THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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12 posts categorized "Hebrew"

18 October 2017

Bestiary of Fears – an artist’s inspiration from illustrated Hebrew manuscripts

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Today's  post is by guest contributor Jacqueline Nicholls, a London based visual artist and Jewish educator. She uses her art to engage with traditional Jewish ideas in untraditional ways. She co-ordinates the Art Studio and other Arts & Culture events at JW3, and regularly teaches at the London School of Jewish Studies. Jacqueline’s art has been exhibited in solo shows and significant contemporary Jewish Art group shows in the UK, USA and Israel, and she was recently artist-in-resident in Venice with Beit Venezia. Jacqueline is a regular contributor to BBC R2 Pause for Thought

In the Jewish religion the seven weeks between the freedom festival of Passover and the festival of Pentecost is called the Omer. It is traditional to ritually count every day of these seven weeks and to use this time for personal spiritual transformation. For the last couple of years I have used this time for art projects, and I have undertaken this counting as a daily drawing practice, exploring different themes each year.

In 2016, I was invited to make use of the online digital Hebrew manuscript collection of the British Library and give feedback on how this resource could be useful for artists. I used this as an opportunity to explore the collection with a very personal project: The Bestiary of Fear. If this time is one of personal transformation, the focus for this project was to be on the things that terrify and paralyse the self and prevent growth. The etymology of the word ‘monster’ and the word ‘to demonstrate’ have the same root. They issue out an omen, bring forth a warning, and make visible that which is hidden in the dark. This Bestiary would be an externalising of the internal hidden fears, drawing them out to identify and demonstrate them, transforming the fears into finite monsters that can be contained, and hopefully, overcome.

The process of making this Bestiary was one of daily introspection; by contemplating my vulnerabilities, I was able to identify the fears I wanted to explore through this project. This introspection was followed by searching through the collection items included in The Polonsky Foundation Catalogue of Digitised Hebrew Manuscripts to find forms that resonated with the fears I had identified. I was drawn to the strange animals and fantastical beasts in the marginalia, and decided to focus on adapting them to develop the drawings for the Bestiary of Fears.

Seven manuscripts were selected for this project, exploring one each for a week of the seven-week Omer. They were: The Barcelona Haggadah (Add MS 14761), The Yonah Pentateuch (Add MS 21160, Prayer book (Add MS 26957), The Northern French Miscellany (Add MS 11639), The Hispano-Moresque Haggadah (Or 2737), The Sister Haggadah (Or 2884), and The Golden Haggadah (Add MS 27210). As the Omer begins during the festival of Passover when the Haggadot would have been used, it seemed appropriate to primarily focus on the illustrations within the Haggadot in the British Library’s collection.

The beasties and monsters within these manuscripts are delightful and charming. Sometimes the connection with the text is clear, fulfilling an interpretive role of commentary. And sometimes their inclusion seems decorative with very loose connections to the content. There are breaks and dividing markers within the long body of writing and playful insertions in the margins. One of my favourites is the depiction of a dog licking its bottom on the page containing some special festive prayers in the Northern French Miscellany (Add MS 11639 f.232v).

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Dog licking its bottom, The Northern French Miscellany, France, 1278-1324 CE (British Library Add MS 11639, f. 232v)  noc

This whimsical and vulgar treatment is not found in modern day printed Hebrew prayer books, and contemporary Jewish religious culture is poorer for its exclusion. These are manuscripts that were made for a particular audience and therefore they can be intimate and personal in a way that printed books for a wider readership cannot.

An example of this can be seen in the Italian Prayer Book (Add MS 26957). This manuscript was created in 1469 for the patrons Menachem ben Shmuel and his daughter Maraviglia bat Menachem ben Shmuel. In this manuscript, mindful that it is made for a woman, the stage-directions for the prayers depict a woman and not a man as the active participant who performs the rituals. This is something that would be unusual to find in a mainstream printed Hebrew prayer book today. I was inspired by the woman on folio 55v, who is pointing to the blessing to count the Omer, as the inspiration for my Omer Drawings Day 24: Fear of Domesticity. To portray the fear I turned her pointing instructing finger into the gesture of an overbearing matriarch.

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Illustration of a woman pointing to the text for the counting of the Omer, Italy, 1469 CE (British Library Add MS 26957, f. 55v)  noc

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Omer Drawings Day 24: Fear of Domesticity ©Jacqueline Nicholls

In the process of searching through the beasts in the marginalia looking for the right external form to match the inner emotion, I sometimes made connections with the text on that page. An example of this can be seen in Omer Drawings Day 5: Fear of Disapproval. This features a stern, condescending, and judgemental creature looking down his nose and frowning with contempt. The inspiration for this beastie was found in the Barcelona Haggadah (Add MS 14761) accompanying the introductory passage of the Four Sons (f33v.), where it describes how a parent should tell the Passover story to their different types of children. It seemed fitting for this fear, because there is nothing more disapproving than the patriarch who judges his children, who pigeon-holes them and finds them lacking. 

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Introductory passage of the Four Sons, Barcelona Haggadah, Spain, 14th Century CE (Add MS 14761 f. 33v)  noc

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Omer Drawings Day 5: Fear of Disapproval ©Jacqueline Nicholls

I was particularly struck by the nuance and detail of expression that were captured in these small and delicate drawings. The high quality of the photography and the ability to examine close details on the computer screen meant that the subtleties and sleight touches in the drawings can be scrutinised without damage to the original manuscript. As the online digitised manuscripts do not have a scale on the screen, one can only estimate the size of the original manuscript and accompanying illustrations by noting the width of the pen strokes.

In the Yonah Pentateuch (Add MS 21160), the text of the Five Books of Moses is decorated with micrography of patterns and beasts in the margins around the text. This unique Jewish scribal art form consists of weaving minute letters into abstract, geometric and figurative designs. In the section which tells the story of Jacob and Esau, there is a strange dopey looking dinosaur-like figure (f. 19v) that became the inspiration for my Omer Drawings Day 9: Fear of Messing Up. The narrative of Esau and Jacob is one of a relationship that does not run smooth, with patterns of deceptions and mistakes.

