THE BRITISH LIBRARY

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19 posts categorized "Hebrew"

17 June 2019

Mazal tov ve-siman tov (Good Luck and Good Sign): Jewish marriage contracts in the British Library’s Hebrew collection

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The celebration of a marriage is one of Judaism’s happiest and most joyous communal events.


Jewish Wedding Song Siman Tov & Mazal Tov (YouTube)

To mark the occasion a marriage contract – a ketubah [1] (literally ‘a writ’) is drawn up stipulating the couple’s binding obligations and responsibilities. The writing of a ketubah has been an integral part of Jewish weddings for over 2,000 years.

A mandatory deed given to a Jewish bride on her wedding day for safekeeping, the ketubah is considered to be one of the earliest documents granting women legal and financial rights. Its traditional Aramaic text lays down the groom's financial obligations towards the bride, thus ensuring her protection and security, should the marriage dissolve, or the husband pass away. Depending on their geo-cultural area of production, or the social position of the families involved, Jewish marriage contracts might also stipulate: the provision of food and clothing by the husband, his pledge not to take a second wife, the dowry the wife brings to the household.

Since this is effectively a formal transaction, the contract is usually signed by at least two male witnesses, either before or immediately after the marriage ceremony. The ketubah is customarily read out loud to the couple during the wedding service, under the bridal canopy (hupah).

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The bridal canopy and blessings recited at the wedding service. Collection of prayers, London, 1702-1714 (BL Harley MS 5713, f. 17v)
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Decorated marriage contracts

The art forms found in Jewish marriage contracts vary from country to country, and reflect the artistic developments and trends of their original locales, at particular periods. Yet more than just being visually appealing objects, ketubot are historical records, revealing social patterns, traditions and values within the Jewish communities they stemmed from.

Few decorated Jewish marriage contracts from the Middle Ages have survived. The earliest examples, dating from around the 10th century CE, were discovered in the Cairo Genizah, a storeroom of discarded religious and secular Jewish documents, which had been preserved for nearly one thousand years, in the attic of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat, old Cairo.

From around the 14th century CE onwards, the custom of decorating ketubot flourished among communities of the Sephardi diaspora, particularly in Italy, spreading gradually to other Jewish diasporic centres, including those in Asia.

In Italy the art of the ketubah reached its pinnacle in the 17th and 18th centuries CE. Beautifully ornamented specimens were executed by highly skilled scribes and illuminators, on parchment or vellum. Characteristic adornments found in Italian ketubot include: biblical scenes, cherubs, coats of arms, micrographic designs, temple columns, zodiac signs and various others.

Seen here is an elegant, exquisitely decorated contract from Modena, recording the nuptials of Ephraim son of Kalonymus Sanguini, and Luna daughter of Mordecai Faro. The elaborate ketubah features an imposing architectural structure, topped by winged cherubs holding trumpets and leafy branches. The magnificent double border is composed of intricate micrographic lacework, surrounded by cut out patterns on a red ground inhabited by biblical vignettes, and the signs of the zodiac. Perhaps in an attempt to increase its value, the contract’s original date of 1757 was changed to 1557.

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Italian ketubah, Modena, 1 October 1557 [ie. 21 October 1757] (BL Or.6706)
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Oriental marriage contracts are scarcer than European ones, and serve as important examples of Jewish art and illumination of the areas they originated from. Some specimens flaunt bold and brilliant colouring and crude designs, while others exhibit native motifs and indigenous symbols. Here are two telling examples from our collection.

The first is a paper ketubah given by Pinḥas, son of Yosef, to Batsheva, daughter of Nethan’el in Herat, on 15th of Sivan, 5649, corresponding to 14th June 1889. The terms follow a fixed Afghani formula that specifies a gift from the groom of 200 and 25 zuzin (ancient Jewish coinage struck 2nd century CE), and his tosefet (additional gift) of 10 zuzin. The bride’s dowry amounts to 80 zehuvim (gold coins).

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Afghan ketubah, Herat, 1889 (BL Or 15893)
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Although Jews have lived in Herat since early Islamic times, it became the largest and most influential Jewish community in Afghanistan during the 19th century CE, when persecuted Jews from the Persian town of Meshed streamed into Herat. As a result, decorated Jewish marriage contracts produced in Herat share many artistic characteristics with contracts from neighbouring Meshed.

The decorative programme is typical of contracts issued in Herat, and displays Islamic and Persian influences. The layout, as a whole, is very reminiscent of Persian carpets with a well-planned, orderly pattern. Written neatly in rows outlined in red ink, the square calligraphic text of the ketubah proper is framed by two concentric narrow bands. The rectangular band closest to the text is embellished with stylised violet and orange flowers and green foliage. The outer border is inscribed with copious good wishes, arranged in alphabetical order, each one beginning with the word siman (Hebrew for omen or sign) – siman orah, siman berakhah, siman gilah and so forth.

There is a conspicuous emphasis on the number five in contracts issued in Herat as in this example. The upper register consists of five arcuated compartments: three of which contain a single floral vase, while the other two are filled with verses from Isaiah 61:10. The lower register is occupied by a frieze made of five blank frames which were customarily reserved for the witnesses’ signatures. Instead, three witnesses signed their names just below the last line of the ketubah text. The use of the five-fold motifs was intentional as the number five (hamsa) is considered to have magical and protective powers in Islamic and Jewish cultures.

The second exemplar on parchment, records the betrothal in 1887 in Calcutta of Ya‘akov Hai Yosef Avraham Ta‘azi to Simhah, the daughter of Natan Yosef Douwek ha-Kohen. The layout is typical of marriage contracts created for the Indian Jewish communities between the 18th and 20th centuries CE, and consists of two distinct sections, the opening formula, or superscription, in the upper register, and the contract itself beneath. The superscription is written in Hebrew square characters, whereas the contract is penned in a semi-cursive Hebrew script. The superscription starts with an invocation to God, followed by blessings and good wishes to the newlyweds, and ends with biblical verses relating to marriage and fertility. The mohar (the groom’s marriage payment), tosefet (additional increment), and dowry specified in the contract amount to 7,555 rupees.

The finely embellished border is densely filled with red birds interspersed with stylised pink flowers and green foliage. The naively painted rampant tigers above the superscription, and the two long-tailed blue peacocks facing each other, are regarded as representatives of Indian fauna. The pair of silvery fish in the centre symbolise fertility. These figurative and decorative motifs are specifically associated with marriage contracts created for the Baghdadi Jews who settled in India.

