Asian and African studies blog

72 posts categorized "Exhibitions"

05 August 2020

At the crossroads of cultures: a Hebrew manuscript of Johannes Sacrobosco’s De sphaera mundi

The first printed books were often imitations of manuscripts in their layout: the same types of letters and the same letter combinations (ligatures) were used, and often the same illuminators added the decorations by hand in the same style they used in manuscripts. Handwritten books however did not just disappear with the introduction of printing. What is more, sometimes printed books influenced the layout and decoration of manuscripts.

One of the items in the British Library’s postponed exhibition Hebrew manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word contains the Hebrew translation of Johannes Sacrobosco’s De sphaera mundi (On the Sphere of the World). The Hebrew title of the work is Sefer mareh ha-Ofanim (The Appearance of the Heavenly beings). The manuscript (Or 10661) was copied sometime in the sixteenth century, and its illustration program was heavily influenced by early printed Latin editions of the same work.

Johannes Sacrobosco or John of Holywood (died 1256) was an Augustinian monk and scholar, probably from Halifax, Yorkshire. He taught mathematics at the University of Paris. In 1220, he composed a short introduction to astronomy entitled De sphaera mundi that was based on the geocentric model of the universe with a stationary Earth in its centre. The Sphaera soon became the standard textbook on the subject up until the mid-seventeenth century. It is worth noting that though Nicolaus Copernicus (died 1543) published his On the Revolutions on the heliocentric cosmos in 1543, his theory gained acceptance only gradually.

Sacrobosco’s Sphaera is divided into four chapters: Chapter 1 is on the general structure of the universe; Chapter 2 is on the circles of the celestial sphere; Chapter 3 is on the daily rotation of the heavens and the different climates of the Earth; and Chapter 4 is on planetary movements and eclipses. Some manuscripts of the Sphaera did contain a few illustrations, but diagrams became a prominent feature of the work only in the early printed editions. The Sphaera was first published in Latin in 1472. This first edition had no printed illustrations, but the printer left some space in the text for the readers to add their own diagrams by hand if they decided to do so. The first printed diagrams were added to the 1478 Milan edition by Filippo da Lavagna, and the full set of illustrations appeared a decade later in the 1488 edition published in Venice by Johannes Santritter.

Printed title page of Sphaera
Title page of De Sphaera mundi by Johannes Sacrobosco (Ingolstadt: Petrus Apianus, 1526.) (Source: MDZ Digitale Bibliothek; NoC-NC)

Arabic and Latin scientific works were not unknown to medieval Jewish scholars. Some could read them in the original language (mostly in Arabic but some also in Latin); others accessed them in translation. In the twelfth to fourteenth centuries, Provence and Italy were especially important centres of Jewish translating activity. These multilingual Jewish translators played a significant role in providing access to Greco-Arabic and to a lesser degree Latin scientific literature for those who did not read these languages.

One of these scholar-translators was Solomon ben Abraham Avigdor, a Provençal scholar who prepared the first Hebrew translation of Sacrobosco’s work in 1399. Solomon’s father Abraham, who was himself a translator and a physician, studied medicine in Montpellier, and translated mostly medical works from Latin into Hebrew. As he says in the preface to his translation of Bernard Gordon’s Introduction to the Practice: “I went up on the mountain therefore, that is to say, the city of Montpellier, in order to study the medicine from the mouth of the Christian scientists and erudites.” Father and son worked together on the translation of Arnaldus de Villanova’s Capitula astrologiae, a work on the application of astrology in medicine. Just like his father, Solomon studied medicine. Later in his life he converted to Christianity.

Close up of text from preface of Hebrew translation
Preface to Sefer mareh ha-Ofanim by Solomon Avigdor. (Hebrew translation of Sacrobosco’s Sphaera, Italy, 15th century. Add MS 17106, f. 103r)
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Not much more is known about Solomon, but his translation of the Sphaera has survived in some 40 manuscripts. Apart from the manuscript included into the exhibition (Or 10661), the British Library has two more complete copies of this Hebrew translation ( Add MS 27106 ff. 103r-130v, Add MS 27146 ff. 1r-10v) and a fragment (Or 10498). We have chosen Or 10661 not only because of its fine layout and beautiful diagrams, but because it is an excellent representation of cultural encounters. On the one hand, it demonstrates how non-Jewish scientific knowledge reached Jewish scholars through crossing language borders; on the other hand, it shows how the world of manuscripts meets the world of printing.

Inset of table of contents in Hebrew
List of the four chapters of the Sphaera in Solomon Avigdor’s Hebrew translation. (Italy, 16th century. Or 10661, f. 1v)
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One of the images which became part of the Sphaera’s illustration program at a very early stage was the armillary sphere. It was added to the illustrations in the 1488 Venice edition. This device was invented over 2000 years ago for instruction and observation, and was developed further by medieval Muslim astronomers. Sacrobosco does not mention it explicitly in the Sphaera, but some commentators assumed that in certain places in the text he is describing this astronomical device rather than the universe itself. The discussion of the celestial circles in Chapter 2 can especially be read as a description of the armillary sphere.

Image of metal armillary spherePrinted illustration of an astrolabe in black and white, held up by a human hand, with an explanation in Latin script in a scroll above the handManuscript diagram of why water is round
(Left) An armillary sphere cast by Carlo Plato in Rome in 1578. (Source: Wikimedia; CC-3.0)

(Middle) Armillary sphere illustrated in Sacrobosco’s Sphaera printed at Venice in 1488 (Source: Wolfenbütteler Digitale Bibliothek; CC BY-SA) and (right) in Solomon Avigdor’s Hebrew translation (Or 10661, f. 7v).
CC Public Domain Image

It is not surprising, then, that in our Hebrew manuscript we find the armillary sphere at the beginning of Chapter 2. This image and the image in the 1488 Venice edition are very similar. Both depict a geocentric sphere modelling a universe with the Earth at its centre. The set of rings represents a series of moving spheres around a stationary Earth. The wider band with the signs of the Zodiac represents the annual journey of the sun through the heavens.

Petrus Apianus’ 1526 Ingolstadt edition was another milestone in the development of the illustration program. Several of the diagrams in our Hebrew copy follow the tradition established by this edition. Let’s have a look at the diagram at the section explaining why the sphere of the water must be round. The diagram in the earlier BL Hebrew manuscript (Add MS 27106) is very confusing, and even the one in the 1488 edition is a bit vague. The Apianus edition introduces a much clearer diagram: the sphere of the water is round because, travelling in a ship, the person at the top of the mast sees the buildings on dry land sooner than the person on the deck. You can see that the visual ray from the person at the top of the mast reaches the coast without obstacle, while the visual ray from the person on the deck is intercepted by the bulge of the water. The diagram in the 16th-century Hebrew manuscript is almost the mirror image of that in the Apianus edition with small differences. The shape of the dry land and the buildings are slightly different, and it looks as if some of the towers had a crescent on top.

Manuscript diagrama of why water is roundPrinted diagram of why water is round
(Left) Manuscript diagram “That the water is round” (Add MS 27106, f. 108r)
CC Public Domain Image

(Right) Printed diagram “That the water is round” from the 1488 Venice edition. (Source: Wolfenbütteler Digitale Bibliothek; CC BY-SA).

Later printed diagram of why water is roundBlack and white drawing of the globe with cities and land masses, including a city and a ship coming off the outer border of the circle, along with Hebrew-script text
(Left) Printed illustration “That the water is round” from the 1526 Ingolstadt edition (Source: MDZ Digitale Bibliothek; NoC-NC)

(Right) Manuscript illustration “That the water is round”. (Or 10661, f. 5v)
CC Public Domain Image

The Hebrew copyist borrowed some more of Apianus’ diagrams with slight modifications. At the discussion on why the celestial bodies look larger when rising and setting from when they are in the middle of the sky, there is a compound diagram. Both in Apianus’ edition and in our Hebrew manuscript, the right side of the diagram shows a coin under water: when we look at it through water, the coin will appear larger than it really is (the effect of refraction). The same happens with the heavenly bodies, and this is what the left side of the diagram illustrates: the vapours in the atmosphere create an optical illusion and show the sun and the stars larger than they really are. Notice that while the inscription on coin (“tanova”, that is, moneta nova) in the Latin diagram is curling around a Greek cross, the Hebrew depiction omitted this symbol (probably to avoid any visual reference to Christianity) and has only the inscription (matbea, Hebrew for coin).

Printed diagram of why the heavens are roundDetailed manuscript diagram in Hebrew of why the heavans are round

(Left) Why the sun and the stars seem to be bigger when rising and setting, from the 1526 Ingolstadt edition (Source: MDZ Digitale Bibliothek; NoC-NC).