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Micrographic dinosaur-like hybrid, Yonah Pentateuch, Germany, 2nd half of 13th century CE (Add MS 21160 f. 19v)  noc

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Omer Drawings Day 9: Fear of Messing Up ©Jacqueline Nicholls

Discussions about definitions of Jewish Art tend to centre on the prohibition of making graven images in the Ten Commandments. This focus side-lines the history and existence of Hebrew illustrated manuscripts. It misinterprets a specific Rabbinic directive about idolatry, putting it into a wider context of disapproval of the plastic arts. This has resulted in a tendency to be suspicious of or to downplay the role of the visual within Jewish heritage. As an artist who engages with traditional Jewish texts, it was refreshing and inspiring to connect with the range and diversity of imagery within the Hebrew manuscript collection at the British Library, at the same time becoming familiar with the quirks, humour and artistry that exist within the tradition, a spirit that can be renewed for contemporary Jewish Art.

The complete Bestiary of Fears can be found online at Jacqueline Nicholls: Omer Drawings.

Jacqueline Nicholls
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27 September 2017

A Judeo-Persian epic, the Fath Nama (Book of Conquest)

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While art historical research has focussed on the beauty and splendour of Persian miniature paintings, the study of Judeo-Persian manuscript art has lagged behind, receiving only more recently the attention and recognition it deserves. These paintings form part and parcel of manuscripts that have been copied in Judeo-Persian, that is a dialect or dialects of Persian heavily influenced by Hebrew and Aramaic and written in Hebrew script. The major obstacles to studying these significant hand-written books have been a lack of knowledge of the language, unfamiliarity with the Persian and Judeo-Persian literary traditions, and also with the history of Persian manuscript art in general.

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Joshua and the Israelites carrying the Ark of the Covenant and crossing the Jordan river, from the Fath Nama, Iran, gouache on paper, end of 17th or beginning of 18th century. The elaborate raised halo over Joshua's turban is a motif borrowed from Persian iconography, where it is especially associated with prophets (British Library Or 13704, f. 15r)
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A major change occured in 1985 when a scholarly study exploring the socio-historical and cultural factors that influenced the development of Judeo-Persian manuscript painting was published. This study by Vera Basch Moreen included a detailed inventory of miniatures in Judeo-Persian manuscripts held in major library collections. In it, she described twelve accessible Judeo-Persian manuscripts containing a total of 179 miniatures, as well as numerous additional decorative elements.

Persian manuscript art flourished particularly under the Safavid rulers (1502-1642) who deliberately encouraged the artistic expression of various population groups within their kingdom. The Safavid shahs not only patronized manuscript art, but some were gifted calligraphers and painters in their own right. As a result, during the Safavid period, the art of miniature painting spread from the royal workshops to the smaller aristocratic courts and ateliers, eventually reaching the marketplaces of Persia’s major cities. It was in these centres that the popular, provincial style of Persian manuscript art – to which the Judeo-Persian paintings belong – was born. Judeo-Persian manuscript illustration reached its pinnacle between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.

Some art historians have argued that Judeo-Persian manuscripts commissioned by Jewish patrons were actually illustrated and decorated in Muslim workshops. Their view is based on the stylistic similarities existing between Persian and Judeo-Persian miniatures. The identity of the artists who created them remains uncertain, essentially because none of the existing Judeo-Persian miniatures found in these manuscripts were signed.

In terms of their content, Judeo-Persian illustrated manuscripts can be divided into two main categories: a) Hebrew transliterations of Persian classic works such as those of Jami (1414-1492) and Nizami (1140-1202), two giants of the Persian literary tradition; and b) original works by prominent Jewish-Persian poets such as Mawlana Shahin Shirazi (Our Master the Royal Falcon of Shiraz, 14th century) and Imrani of Isfahan (1454–1536). Among Shirazi’s epic compositions are the Musa Nama (the Book of Moses) dated 1327 which contains narratives from the Pentateuch and has around 10,000 couplets (consisting of two rhyming hemistiches), and the Bereshit Nama (Book of Genesis) which he completed in 1358, comprising over 8,000 verses.
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Seven Priests blowing seven horns in front of the Walls of Jericho, from the Fath Nama, Iran, end of 17th or beginning of 18th century (British Library Or 13704, f. 31v)
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Composed around 1474, Imrani’s epic Fath Nama (Book of Conquest) is a poetical paraphrase of narratives from the biblical books of Joshua, Ruth and Samuel, consisting of about 10.000 verses.   Imrani endeavoured to uplift the biblical story to the level of the Persian epic, combining in his works Jewish and Islamic legendary and literary material. He is known to have written ten full compositions all of which except three deal with Jewish themes. Imrani’s works are permeated with a deep sense of exile and isolation and a pessimistic view of human condition. While composing the Fath Nama, Imrani had the support of a patron – Amin al-Dawlah (Trustee of the State) who was most probably a wealthy man, perhaps an official in the city of Isfahan. When his patron passed away, Imrani abandoned his work, resuming it only after he had found another patron named Rabbi Yehuda.

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Left: Joshua and the Israelites fighting the People of Jericho (British Library Or 13704, f. 32r)
Right: Joshua and the Israelites at the battle of Ai (British Library Or 13704, f. 50v)
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Or 13704, the Fath Nama manuscript illustrated here, contains seven coloured illustrations[1] and numerous floral and faunal designs. The manuscript is incomplete, and, since it lacks a colophon, the exact date of its production and the names of its patron and creators are unknown. The assumption that the manuscript was written and decorated at the end of the seventeenth or the beginning of the eighteenth century is based largely on the style of its paintings and on the names of former owners’ inscriptions found within its pages. Several scribes were responsible for copying the text in a writing style characteristic of Persian Jews.

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Left: Joshua and the Israelites fighting the enemies of the Gibeonites (British Library Or 13704, f. 75r)
Right: The death of the King of Makkedah (British Library Or 13704, f. 85r)
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This manuscript is one of two known illustrated copies of this work. Acquired in 1975, it was purchased from the estate of David Solomon Sassoon (1880-1942), a renowned bibliophile of Baghdadi origin, who travelled extensively in search of books and manuscripts for his private library. His collection of 1,153 manuscripts is described in a two-volume catalogue published by Oxford University Press in 1932 under the title Ohel Dawid (David’s Tent). Thanks to the Polonsky Foundation, this manuscript has now been digitised and is available digitally on our Digitised Manuscripts site to explore cover to cover.