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Indian ketubah. Calcutta, 11th November, 1887 (BL Or.15651)
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The development of printing brought with it new decorating techniques, which were also employed to embellish Jewish marriage contracts. A case in point is copper plate engraving. Invented in Germany in the 15th century CE, the use of copper engraving for book illustration became widespread only in the mid-16th century CE. From the 17 th century CE onwards, this complex, skilled craft gained greater popularity, becoming widely practised in Holland and other European countries, including England.

The handsome full copper engraved border adorning this London ketubah, was apparently modelled on a plate developed in Amsterdam in 1687. The contract documents the union of Elazar son of David Tsarfati and Rachel daughter of Joseph Cortisos, on 18 Iyar 5562, corresponding to 20 May, 1802. Penned in a semi-cursive Sephardi script the ketubah text is flanked on both sides with leaf-patterned pillars. Each vertical frame features a vase containing floral variations populated with birds. The top right vignette shows a courting couple, the top left features an expectant woman with two children, seemingly a symbol of fertility and motherhood. In the arched upper compartment, two winged putti hold a drapery inscribed: be-siman tov (with a good sign). Below the vase in the right hand border is the name H. Burgh, Sculpt. who appears to be the master printer responsible for the engravings.

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Copper plate engraved ketubah. London, 1802 (BL Or 12376 H)
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The ketubot collection

The four Jewish marriage contracts described in this blog represent just a fraction of our significant holdings. As a matter of fact, a cursory survey of the ketubot preserved in the Library’s Hebrew manuscript collection, has generated some very interesting findings:

  • about 90 specimens from across three geographical zones - Asia, Europe and the Near East - have so far been identified
  • the ketubot originated in 16 countries, namely: Afghanistan, Egypt, England, Gibraltar, Greece, the Holy Land, India, Iran, Italy, Pakistan, Portugal, Romania, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey & Ukraine (Crimea)
  • more than a third are unadorned, the rest featuring a broad range of decorative embellishments
  • nearly a third of our ketubot – c. 28 pieces traced thus far- were crafted in Italy
  • a fair number have been captured digitally as part of the on-going Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project, and are accessible on our Digitised Manuscripts (DM)

More will be digitised and published on DM in the months ahead.

Further reading

Reuven Kashani, Illustrated ketubot of Afghanistan (in Hebrew). Jerusalem, 1978
– Illustrated Jewish marriage contracts from Iran, Bukhara and Afghanistan (in Hebrew). Jerusalem, 2003
Jose Luis Lacave, Medieval ketubot from Sefarad  [translated from the Spanish by Eliahu Green]. Jerusalem, 2002
Shalom Sabar, Ketubbah: the art of the Jewish marriage contract. New York, c. 2000


Ilana Tahan, Lead Curator, Hebrew and Christian Orient Studies
Ccownwork

 


[1] from the Hebrew consonantal root ‘ktv’ meaning writing; plural ketubot

19 April 2019

Pouring wine on Haggadot: a Passover exception

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Why are these Haggadah manuscripts different from all other Hebrew manuscripts?
On all other nights we avoid spilling wine in our books,
But on this particular night, it is unavoidable.

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Reading the Haggadah and pouring wine. Brother Haggadah, Spain, 14th century (Or 1404, f. 9r) Noc

This year the Jewish festival of Passover starts on 19th April. Two years ago we talked about cleaning the house before Passover as illustrated in some of the British Library’s Haggadot, and this year we want to talk about “making a mess” at the Seder table.

Traditionally, on the eve of Passover Jewish families gather together for one or two nights for a special ritual meal called the Seder meaning ‘order’. The Haggadah is a service book which gives 15 steps to celebrate the Israelites' deliverance from Egyptian enslavement as described in the Book of Exodus.

The Haggadah text was originally part of the Hebrew daily prayer book, becoming an independent unit around the 13th century. Its oldest extant version can be found in the prayer book of Saadiah Gaon from the tenth century, and its earliest copy as a separate book dates from the turn of the thirteenth century, the so-called Birds’ Head Haggadah (Jerusalem, Israel Museum Ms. 180/57), which is also the first extant Haggadah in a separate volume to be illustrated. By the fourteenth century, the custom of illuminating the manuscripts of the Haggadah became widespread both in Sephardi as well as Ashkenazi lands.

The Haggadah is one of the most frequently decorated texts in Jewish practice, and the British Library’s Hebrew manuscript collection includes a range of beautifully illuminated Haggadot from around the 14th century.

The exquisite illuminations can be admired online and on display in the Treasures Gallery, but have you ever wondered about the stains in these invaluable manuscripts? Some of these codices were very expensive to produce, but, as these stains prove, their patrons apparently were not as vigilant as we are now about keeping them clean. Even nowadays, many Jewish families have stained books used every year at Passover. Why?

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The first six steps of the Passover Seder. The participants are drinking wine and eating matzah, with books on the table. Leipnik Haggadah, Germany, 1740 (Sloane MS 3173, f.2r) Noc

The cup of salvation will I raise, and I will call upon the name of God.’ (Psalms 116:13).

During the evenings of the Passover Seder, it is traditional to drink four cups of wine, and eat or gaze at different foods symbolising certain aspects of the enslavement of the Jews in Egypt and their Exodus. We will take you on a tour through all of the hazardous moments of the Seder, showing how stains and food crumbs become not only inevitable, but when practising the same ritual throughout generations, part of the tradition itself.

Imagine that you are seated at a table with an open Haggadah in front of you. And you pour some wine just like the men shown below in the fourteenth-century Hispano-Moresque Haggadah from Spain ...

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Participants around the laid Seder table reciting the Haggadah and raising cups of wine. Hispano-Moresque Haggadah, Spain, late 13th century (Or 2737, f. 91r) Noc

Wine is often considered a symbol of salvation in Jewish culture (and beyond). The four cups of wine one traditionally has to drink during the Seder are to celebrate Israel’s redemption from Egypt:

I am the Lord, I will free you from the labours of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people and I will be your God.’ (Ex. 6:6-7).

The four cups match the four verbs that describe how God delivered Israel from Egypt and will deliver Israel from exile at the End of Days: to free, to deliver, to redeem and to take. Of course, there are many more interpretations of the four cups, and the number four returns over and over and again during Seder.

The first cup of wine is used to make Kiddush, the blessing over wine (note the wine hazard!).