(Right) Why the sun and the stars seem to be bigger when rising and setting. (Or 10661, f. 4v)
CC Public Domain Image

Some of the diagrams in our Hebrew manuscripts are based on later Christian editions. The diagram to demonstrate why the sphere of the heavens cannot be flat is practically identical with that in the 1538 Wittenberg edition. It shows a tiny (or giant, in relation to the globe) human figure standing on earth looking up to a flat sky. There are three stars in the sky: one is directly above him, and one on each side. If the sky was flat – the argument goes – then the celestial bodies directly above our head (in case of the sun this would be midday) would be closer and thus would seem bigger than when they appear low in the sky (when rising and setting). We know from experience, that this is not the case. The celestial bodies actually seem bigger when they are rising or setting than when they are directly above us. Consequently, the sphere of heavens cannot be flat.

Printed Latin diagram of why the heavens are roundHebrew manuscript diagram of why the heavens are round
(Left) If the sphere of the heavens was flat, an explanation from the 1538 Wittenberg edition (Source: MDZ Digitale Bibliothek; CC)

(Right) If the sphere of the heavens was flat, an explanation in manuscript form. (Or 10661, f. 4v)
CC Public Domain Image

There are many more fascinating illustrations in our Hebrew copy, but these few examples are perhaps enough to demonstrate how much these early printed Latin editions of Sacrobosco’s work influenced our copyist. Since the copyist does not tell us when (or where) he produced this manuscript, finding the models of the diagrams can also help in the dating of the manuscript. Based on the origin of these few illustrations, our manuscript must have been copied sometime after 1538. Of course, a more thorough study of the entire illustration program may lead to different results. Whenever it was copied, by then these diagrams had become part of the textual tradition of Sacrobosco’s Sphaera, so much so that our scribe felt the need to include them into his copy.

Zsofi Buda
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Further reading:

On Sacrobosco’s Sphaera:

De Sphaera of Johannes De Sacrobosco in the Early Modern Period: The Authors of the Commentaries, ed. Matteo Valleriani. Springer Open, 2020.

Gingerich, Owen. “Sacrobosco Illustrated.” In Between Demonstration and Imagination, ed. Lodi Nauta and A.J. Vanderjagt, 211-224. Leiden: Brill, 1999.

Pantin, Isabelle. “L'illustration des livres d'astronomie à la renaissance: l'évolution d'une discipline à travers ses images.” InImmagini per conoscere. Dal Rinascimento alla Rivoluzione scientifica, 3-41. Firenze : L. S. Olschki, 2001.

The Sphere: Knowledge System Evolution and the Shared Scientific Identity of Europe

Thorndike, Lynn. The Sphere of Sacrobosco and its commentators. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949.

On Abraham and Solomon Avigdor:

Iancu-Agou, Daniele. “La pratique du latin chez les médecins juifs et néophytes de Provence médiévale (XIVe–XVIe siècles).” In Latin-into-Hebrew: Texts and Studies, vol. 1, 85-102. Leiden: Brill, 2013.

Shatzmiller, Joseph. Jews, Medicine, and Medieval Society. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994 pp. 29-30.

Steinschneider, Moritz. Die hebräischen Übersetzungen des Mittelalters und die Juden als Dolmetscher, pp. 643 and 782. Berlin, 1893.

27 July 2020

Anglo-Jewish deeds from medieval England- a treasure trove for historians

This blog presents a less known facet of the British Library’s Hebrew manuscript holdings, but which nonetheless constitutes a genuine treasure trove. I am referring to deeds - termed also as ‘bonds’, ‘charters’, ‘grants’ - which form part of a small, yet exceptionally significant collection of Anglo-Jewish historic documents, acquired initially by the British Museum, that are now kept in the British Library.

Latin deed with Hebrew quitclaim (attached to seal), by Jacob ben Aaron releasing a piece of land to William le Briel. England, 1239 CE (Harley Ch 77 D 40, f. 1r)
Latin deed with Hebrew quitclaim (attached to seal), by Jacob ben Aaron releasing a piece of land to William le Briel. England, 1239 (Harley Ch 77 D 40, f. 1r)
Cotton MS Nero D II  f. 183v (detail expulsion of the Jews)

These documents, written in either Hebrew or Latin, and more often than not in both, attest to business interactions between Jews and non-Jews in medieval England, and bear witness to the existence of a dynamic Jewish population prior to its expulsion in 1290. A substantial number of charters came from aristocratic libraries formerly owned by the Earls of Harley, Sir Robert Cotton, 1st Marques of Lansdowne, to name just a few. A lesser amount were acquired from private individuals through donation or purchase.

An interesting, common trait manifest in these charters is the use of Latin Gothic lettering and Hebrew Ashkenazi documentary script, as evident in this Harley example. Another shared characteristic is the material on which the deeds were written, namely parchment. Due to its strength and durability, parchment was perfectly fit for purpose.

Jews in medieval England: an overview

There is no real evidence of a Jewish presence in England before the Norman Conquest of 1066. In 1070, keen to boost England’s economy, William the Conqueror (William I, reigned. 1066-1087) invited Jewish merchants and artisans from Rouen in Normandy to come to England. His principal aim was to collect dues and taxes in currency rather than in kind, and to that end he needed competent financiers to do business with the indigenous population and supply ample quantities of coinage to the royal Treasury.

Few occupations were open to the Jews who settled in Norman England. Apart from a very small number of scholars, physicians and merchants the majority were engaged in moneylending with interest, an activity barred to Christians.

The coronation of William the Conqueror. Chronicle of Rochester Cathedral Priory. England, c.1100-c.1650 (Cotton MS Nero D II, f. 104r, detail)
The coronation of William the Conqueror. Chronicle of Rochester Cathedral Priory. England, c.1100-c.1650 (Cotton MS Nero D II, f. 104r, detail)
Cotton MS Nero D II  f. 183v (detail expulsion of the Jews)

Until the end of the 12th century, successive English monarchs granted the Jews protection and certain privileges which enabled them to prosper and acquire wealth, but this period of relative wellbeing ended with the death of King Henry II in 1189. Under King Richard I and his successors, the Anglo-Jewish communities suffered extreme outbursts of violence, ritual murder accusations, and untenable, repressive measures that culminated in their banishment by King Edward I on 18th July 1290. Jews were not permitted to return to these shores until 350 years later when Oliver Cromwell allowed them to re-settle.

Marginal miniature showing the expulsion of the Jews. Chronicle of Rochester Cathedral Priory. England, c.1100-c.1650 (Cotton MS Nero D II, f. 183v)
Marginal miniature showing the expulsion of the Jews. Chronicle of Rochester Cathedral Priory. England, c.1100-c.1650 (Cotton MS Nero D II, f. 183v, detail)
Cotton MS Nero D II  f. 183v (detail expulsion of the Jews)

The Exchequer of the Jews

Medieval English rulers regarded the Jews and their assets as personal property, imposing on them heavy taxes to finance wars and crusades and to bolster the royal coffers. The King tolerated their presence as long as they could serve his interests. Despite their being a minority of barely 0.25% of the total English population, the King’s Jews provided roughly 10% of the total crown revenue.

The office of Exchequer of the Jews, which operated from 1194 until the banishment in 1290, was established by Richard I to administer and control the taxes and law-cases of the Anglo-Jewish population. This government office ensured that copies of bonds (chirographs)[1] quitclaims (also called starrs or releases annulling debts to Jewish creditors) and attestations (formal confirmations by signature) were safely locked in special chests (archae) that were installed in major towns. The archae were regularly checked by royal officials in Westminster, who then advised the monarch whether he could impose additional levies and tallages (arbitrary taxes) on his Jewish subjects.

Cotton MS Nero D II  f. 183v (detail Upper section of a Latin grant of lease of land, with a Hebrew quitclaim written on the verso. Chirograph. London (?), England, 1235 CE (Lansdowne Ch 30, f. 1r, detail) of the Jews)
Upper section of a Latin grant of lease of land, with a Hebrew quitclaim written on the verso. Chirograph. London (?), England, 1235 (Lansdowne Ch 30, f. 1r, detail)
Cotton MS Nero D II  f. 183v (detail expulsion of the Jews)

Add Ch 1251 dated 1182, is the earliest and undoubtedly the most historically important charter in the collection. Written in Latin, with a Hebrew acknowledgment of Solomon of Paris on the back, it records a £4 debt settlement of Richard de Malebis. Malebis (or Malebisse, denoting mala bestia or ‘evil beast’) was a Norman landowner heavily indebted to Jewish moneylenders. In 1190, in order to get rid of his debts, he instigated a savage mob attack on the Jews of York and their assets. Together with his accomplices, he burned documents specifying money owed to the Jews that had been kept in the York Cathedral for safety. The riot went completely out of control culminating in the massacre of 150 Jewish souls.