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An example of the typical bird and flower decorations in Or 13074
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Further reading
Moreen, Vera Basch, Miniature Paintings in Judaeo-Persian Manuscripts (Cincinnati: Hebrew Union College Press, 1985), pp. 40, 49-50.
–––, A Supplementary List of Judaeo-Persian manuscripts”, British Library Journal, Vol. 21, no. 1 (Spring 1995), p. 72 and plate II.
Moreen, Vera Basch and Orit Carmeli, The Bible as a Judeo-Persian epic: an illustrated manuscript of Imrani's Fath-Nama (Jerusalem: Yad Ben-Zvi Press, 2016). On Ms 4602 of the Ben-Zvi Institute in Jerusalem.
David Yeroushalmi, Emrānī”, in Encyclopædia Iranica (1995).

Ilana Tahan, Lead Curator Hebrew and Christian Orient Studies
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[1] Folio 90v, the only illustration not included here, contains an unfinished sketch in outline of Joshua in battle against the five Amorite kings.

31 July 2017

A unique Judaeo-Urdu manuscript, Or.13287

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The British Library’s sole Judaeo-Urdu manuscript is a copy in Hebrew script of the well-known Urdu theatrical work, the Indar Sabha, written by Agha Sayyid Hasan ‘Amanat,’ a poet at the court of Vajid Ali Shah of Awadh.

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Opening folio of the Indar Sabha (Or.13287, f. 7r)
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Our manuscript bears a colophon dating its creation to 1887, perhaps by a member of the Baghdadi Jewish community of India. Originating in the Arabic-speaking regions of the Ottoman Empire, the Baghdadi Jewish community settled in India from the late 18th into the 19thcentury and was primarily centred in two major urban centres of India, Calcutta and Bombay. A printing industry in Judaeo-Arabic grew in both locations to cater to the religious needs of the community as well as its appetite for news and entertainment, producing devotional treatises, gazettes, and also the occasional historical novel, murder mystery and romance (Musleah, On the Banks of the Ganga, p. 522-531). The British Library’s collections are a rich resource for these publications and for the history of the Baghdadi Jewish community in India, and our Hebrew curator has previously written about a Judaeo-Arabic serial issued in Bombay for our blog.

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The Emerald Fairy (Sabz Pari) at the heavenly court of Indar (Or.13287, f. 17r)
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As for the contents of the manuscript, while many elements of the play itself are reminiscent of fabulous Urdu dastaans or legends, such as the Sihr al-Bayan by Mir Hasan (1727-86), the plot itself is relatively simple, avoiding the complex story-within-a-story structure of its predecessors. The play opens with a sensuous depiction of the court of the king of the gods, Indar, populated by fairies bearing the names of jewels (Emerald, Topaz, Sapphire and Ruby).

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Left (f. 18r): the Sabz Pari (Emerald fairy) and the Kala Dev; right (f. 19v): the Sabz Pari and her earthly lover, prince Gulfam (Or.13287)
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As with many dastaans, a story of forbidden love ensues when the Emerald fairy (Sabz Pari) falls in love with a mortal prince, Gulfam, and conspires with the help of the Black Demon (Kala Dev), to sneak her beloved into Indar’s heavenly court. When this transgression is discovered, the Emerald fairy’s wings are clipped, and she is ejected from the paradise of Indar’s court and falls to earth, while her lover is imprisoned in a well (Hansen, ‘Indar Sabha Phenomenon,’ p. 83).

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Left (f. 22r): the Sabz Pari, having been shorn of her wings; right (f. 26r): Gulfam is punished in a well for his transgression of entering the heavenly court of Indar (Or.13287)
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In addition to the echoes of Urdu dastaans, the multi-coloured fairies bring to mind the Haft Paykar of Nizami, in particular, the images of the main character’s fantastical adventures , and the Hasht Bihisht of Amir Khusraw, of which an example can be viewed online, while the unlucky prince hidden in a well as a result of his trangressive love is reminiscent of the story of Bizhan and Manizheh from the Shahnamah, creating a further layer of intertextuality and adaptation of visual motifs from the Persian epics from which the Urdu poetry of the 19th century clearly drew much of its inspiration. However, the story takes a more Indic turn when the Emerald fairy, ejected from heaven, wanders as a yogini or female ascetic, playing music that tells of her love and charms her way back into Indar’s court, wins his favour and secures her lover’s release.

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The Sabz Pari wanders on earth as a female ascetic or yogini, charming the wild animals with her beautiful music (Or.13287, f. 26v)
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Establishing a direct link between the Baghdadi Jewish community and theatrical production of the Indar Sabha has proven elusive. According to the gazette of the Baghdadi Jewish community from the early twentieth century, social clubs in both Bombay and Calcutta staged events, such as films, plays and musical performances, and hosted amateur dramatic clubs from within the Jewish community (The Jewish Advocate, 1932, p. 425; 1933, p. 9). It also seems that Baghdadi Jewish female actresses took part in early productions of the play and other Urdu-language theatrical productions, establishing a possible connection between the Indar Sabha and the Jewish community. While such a conclusion is purely speculative at this point, it might be the case that this Judaeo-Urdu manuscript was created for (or by) one of the actors or theatre producers of the Baghdadi Jewish community.

Fortunately, due to the generosity of the Hebrew Manuscripts project, this unique Judaeo-Urdu manuscript will be digitised and made freely available online, which we hope will encourage further research into the language, cultural context, and history of this fascinating manuscript.

Bibliography and Further Reading
Kathryn Hansen, ‘The Indar Sabha Phenomenon: Public Theatre and Consumption in India (1853-1956)’ in Pleasure and the Nation: The History, Politics and Consumption of Public Culture in India, edited by Rachel Dwyer and Christopher Pinney (Oxford, 2001): 76-114.
Rabbi Ezekiel Musleah, On the Banks of the Ganga: The Sojourn of the Jews in Calcutta (North Quincy, Massachusetts: Christopher Publishing House, 1975).
Aaron D. Rubin, A Unique Hebrew Glossary from India: An Analysis of Judaeo-Urdu (Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2016).

