Bella (Baila, Bila) Perlhefter (d. 14 Elul, ע"ת = Sept. 9, 1709) was an accomplished and professional Hebrew letter writer, instructor of music and rhythm, and entrepreneurial seventeenth-century businesswoman. Deeply attached to the Jewish community in Prague, she endured years of isolation as the result of her husband’s peripatetic lifestyle. The central source of anguish in her life was the premature death of all her seven children, none of whom survived to adulthood. She commemorated them in an innovative way that ultimately serves as an eloquent memorial to her own life. The sources for Bella’s life allow only glimpses into it: a few letters remaining from her correspondence, her introduction to the Yiddish manuscript work memorializing her children, and some inferences that can be drawn from the writing of her husband, Ber (Shmuel Yissachar Dov Ber, son of Judah Leib Eibeschuetz) Perlhefter (d. after 1701).
A well-to-do family of good standing and prominent ancestry in seventeenth century Vienna, the Perlhefters migrated to Prague after the expulsion of Viennese Jews in 1670. Bella (born c. 1650), daughter of the Jewish notable Jacob Perlhefter (d. 1669),
received an excellent education. Her husband Ber Eibescheutz took her family name after their marriage. Bella, whose ornate Hebrew writing exhibits a high level of Jewish learning, served as composer and writer of Hebrew letters for other Jewish women. In her letters to Ber, she relegates their personal relationship to the margins, concentrating instead on the transmission of crucial information concerning his business. News from Prague, where at least two of her brothers still lived, dominated her letters. In 1666, she discussed the death of apostate Wenzel Winbersky (Simha Winiberg, in her letter) and the ensuing charge that Jewish communal leaders conspired in his murder, internecine quarrels between lay leaders of the Prague community, and the welfare of various individuals.
In the late 1670s and early 1680s, Ber became deeply involved in the Sabbatean movement as a maggid in the circle of Abraham ben Michael Rovigo (c. 1650–1713) in Modena. He was instrumental in shaping the moderate wing of the movement after the death of Sabbetai Zevi. Though he initially pinned hopes on Mordecai of Eisenstadt (1650–1729) as a second redeeming figure, he later became disappointed and renounced his support. His interest in the movement may have attracted the attention of the noted Christian Hebraist Johann Christoph Wagenseil (1633–1705), Professor of Hebraica at the Lutheran University at Altdorf, who employed Jews and converts as translators and informants in his Hebraist enterprise.
Bella’s surviving letters are preserved in Wagenseil’s collection. From these letters we learn that Bella lived in the small south-German Jewish community of Schnaittach while her husband travelled as a Sabbatean maggid or worked in Wagenseil’s atelier in Altdorf. Bella corresponded with Wagenseil directly, rebuffing his entreaties that she come to Altdorf, which had no Jewish community. She tried to interest Wagenseil in purchasing various commodities, such as wheat and meat for his household. Eager to meet Bella, Wagenseil visited her home and brought a gift for one of their children—a visit which Ber recalled as having some awkward moments.
To memorialize her children, Bella urged Ber to compose in Yiddish a work of moralistic literature, to which she penned the introduction. A long poem in this introduction bears an acrostic of her name in Hebrew, Bella bas ha-kazin rabbi Ya’akov Perl Hefter. Be’er Sheva (Seven Wells) contains a chapter named for each of their deceased children: Moshe, Ya’akov, Wolf, Leib, Sarah, Rachel and Yutta. Though never published, it nevertheless had a wide and enduring appeal, as the many manuscript copies dating through the nineteenth century attest. The manuscripts were commissioned to “serve as a consolation for childless people or for those who had endured the loss of a child.” Ber’s characterization of the work illuminates the gender divide. “I wrote the book Be’er Sheva for people of meager intellectual strength such as women, and I put it into their language, Ashkenaz (Yiddish). It includes wonderful matters from [the Bible]…, midrashim, pleasant tales, charms, and other magical actions to take. The great importance of this book for people of lesser value cannot be imagined.” (Introduction to Be’er Hetev [Prague, 1699]). By 1699, the Perlhefters had returned to Prague, where Ber served as a dayyan (rabbinic judge).
Published Books by Ber Perlhefter
Ohel Yissachar. Wilhermsdorf: 1670.
Ma’aseh Hoshen u-Ketoret. Prague:1686.
Be’er Heitev. Prague: 1699.
Other Published Works
Riemer, Nathanael. “Zwischen christlichen Hebraisten und Sabbatianern—der Lebensweg von R. Beer und Bila Perlhefter,” Aschkenas 14 (2004); 163–201.
Wachstein, Bernhard. Die
Inschriften des Alten Judenfriedhofes in Wien. Vienna and Leipzig:
Documentation on the Perlhefter family prior to 1670.
Weinryb, Bernard.“Historisches und Kulturhistorisches aus Wagenseils hebräischen
für Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judenthums, N.S. 47 (1939): 325–341.
Contains published letters of Bella and Ber Perlhefter.
A. Universistätsbibliothek Leipzig, Ms. 80.
Johann Christoph Wagenseil’s collection of Jewish letters including those in Weinryb’s article.
B. Manuscript copies of Be’er
1. Moscow Ginzburg ms. 99; IMHMS #6779 (contains only three of the chapters). Eighteenth Century.
2. Moscow Ginzburg ms. 1739; IMHMS # 48914.
3.Frankfurt am Main, Stadt und Universitätsbibliothek, Heb. 8˚ 183; IMHMS #22030. (dated 1785–1787). Beneath the title, “This book was made by R. Ber and his wife Bella bas R. Jacob Perlhefter.”
4.Oxford-Bodleian 1416 (Opp. 148); IMHMS #22440 Contains introduction and first two chapters.
5. Paris, Alliance Israelite Universelle, ms. 245; IMHMS, #3301. dated 1826.
6. YIVO ms. E 33; IMHMS #40084. Contains fifth through seventh chapters. Dated 1825.
7. JTS ms.8378. dated 1785. Moshe, Ya’akov, Wolf, Leib, Sara, Rachel and Yutta.
8. JTS ms. 9706, shf 1686:20.