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A man is holding a golden chalice. Ashkenazi Haggadah, Germany, 15th century (Add MS 14762, ff. 2v-3r) Noc

After the first cup of wine, you might wash your hands, and sit down to eat some parsley, or other vegetable (karpas) depending on your tradition, dipped in salty water. Isn’t it just natural to shake the parsley a bit after dipping (food hazard)? Then, the middle matzah (unleavened bread) of the three stacked on the table is broken in half, with one half hidden for later (crumb hazard). The Seder ritual then continues with the retelling of the story of the Exodus. Some communities also have a tradition of raising the Seder plate or matzah stack over their heads (food & crumb hazard).

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Holding the basket over the head. Barcelona Haggadah, Spain, 14th century (Add MS 14761, f. 28v) Noc

The Seder continues, going through the Haggadah with the retelling of the Exodus story. When listing the Ten Plagues of Egypt, each participant of the Seder removes a drop of wine from their glass with their finger (wine hazard). Then you raise your second cup of wine, and after the recitation of some Psalms (Psalms 113-114), it is customary to drink at least half of the glass each time, and the glass should be filled to the top (wine hazard). Two glasses of wine on an almost empty stomach! It is not surprising that the numbers of stains in the manuscripts increase as the Seder progresses. After this, the participants eat matzah (crumb hazard). Then maror (bitter herb). Then sticky haroset (fruit and nut paste - food hazard) on its own and in crumbly matzah sandwiches (crumb hazard). And you have to turn the pages with those sticky fingers…

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Pouring the second cup. Golden Haggadah, Spain, 14th century (Add MS 27210, ff. 27v-28r) Noc

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Blessings recited over the matzah and the maror at the beginning of the Seder meal. Ashkenazi Haggadah, Germany, 15th century (Add MS 14762, ff. 26v-27r) Noc

After a ritual washing of the hands, a festive meal is served, followed by the previously hidden afikoman matzah (from the Greek epikomion meaning ’dessert’). After the banquet you have to have two more glasses of wine! The third cup after birkat ha-mazon, the grace after meal and the fourth cup after reciting some more Psalms (wine hazard).

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The fourth cup is poured before reciting Psalm 79:6 which begins with Shefokh ḥamatkha (Pour out your wrath). Left: the initial word is missing in a 14th-century Ashkenazi Siddur (Add MS 26954, f. 124r). Right: the Shefokh in the Brother Haggadah, (Or 1404 f. 19v) Noc

Now you can see why it is dangerous to have food and drink around books, and why the British Library’s Reading Room policy is so strict.

Thanks to the Hebrew Manuscript Digitisation Project and BL Labs, you can download one of the illuminated Haggadot from data.bl, print them out and make your own wine stains!
Hag sameaḥ!

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Brother Haggadah, Spain, 14th century (Or 1404, f. 33r) Noc

Miriam Lewis and Zsofia Buda Ccownwork

14 February 2019

Jewish love potions: a user's guide

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Would you like some help in your pursuit of your beloved? Our Hebrew manuscript collection can offer numerous love potion recipes and incantations, and now is the best time of year to share some of this wisdom with you.

Whether you are a diligent pupil of magic, or just a desperately love sick muggle, you can find a long list of love potions, incantations and amulets by browsing our digitised Jewish manuscripts. Finding the required ingredients and following all of the instructions might prove to be much more difficult. What’s more, the preparation of many of these potions involves starving animals to death, slaughtering, or mutilating them. Such cruelty would be unacceptable nowadays, even in the name of love. Luckily, we have been able to find some less gruesome prescriptions.

The collection at the British Library holds several manuscripts on folk medicine and kabbalistic-medical miscellanies, mostly from the 16th-18th century. Many contain prescriptions of kabbalistic amulets alongside with medical remedies, which demonstrates the lack of a strict differentiation between what we would now call medicine, magic, and astrology. Superstition and the belief in supernatural powers were an inherent part of folk medicine. So do not be surprised if you find a love potion after a protective incantation against dogs, or after a recipe on how to stop nose bleeding.

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by Elishaʿ ben Gad of Anconah, Italy, 1535/6: love potion and amulet (right), incantation to obtain favour in the eyes of kings and princes (left) (BL Or 12362 , ff. 30v-31r)
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The majority of these magical/medical manuscripts are small in size, and don’t look anything special at first sight. One exception is a 16th-century Italian copy of ʿEts ha-daʿat (Tree of Knowledge) by Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, a treatise containing 125 kabbalistic formulae (kemeʿot). Our copy was written in a neat Italian hand and is decorated with initial-word panels and diagrams throughout. Do not trust the pretty looks though. The scribe made a fatal mistake when copying this love potion.

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ʿEts ha-daʿat by Elishaʿ ben Gad of Anconah, Italy, 1535/6: love potion recipe (BL Or 12362 , f. 30r)
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לאהבה – להרבות אהבה בין חתן וכלה כשתבא הכלה מהחופה לאחר גמר עשיית הברכה כתוב שם שניהם עם דבש על ב' עלי סלוויאה ותן לאכול העלה שכתוב עליו האיש לאיש ושם האשה לאשה

For love – to increase love between bridegroom and bride – when the bride comes from the huppah [canopy under which the Jewish couple is standing during the wedding ceremony] after finishing saying the blessing, write their names in honey onto two sage leaves and give the leaf with the man’s name on it to the man and the one with the woman’s name on it to the woman.

A less impressive volume from the 18th-19th century includes the same recipe but this time correctly (Or 10268). Can you spot the difference?

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Collection of medical recipes, Italy?, 18th-19th century: love potion (BL Or 10268 , f. 10r)
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להרבות אהבה בין חתן וכלה – כשיבאו מהחופה לאחר עשיית הברכה כתוב שם שניהם עם דבש על ב' עלי סלוויאה ותן לאכול העלה שכתוב עליו שם האיש לאשה ושם האשה לאיש

To increase love between bridegroom and bride – when they come from the huppah after saying the blessing, write their names in honey onto two sage leaves and give the leaf with the man’s name on it to the woman and [the one with] the woman’s name to the man.

This latter manuscript might have been someone’s personal notebook, who took better care when recording the recipe compared to the scribe of the neat looking Italian volume (Or 12362), perhaps because it was for his personal usage?