Nur Sobers-Khan, Lead Curator for South Asia
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07 April 2017

Take a feather and a candle: why thorough spring cleaning is so important

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Looking through our collection of digitised Hebrew illuminated manuscripts, you may have noticed that amongst all of the biblical scenes and decorative letters, there are scenes of families cleaning their houses. Given the same spatial importance of scenes of lofty figures like Abraham and Moses, these scenes jump out to modern eyes as they seem to show families cleaning their homes together, with the men helping out with the housework too.

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Golden Haggadah. Catalonia, Spain, 2nd quarter of the 14th century. Full manuscript can be viewed online here (British Library Add MS 27210 f.15r)   noc

These manuscripts are all examples of a type of Hebrew book called a Haggadah. The Haggadah is a service book used in Jewish households during the ritual meal on Passover. Originally included in the text of Jewish prayer books, the Haggadah became an independent unit around the end of the 13th century. The Hebrew manuscript collection at the British Library features many illuminated Haggadot from the late 13th/early 14th century, mainly from Spain. These Haggadot have now been digitised thanks to the generous support of The Polonsky Foundation.

Part of what makes them so charming and historically significant, is that they show contemporary domestic scenes, presumably of the families who commissioned and owned the manuscripts. While obviously they aren’t snapshots of reality, they are depictions of how the families wanted to represent themselves.

If you look more closely at the images, you can see the women sweeping the surfaces, and the man looking into a cupboard and sweeping it clean with a feather, and a young boy holding a small bowl to catch the crumbs. He is also holding a candle, helping him to see into the dark corners. Candles, feathers and bowls are not necessary part of the standard medieval dustpan and brush set; they represent a very specific part of the Jewish customs surrounding Passover. These scenes are faithful representations the Jewish commandment to look for hamets (leaven) on the eve of Passover.

Leaven, or hamets refers to foods which are forbidden on the Jewish holiday of Passover. Based on the Exodus from Egypt when the Israelites did not have time to let their bread rise, grains that have been mixed with water and left to start the leavening process are not permitted to be eaten or possessed during the week-long festival. Indeed there is a specific commandment to remove all hamets from one’s home. This work must take place before midday on the 14th of the Jewish month of Nisan. In 2017, that date falls on Monday the 10th of April.

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Ashkenazi Haggadah. Germany, c.1460. Full manuscript can be viewed online here (British Library Add MS 14762 f.1v)  noc

Look at the fifteenth-century Ashkenazi Haggadah (Add MS 14762). Right at the beginning, you can see a man sweeping a cupboard clean with a feather and gathering the crumbs into a small bowl. He is richly dressed with lavish robes and money belt, clearly the head of his family and not a servant. The main text on the same page is the blessing that should traditionally be recited before this ritual search for crumbs:

On the eve of the fourteenth [of Nisan] one searches [the house] for leaven by the light of a candle and says the blessing: “Blessed are You, God, our Lord, King of the universe, who has sanctified us by His commandments and commanded us about removing the leaven.”

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Sister Haggadah. Barcelona, Spain, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 14th century. Similar to the Golden Haggadah, the female members of the family are sweeping the house from floor to ceiling, while the head of the family is sweeping the cupboards and brushing crumbs into a bowl held by a small boy. Full manuscript can be viewed online here (British Library Or.2884 f.17r )  noc

What makes these images so interesting is that they don’t only show the action of the cleaning, but also the specific detail within the ritual as describe in Jewish law. The Shulhan Arukh, (one of the most important Jewish legal codes) emphasises that first and foremost it is the house owner’s responsibility to search for the leaven. Even if he asks a member of his household to help, ideally he should say the blessing and he should participate in the search. (SA, Orah hayim, 432). Jewish tradition also specifies the use of the candle, feather, and wooden bowl or spoon. The candle is necessary, because it gives enough light in the evening to look for crumbs in the small cracks and holes of the house (SA, Orah hayim, 433).

Some of the manuscripts also show what to do with all of the hamets crumbs after you have found them.

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Haggadah for Passover with the commentaries of Isaac Abravanel. Altona, Germany, 1740. Full manuscript can be viewed here (British Library Add MS 18724 f.2r )  noc

You have to burn them! Just have a look at the relevant page from this eighteenth- century Haggadah. In the upper part of the page we find the blessing for the searching for the leaven, while underneath an Aramaic statement, which one recites to nullify the leaven which might still be in his possession that hasn’t been found:

All leaven that is in my possession, that I have seen and not seen, that I have beheld and not beheld, that I have removed and not removed, let it be nullified and like the dust of the earth.

In the initial word of Barukh (Blessed), we can see a man searching for the leaven with the help of a feather, a bowl and a candle. In the initial word of Kol (All), we find the same man busy burning in the fireplace what he found. It is thought that the use of the wooden vessel to sweep the crumbs into was practical for this stage, as it could be burnt even if no hamets had been found, allowing this ritual to still be performed.

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The Ceremonies and Religious Customs of the Various Nation
s. Published in 1733 by Jean Frédéric Bernard with etchings by Bernard Picart. It was reprinted several more times during the 18th century, and translated into 5 languages. This image is from the 1733 London edition (British Library 878.l.2)  noc

This ‘spring clean’ ritual of searching for the hamets drew the attention of non-Jewish artists as well. In one of the great publishing enterprises of the Enlightenment period, The Ceremonies and Religious Customs of the Various Nations, one of the two images devoted to Passover is the depiction of the Searching for Leaven. It is interesting that with all of the different rituals and complexities surrounding Passover, like with the Hebrew manuscripts, this ritual was considered so important to depict. The illustrations were designed by Bernard Picart, who relied heavily on his own observations of the Sefardic Jewish community of Amsterdam.

In the context of the Haggadah, these images may have served as visual aids, instructions for the family on the precise nature of the tradition, a kind of non-textual manual. But they could also have served as a kind of self-representation. Could it have been that a whole family cleaning their house together was so unusual? Or was it just that this particular scene was such a good example of the detail and specificity within Jewish law, and how families ensured that people knew how strictly they were adhering to it?

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Ashkenazi Haggadah, Germany, c.1430-1470. Full manuscript can be viewed online here (British Library Add MS 14762 f.6r)  noc

After the spring-cleaning, the family is able to sit down to their Passover meal, read their Haggadah, and drink wine. They’ve earned it!