Latin deed recording Richard Malebis’d debt settlement, with Hebrew acknowledgement on the back. Lincoln (?), England, 1182 CE (Add Ch 1251, f. 1r )
Latin deed recording Richard Malebis’d debt settlement, with Hebrew acknowledgement on the back. Lincoln (?), England, 1182 CE (Add Ch 1251, f. 1v)
Latin deed recording Richard Malebis’d debt settlement, with Hebrew acknowledgement on the back. Lincoln (?), England, 1182 (Add Ch 1251, ff. 1r and 1v)
Cotton MS Nero D II  f. 183v (detail expulsion of the Jews)

Since Norman England had no established legal practices covering moneylending and other financial dealings, Jewish moneylenders employed their own legal system and terminology based on talmudic law in charters written before 1290, such as the deeds discussed here. The phrase נחנו החתומים מטה מודים הודאה גמורה (Nahnu ha-ḥatumim matah modim hoda’ah gemurah … ‘We the undersigned hereby fully declare that…’) which is still employed in modern day contracts, is a case in point. The use of Hebrew attests to a high degree of literacy among Anglo-Jews, but even more importantly proves that Hebrew was accepted in the fiscal world of Norman England.

Hebrew quitclaim with Latin docket. Canterbury (?), England, 1237 CE (Add Ch 16384, 1r)
Hebrew quitclaim with Latin docket. Canterbury (?), England, 1237 (Add Ch 16384, 1r)
Cotton MS Nero D II  f. 183v (detail expulsion of the Jews)  

Add Ch 16384 is a Hebrew quitclaim with a Latin docket (an abridged record of the Hebrew text), written for Joseph ben Moses and Moses ben Jacob, releasing Peter de Bending and his heirs from all their debts. It is dated ‘St Peter Gule of August of the year twenty one of the reign of our lord King Henry [Henry III] son of King John’, corresponding to 1st August 1237. Other sources note that Peter de Bending was a heavily indebted landlord whose debts were redeemed by the Priory of Christ Church, Canterbury, which also repossessed his property. During the period 1150-1250, many monastic institutions in England were actively involved in the repossession of mortgaged lands.

Hebrew charter. Chirograph. Norwich, England, 1280 CE (Lansdowne Ch 667)
Hebrew charter. Chirograph. Norwich, England, 1280 (Lansdowne Ch 667)
Cotton MS Nero D II  f. 183v (detail expulsion of the Jews)

Lansdowne Ch 667 was acquired by the British Museum in 1907 with the collection of Sir William Petty, 1st Marques of Lansdowne (1737-1805). It represents the foot of a chirograph of a Hebrew deed for a house in the parish of St. Peter in Mancroft Street, Norwich, owned by Oshayah son of Isaac of York known as Ursel le Eveske of Norwich, son of Deulecresse that was sold to William son of Roger of South Walsham and his heirs. The Jewish witnesses to the transaction were Abraham of York, Isaac son of Deulecresse, Elias son of Elias, Jacob son of Jacob, Moses of Conisford.

Among the non-Jews witnessing the sale were Simon le Paumier and Robert de Bee. Norwich officials who were present that day included Adam de Toftes, Jacques Nade and John Bate. The deed was attested to by Ursel son of Isaac and is dated 9 Tevet 5041 which corresponds to 2nd December 1280. The sale is preceded by a release of rights to the house by Ursel’s wife Miriam, who owned it בעלילת דין כתובה (‘because of the rights of the ketubah’, i.e. as part of her marriage settlement).

It is interesting to note that it was not unusual for medieval Jewish women, either married or widowed, to own property and engage in business and finance. Indeed many traded locally or became moneylenders to the gentry and church officials.

This charter has been included in the British Library exhibition Hebrew Manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word that has been postponed until further notice.

The Anglo-Jewish charters have been digitised as part of the major, externally funded Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project, 2013-2020. They are accessible on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site.

Ilana Tahan, Lead Curator Hebrew & Christian Orient Studies
Cotton MS Nero D II  f. 183v (detail expulsion of the Jews)

Further reading

Huscroft, Richard, Expulsion: England’s Jewish solution (Stroud: Tempus, 2006)
Mundill, Robin, The King’s Jews: Money, Massacre and Exodus in Medieval England (London: Continuum, 2010), pp. 99-100.
Olszowy-Schlanger, Judith,  Hebrew and Hebrew-Latin Documents from Medieval England: A Diplomatic and Palaeographical Study. Monumenta Palaeographica Medii Aevi. Series Hebraica (Turnhout: Brepols, 2015), nos. 178, 179, 184, 186 & 181 (in order of appearance in the blog)


[1] A chirograph was a legal document copied several times on a single piece of parchment with the word “Chirograph” written across the middle. It was then cut through in a scalloped pattern. This process ensured that the parties to an agreement were each given a copy of the written transaction, which could be easily validated should the need arise; the serrated edges reduced the risk of forgery.

17 July 2020

Autograph responsum of Moses Maimonides, pre-eminent Jewish polymath and spiritual leader

While awaiting the postponed opening of our exhibition Hebrew Manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word, I am delighted to offer our readers and followers snapshots of its magnificent contents. Among the 39 Hebrew manuscripts included in the exhibition, there are three pertaining to Maimonides. In this blog, I will be highlighting an all-time favourite - Maimonides’ signed responsum (Or 5519 B), which was discovered in the 19th century in the Cairo Genizah.

Maimonides’ responsum.  Fustat, Old Cairo, Egypt, 12th century CE (British Library Or 5519B)
Maimonides’ responsum.  Fustat, Old Cairo, Egypt, 12th century CE (Or 5519B)

Who was Maimonides?

One of the greatest Jewish sages of all times, Mosheh ben Maimon (b.1135, Cordoba, Spain, d.1204, Fustat, Old Cairo, Egypt), was not only an outstanding legal authority, erudite philosopher and celebrated physician, but, also the most influential Jewish spiritual leader of his era. The Arabs amongst whom he spent most of his life knew him as Abu Imram Musa ibn Maimun al-Qurtubi. To Western Christian scholars he was known as Moses Maimonides or simply Maimonides, while his own people called him Rambam, an acronym of Rabbi Mosheh Ben Maimon.

Monument of Maimonides in Córdoba, Spain
Monument of Maimonides in Córdoba, Spain. Photo: Ajay Suresh from New York, NY, USA

A polymath with a stupendous intellect and an astonishing memory (legend has it that he retained every word and thought after reading a book), Maimonides displays an unmatched originality, incisive analytical power and profound erudition in most of his works. There is hardly a discipline of medieval scholarship, or field of Jewish knowledge that he did not master and cover in his writings. He was a polyglot fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, and seemingly well acquainted with Aramaic, Greek, Latin, Persian and Spanish.

Although Maimonides’ literary legacy encompasses a vast corpus of writings in a broad range of disciplines, he is famous for composing three of Judaism’s major works: the commentary to the Mishnah - oral tradition of Jewish Law (1168 CE), the Mishneh Torah (The Second Law or the Mighty Hand) a monumental code of Jewish law (1178 CE), and the Moreh Nevukhin (The Guide for the Perplexed), probably the most authoritative Jewish philosophical treatise of the medieval era (1190 CE).

lavishly illuminated page from the Lisbon Mishneh Torah embellished opening to Sefer Nezikin (Book of Damages)
Left: lavishly illuminated page from the Lisbon Mishneh Torah. Lisbon, Portugal, 1472 (Harley MS 5698, f. 11v);
right: embellished opening to Sefer Nezikin (Book of Damages), Lisbon Mishneh Torah. Lisbon, Portugal, 1472 (Harley MS 5699, f. 277v)

What are responsa?

A rich source of historical and sociological material, responsa (singular responsum) are written answers to questions asked of various rabbinic authorities on religious, legal or general matters. This rabbinic-talmudic literary genre (Hebrew she’elot u-teshuvot) spans more than fourteen centuries and covers the vast geographical expanse of the Jewish Diaspora.

The beginnings of the genre can be traced back to the late talmudic period (c. 6th century CE) when the geonim–teachers and scholars of the Babylonian academies–began receiving legal questions from diasporic countries. The preservation of this material in Cairo, which between the 6th and 11th centuries CE served as the principal distribution centre for answers sent onwards to western North African Jewish communities, contributed further to its survival. Not surprisingly, a hoard of ‘gaonic responsa’ was found among the treasures accumulated in the Cairo Genizah when it was uncovered more than a century ago.

Autograph responsum of Moses Maimonides

Difficult cases were referred by local rabbinic courts to the world-renowned authority Moses Maimonides in Fustat, Old Cairo, and the latter drafted his reply, or responsum as in this example. This case concerns a teacher who regretted an oath he had taken not to teach the daughters of a certain person. The oath, which had been prompted by slanderous remarks, resulted in loss of earnings for the teacher and disruption to the girls’ education. Maimonides’ succinct answer rules that the teacher should rescind the oath in front of ‘three Israelites’, then resume his work as before. The last word in the document is Maimonides’ signature Mosheh (Moses).