The recipe must have been considered a very effective one, since we also found it in an abridged form, in a 17th-century Ashkenazi collection of recipes and kabbalistic charms, probably written in today’s Belarus or Lithuania. This version written in Hebrew peppered with some Yiddish, recommends to apply the potion before the wedding night:

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Collection of kabbalistic charms and remedies, 17th century: love potion (in the middle) between instructions on how to avoid persecution and how to find favour in the eyes of rulers (BL Or 10568 , f. 10v)
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לאהבה חתן וכלה בלילה ראשונה יקח ב' זעלבן בלעטיר וכתוב עליו בדבש ותן לו לאכל שמו ושמה

For love between groom and bridegroom at the first night: take 2 Selben(sic!) bletter (‘sage leaves’, in Yiddish) and write on them in honey and give him (ie. them) to eat his name and her name.

It seems that it would be quite easy to make this recipe, and it might be delicious. However, if you do not manage to charm your beloved with honey and sage leaves, you can also experiment with some of the more laborious, but also more gruesome prescriptions. A 17th-century Italian folk medicine collection includes a recipe for a creamy substance that, after having applied it on your face and body, allegedly makes you irresistible. We have not tried it, and are rather sceptical about its success… Moreover, on a practical note, the identification of some of the ingredients is challenging.

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Collection of folk remedies, Italy, 17th century: love potion (BL Or 10161 , f. 34r)
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לאהבה קח עין צפרדע הנק' בוטן ועין עורב ותערבם עם שמן רוסטן ומשח פניך וגופך ויאהבוך כל האדם ותמצא חן בעיני כל רואיך באהר

For love: take an eye of a frog called 'boten' and an eye of crow and mix them with 'rusṭan' oil and rub it onto your face and body, and every man will love you and you will find favour in the eyes of all those who see you […]

The next recipe found in another 17th-century medical collection is much easier to prepare, though it may be tricky to administer it to the person of your desire.

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Collection of remedies, Orient, 17th century: love potion (Or 10462 , f. 11v)
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ע"א - חתוך צפרניך בסכין אח"כ רחצן במים ותן לשתות למי שתרצה ואהבך או חתוך בו תפוח ונתנהו לאכול

One more [for love] – cut your nails with a knife and then rinse them in water and give it to drink to whoever you want to fall in love with you or slice up some apple with the nails [put the nail into the apple] and give it to eat.

If you prefer not to bend over a cauldron for hours stirring concoctions, uttering the right magical formulae may also help. You only need a good mirror and some proficiency in medieval magical Hebrew, because the instructions are a bit confusing…

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Collection of cabbalistic charms and remedies, 17th century: love magic (BL Or 10568 , f. 12r)
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לאהבה קח מראה טיהרא ושפירא ותאמר למראה תתסכל בצורתי ואני אסתכל בצורתך ואתה תסתכל בצורת' ותאהבתה אותה עליו וכן תעשה ג' ימים זה אחר זה ותנח עליו ג' לילות ותאהבוך

For love – take a clear and good mirror and say to the mirror: ‘Look at my figure and I will look at your figure and you look at her figure and you will make her fall in love with him.’ Do this for three consecutive days and lie on it (the mirror) for three nights and she will love you.

Our collection can offer advice and help also for those who have already found the love of their life, but something or someone has cast a shadow over their marital bliss. This next recipe is especially recommended if you suspect that someone put a curse on your husband. Or if you just want to have a tasty breakfast together.

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Collection of remedies, Orient, 17th century: love potion preceded by a recipe to stop menstrual bleeding (BL Or 10462, f. 11r-11v)
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לאהבה בין איש לאשתו ואפי' מכושף קח מים מן נהרות ויין ומור ופלפל ושני בצי יונים ושני בצי תרנגולת ושחקם וערב הכל יחד והשקה האיש ואת האשה ויאהבו זה את זה

For love between husband and his wife or even he is under a spell [i.e. impotent]: take spring water, wine, and myrrh, and pepper, and two dove eggs and two hen eggs and break them, and mix them together, and give the mixture to drink to the man and the woman, and they will love each other.

Good luck in your amorous endeavours and if you try any of these recipes, please, send us feedback on how they worked.

Zsofi Buda, BL Hebrew Project
 CC-BY-SA

28 December 2018

Download Hebrew Manuscripts for free, in partnership with BL Labs

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We are delighted to announce that five more downloadable datasets containing a total of 139 digitised Hebrew Manuscripts have just been published online here, bringing the total number of Hebrew datasets to 22, and 723 manuscripts. These manuscripts were digitised as part of The Polonsky Foundation Catalogue of Digitised Hebrew Manuscripts (2013-2016), and we are able to provide them to download and reuse as part of the British Library Labs project (BL Labs).

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Festival Prayer Book, Italy, 1427-11499. Harley MS 5686, ff. 28r: miniature on the top shows a congregation praying in a synagogue, and the miniature on the bottom depicts the allegorical ‘Shabbat Bride’ under a wedding canopy. The manuscript can be found in dataset Heb19
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Formed in 2013, BL Labs is an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation funded project which supports and inspires the use of the British Library’s digital collections and data in exciting and innovative ways, through competitions, events and collaborative projects around the world. The team provides a digital research support service (you may apply for up to 5 days’ support service using this form) and promotes engagement with the Library’s digital collections and data through a series of events and workshops around the UK.

Each autumn, the British Library Labs Awards recognises exceptional projects that have used the Library’s digital collections and data in four awards categories: Research, Artistic, Commercial, and Teaching/Learning (If you know of someone who has done outstanding work using British Library digital collections and data, please encourage them to apply).


What’s in the datasets?
The digitised manuscripts are provided as 300ppi JPEGs, divided into small datasets of around 50GB each, sorted alphabetically by shelfmark (20 to 30 manuscripts per dataset). They contain a huge variety of Hebrew manuscripts, including Kabbalistic works, linguistic works, prayer books, biblical texts and commentaries, marriage certificates, charters and scrolls. The manuscripts also contain texts in many different languages, including Latin, Greek, Yiddish, Persian, Italian, Arabic and Syriac. The catalogue records for all of these manuscripts can be found in dataset Heb1 (TEI XML files).

All of the manuscripts are Public Domain, but we would appreciate it if users could read our Ethical terms of use guide before reusing the Hebrew manuscripts datasets.

Below is an overview of each of the new datasets, and a full list of all of the manuscripts included in the datasets can be seen here. We'd love to hear what you've done or made with the manuscript images and/or metadata, so please email us at digitalresearch@bl.uk.

Heb18. This dataset includes 22 manuscripts ranging from Add MS 27141 to Arundel Or 50. It includes commentaries on the Talmud and Midrash, Kabbalistic works, two German prayer books (Add MS 27208 and Add MS 27556) and a collection of medical prescriptions ‘Sefer Refu’ot’ from the 15th century, Germany (Add MS 27170). The miscellany Arundel OR 50 (1400-1799) includes a Hebrew Grammar in Latin, with a translation of the Lord's Prayer and the Christian confession of faith.