Zsofia Buda and Miriam Lewis, The Hebrew Manuscripts digitisation project, Asian and African Collections
http://www.bl.uk/hebrew-manuscripts
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09 March 2017

The Book of Esther and the Jewish Festival Purim

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Purim is undoubtedly one of the most boisterous, cheerful and joyous festivals in the Jewish calendar. It takes place in early spring on 14th of Adar which this year starts at sundown on March 11th. Purim celebrates the salvation of the Jews of Persia during the reign of King Ahasuerus. The moving and dramatic story of Esther and her uncle Mordecai is told in the Book of Esther, known in Hebrew as Megilat Ester (Scroll of Esther).

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Exotic animals in an illustrated Esther Scroll. Holland, c. 1630 or 1640  (BL Or.1047)  noc

The Book of Esther belongs to Ketuvim (Writings), which is the third division of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible). Haman, the conniving chief minister at Ahasuerus’ court, decreed to kill all the Jews in the King's vast empire that stretched from India to Ethiopia and included 127 provinces. Lots (in Hebrew purim) were cast to determine the date when the Jews would be exterminated, hence the festival’s appellation. Esther, the King's Jewish consort, was warned in time by Mordecai, and they both managed to thwart the annihilation of their people. The King punished Haman and rewarded Mordecai who sent letters throughout the kingdom, urging Jews to observe Purim every year with merrymaking and gift offerings.

The historic origin of the Book of Esther and its authenticity have been the subject of much debate and conjecture over the years. There have been chronological difficulties with King Ahasuerus, even though some researchers have claimed that he was in fact the Persian king Xerxes I, who ruled 485 - 465 BCE. The Septuagint (Greek version of the Hebrew Bible) and Josephus (Jewish scholar and historian who lived 37-100 CE), maintained that the king in the story was actually Artaxerxes I (465-424 BCE).

According to recent research the Book of Esther was written in the middle of the 4th century BCE during the reign of Artaxerxes III (359-338 BCE), however the absence in Persian sources of any references to a king that had a Jewish consort created a new problem. Some scholars have contended that given the striking resemblance between the names Esther and Mordecai to the Babylonian deities Marduk and Ishtar, the story was rooted in Babylonian worship practices, which the Jews would have adapted and transformed into the story of Esther. The well-known German Jewish historian Heinrich Graetz (1817-1891) for example, argued that the Book of Esther was written at the time of the Maccabean struggle (167-160 BCE) against Antiochus IV Epiphanes, in order to boost the spirit of the Jews at that critical time, and to show that God does not abandon its people.

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Esther Scroll with floral decorations. Europe, 16th century (BL Egerton MS 67A)  noc

As a matter of interest, the Book of Esther does not feature among the Dead Sea Scrolls (spanning 150 BCE – 70 CE) and references to Purim do not feature in the Jewish literature before the 1st century CE. What can be said with some certainty is that since the Talmudic period (c. 500 CE) the Book of Esther has been customarily written on parchment in the form of a scroll, and that the festival had long been established by the 2nd century CE as evidenced in the tractate Megilah of the Mishnah (corpus of the oral tradition of Jewish law). The tractate contains details on the festival’s observance and the rules governing the reading of the Scroll of Esther.

As God’s name is not explicitly mentioned in the Book of Esther, it was considered permissible to illustrate it. Scrolls of Esther read in the synagogue during the festival services had to be plain, however, scrolls intended for personal use could be illustrated with scenes from the narrative or ornamented with other motifs.

Esther Scroll decoration flourished particularly in the 17th, and especially in the 18th century, in Italy, Holland and to a lesser extent in Germany. The tradition of decorating and illustrating the Scroll of Esther continued in the centuries that followed, with fine specimens being produced in Europe as well as the Middle East and North Africa. In Italy, especially, Esther Scrolls were lavishly decorated. In fact, the earliest surviving embellished Esther Scrolls were created in the second half of 16th century Italy.

The Marelli Scroll held in the British Library’s Hebrew manuscript collection, is a beautiful and rare example of Esther Scroll ornamentation from that period. Its decoration consists of eight different types of copperplate engraved borders that frame the handwritten text of the Book of Esther. The borders bear no relation whatsoever to the story, featuring instead a lavish array of putti, grotesque telamons and pagan goddesses holding heraldic shields, and real and fabulous animals hand-coloured in bright hues. The creator of those impressive borders was Andrea Marelli, a book illustrator and printmaker who was active in Rome and Sienna around 1567-1572.

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Segment of The Marelli Scroll, Italy c. 1573 (BL Or.13028)  noc

Finely engraved specimens from 17th and 18th century Holland have also survived. Some of these have grand arched portals encasing the text. The portals are supported by columns on high pedestals between which stand the principal characters of the Esther tale: Ahasuerus, Mordecai, Esther and Haman. Episodes of the Esther narrative are confined to the lower borders, whereas the upper borders are populated by female figures bearing palm leaves. These specific pictorial schemes typify scrolls created by Salom d’Italia (1619-1655). A native of Italy as suggested by his name, he most probably acquired his drawing and engraving skills from his uncle, the Mantuan printer Eliezer d’Italia. In 1641 Salom moved to Amsterdam and worked there until about 1648, creating some exquisite pieces among them portraits of prominent figures and Esther Scrolls.

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Esther Scroll with engraved borders by Salom d’Italia, Holland, 17th century (BL Or.4786)  noc

Often, embellished special cylindrical containers in silver, gold or ivory, were made to hold and protect the scrolls. We do not know exactly when special cases were first used, however, a brief mention to a case can be found in Bernard Picart’s Ceremonies and Religious Customs (Amsterdam, 1723). That might not be the earliest reference to a Scroll of Esther case, yet it is the only one I have managed to find.