Maimonides’ own handwriting
Maimonides’ own handwriting with his signature (last word in line 3). Fustat, Old Cairo, Egypt, 12th century CE (Or 5519B, detail)

The enquiry was written, presumably by a professional notary, in a semi-square Spanish-Maghrebi hand, in a mixture of rabbinic Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic. It begins with a sequence of honorific attributes addressed to Maimonides such as for instance: Mosheh ha-rav ha-gadol (Moses the Great Rabbi) and ha-Patish he-hazak (the powerful hammer). The succinct reply, in the same mixed languages, is in Maimonides’ own hand and occupies the last three lines of text.

The question addressed to Maimonides with honorific attributes
The question addressed to Maimonides with honorific attributes (line 2 from the top). Fustat, Old Cairo, Egypt, 12th century CE (Or 5519B, detail)

Apart from illustrating Maimonides’ unsurpassed authority and the veneration he commanded from the Jewish world, this significant autograph manuscript shows Maimonides’ sympathetic approach and high degree of pragmatism when dealing with his fellow co-religionists’ predicaments. It also provides a glimpse of Jewish life in twelfth-century Egypt and demonstrates that, contrary to popular belief, education in medieval times was not restricted to Jewish males.

Over five hundred responsa written by Moses Maimonides are known to have survived. They are priceless testimonies to his thinking on applying the law to actual cases, and illuminate the social conditions prevailing during his lifetime. Maimonides’ legal answers embrace a broad spectrum of life situations including business partnerships, conversion to Judaism, inheritance, marriage and divorce, oaths, and others. Although many lack the date of composition, it is generally accepted that they were written between 1167, shortly after his arrival in Egypt and 1204, the year of his death. The first collection of Maimonides’ responsa appeared in print only in the 18th century. Noteworthy scholarly collections that have been published since include Alfred Freimann’s 1934 edition, and Joshua Blau’s 1957-61 four-volume compilation, both in Hebrew.

Further readings

Blau, Joshua, Teshuvot ha-Rambam. 4 vols, Jerusalem: Mekize Nirdamim, 1957-1961.
Freimann, Alfred, Teshuvot ha-Rambam, Jerusalem, Mekize Nirdamim, first edition, 1934.
Halbertal, Moshe, Maimonides: Life and Thought, Princeton University Press, 2014.
Kraemer Joel L., Maimonides: the Life and World of one of Civilizations’ greatest minds, Doubleday Religion, 2010.
Zuroff Abraham N., The Responsa of Maimonides,Yeshiva University, 1966.

Ilana Tahan, Lead Curator Hebrew & Christian Orient Studies

24 June 2020

Radicals and Rebels: The published works of Issachar Jacox Roberts

In this blogpost, we return to an item discussed last year on the British Library Conservation Care blog in Consider the Cover: Conserving a Chinese Book, when it was being prepared for the exhibition ‘Writing: Making Your Mark’ (26 April – 27 August 2019). We then learned about the story told by the book’s binding, and now we look closer at its contents and context within the dramatic events of 19th-century China.

A book of Chinese characters open inside a display case
Zi bu ji jie on display in ‘Writing: Making Your Mark’ (2019). (15344.c.24) (Image credit: © Tony Antoniou)

Aside from being the second American Baptist missionary to set up in China and the first to establish a Protestant mission outside the foreign 'factory' corner  of Canton (Guangzhou), Issachar Roberts was also the religious teacher of Hong Xiuquan 洪秀全. Hong was the man who, in 1851, proclaimed himself the younger brother of Jesus Christ and led a 13-year rebellion against the Qing dynasty as ruler of the Taiping tianguo (太平天囯 ‘Heavenly Kingdom of Great Peace’).

‘An Explanation of Radical Characters’

Zi bu ji jie is a short text which acts as a guide to the pronunciation and general category of meaning associated with each of the 214 Kangxi radicals (the classifiers used most famously in the dictionary completed in 1716, during the reign of the Kangxi Emperor). These descriptions seem to be taken, either wholly or in part, from entries in the Kangxi dictionary (康熙字典 Kangxi zidian), which in turn draws upon earlier sources such as the Shuowen jiezi 說文解字 and the Guangyun 廣韻.

Each entry gives the pronunciation first in the form of a homophone character, with variations in tone denoted by the position of a small circle, followed by a short definition in classical Chinese. The character 口 ‘mouth’, for example, is described as人所以言食也 “the means by which people speak and eat.”

The text may be classical in origin and formulaic in structure but it still reveals some of the context of its creation. For instance, it would appear that Roberts was unable to source a satisfactory definition of the eighth Kangxi radical 亠 ‘head’ and instead wrote: 亠字冇乜解法 “The character亠 has no explanation”, using local the Cantonese characters 冇乜 (= 沒有什麽 = ‘without any’).

A page of a printed Chinese book with ruled columns containing bold characters
A page from Zi bu ji jie (15344.c.24) containing local character variants.
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The copy of this work held in the British Library is stamped with “I. J. Roberts” and also includes a handwritten dedication to another prominent missionary, Walter Medhurst, and the date “October 13th, 1840”.

Little did the Reverend Roberts know when he published this ‘Explanation of Radical Characters’ that seven years later he would meet a ‘radical character’ of a very different kind.

‘Catechism in the Macao Dialect’

A printed Chinese book with yellowing pages and text arranged in vertical columns, beginning with the title on the right
The first page of another of Roberts’ publications, Wen da su hua (15116.d.21).
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Wen da su hua is translated as ‘Catechism in the Macao Dialect’ and serves as an introduction to Christian doctrine presented in the form of a series of questions and answers. Given its title and more vernacular style, it is not surprising that local characters feature once again. In addition to the frequent use of the character 乜 (= 什麽 = ‘what/any’) in the phrasing of the questions, you can also find the third person pronoun 佢 and the verb 係 ‘to be’, such as:

“Question: What is the name of his [God’s] son? Answer: [He] is called Jesus.”

This publication also includes a map of Asia and other geographical descriptions, which has been said to reflect Roberts’s “interest in spreading knowledge about the world”, and may well have formed part of Hong Xiuquan’s educational syllabus when he studied under the missionary in 1847.

This volume is signed by the author with the character 孝 ‘The Filial’, which is part of Roberts’s Chinese name, Luo Xiaoquan (羅孝全). It also appears to have been gifted to someone, although the ink has bled and the name is obscured.

A map of Asia in Chinese that unfolds from inside the book and has areas shaded in different colours
The hand-coloured map of Asia from inside Wen da su hua (15116.d.21).
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‘The Chinese Revolutionist’

It is not clear whether these works were shown to Hong Xiuquan when he studied under Roberts in 1847. It seems likely that the catechism in particular may have been used, especially as Roberts himself refers to employing his own materials as well those prepared by other prominent missionaries. One thing we do know is that, despite his formal Christian education being cut short when his baptism was “postponed indefinitely”, the two months Hong spent with Roberts at his chapel in Canton (Guangzhou) had a profound and enduring effect on the soon-to-be Taiping leader and his ideology.

The meeting of Hong and Roberts was a turning point in Chinese history, falling halfway between two other crucial moments in the story of the Taiping rebellion. The first was in 1843, when Hong used certain Christian tracts as the basis for interpreting visions he had had following his fourth failure in the civil service examinations. Through this he perceived his divine purpose – to purge the earth of demons and idolatry – and lineage – as the second son of God and younger brother of Jesus Christ. The second crucial moment was on 11 January 1851, when he stood before thousands of his followers established himself as the leader, or Taiping Wang (太平王‘King of Great Peace’), of a rival Chinese dynasty.

In an article published in Putnam’s Monthly in October 1856, Roberts referred to both Hong’s examination failures and his postponed baptism as formative moments, or instances in which “all-wise Providence overruled”. He writes:

“Had he gained his literary degree, to become a mandarin under the Tartar rule would have been his highest aim; had he been baptized, to become an assistant preacher under his foreign teacher was the object in view; but now how widely different his present position!”

Roberts had been unaware of what had become of his one-time student until 1852 but spent much of the next eight years gathering support for the Taiping movement and trying to reach their capital at Nanjing (or Taijing 太京 ‘Heavenly Capital’, as it was known by the Taipings). Once there, he hoped to make use of his unique personal connection and the Christian fervour behind the rebellion in order to further his religious mission in China.