This dataset also includes ‘The Polyglot Bible’ (Add MS 5242), created in England in 1665. As well as having beautifully detailed illustrations, this manuscript, will be of great interest to linguists. It contains excerpts from the Old and New Testament and liturgical pieces translated into many different languages: Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Syriac, Aramaic, Ethiopic, Arabic, Persian, Coptic, Spanish, Italian, French and German.

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The Polyglot Bible, England, 1665 Add MS 5242, ff. 7v-8r: the commandment of keeping the Sabbath
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The Polyglot Bible, England, 16, Add MS 5242, ff. 14v-15r: Canticum B Virginis
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Heb19. This dataset includes 20 manuscripts from Harley MS 1743 to Or 12983. It contains many manuscripts looking at language and translation, including several Hebrew-Latin dictionaries and grammars, a 17 – 18th-century copy of the Psalms with Greek and Latin translations (Harley MS 2427), and Harley MS 7637, an 18th-century gospel of St Matthew in Hebrew translation. It also contains the 18 – 19th-century German manuscript ‘Perek Shirah’ (Or 12983), a midrashic commentary with a Yiddish translation.

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Perek Shirah, Germany, 1750 – 1899, Or 12983, f. 1r: a depiction of the world God created at the beginning of Chapter 1 of ‘Perek Shirah’: “The Heavens are saying: ‘The Heavens speak of God’s glory, and the skies tell of His handiwork.’ (Ps. 19:2)”
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The dataset also includes two early copies of parts of the Talmud – one of the central texts in Judaism. Harley MS 5794* (this manuscript has since been renamed in the British Library catalogue as Harley MS 5794A) contains sections of the Mishnah of Tractates Avot and Zeva’im, and was written in Spain in the 12th century. The manuscript Harley MS 5508 contains eight tractates of Seder Mo’ed from the Babylonian Talmud, and it was written in Spain in the 12th or 13th-century.

Heb20. This dataset includes 32 manuscripts from Or 2486 to Or 2508. It includes many different biblical commentaries and Midrashim (biblical exegesis) in Persian, Arabic, and Judeo-Arabic. Some of these range from as early as the 13th century (such as Or 2494 – Or 2497).

The dataset also includes the Torah scroll Or 13027. This 30 metre, 18-19th century scroll was digitised alongside its silk mantle, which was extensively restored by the British Library’s textile conservator Liz Rose. An article discussing her work can be seen here. As part of the Hebrew Manuscript Digitisation Project’s digital scholarship activities, this Torah mantle was 3D modelled by Dr Adi Keinan-Schoonbaert. You can read more about 3D imaging within the British Library here, and the 3D image of the Torah Mantle can be viewed, annotated and downloaded from Sketchfab.

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Pentateuch Scroll, Or 13027, unknown, 1750–1899. Silk brocade mantle after conservation
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Heb21. This dataset includes 33 manuscripts from Or 2518 to Or 5834. It includes many Arabic and Judeo-Arabic commentaries ranging in age from the 10th to the 16th centuries, such as on the Psalms and other biblical books from the Prophets and the Hagiographa. The earliest of these (Or 2552) is a collection of commentaries on Ecclesiastes and Lamentations, and Japheth ben Ali's Arabic commentary on Job. Japheth ben Ali is considered to be the foremost Karaite commentator on the bible, and he lived during the ‘Golden Age of Karaism’ in the 10th century. He died sometime in the second half of the 10th century, and so this manuscript, dated between the 10th and 11th century, could feasibly have been copied during his lifetime, or by someone who knew him directly.

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Sefer ha-Peli’ah, unknown, 1562. Or 2672, ff. 31r and 67r: two folios from ‘Sefer ha-Peli’ah’ (The Book of Wonder), a Kabbalistic biblical commentary
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Heb22. This dataset contains 32 manuscripts from Or 6236 to Stowe Ch 297. As well as several commentaries, a magic spell, and the Revelation of St John in Hebrew translation (Sloane MS 237), this dataset includes six different Jewish marriage certificates (Ketubot) dating from between 1711 and 1835, and a discussion on marriage law from the 15th century (Or 6358).

Stowe Ch 297 is part of the British Library’s fascinating collection of English charters dating to before the expulsion of the Jews in 1290. It is a French quitclaim with a Hebrew docket dating from 1266, in which Beatriz of Rattlesden, the prioress and the convent of Flixton is released from any obligation on the lands she and her convent acquired from Oliver Buscel.

Or 6360 is a 17-18th-century collection of astrological, kabbalistic and magical fragments. It includes ‘Sefer ha-Levanah’, an astrological book about the stages of the moon’s orbit, and ‘Mafteah Shelomoh’, a Hebrew translation of part one of the 14th or 15th-century grimoire ‘Key of Solomon’, one of only two versions that exist in Hebrew (part two, in Or 14759, is in the process of being digitised as part of Phase 2 of the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project). The text is attributed to King Solomon, and it would have been written originally in Latin or Italian. It includes invocations to summon the dead or demons, and compel them to do the reader’s will. It also includes curses and spells such as for finding stolen items, invisibility, and love.

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Collection of Astrological, Kabbalistic and Magical Fragments, unknown, 1600–1700. Or 6360, f. 1r: the first page of ‘Sefer ha-Levanah’, with an Astrologer
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Miriam Lewis, Project Manager Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project
https://blogs.bl.uk/.a/6a00d8341c464853ef022ad37726d4200c-pi

05 November 2018

The Judeo-Persian manuscript collection in the British Library

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The newly launched Judeo-Persian collection guide is an important and valuable addition to the British Library’s repertoire of Middle Eastern on-line resources, that have been made accessible to increasing numbers of researchers and users worldwide. Additionally, as part of our on-going Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project, we have already digitised 34 Judeo-Persian manuscripts and will continue to do more in the months ahead.

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Judeo-Persian introduction to the commentary on Proverbs, 11th-2th century (BL Or 2459, f.64v)
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Introduction and brief historical note
Although quantitatively modest, the diversity and richness of its content, and the indisputable rarity and significance of some the items found in it, make the Judeo-Persian manuscript collection stand out. It moreover attests to the close, centuries-old cultural and historical ties that have existed between local Jewish and Persian communities.