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Esther Scroll enclosed in an ivory case with an ivory puller. Europe, 17th century (BL Add MS 11831)  noc

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Minute Esther Scroll (50 x 94 mm) written on a single strip of vellum wound on a silver-plated roller. Europe, 18th century (BL Or.4670)  noc

Throughout the generations, the story of Esther has been cherished by Jews everywhere for its message of bravery, resolve and faith. The eventful and theatrical narrative which is reminiscent of an Arabian Nights story, and the exuberance and merriment associated with the Purim celebrations, have lent themselves to an outburst of literary activity. The carnival spirit of the festival and the Book of Esther’s striking protagonists have been captured and immortalised in drama, poetry and prose, with virtually hundreds of surviving works in English, Hebrew, Yiddish and other Jewish languages, spanning many centuries. The British Library’s Hebrew collection abounds in printed material dedicated exclusively to the festival. This is just a small cluster of some noteworthy pieces:

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Left: Shir na’eh ba-hadurim. A Purim poem in Judeo-Italian. Mantua, 1619 (BL 1979.d.36)  noc
Right: Akta Ester mit Ahashverosh. A Purim play in Yiddish.  Prague, 1774. (BL 1980.c.39)  noc


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Left: Pizmonim. Purim songs in Judeo-Greek according to the custom of the Jews of Yanina. Salonica, 1875 (BL 1977.bb.27(2))  nocRight: Cantares y elevasiyones  para alavar ah el Diyo en la festividad de Purim. Poems for Purim in Judeo-Spanish [Ladino].
[Leghorn?], 1850 (BL 1979.d.8)  noc


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Left: Esterace pustaka=Megilat Ester. The Scroll of Esther in Hebrew and Marathi. Mumbai, 1886. (BL 1946.d.45)  noc
Right: Esther (The story of Purim) in five acts, by Abraham Levinson. London, 1938. 11782.bb.75  noc

 

Ilana Tahan, Lead Curator Hebrew & Christian Orient Studies
 CC-BY-SA

24 October 2016

Digitised Hebrew Manuscripts: conference at the British Library, 21 November 2016

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You are welcome to join us in a conference celebrating the end of Phase 1 of the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project (HMDP) and the beginning of Phase 2! This conference will take place on Monday, 21 November 2016, at the Bronte Room, British Library Conference Centre (map) – programme is available here.

The first session will be dedicated to the British Library’s digitised collection of Hebrew manuscripts. Ilana Tahan, the Lead Curator Hebrew and Christian Orient Collections, will begin the session with her presentation about the history of the collection and the people who contributed to its creation. Miriam Lewis, the HMDP Project Manager, will then talk about the workflow of digitisation and the different work strands, including conservation, cataloguing, imaging, and online presentation. Closing this session, Adi Keinan-Schoonbaert, the project’s Digital Curator (Polonsky Fellow), will talk about digital scholarship, and will especially focus on how people can access the digitised manuscripts – the images, metadata, content, updates, and how the Library can help.

The second session will look more broadly at what the Library has to offer to students and researchers. Allan Sudlow (Head of Research Development) and James Perkins (Research & Postgraduate Development Manager) will explore the opportunities the Library has to offer to graduate students and academics, such as collaborative research and PhD placements. Mahendra Mahey, head of British Library Labs, will introduce this initiative and how it encourages and supports the innovative use of the Library’s digital collection and data. Closing the session, Digital Curator Mia Ridge will talk about the current platform for viewing manuscripts (Digitised Manuscripts), and the next generation - a viewer based on the Universal Viewer technology.

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Digitised Manuscripts website showing a 15th century Sefer ha-Zohar (British Library Add MS 17745)

During an extended lunch break, attendees will be able to browse through digitised Hebrew manuscripts (or any other digitised manuscripts for this matter!) on Digitised Manuscripts, using laptops set up for this purpose.

The afternoon sessions will cover other projects working with digitised Hebrew manuscripts in UK university libraries as well as the National Library of Israel (NLI). Aviad Stollman, Head of Collections Division at the NLI, and Tsafra Siew, KTIV Project Manager will talk about the KTIV project to digitise and make available all Hebrew manuscripts worldwide. This project follows from the work of the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts, which has been collecting microfilm copies of Hebrew manuscripts from around the world for the last 60 years. In collaboration with the Friedberg Jewish Manuscript Society (FJMS), the NLI initiated the renewal of this collection. In the framework of this enterprise, tens of thousands of Hebrew manuscripts will be digitised and made available online. Aviad will focus on the reasons why the NLI sees this project as a priority, why manuscripts as a medium are so significant, and why it is crucial to preserve and disseminate them. Tsafra will elaborate on the project’s short and long term goals.

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Website for KTIV: The International Collection of Digitized Hebrew Manuscripts

Cesar Merchan-Hamann, Hebrew and Judaica Curator at the Bodleian Libraries (University of Oxford), will follow with an overview of the Vatican-Bodleian Polonsky Digitization Project. Focusing particularly on Hebrew and Judaica manuscripts, Cesar will explore the scope of the project, the choice of manuscripts to be digitised, the methodology regarding the metadata, the electronic catalogue, the search programme and the project website.

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Website for the Polonsky Foundation Digitization Project

After the break we’ll be joined by Renate Smithuis, Lecturer in Medieval Jewish Studies at the University of Manchester. Renate will present the Crawford and Gaster Hebrew collections at the John Rylands Library and the creation of an online catalogue as part of a new digital platform. This digitisation project focuses on codices, scrolls, amulets and other texts in Hebrew script. These are being captured in text (using TEI) and image with the aim of producing a complete online catalogue.

Closing our conference is Gabriele Ferrario from the Genizah Research Unit, Cambridge University Library. Gabriele will talk about the Mellon Trust funded project to text-mine a manuscript catalogue for the documentary materials of the Cairo Genizah. The discovery of research material on tens of thousands of manuscript fragments is difficult and time-consuming due to the lack of reliable catalogue descriptions for the greater part of this collection. Drawing on a century of published scholarship on the collection, this project will automate the production of metadata. Gabriele will present the aims, methodology and results of this project and consider possible future developments.

We’re hoping to see you with us on this special event dedicated to Hebrew manuscripts! Registration is free, but please book your place as space is limited: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/digitised-hebrew-manuscripts-british-library-and-beyond-tickets-26408351089.

Adi Keinan-Schoonbaert, Digital Curator (Polonsky Fellow), Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project Ccownwork

03 October 2016

What do you think about our digitised Hebrew manuscripts?