Detail of printed article from magazine
Detail from “Grand Plan for Missionary Increase” by I. J. Roberts, as published in the Primitive Church Magazine in January 1855. (P.P. 429)
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Roberts expressed his support of the Taiping regime in a circular dated June 1854 entitled “Grand Plan for Missionary Increase in China”, which was published the following January in The Primitive Church Magazine. A bit of a rebel himself, he went as far as to challenge what he saw as the “unequal and oppressive” actions of the Mission Board (which had dismissed him in 1852) and propose an alternative “committee of co-operation” to be based among the Taipings at Nanjing. Although aware of the disparities between his own beliefs and those of the Taipings, he was convinced that he could convert them to “true Christianity” and claimed that: “the Tartar dynasty will become defunct and the Tae-ping dynasty will be established in its stead… the Christian religion will not only be tolerated but promoted throughout China”.

It was not until 1862 that, having reached Nanjing and spent more than a year among the Taipings, Roberts finally gave up on his “grand plan”. Hong continued to express deep respect for his former teacher, granting him the exclusive honour of a personal audience and issuing orders for his protection, but Roberts came to realise that their religious differences were both substantial and irreconcilable. He left Nanjing in January 1862, “thoroughly disgusted with their proceedings”.

Emma Harrison
Curator, Chinese Collections

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Historical sources

Alexander Wylie, Memorials of Protestant Missionaries to the Chinese: Giving a list of their publications, and obituary notices of the deceased. With copious indexes. (American Presbyterian Mission Press: Shanghae [sic], 1867): pp. 94-97. (4766.dd.).

Issachar Jacox Roberts, “Tae Ping Wang” in Putnam's Monthly, v.8 (Jul-Dec 1856).

The Primitive Church Magazine , Volumes XI-XII. (Arthur Hall & Co.: London, 1854-55). (P.P.429)


Further reading

Yuan Chung Teng, “Reverend Issachar Jacox Roberts and the Taiping Rebellion”. The Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 23, No. 1 (November 1963): pp.55-67.

George Blackburn Pruden, Jr., Issachar Jacox Roberts and American Diplomacy in China during the Taiping Rebellion. PhD dissertation in modern history. (The American University, 1977).

Prescott Clarke and JS Gregory, Western reports on the Taiping: A Selection of Documents. (Australian National University Press: Canberra, 1982). (X.809/54928)

Jonathan D. Spence, God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan. (W. W. Norton: New York, 1996). (YC.1996.b.6425)

15 June 2020

The First Gaster Bible: a fine Hebrew manuscript from a Muslim land

The Hebrew Bible, known in Christianity as The Old Testament, and as TaNaKh in Judaism, comprises the sacred texts of the Jewish people. It is a profuse and unique compilation of laws and commandments, ritual directives and precepts, genealogical records, prophecies, poetry, royal chronicles, decrees, tales and much more. Its content and structure evolved over a lengthy period extending from the Babylonian exile of the Jewish population in Judea in the 6th century BCE, until about the 2nd century CE.

The word TaNaKh is an acronym based on the first consonantal letters representing its three principal divisions, namely: Torah known as the Pentateuch or the Five Books of Moses, Nevi’im denoting Prophets, and Ketuvim or Writings. The TaNaKh consists of 24 books in all.

In antiquity, the ancient text of the Hebrew Bible was copied on scrolls made either of strips of parchment or papyrus. Codices (singular: codex) i.e. bound books with pages, emerged in Judaism around the 8th century CE, although they may have been in use before then. The 10th century in particular witnessed an upsurge in the production of TaNaKh codices, and some, similar to the First Gaster Bible, have survived to this day.

Illuminated page with Hebrew text
Psalms (64:1- ). (The First Gaster Bible, Egypt (?), c. 10th century CE. (Or 9879, f. 14v))
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Named after its distinguished last owner Dr Moses Gaster (1856–1939), the spiritual leader of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews’ Congregation in London, the manuscript was most probably created in Egypt. The colophon – a statement at the end of a manuscript giving details about its production – is missing, and so, nothing is known about the original commission. Its estimated date and place of production have thus been determined by comparing it with extant Hebrew Bibles copied about the 10th century in Egypt and the Middle East.

The First Gaster Bible shows unmissable signs of wear and tear. Its thousand-year old parchment folios displaying fine calligraphy, masoretic rubrics and gilded embellishments, testify nonetheless to its former glory. What originally may have been a complete manuscript of Ketuvim (Writings), has survived in a fragmentary state comprising just portions from the Books of Chronicles, Psalms, Proverbs, Ruth, Ecclesiastes, Esther, and Daniel.


Detail of illuminated page with Hebrew text
Detail of illuminated page with Hebrew text
(Top) Ruth (3:15- ). (The First Gaster Bible, Egypt (?), c. 10th century CE. Or 9879, f. 31r (detail)
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(Bottom) . Ecclesiastes (beginning of ch.3). (The First Gaster Bible, Egypt (?), c. 10th century CE. (Or 9879, f. 32v (detail)))
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When leafing through the manuscript, one notices right away the small script annotations that surround the scriptural text. These are collectively termed as masorah from the Hebrew consonantal root ‘ msr’ meaning to hand down. The masorah is fundamentally a corpus of rules on the pronunciation, reading, spelling and cantillation of the biblical text that safeguarded the correct transmission of the Hebrew Bible over the centuries. It was developed by Jewish scholars known as Masoretes (conveyors of tradition) who were active in Tiberias, in the Holy Land, between the 7th and 10th centuries CE. The Masoretes’ greatest contribution was the compilation of a system of signs and vowels that set up in writing the accurate way of reading the consonantal Hebrew script, which had been previously filled with ambiguities and uncertainties.

There are two main types of masoretic notation, both visible in the First Gaster Bible. The large masorah (masora magna) copied usually at the top and foot of pages, and the small masorah ( masora parva) penned between the columns of text or in the margins. The former is keyed to the words in the text and contains old traditional readings and grammatical notes. It serves as a quality control system and protects the scriptural text from alterations. The latter is more copious and includes lists of whole sections from the biblical text distinguished by typical orthographic variants or other characteristics.

Illuminated page with Hebrew text
End of Esther, beginning of Daniel. (The First Gaster Bible, Egypt (?), c. 10th century CE. (Or 9879, f. 40r))
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It is very likely that the First Gaster Bible was commissioned by a wealthy patron for a synagogue rather than for personal use. The manuscript provides a very good example of manuscript illumination from the Islamic East, i.e. Babylonia, Egypt, Persia, Syria and the Holy Land. Islam’s aniconic approach had a profound and lasting impact on Hebrew manuscripts created in Muslim lands. The decorations found in extant Hebrew Bibles produced in these areas strongly suggest that Jewish scribes and artists would have had access to decorated Islamic handwritten books which influenced their art.

Like Qur’ans, early Hebrew Bibles are devoid of human and animal imagery and their ornamentation is essentially functional. Carpet pages with geometric and arabesque designs, micrography (patterned minute lettering) and divisional motifs adapted from Islamic art typify their decoration. In the First Gaster Bible there is an abundance of gilded decorative elements executed in Islamic style. These include golden chains, foliage, interwoven buds, palmettes and undulating scrolls and spirals.

Illuminated page with Hebrew textIlluminated page with Hebrew text
(Left) Psalms (69:4 - ). (The First Gaster Bible, Egypt (?), c. 10th century CE. (Or 9879, f. 16r))
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(Right) Psalms (71:1- ). (The First Gaster Bible Egypt (?), c. 10th century CE. (Or 9879, f. 17r))
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It is interesting to point out that, with very few exceptions, most of the surviving Hebrew Bibles dating from the 9th – 11th centuries are incomplete. One such exception is the Leningrad Codex, preserved in the Russian National Library (Saltykov-Schendrin Public Library), St Petersburg. Copied most probably in Egypt around 1008 or 1009 CE, it is the oldest complete manuscript of the Hebrew Bible.

Among the extant fragmentary specimens, the Aleppo Codex kept in the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, qualifies as the oldest and most authoritative Hebrew Bible. It was copied c. 930 CE in Tiberias, the Holy Land, and has apparently lost 196 of its 491 original pages.

Apart from the First Gaster Bible, the British Library holds a few other very early, incomplete Hebrew biblical codices. The most prestigious is the London Codex, a Pentateuch with masorah that was created probably in Egypt or the Holy Land, 920-950 CE. The scribe’s name - Nissi ben Daniel ha-Kohen who, in all likelihood was also the masorete and vocaliser of the manuscript, is hidden within the masoretic notes on folios, 40r, 113v and 139r.

Or 4445  f.40r Illuminated page with Hebrew text
(Left) Pentateuch. (London Codex, Egypt or the Holy Land, 920-950 CE. (Or 4445, f. 38v))
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(Right) Pentateuch; Scribe’s acrostic in masoretic notes, left margin. (London Codex, Egypt or the Holy Land, 920-959 CE. (Or 4445, f. 40r))
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The Second Gaster Bible comes also from Dr Moses Gaster’s former library. Furnished with masorah and delicate ornamentation, it was probably crafted in Egypt towards the last quarter of the 11th century CE. Despite its poor condition, it is evidently a beautiful example of Islamic influence on Jewish manuscript decoration.