These links can be traced back to pre-antiquity, more precisely to the period of the Babylonian captivity when, in 597 and 586 BCE, the entire Jewish population in the Kingdom of Judea was exiled by King Nabuchadnezzar II. In 539 BCE Babylon fell to the Persian Emperor Cyrus the Great whose famous declaration, recounted in the Bible, and alluded to in the famous Cyrus Cylinder, allowed the Jewish exiles to return to their homeland, rebuild their national life, and most importantly, the Jerusalem Temple which Nabuchadnezzar had sacked and raised to the ground.

Those exiles who decided to remain on Babylonian-Persian territory, formed the core of the permanent Jewish settlements, which little by little spread from the Babylonian centres, to the inner cities and regions of Persia. The tolerance showed by Persian rulers towards their Jewish subjects, especially during the early medieval period, enabled them to prosper and thrive. Biblical luminaries such as Zerubbabel, Ezra and Nehemiah for instance, emerged from the newly established colonies, and managed to play leading roles at the royal Persian court.

The history of Persian Jewry is an extensive and fascinating topic, which is far beyond the scope of this short blog. For a clear and concise historical account of the Jewish communities that lived in Persia, from antiquity to the modern era, I recommend Elias J. Bickerman and Walter Joseph Fischel's article "Persia" in Encyclopaedia Judaica, 2nd ed., 2007, vol.15, pp.782-792.

The Manuscripts
The star item in our Judeo-Persian manuscript collection is undoubtedly the eighth-century trade letter found in 1901 in a Buddhist monastery at Dandan-Uiliq, present-day Xinjiang, China (Or 8212/166). Information recently received from a reliable researcher, who has studied in-depth a number of our Judeo-Persian manuscripts, has revealed that the biblical commentaries in Or 2459 and Or 2460, are in fact datable to the 11th to 12th century, i.e. some 400 years earlier than George Margoliouth let us believe (G. Margoliouth’s Catalogue of the Hebrew and Samaritan manuscripts in the British Museum, 1965, vol.1, pp.184-185). This discovery makes them the second earliest Judeo-Persian manuscripts in our keep.

The blog Important Judeo-Persian bibles in the British Library posted in 2014, provided descriptions of the rarest handwritten and printed Judeo-Persian biblical works the Library holds. These included the Pentateuch dated 6th March 1319 CE (Or 5446), regarded as the earliest dated Torah text in Judeo-Persian, and the beautifully crafted copy of Torat Adonai (God’s Law) issued in 1546 at Constantinople, by Eliezer ben Gershom Soncino. In this edition, the Judeo-Persian tafsir (translation) was printed alongside the original Hebrew text, the Aramaic translation, and the Judeo-Arabic rendition of the eminent rabbinic authority and scholar Sa’adia Gaon (882-942 CE). The Torat Adonai, moreover, was the first printed Persian text of any kind, and the first Judeo-Persian translation of the Pentateuch to become known in the Western world.

The number and quality of our illustrated Judeo-Persian manuscripts are comparatively few and unrefined, yet pleasing nevertheless. Apart from the better-known Or 13704, which was the subject of a special blog posted last year, A Judeo-Persian epic, the Fath Nama (Book of Conquest), there are two other specimens which exhibit stylistic traits common to both Persian and Judeo-Persian manuscript painting. Lack of a colophon (the inscription at the end of a manuscript providing details about its production), is an additional common characteristic defining the manuscripts discussed here. Consequently, data about the original commission, and most importantly the identities of the artists responsible for the illustrations, remain shrouded in mystery.

Or 4730 is an incomplete 18th-century paper manuscript of Nizami’s Persian medieval epic Haft Paykar (The Seven Beauties). The text has been copied in a neat Persian Hebrew semi-cursive script as can be seen here:

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Left (f.49v): a royal feast showing Bahram Gur in the upper register, offering a cup to the lady seated on his right. Below, musicians are seen playing on a lyre, flute and tambourine, while a female performer executes a balancing act with bottles; right (f.44v): an example of the neat Persian Hebrew script used throughout (BL Or 4730)
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Nizami Ganjavi (1141-1209) is acknowledged as the greatest romantic epic poet in Persian literature, with the Haft Paykar perhaps regarded as his masterpiece. A polymath with a phenomenal intellect, Nizami was not only versed in Arabic and Persian literature, but was also intimately familiar with diverse fields of knowledge, ranging from astronomy, astrology, botany, mathematics, to medicine, Islamic law, history, philosophy and many other. In the Haft Paykar Nizami succeeded in illustrating masterfully the harmony of the universe, and the affinity between the sacred and the temporal. Nizami’s erudition and scholarship are perfectly reflected in his intensely lyrical and sensory poetical output, earning him the well-deserved appellation of Hakim (Sage).

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Left (f.73r): squatting on a decorated bench alongside one of the Seven Beauties, is Bahram Gur feasting in the Golden Pavilion; right (f.128r): Bahram Gur feasting in the White Pavilion. Two female musicians are seen playing the lyre and the tambourine (BL Or 4730)
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Completed in 1197, Haft Paykar was a romanticized biography of Bahram Gur (the Sassanian ruler Bahram V, ruled 420-438 CE). The Seven Beauties were princesses who became Bahram’s wives, and who received their own distinctly colored and themed pavilions in his palace. The princesses would entertain the king with compelling and captivating stories, whenever he visited them. In the story, Bahram’s royal prowess was tested, and he had to learn lessons on fairness, justice and responsibility. The 13 illustrations in our manuscript depict scenes closely related to the central narrative. Though crudely drafted, they are nonetheless likeable, owing chiefly to their colors, as attested by the examples included above.

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Left (f.8v): a girl holding a bouquet of flowers; centre (f.28v): a warrior in Qajar attire carrying a sword and a bludgeon(?); right (f.46v): an old, bearded dervish carrying an axe and begging bowl (BL Or 10194)
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Written on thick paper between 1785 and 1825, the album Or 10194 is a poetical anthology by various poets. The poor calligraphy is mitigated by the five full-page vividly coloured paintings executed in opaque watercolors. These are effectively portraits of various characters, executed in traditional Qajar style.

