What was the Mahzor Vitri? Originally published June 22-23, 2018

Last week, in discussing Mi Shebeirakh, we mentioned that it first appeared in the 13th century, in the Mahzor Vitri.

So what is that book?

Simhah ben Samuel of Vitry (sometimes spelled Vitri), who died before 1105 CE, compiled this book - a liturgical and legal compendium, the British Library calls it - to include the annual cycle of Jewish prayers.  It was essentially the first Siddur.

The British Library has one of the eleven known preserved manuscript copies (the original is lost).  Simhah used the northern French rite (nusah Tsarfat), and also two major Jewish sources from Gaonic Babylonia of the 9th century CE:  Seder Amram Ga’on and Halakhot Gedolot.  Also, Simhah’s teacher was Solomon ben Isaac of Troyes (Rashi, 1040-1105 CE), a pretty influential teacher.  Troyes is in northern France.

(We note here that Rashi did compile a Sidur Rashi, but that was not a book of liturgy as we would think of a siddur today.)

The manuscripts known to be extant today date from various times, somewhere between the mid-12th century and the mid-14th century.  Some do not follow the French rite, but instead follow the Ashkenazic German rite, which shows that the original must have spread in popularity. 

The volume held in the British Library was written around 1242 CE; we know this because there is a calendar at the end of the manuscript!  The oldest known manuscript is held in the Jewish Theological Seminary of America library; we presume its age as it had none of the additional commentary. 

A new volume was produced in 1893 by Solomon Hurwitz (second edition in 1923), and a more recent version was produced by Arye Goldschmidt (2003-2009 editions), with much comparison among manuscripts.

That Simhah ben Samuel of Vitry was from and in northern France is instructional as to the lives and practices of northern French Jews, as they ultimately were expelled and otherwise oysgevaft by Philipp the Fair in 1306 CE.