Illuminated page with Hebrew text
Pentateuch; Deuteronomy (19:6- ). (The Second Gaster Bible, Egypt, 11th -12th century CE. (Or 9880, f. 34r))
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Lastly, I would like to draw attention to a particularly interesting Hebrew Pentateuch of Persian origin that lacks entirely the Books of Genesis and Exodus. This early codex is provided with masoretic rubrics, the Aramaic translation, and vowel points placed above the consonantal text. This vocalisation system was developed in Babylonia during the 6th and 7th centuries CE and was eventually superseded by the sublinear pointing developed and perfected by the Tiberian Masoretes.

Illuminated page with Hebrew text
Numbers (7:87- ). (Pentateuch, Iran, 10th -11th century CE. (Or 1467, f. 44r)).
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The First Gaster Bible is a highly significant codex included in the Hebrew Manuscripts Exhibition whose opening has been deferred until further notice.

The British Library’s Hebrew manuscripts described in this blog have been digitised cover to cover as part of the major Hebrew Manuscripts Digitsation Project undertaken by the Library, 2013-2020. They are discoverable on the Digitised Manuscripts website.

Ilana Tahan
Lead Curator Hebrew & Christian Orient Studies
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Further readings

Dotan, Aron . Reflection towards a Critical Edition of Pentateuch Codex Or. 4445'. In.Estudios masoreticos (X Congreso de la IOMS). Dedicados a Harry M. Orlinsky (Textos y estudios 'Cardenal Cisneros' 55) (Madrid: Instituto de Filología CSIC, Departamento de Filología Bíblica y de Oriente Antiguo, 1993). pp. 39-51.

Friedman, Matti. The Aleppo Codex: A True Story of Obsession, Faith and the Pursuit of an Ancient Bible . Chapel Hill: Algonquin Books, 2012

Gaster, Moses. Hebrew Illuminated Bibles of the IXth and Xth Centuries (Codices Or. Gaster, No. 150 and 151)……… Reprinted from the “Proceedings of the Society of Biblical Archæology,” June, 1900. .London: Harrison & Sons, 1901.

Narkiss, Bezalel. Kitve-Yad ʿIvriyim Metsuyarim ; mavo me-et Sesil Rot ; [ʿIvrit, Daliyah Shaḥaḳ ; ʿarikhah, Daliyah Ṭesler].'Mahad. ʿIvrit ḥadashah u-Metuḳenet. Jerusalem: Keter, 1984. (in Hebrew)

Ortega-Monasterio, Maria-Teresa. Some Masoretic Notes of Mss. L and Or 4445 Compared with the Spanish Tradition'. Sefarad 57, no. 1 (1997), pp. 127-133.

01 June 2020

Written in your palm, just read it!

We all wish to know the future. Wouldn’t it give us peace of mind if we knew what is waiting for us? Our Hebrew collection offers a fair number of manuscripts discussing different kinds of divination techniques. Perhaps the most well-known form of foretelling the future is palmistry, or chiromancy (from the Greek words kheir = hand and manteia = divination). If you want to know your future, you just have to consult a palmistry manual or show your hand to a person knowledgeable in this field.

This ancient divination technique appeared first in Judaism in late antique mystical circles, and became popular much later among medieval kabbalists. The most fundamental kabbalistic work, the Zohar ( The Book of Splendour) discusses hand and face reading at length, but many other sources also mention hokhmat ha-yad (the science of the hand). The early 13th-century kabbalist Asher ben Saul relates about the following custom:

“[At the conclusion of the Sabbath] they used to examine the lines of the palms of the hands, because through the lines on the hands the sages would know a man’s fate and the good things in store for him.” (Sefer ha-Minhagot)[1]

Even a harsh critic of the kabbalah, the famous Venetian rabbi Leon Modena, mentions palmistry in his autobiography: “The time of my death is predicted for the age of fifty-two, approximately, and I am fifty now. Palmistry also indicates that it will occur about the age of fifty.” [2] He died in 1648 at the age of 77.

Our forthcoming exhibition entitled Hebrew Manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word will display a short treatise on the topic from a Jewish manuscript from 18th-century Tunis.

Illustration of palm and palm lines.Explanation of palm illustration
A North African guide to palmistry. (Treatise on palmistry. Tunis, 1775. Or 10357, ff. 91v-92r.)
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The treatise is indeed very short, occupying two pages (ff. 91v-92), and is located at the end of a medical work by the physician Isaac Haim Cantarini. It was placed here perhaps because palmistry was often considered as a useful supplement to medicine. This work discusses merely six major lines of the palm: table line, wisdom line, honour line, fate line, life line, and wealth line, and is accompanied by a full-page diagram. Here is the translation of the entire work (except for half a sentence in the explanation of the table line, which is rather cryptic for the author of this blog. All solutions are welcome!).

1. The table line: when lines like these [three downward curving lines] coming out of it, they show that … ; when there is a line like this [forward slash] at the end, it shows [that he has] great influence.

2. When this line reaches from one edge to the other edge through the width of the hand, it shows great wisdom, and according to its length it will show if he is wise or an imbecile.

3. When this line begins at the wisdom line and finishes at the life line, it shows that every one of his days will be spent in honour and if there is a line coming out of it reaching the fortune line, it shows that he will die in honour.

4. If this line stretches from the top of the palm to its bottom, it shows great fortune. But if there are smaller lines coming out of it at the upper end where the fingers are, it shows that his fortune comes and goes. However if at its end there lines horizontally and vertically and one of them intertwines with the life line, he will die poor. And if a line comes out of the honour line and intertwines with the fate line, he will die rich.

5. The length of the life line corresponds to the length of his days. And if it there is a line coming out at the end closer to the arm and [crosses(?)] the fortune line, his days will be long.

6. The wealth line: if there are no smaller lines on its width, he will be rich, and if there are lines coming out of it, he will be poor in all his days; and if these lines are all coming out on one side, he will sometimes be rich sometimes poor. God will save us.

The manuscript does not mention the author of this short treatise. The hand diagram is, however, almost identical to that in a printed treatise on palmistry, physiognomy and astrology composed by t    he famous German-Jewish scholar Jacob ben Mordechai of Fulda composed a treatise on palmistry, physiognomy and astrology sometime in the late-17th or early 18th century. Jacob claims that he based his work on ancient authors, among others Aristotle, who - according to Jacob - was converted to Judaism. Could perhaps the diagram in our manuscript be copied from this printed book?

A printed illustration of a hand and palm lines
A printed palmistry diagram. (Jacob ben Mordechai of Fulda, Shoshanat Yaakov. Amsterdam, 1706.) (Source:
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There is one more example of a palmistry diagram in the Hebrew collection. The late 13th-century North French Miscellany offers a more elaborate mapping of the human hand. Here, the short explanations of the lines are inserted into the diagram itself. Although, palmistry is often integrated with astrology, none of these Jewish examples seem to have any connection to it.

A large hand with palm lines illustrated
A palmistry diagram. (Northern French Miscellany, France, 13th century. Add MS 11639, f. 115r)
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Palmistry is by no means a Jewish invention, and was popular in many cultures. In the British Library collections, you can find some beautifully illustrated works from Christian works on the subject, for instance. Christian authors often justify the use of such divination technique on biblical grounds, quoting the Book of Job: “Is as a sign on every man’s hand, that all men may know His doings.” (Job 37:7); or the Book of Proverbs: “In her right hand is length of days, in her left, riches and honour.” (Proverbs 3:16).These two hand diagrams – a left and a right hand – illustrate a Latin chiromantic treatise in a late 12th or early 13th-century scientific miscellany. It is a pretty early example, since the first Latin manuscripts mentioning the subject are from the 12th century.

Sloane MS 2030 ff. 125v-126r
An example of palmistry among Christian scholars. (Latin scientific miscellany, England, 12th-13th century. Sloane MS 2030, ff. 125v-126r).
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And if you are interested in the relationship between palmistry and astrology, have a look at Introductiones apotelesmaticae elegantes, in chyromantiam, physiognomiam, astrologiam..., by the Carthusian monk Johannes ab Indagine (or Johannes Bremer von Hagen, died in 1537). Here you can see a digitised version of the Latin edition, but the British Library holds several copies of the English translation from as early as 1558 entitled Briefe introductions, both naturall, pleasaunte, and also delectable vnto the art of chiromancy, or manuel diuination, and physiognomy with circumstances vpon the faces of the signes.

A printed illustration of a hand and its lines explained in Latin
Johannes Bremer von Hagen’s guide to the palm and its lines. (Johannes ab Indagine, Introductiones apotelesmaticae elegantes, in chyromantiam, physiognomiam, astrologiam naturale[m]. Frankfurt: David Zöpfel, [1560]. Digital Store 1606/313).
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Both Hebrew manuscripts mentioned in this blog have been fully digitised as part of the Hebrew Manuscript Digitisation Project. So if you do not want to turn to a professional palm reader, consult instead these “ancient” sources, and discover the truth written in your palm by yourself!