The largest portion of our Judeo-Persian holdings, however, are unadorned textual manuscripts. Among them the following are worthy of attention:

  • Or 8659, contains a theological-apologetic section of Sefer ha-mitsvot (Book of Commandments). It largely consists of a religious discussion of various aspects of the commandment of circumcision. Despite its brevity (ten leaves only), the manuscript is significant as a very early specimen of Karaite apologetic literature written in Judeo-Persian.
  • Or 10576, is an important fragmentary example of a Sidur (Daily Prayer book) according to the Persian rite.
  • Or 4743, the only known complete manuscript of Daniyal Nameh (the story of biblical Daniel).
  • Or 2451, a Pentateuch copied at Qum, 1483-1484, that includes Josiah ben Mevorakh al-ʿAqūlī's calendar of the cycles with rules for fixing the Jewish festivals (ff. 363v-375v).
  • Or 10482, a miscellaneous compilation comprising ‘Amukot Shemu’el (Samuel’s depths), definitions of difficult words in the Book of Samuel, arranged in order of the biblical verses (ff.99r-114v). An early work of great lexical importance.

In this blog I have endeavored to discuss significant collection items written in Judeo-Persian, pinpointing at the same time some commonalities and differences between them and Persian manuscripts. Place of production, artistic and thematic elements, along with language and history, constitute principal areas of intersection, that offer ample scope for discovery, interpretation and research.

Watch out for my follow-up blog, when I will be focussing on the Judeo-Persian printed book collection the Library owns.

For a complete list of our Judeo-Persian manuscripts with brief metadata, and hyperlinks to those that are already online see our list of Digitised Judeo-Persian manuscripts.


Ilana Tahan, Lead Curator Hebrew & Christian Orient Studies
 ccownwork

02 January 2018

A papyrus puzzle: an unidentified fragment from 4th century Oxyrhynchus

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The Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project team has just started working on five papyrus fragments, which are some of the earliest Hebrew texts we have at the British Library. The fragments are a fascinating mystery, one that we hope you can help us solve.

In 1922, the almost 70-year old Egyptologist Flinders Petrie discovered some papyrus fragments written in Hebrew script during an excavation in Oxyrhynchus, Egypt. These fragments were acquired by the British Museum that year, and are now held in the Oriental Collection of the British Library under the shelfmarks Or 9180A, B, C, D, and E.

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Five papyrus fragments, Oxyrhynchus, c. 4th Century CE (BL Or 9180A, Or 9180B, Or 9180C, Or 9180D, Or 9180E) 
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As you can see here, the papyrus fragments are housed all together in one glass frame. Papyrus documents have been traditionally housed in glass since the late 19th century, when people first started to think about how to study them without handling them directly. It is still considered the most suitable storage method for papyri as glass is inert - papyrus requires a highly stable chemical environment due to its high salt content. Static is also problematic as papyrus is very fibrous, and the rigid nature of glass frames means that they can be handled without disrupting the material. The imaging team at the British Library were able to produce incredibly high quality images of the fragments through the glass, which has enabled us to research them fully without risking damaging them.

We are not able to precisely date these fragments, but the current consensus is that they are from the fourth century CE. Three of them (A, B and E) are poems, all written in Hebrew language and script. Fragment D is a Greek contract, with Hebrew text in the margins, which is probably also of a legal nature. Fragment C is written in Hebrew characters however the language – except the last three lines –is yet unidentified. This is where our mystery lies – and perhaps it is about to be uncovered by one of you.

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Our ‘mystery’ as it appears in its current housing (BL Or 9180C)
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As you can see here fragment C actually contains two pieces: a small piece on the left and a larger one on the right. Photographs of the Or 9180 fragments have been published in various articles over the years, in 1923, 1971 and 1985, and we have been able to use these to ascertain that the position of the two pieces of C have changed over time. In all of these publications, the smaller piece was attached to the lower left side of the larger piece. Today however, the smaller piece is situated at the upper left side of the larger one.

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Photograph of Or 9180C from The Hebrew Scripts by S. A. Birnbaum (London: Palaeographia, 1954-1957), no. 152.
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If you have a closer look at the arrangement above,  you can see the matching strands of the fibres within the papyrus, and that the three lines of text on the smaller fragment are perfect continuation of the last three lines of text in the larger piece. This shows that the earlier arrangement of the fragment was correct, and that what might have happened is that the left part of the fragment had broken off from the larger piece when the fragment was rehoused at some point after 1985. Thanks to the digitisation project, we were able to prove this theory by virtually reconstructing fragment C without risking damaging the original fragment.

   
Virtual reconstruction of the original arrangement of the fragment
 CC-BY-SA

In its reconstructed form, the last three lines of the papyrus, first deciphered by Hartwig Hirschfeld in 1923, become once again legible:

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The so-called colophon - the last three lines of Or 9180C
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These lines were written in Aramaic and have been identified as a colophon[1]:

אנה שא[ול] בי לעזר כת[ב]ת אלין כת[בי]ן שלום על ישראל אמן ואמן סלה

I, Saul son of [E]leazar have written these wri[tings]. Peace be upon Israel. Amen and amen, selah

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The reconstructed arrangement of Or 9180C
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The 14 lines above the colophon are a real mystery though, both in terms of language as well as content. It seems that this fragment was originally a list of words in two columns, but now only the right column has remained more or less intact, with just small traces of the left column visible. For us, the real challenge is to identify the content of this fragment. Over the years various suggestions have been made, such as: a kind of Latin and Greek vocabulary; a list of gnostic charms; magical incantations; an inventory of articles; and a list of Latin names.[2]

Although Fragment C contains Hebrew characters, unlike the other fragments in Or 9180, the language is not easily identifiable. It was not uncommon for Jews to use Hebrew script when writing in a language other than Hebrew. Among the most widely used are Judeo-languages are Judeo-Arabic, Yiddish and Ladino (Judeo-Spanish). Ancient Jewish Greek literature however was almost always written in Greek script.

Our initial approach to deciphering this fragment was by looking into what languages the Jews of Egypt spoke in the Late Antique period:

Four languages are of value: loaz (‘foreign language’, i.e. Greek) for song, romi (i.e. Latin) for war, sursi (Aramaic/Syriac) for dirges, and Hebrew for speaking
(Palestinian Talmud, Sotah 7)

We can see here in this quote from the Palestinian Talmud, compiled in the 4th century CE, that the Jews of the period were multilingual. Evidence shows that the Jewish population would have been exposed to Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, although they may not have been equally fluent in all of them. Greek became one of the main languages if not the main language of Egyptian Jewish communities of the time. They used the Greek translation of the Pentateuch, the Septuagint, which was mostly compiled by Alexandrian Jewish scholars in the 3rd century BCE -2nd century CE.

