This article sketches the broad contours of the cultural and intellectual secondary elite in the Jewish community of Poland during the second half of the sixteenth century. During this period, a uniquely Polish halakhic agenda took shape, finding expression – among other works – in the publication of the Shulhan Arukh with the comments of Rabbi Moses Isserles of Cracow. Glimpses of another group of authors and readers are provided by Minhah Hadashah, an anthology of commentary on Pirke Avot published by Yehiel Michel Marpteschik.
Minhah Hadashah is compared here to Midrash Shmuel, a similar commentary on Pirke Avot compiled by Samuel de Uceda of Safed and was printed in Venice two years after Minhah Hadashah. Uceda’s compilation became extremely popular in Poland and elsewhere, while Minhah Hadashah was entirely forgotten. Written for a specific Polish audience, Minhah Hadashah combined moralistic exhortations and social critique with lengthy quotations from the Zohar (printed only a few years earlier, Cremona 1559). The melding of Kabbalah with popular literature became very popular in Poland, leading to harsh criticism by Moses Isserles. Exploring the reception of Minhah Hadashah paints a portrait of repressed dimensions of Ashkenazi life in early modern Poland.
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