Zsofi Buda, Asian and African Collections
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Further reading:

Burnett, Charles S. F. “The Earliest Chiromancy in the West.” Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes 50 (1987): 198-195.

Scholem, Gershom. “Chiromancy.” In Encyclopaedia Judaica, v. 4 (Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA in association with the Keter Pub. House, 2007), 652-654.

Thorndike, Lynn. “Chiromancy in Mediaeval Latin Manuscripts.” Speculum 40 (1965): 674-706.

[1] EJ “Chiromancy”, v. 4 p. 653.

[2] Lawrence Fine, Judaism in Practice: From the Middle Ages Through the Early Modern Period (Princeton, N.J.; Oxford : Princeton University Press, 2001), 461.

18 May 2020

The Kaifeng Torah Scroll: A British Library Treasure

Theories abound on the date that Jews arrived in China. Some point to the period following Moses’ birth, others to the dispersion of the Ten Lost Tribes by the Assyrians in 720 BCE, and others to the Diaspora following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. Although evidence to support any of these theories is lacking, there is also the likelihood that Jews reached China in the centuries following the Babylonian exile (6 th century BCE). It is known that descendants of the exiles from the Land of Israel moved progressively eastward as they engaged in a thriving commerce by sea and along the trade routes of the Silk Road. Some who had lived in Persia, India and Bukhara may have settled in China. Research work on the Chinese Jewry undertaken particularly in the second half of the 20th century by scholars such as William Charles White, Donald Daniel Leslie, and Michael Pollak, have weighed heavily in favour of Persian roots; however, the exact origin of the Chinese Jews is still shrouded in mystery.

A map of Kaifeng, China. (Source: GoogleMaps; CC-4.0)

The earliest tangible proof of Jewish presence on Chinese soil comes from a fragment of a Judeo-Persian letter dating from the end of the 8th century (British Library Or. 8212/166), which was found by the Hungarian born British explorer Sir Aurel Stein in 1901 near Dandan-Uiliq, an important Buddhist trading centre on the Silk Road in Chinese Turkestan. This letter (which was obviously en route, being a surface find) was written in Judeo-Persian (Persian in Hebrew script) by a Jewish merchant to a coreligionist in Persia with whom he was engaged in business, and discusses the sale of an inferior flock of sheep. It was written on locally-manufactured paper. 

Fragment of letter in Persian in Hebrew script
Fragment of a Judeo-Persian letter. [1] (Probably Khotan, China, 8th century. Or 8212/166 )
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Historians concur that one of the oldest Jewish communities in China is K’ae-fung-foo (Kaifeng, formerly known as P'ien-Liang), on the banks of the Yellow River, in the province of Henan, which was founded by Jewish traders who settled there by the mid-tenth century. Kaifeng had been the thriving capital of the emperors of the Song Dynasty, who ruled China for 166 years beginning in 960 CE.

The Jewish community flourished until the 18th century, but by the mid-19th century, it was already in a state of decline (and barely survived into the 20th century). In 1850, some 200 Jewish souls lived in Kaifeng. Not having had a rabbi for almost fifty years, the Kaifeng Jews lacked but the most basic knowledge of Judaism, and could no longer read and write Hebrew. Their magnificent synagogue, first built in 1163 and rebuilt on at least two occasions since, stood neglected and dilapidated. It nonetheless provided a safe shelter to hapless and impoverished members of the community who, in order to earn a meagre living, sold bricks and wood from its ruins to their non-Jewish neighbours.

Kaifeng Synagogue
A model of the Kaifeng Synagogue, built around 1163 CE and destroyed in the 1860's. (Source: Asian History; not CC-0)

These observations come from the diaries kept by two Chinese Christians, K'hew T'hëen-sang and Tsëang Yung-che, who in November 1850 were despatched to Kaifeng on a mission of enquiry by the London Society for the Promotion of Christianity among Jews. The diaries were subsequently edited by Bishop George Smith and published in Shanghai in 1851 under the title The Jews of K'ae-fung-foo: being a narrative of the mission of inquiry to the Jewish Synagogue of K'ae- fung-foo…

The main purpose of the expedition was to establish contact with the isolated Kaifeng Jews, to learn about their community and way of life, and to retrieve Holy Books from their ancient synagogue. It was on their second visit to Kaifeng in spring 1851 that the two Chinese missionaries obtained forty small biblical manuscripts and purchased six Torah Scrolls (out of twelve Torah scrolls seen on their previous trip) paying the Jewish community 400 taels of silver, the equivalent of about £130.

On December 11th, 1852, the London Society for the Promotion of Christianity among the Jews presented one of the six retrieved Torah scrolls to the British Museum.

Torah Scroll of Kaifeng when rolled
The rolled Kaifeng Torah Scroll showing the Society for Promoting Christianity among the Jews' inscription. (Kaifeng Torah Scroll. Kaifeng, China, 1643-1663. Add MS 19250, front)
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The scroll, which has been part of the British Library’s Hebrew collection since 1973, is composed of ninety-five strips of thick sheepskin sewn together with silk thread, rather than with the customary animal sinew. Its 239 columns of unpunctuated Hebrew text are written in black ink in a script that is similar to the square Hebrew script used by the Jews of Persia.

Detail of the text of the Kaifeng Torah Scroll
Kaifeng Torah Scroll. (Kaifeng, China, 1643-1663. Add MS 19250 (detail))
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According to scholars, the Torah scrolls originating in Kaifeng were most probably created between 1643 and 1663. Each is marked with an identifying number placed on the reverse of the last skin. The numbers were written in Hebrew and each individual scroll was dedicated to one of the Twelve Tribes of Israel. For example, the British Library scroll bears the letter ב (bet, i.e. number 2) and was dedicated to the Tribe of Shim‘on.

Detail of the text of the Kaifeng Torah Scroll
Kaifeng Torah Scroll. (Kaifeng, China, 1643-1663. Add MS 19250 (detail))
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Only seven have survived and are currently preserved in various European and American libraries. Research on the extant Kaifeng Torah scrolls indicates that they were copied from several models of yet undetermined provenance. The considerable number of errors and inaccuracies found in the texts shows that the scribes who wrote them were amateurs whose knowledge of Hebrew was rather poor.

The Kaifeng Torah Scroll is one of the star objects in the Hebrew Manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word exhibition. Due to the current global pandemic, the opening of the exhibition scheduled for March 2020 has been deferred until further notice.

Our readers and followers would be pleased to know, however, that the scroll has been fully digitised and catalogued, as part of the major Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project undertaken by the British Library, 2013-2020. The Kaifeng Torah scroll digital surrogate is freely accessible on the Digitised Manuscripts website.

Ilana Tahan, Lead Curator Hebrew and Christian Orient Studies
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Further readings on the Kaifeng Jews:

Anson H. Laytner & Jordan Paper, eds. The Chinese Jews of Kaifeng: a millennium of adaptation and endurance. Lexington Books, 2017.

Charles William White. Chinese Jews, a Compilation of Matters Relating to the Jews of K'aifeng Fu. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1942). 

Donald Daniel Leslie. The survival of the Chinese Jews: the Jewish community of Kaifeng. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1972.

Michael Pollak, The Torah Scrolls of the Chinese Jews. Dallas: Wayside Press, Inc., 1975, 34 and passim.

Sidney Shapiro. Jews in Old China, Studies by Chinese Scholars. New York: Hippocrene Books, 1984), 2001.

Ursula Sims-Williams. "Jewish merchants in the desert," in Silk Roads: Peoples, Cultures, Landscapes, edited by Susan Whitfield (London: Thames and Hudson, 2019), p. 252. [Document supply m19/.11888


[1] Please bear in mind that the metadata of the digital surrogate is in the process of being revised. The article link included in the Further readings list provides clear evidence that this letter was written by a Jewish Persian merchant operating in Khotan, to his employer in Persia.

21 February 2020

Guanyin: the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion

This is the thirteenth of a series of blog posts celebrating the British Library exhibition on Buddhism, 25 Oct 2019 - 23 Feb 2020. 

Bodhisattvas are sentient beings that seek enlightenment and embrace the principle of compassion to liberate others from suffering. In Buddhist practice, suffering is part of the cycle of rebirth and the level you are reborn is in a cause and effect relationship with your actions in previous lives. There are many levels that sentient beings need to attain before they achieve enlightenment and become a Buddha: the Bodhisattva level is the last step before Buddhahood. This blog post will introduce one of the most famous Boddhisattvas in Mahayana Buddhism: Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva, also known as Guanyin. It is important to highlight that Guanyin had actually become a Buddha known as 正法明如來 (“The Buddha who clearly understands the true law”) in the past. However, in order to make direct contact with sentient beings and lead them from suffering, this Buddha decided to step down and return as a Boddhisattva. This decision is known as 倒駕慈航 (Turning back the Ferry of Compassion). This blog will discuss the great compassion of this Bodhisattva from three perspectives: the name, the form, and the practice, all of which are centred around the needs of sentient beings.