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We’ve been digitising Hebrew manuscripts and making them available on the Digitised Manuscripts website since 2013, with generous funding from The Polonsky Foundation. With the recent start of Phase 2 of our digitisation project (funded by the National Library of Israel), we took the opportunity to hear your thoughts! We conducted a survey to find out if and how we can improve access to our digitised Hebrew manuscripts, and whether we can be of assistance with digital research using the collection.

We were thrilled to received 107 responses to our survey, mostly from researchers and academics. They come from a wide breadth of organisations in the UK, Europe, Israel, the US, Canada, Australia, and even Uruguay!

Access to data

One key issue covered by our survey was accessibility. Our digitised manuscripts are currently available for viewing through the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website. This platform offers search functionality and a smart viewer, with which you can browse images quickly and in very high resolution.

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Mishneh Torah by Maimonides (British Library Harley MS 5698), viewed on Digitised Manuscripts. Noc

When asked how access can be improved, most respondents wanted to be able to download images, preferably in high resolution. They asked to make the collection free to use, but also to make it clear when one should be aware of usage terms. Being able to view manuscripts’ thumbnails was another suggestion, as well as that our viewer supports IIIF (IIIF – International Image Interoperability Framework – is a set of standards to promote the interoperability and ease of use of digital images, using standard web protocols). People also wanted to be able to share images of digitised manuscripts, for example through e-mail or social media.

Our respondents’ interest was not only in the digitised images, but also in the metadata – our catalogue records. People requested that we make our metadata available for download. In addition, they asked that we update and correct our metadata, or create a framework to crowdsource this task. It was also considered important that the visual appearance of metadata on our viewer is improved. Enhancing search functionality was also a very popular suggestion – people want to find manuscripts of interest more easily. And another prominent request was that we provide a list of all digitised Hebrew manuscripts.

We’re happy to say that we have either addressed or in the process of addressing all of these issues! To start with the latter suggestion, we have made available a list of manuscripts to download as a spreadsheet from the Hebrew Manuscripts website. We have also made our entire set of TEI XML metadata records available for download as a ZIP file (with open license CC-0). We’re also aware that Digitised Manuscripts offers limited search options, and we’re in the process of replacing this viewer with a new one (see below). In the meantime, searching this spreadsheet (e.g. in MS Excel) or filtering the data by column would make it easier to find things and get to manuscripts of interest.

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A catalogue records viewer, created by Alex Mendes, enabling to display and export the project’s metadata

Downloading high quality images was indicated as a key necessity among our users. Following the approval of an internal British Library group (Access and Reuse), we are now able to release our images for free as 300ppi JPEGs. We are in the process of preparing those for British Library Labs data.bl.uk website (to be launched in November 2016). This involves assigning the right usage term statement to each manuscript, converting the project’s TIFF files into JPEGs, and compressing these JPEGs – while keeping them in very high quality.

Preparing our collection for free and easy access will also address the suggestion to release our material as open data. Our material will be released as Public Domain, although some of it is technically still in copyright (according to UK copyright law). As this is a very low risk, it will be released for use as Public Domain, but with an appropriate disclaimer. We will make clear which manuscripts fall under which licensing category.

Many suggestions for improvement will be addressed with the transition from the Digitised Manuscripts platform to a new viewer. The new viewer is based on the Universal Viewer technology, an open source project in which the British Library is a partner. The new viewer is replacing legacy viewers for accessing digitised collection items.It will bring together manuscripts, printed books, born digital and sound content. Some of the issues mentioned above will be addressed by this viewer’s functionality:
1.    Features such as Download, Print, Share and Embed.
2.    The Universal Viewer is IIIF compliant.
3.    It enables thumbnails on a side panel, allowing for a quick browse of the manuscript. These can be expanded throughout the whole page (Gallery view), and enlarged or reduced in size as needed.
4.    Better quality viewing experience for digital collection material and metadata.
5.    It will enable the insertion of text transcriptions alongside digitised images of the manuscript represented. The full text would then be searchable.
6.    It will also indicate the relevant license and usage terms for each manuscript.

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A sample item on the Universal Viewer, demonstrating the viewer’s functionality. Noc

Digital Research

Another goal of the survey was to get an idea of the types of digital tools and techniques used by researchers to analyse digitised Hebrew manuscripts.  Most researchers indicated using digital tools for their work, the most popular being image/script comparison tools, annotations and data visualisations, followed by text mining, image analysis tools and crowdsourcing.

It is clear, however, that we can do so much more to facilitate research in this respect. Several people suggested that the project should be more geared toward research and enable a dedicated platform for some or all tools mentioned above. Special emphasis was made on the need for transcriptions, translations and annotations – and a platform to crowdsource them. These features would not only help promote research in general, but also open up our collection to non-Hebrew readers.

Other suggestions related to the creation of relationships with other digital resources such as catalogues and databases, for better discoverability. These included using Linked Open Data (LOD) to express relationships with other resources in other languages, and creating connections to the web catalogue of the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts in Jerusalem (IMHM) and to other databases in Jewish studies. It was also suggested that we create API access to search our digitised collection via other platforms.

We are very grateful for these ideas – they are definitely something for us to explore. Whether we create something from scratch, or leverage on platforms or tools that were developed or are in the process of development – these useful suggestions will be examined in terms of priorities and potential future projects.

It was encouraging to see the level of survey participation and feedback, and hopefully we will keep improving our resources for the benefit of our growing audience!

Adi Keinan-Schoonbaert, Digital Curator (Polonsky Fellow)  Ccownwork

19 September 2016

Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project Phase 1 completed

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The Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project has been digitising the British Library’s Hebrew manuscript collection since 2013. The Library’s collection is one of the most important in the world, and this project has enabled us to make the manuscripts freely available to view online, transforming access for scholars and the public worldwide.

Funded by The Polonsky Foundation, we have now completed Phase 1 of the project, with 1,300 manuscripts available to search and view online. The digitised collection includes medieval and early modern codices, single sheets, charters and scrolls, as well as an oak board (Or 6302). The oldest item we have digitised is Or 4445, the London Codex, a copy of the Pentateuch from 920-950.

This phase has taken 3 years, 435,307 image captures and 37TB of storage space, an incredible achievement by a dedicated team of conservators (including a specialist textile conservator), photographers, cataloguers and quality control officers, with expert support from Lead Curator Ilana Tahan, and enriching digital scholarship including the creation of our website and 3D models. See this video for an overview of the project and the different stages of the digitisation process.

