copy of a manuscript that was owned by his aunt Tzirel, who was living in a “hof” not far from Regensburg. Her original manuscript was copied by Moses’ father, Issachar, known as Berman Würzburg, maybe in 295 (1535), coming into Moses’ hands through inheritance. There follows a long passage in which the author points out for whom the book is intended: parents teaching their children at home; as our sages (hakhamim) say, whoever wishes to live as a pious man (hasid) must know what is written here and to live according to it. He expressly addresses women and young girls, who will not need to feel ashamed before any man if they read and learn from his book. Sertels’ work is a response to the pedagogical reforms undertaken by the Maharal and his contemporaries, and it is a work of the new era that was making texts previously inaccessible available to a wide swath of readers. This phenomenon paradoxically contributed to undermining the authority of rabbis who were recommending the reading of these books. The regulations mentioned above, the Takkanot issued in 1611, at a time when plague was rampant, state that “each person should study at least an hour a day; whoever is not able should read good books in German (i.e., in Yiddish).”
If Sertels studied when he was young with Hayyim Friedberg, who served as a rabbi in Friedberg since 1564 and died in 1588, then he could have been born around 1545–1550, or somewhat later, and his father around 1525.
His heavily damaged gravestone is found in Krakow’s Old Jewish Cemetery (see Hondó 1999: 148, tombstone no. 464, section III). In L. Hondó’s book, the tombstone is photographed still in two pieces, the broken upper part leaning against the bottom. When we visited the cemetery in June 2012, the tombstone was hardly recognizable: it was restored, the two pieces put together, but in the same time, the letters were fixed in a manner that makes them impossible to read. Nevertheless, we attach the recent pictures, for the original beautiful stonecutter’s work, see L. Hondó’s book).