The language of this fragment was discussed further at a workshop organized by Platinum (specialists researching Latin papyrus fragments) at the University of Naples Federico II in May 2017. The participants there concluded that the language could not be straightforwardly identified as Aramaic, Greek or Latin. There were some reservations though. Rabbinic literature of the Hellenistic period is rich in Latin and Greek loanwords, but they are often very different from their original forms. For example: a word may not have simply been transliterated, but would have gone through some phonetic and accentual changes. They can preserve lower register (colloquial or slang) words of spoken Greek or Latin that are unattested in literary sources, and were not recorded in dictionaries. Consequently, the fragment we are dealing with could contain such low register Greek or Latin words written in Hebrew script. On the same basis, it could also have been written, perhaps, in a local Aramaic dialect. A further possibility, which as far as we know has not yet been looked into is that the text of the fragment could be the local Egyptian language (Coptic) in Hebrew script.

As well as the mystery of the language, another question to consider is why this text would have a colophon with a blessing at the end? It would seem unnecessary at the end of a list of articles, or a list of names. This might be more plausible if the text was of a magical or mystical nature.

Such a small fragment and so many questions. Our aim with this blog post is to draw attention to this fascinating and mysterious text. Perhaps one of you can solve the puzzle? If you think you have a solution, or further questions, please get in touch with us on Twitter @BL_HebrewMSS. We look forward to hearing from you!


Zsofi Buda and Miriam Lewis, BL Hebrew Project

 CC-BY-SA

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[1] Colophon is a kind of inscription recording information relating to the circumstances of the production of a manuscript, which were usually placed at the end of a work.
[2] For studies discussing this fragment, see ‘Publications’ in the full catalogue record.

24 November 2017

The latest from the British Library’s Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project: Introducing Phase 2

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Our followers will be pleased to learn that the second phase of the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project (HMDP2) started last year, and we are delighted to announce that we have now published 173 newly catalogued and digitised manuscripts online. This phase of the project is part of the International Digital Library of Hebrew Manuscripts (Ktiv), an initiative of the National Library of Israel in cooperation with the Friedberg Jewish Manuscript Society. Ktiv is a project to make tens of thousands of Hebrew manuscripts from hundreds of collections around the world available via a single platform. To date, the project has made available approximately 50% of all known Hebrew manuscripts in the world!

As part of HMDP2, we aim to digitise at least 1250 Hebrew manuscripts, in addition to the 1302 already digitised through phase 1 of the project, which was funded by The Polonsky Foundation. Manuscripts from both phases will be made available online via the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website and NLI’s Ktiv: International Digital Library of Hebrew Manuscripts.

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Festival prayer book according to the Roman rite, from the first half of the 15th century, Italy. This manuscript can be viewed in its entirety here (BL Or 10752 f. 58v)
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Continuing our digitisation work from phase 1 of the project, the range of manuscripts included in Phase 2 is vast and representative of the huge geographical and cultural scope of Jewish life and history around the world. It includes collection items from Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Karaite traditions, and from as far afield as Yemen and India, and manuscripts also created in the UK.

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Festival prayer book according to the Western-Ashkenazi rite, from 1650-1, Worms. This manuscript is yet to be published (BL Or 10641 f. 32r
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Their age, size and material show great variety as well. The oldest items that are being digitised in Phase 2 are some small papyri fragments from 4th-century Oxyrhynchus, Egypt (Or 9180a-e). They were discovered by the Egyptologist Sir Flinders Petrie in 1922.

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A close up of BL Or 9180 fragment ‘A’, from c.4th century, Oxyrhynchus. This manuscript is yet to be published
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Kabbalistico-midrashic commentaries on the books of the Hebrew Bible, 1721-1758, Italy. This huge Kabbalistic work by Moses David Valle contains 1032 folios! This manuscript is yet to be published (BL Add MS 27165)
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The manuscripts in HMDP2 also represent the wide range of languages and dialects that developed in Jewish communities in the diaspora. These include Aramaic, Judeo-Arabic, Ladino, Yiddish, and Judeo-Italian. And if it was not enough, we are also digitising our significant Judeo-Persian manuscripts such as the 18th-century collection of poetical works (Or 10196) and the illustrated Fath nama, a poetical account of the story of Joshua (Or 13704, see our recent blog A Judeo-Persian epic, the Fath Nama 'Book of Conquest'). We also have manuscripts written in Hungarian (Or 10134), Syriac (Or 9926), Judeo-Urdu (see our post A unique Judaeo-Urdu manuscript, Or.13287), Judeo-Hindi (Or 14014) and Judeo-Gujarati (Or 13835).

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Anthology of Judeo-Persian poems, from 1775-1825, Iran. The collection includes poems by Hafiz and Rumi. This manuscript is yet to be published (BL Or 10194 f. 8v)
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The majority of the manuscripts we are digitising in Phase 2 derive from the British Library’s Gaster collection of Hebrew and Samaritan manuscripts. The famed Romanian Jewish bibliophile, linguist, folklorist and communal leader Dr Moses Gaster (1856–1939), built up a vast library in his areas of expertise including Hebraica, Judaica, Samaritan, Rumanian and various other fields of scholarship. The largest segment of manuscripts from Gaster’s library (c. 1000 manuscripts) was purchased by the British Museum in 1924, but the objects were not accessioned until several years later. The Gaster manuscripts span nearly a millennium with the earliest examples dating from c. 10th-11th century. The full gamut of Jewish subjects is represented in the collection which includes among others, biblical, liturgical and legal texts, kabbalistic, polemical and scientific works.

Among Gaster’s many interests was the Samaritan community, and he became an authority on Samaritan language and literature. The Samaritans are an ethno-religious group living in Israel and the West Bank. Their religion ‘Samaritanism’, is closely related to Judaism, and based on the Samaritan Pentateuch. The Samaritan alphabet is a direct descendent of the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet, which was a variant of the Phoenician alphabet. 88 of our 178 Samaritan manuscripts come from Gaster’s collection. The manuscripts we will be digitising during Phase 2 include Samaritan Pentateuchs (codices and scrolls), liturgies for different festivals, amulets, chronicles and historical works, calendars and marriage contracts.

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Samaritan liturgy for Passover from 1748, Nablus. This manuscript can be viewed it its entirety here (BL Add MS 19005 f.23r)
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For a list of all Hebrew and Samaritan manuscripts that we have digitised to date as part of Phase 2, please follow this link (Phase 2 Digitised Manuscripts). We are also live-tweeting everything we publish, so please follow us on Twitter @BL_HebrewMSS to see all the manuscripts as they are available online. 

 

Ilana Tahan and Miriam Lewis, Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project
 ccownwork

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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