The digitised manuscripts can be viewed on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website. The viewer is searchable by keyword or shelfmark, and manuscripts can be viewed as single pages or in ‘open book’ format, and can be zoomed in to provide high levels of detail on illuminations, micrography, and the grain of the paper or parchment. A full list of all of the manuscripts digitised by Phase 1 of the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project (and all of the catalogue records) can be found here.

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The viewer of the British Library Digitised Manuscripts website showing an open-book view with zoom of folios 5v-6r from Add MS 11639, ‘The Northern French Miscellany’, France 1277-1324. The Polonsky Foundation Catalogue of Digitised Hebrew Manuscripts. Noc

Digital access to manuscripts not only saves much time and effort spent travelling to the Library, but also makes the content much more visible. We have already seen how this has increased access, research, and opportunities for innovation using the Hebrew collection. It has also enabled us to reveal illegible and hidden text and images. For some of the more over-sized items, such as the scrolls, digitisation provides a unique opportunity to view them opened out fully, which would be impossible with the physical manuscript due to their size and fragility. As more institutions begin to digitise their collections and publish them online, manuscripts from the British Library’s Hebrew collection can now be compared with manuscripts from the collections of other institutions, from all over the world.

I’d now like to share with you three of my personal highlights from the Hebrew collection, now all available to view online.

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Detail from ‘Kaifeng Torah Scroll’, China 1643-1663. The Polonsky Foundation Catalogue of Digitised Hebrew Manuscripts. British Library, Add MS 19250  Noc

This is a Torah scroll from the Chinese Jewish community in Kaifeng (Add MS 19250), one of the seven ancient capitals of China. This scroll may have been made between 1643–1663. It is 42 metres long, which is very long for a Torah scroll, but not as long as the collection’s longest scroll, which is over 52 metres long. The Kaifeng scroll is made of 94 strips of soft sheepskin, sewn together with silk thread (usually Torah scrolls are sewn together with animal sinew). As well as being incredibly rare and beautiful, this silk-route scroll tells a really interesting story about a remote Jewish community.

There is evidence of Jews in Kaifeng from as early as the first century CE. The community’s everyday activities incorporated customs unusual for China (such as abstinence from pork), as well as traditional Chinese practice (such as binding of feet). Jesuit missionaries came across the Jewish community in Kaifeng in the 1600s, and were particularly intrigued by their Torah scrolls, as they hoped that due to the community's isolation from the rest of the Jewish world, their scripture would be ‘uncorrupted originals’ of the Old Testament, shedding new light on Christian interpretations. In the 1800s, in response to the growing interest in their Torah scrolls, the Kaifeng community obliged collectors by selling them several copies. The contents of these Torah scrolls turned out to be identical to that of conventional scripture. This scroll was bought by missionaries in 1851, and presented to the British Museum in 1852.

The full scroll can be viewed on the Digitised Manuscripts website here.

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Letter of Jacob Rafael of Modena, Italy 1530. The Polonsky Foundation Catalogue of Digitised Hebrew Manuscripts. reply of Jacob Rafael of Modena. British Library, Arundel MS 151, f. 191r Noc

At first glance the Hebrew manuscript shown above (Arundel MS 151) may not look like much, but it demonstrates a less well-known but fascinating aspect of one of the most famous events in English history – the divorce of King Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon in 1533. This manuscript is bound in a volume called 'Letters and Papers relative to the divorce of Henry VIII', which also includes correspondence from Cardinal Wolsey, Stephen Gardiner, and the King himself. So where does Hebrew come into it?

Catherine of Aragon married Henry VIII in 1509, after his brother Arthur had died. The Jewish law of levirate marriage was one of the ways that this strategically advantageous marriage was justified (Deuteronomy 25:5-6). Years later, Jewish law was also used to try and justify their divorce. The king had teams of scholars study Jewish law, and thought that there might be a loophole due to a prohibition against marrying a sister-in-law (Leviticus 18:16, 20:21). This ‘sin’ is punished by childlessness, which Henry may have felt was reflected in his own situation (with only a daughter).

The king sent a delegation to Italy to discuss this loophole with learned Jews (Jews had been expelled from England in 1290). This letter is the reply of Jacob Rafael of Modena, who did not give the answer the king was looking for. He stated that the law of levirate marriage overrode the prohibition in Leviticus, and therefore Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine of Aragon was valid and could not be annulled on those grounds.

The full letter (folios 190r-191v) can be viewed on the Digitised Manuscripts website here.

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Detail from Book of Esther, Germany 1600-1699. The Polonsky Foundation Catalogue of Digitised Hebrew Manuscripts. British Library,  Or 1047  Noc

This beautiful illuminated scroll of the Book of Esther is from Germany from the 17th century (Or 1047). It is just under 4 metres long. This scroll needed a lot of conservation work before it could be digitised, as at some point in its history, it had been backed onto material when damp. This had caused a lot of crinkling and contractions as it dried, risking flaking the illuminations and tearing the scroll. The conservation process was incredibly painstaking, involving very carefully removing the backing as slowly and carefully as possible.

This scroll is illustrated with the story of Esther, read by Jewish people during the festival of Purim. The illuminations show the whole story, from the beauty contest for the new queen at the beginning, the political machinations of the main characters, to the violent and bloody ending. It includes some of the exegetical interpretations of the story within the illuminations and the text: the hidden presence of god in the story is emphasised with god’s name highlighted in the lettering. It also includes contemporary images of people enjoying the revelry typically associated with the festival of Purim, a graphic circumcision scene, a Venetian galleon, two elephants and a rhinoceros.

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Detail from Book of Esther, Germany 1600-1699. The Polonsky Foundation Catalogue of Digitised Hebrew Manuscripts. British Library, Or 1047 Noc

The full manuscript can be viewed on the Digitised Manuscripts website here.

Phase 2 of the Hebrew project, in partnership with the National Library of Israel, began digitising the remainder of the Library’s Hebrew manuscript in April 2016. This phase will include the digitisation of the manuscript collection that belonged to Moses Gaster, and the Library’s Samaritan manuscript collection.

Miriam Lewis, Project Manager, Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project Ccownwork