Long Picture of Guanyin
Illustration of Guanyin. (Or.8210/S.9137)

The name: caring for all sentient beings

As Buddhism spread eastwards from its Indian heartland, Buddhist terminology in Sanskrit was adapted to other languages using either a sense-for-sense translation or a transliteration derived from the original pronunciation. For example, the name of Amitābha Buddha underwent transliteration to become ‘Amituo’ in Chinese. By contrast, Avalokiteśvara’s name was translated into Chinese based on its meaning and certain aspects of the Bodhisattva’s nature. This approach leaves more room for interpretation and, as a result, there are two common versions of the name, Guanshiyin and Guanzizai.

Guanshiyin, also known as Guanyin, is the name for this Boddhisattva that is seen in most sutras, such as the Etiquette of Great Compassion Repentance. This translation comes from the Sanskrit “Avalokita”, which means to observe (觀[guan]), and “svara”, which means sound (音[yin]). In other words, the Bodhisattva is “the sound-perceiver” or the one who hears the sounds (of sentient beings) of the world (世[shi]). This name is also referred to the Universal Gate Chapter of Lotus Sutra, which says: “Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva will instantly perceive the sound of their cries, and they (the suffering) will all be liberated”. One possible explanation for this name sometimes being abbreviated is that, in order to avoid the name of Emperor Taizong (598-649) of Tang: 李世民 (Li, Shimin), people took out the second character and shortened the name from Guanshiyin to Guanyin. Either way, this reflects the fact that Guanyin is conscious of the voices of the suffering calling for help and is committed to rescuing these beings in various ways.

Name of the Bodhisattva in the Etiquette of Great Compassion Repentance
The name of the Bodhisattva: Guanshiyin (觀世音) appears in the Etiquette of Great Compassion Repentance. (Etiquette of Great Compassion Repentance, 1838, Add MS 16329)

The second name for this Boddhisattva, Guanzizai, is an interpretation based on the characteristics of the Bodhisattva and the path that practitioners need to follow. It comes from a different, but more common Sanskrit root “Avalokita” + “iśvara” from which it is possible to derive the meaning of ‘one who can observe unimpeded’. This name appears in the Heart Sutra which is the condensed, but nonetheless sacred, text of the Sutra of Great Wisdom. It reveals the concept of emptiness and the fundamental truth that nothing is permanent. This Bodhisattva is the one who perfectly understands (or perceives: 觀[guan]) this rule of emptiness, leaves aside their worldly attachments, and attains the great freedom (自在[zizai]) that comes with this realisation. In this way, this Bodhisattva can hold all sentient beings in his heart and rescue them without any obstacles. Therefore, when the Heart Sutra was translated by Master Xuanzang (c.602-664) in the Tang Dynasty, Guanzizai was used in order to reveal this Boddhisattva’s nature and hopefully to encourage practitioners to follow the same path.

Detail of the name of Bodhisattva Guanzizai in the Heart Sutra
The name of the Bodhisattva: Guanzizai (觀自在) shows in the lower middle part of the stupa of Heart Sutra (Heart SutraOr.8210/S.4289).

The form: depictions of Guanyin

While there are a few different names to refer to this Bodhisattva, there are even more different forms that Guanyin can take when appearing to sentient beings in order to guide them away from suffering.

One interesting development of Guanyin’s form is the way in which gender is represented. In general, the gender of deities in Buddhism are neutral and rarely discussed. Early depictions show Guanyin with a more masculine appearance, creating the impression that the original gender of Guanyin was male. However, the female form becomes more popular later in Mahayana Buddhism, particularly in China. The reasons for this are linked to the historical context. Traditionally, China was a very patriarchal society; a system reinforced by Confucian principles which put pressure on women to obey their husbands and give birth to sons (instead of daughters). As a result, women were generally the ones asking for Guanyin’s help in order to achieve these goals. In addition, it was thought that a woman must commit to one man for her whole life (even after his death), therefore it seemed more appropriate for a woman to worship a deity in female form. In this way, Guanyin starts to take on more feminine qualities such as kindness and grace and, in female form, she is seen as more accessible to women.

Guanyin Bodhisattva in Female Form
Guanyin Bodhisattva appears in female form. (Vignettes Representing Manifestations of Buddhist Saints, before 1911, Add MS 10592)

So far we have discussed the work of Guanyin in isolation, but this Bodhisattva does not go it alone in the rescue business; Guanyin also works with Amitābha Buddha and Mahāsthāmaprāpta Bodhisattva to guide the dead to the Western Pure Land. This trio is known as the Three Noble Ones of the West. When pictured together, it would be easy to recognise the Amitābha Buddha as he is always in the middle but sometimes it can be a bit difficult to work out which attendant is Guanyin since the basic style of Bodhisattvas is the same. One clue would be the plant they hold in their hand; Mahāsthāmaprāpta holds a lotus and Guanyin holds a willow. The other indication is the item on their head; it is a vase containing his parents’ ashes on Mahāsthāmaprāpta’s head and a statue of seated Amitābha Buddha on Guanyin’s. In this case, when a person approaches death, they can call upon not only Amitābha, but also Guanyin to ask for guidance.

The Three Noble Ones of the West
The Three Noble Ones of the West (Photo credit: London Fo Guang Shan; posted with permission).

The practice: Guanyin as a guide

There are many different forms of Buddhist practice including meditation and chanting of texts such as dharanis or sutras. Certain dharanis and sutras can relate to a particular Buddha or Bodhisattva. The most notable ones featuring Guanyin are the Great Compassion Dharnai and the Universal Gate Chapter on Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva.

Generally speaking, a dharani is a phrase or mantra, recited as sounds based on the original Sanskrit, which is believed to be powerful and protective. When someone chants the dharani, the related deity will come to provide their support. The Great Compassion Dharani, also known as Great Compassion Heart Dharani contains the power of Guanyin to rescue sentient beings. According to the Dharani of the Bodhisattva With a Thousand Hands and Eyes Who Regards the Worldʼs Sounds with Great Compassion , this dharani contains the power to remove all horror and suffering and achieve perfection. Furthermore, the dharani can also help followers listen to the Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha), enhance their wisdom, and guide the dead towards rebirth in a Pure Land.

Great Compassion Heart Dharani
Chinese manuscript of the Great Compassion Heart Dharani with annotation (Great Compassion Heart Dharani, 1700-1909, Or 6995).

A sutra is a canonical scripture recording the teachings from Shakyamuni Buddha (the historical Buddha). The Universal Gate Chapter on Avalokiteśvara is the twenty-fifth chapter of the Lotus Sutra. As the name suggests, in this text the Bodhisattva indicates many ‘gates’, or methods for a follower to practice, and Guanyin will manifest in different forms in order to guide them. No matter who you are, Guanyin will appear in the corresponding role to teach you. The Bodhisattva also has the power to improve a bad situation. No matter what difficulty you find yourself in, when you chant the Bodhisattva’s name, he always is able to release you from suffering. Moreover, the sutra also reveals the power of Guanyin to provide followers with wisdom and fearlessness on the path towards Buddhahood.

Universal Gate Chapter on Avalokitesvara Bodhisvatta
The Universal Gate Chapter on Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva (Or.59.b.24).

The above perspectives all demonstrate the Great Compassion of this Bodhisattva since the name he goes by, the form he takes and the practices he upholds all have the needs of sentient beings at their heart, showing that he does his best to rescues them. However, it is also important to note that practitioners should not totally rely on the power of the Bodhisattva. The main objective is for the followers themselves to cultivate a heart as compassionate as Guanyin’s, and in doing so they will be following the path of the Bodhisattva in order to attain Buddhahood.

Han-Lin Hsieh, Curator, British Library Chinese Collections, with thanks to Emma Harrison.

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The accompanying volume to the Buddhism exhibition, "Buddhism: Origins, Traditions and Contemporary Life", is still available for purchase at the British Library Shop and online


Conversion table of Buddha and Bodhisattvas’ name

















Conversion table of Sutra names




Etiquette of Great Compassion Repentance



Heart Sutra



Sutra of Great Wisdom



Great Compassion Dharnai



Great Compassion Heart Dharani



Universal Gate Chapter on Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva

Samanta-mukha-parivarto nāmâvalokiteśvara-vikurvaṇa-nirdeśaḥ


Dharani of the Bodhisattva With a Thousand Hands and Eyes Who Regards the Worldʼs Sounds with Great Compassion



Lotus Sutra

Sad-dharma Puṇḍárīka Sūtra


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