Asian and African studies blog

21 posts categorized "Hebrew"

16 March 2020

Hands off! This book is mine! Ownership inscriptions in Hebrew manuscripts

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Making notes in a book in not always an act of vandalism. Sometimes it is an act of caring. I often put my name in my own books before lending them. And I am not the only one. Manuscripts were held dear by their owners. A good number of inscriptions bear witness of the care patrons took to ensure the safety of their precious books. Just like Jewish scribes, Jewish owners also developed set phrases to make their marks.
"诇注讜诇诐 讬讻转讜讘 讗讚诐 砖诪讜 注诇 住驻专讜 砖诪讗 讗讞讚 诪谉 讛砖讜拽 讬讘讗 讜讬讗诪专 讝讛 讛住驻专 砖诇讬 诇讻谉 讻转讘转讬 砖诪讬..."
[People sign their books from the beginning of time lest someone come from the market and say 鈥楾his book is mine鈥, thus I have written my name 鈥

Elisha士 ben Gad of Ancona, 士Ets ha-da士at. Italy, 1535/6.Or_12362_f049v
Elisha士 ben Gad of Ancona, 士Ets ha-da士at. Safed, 1535/6. British Library, Or 12362, f. 49v Noc

This is one of most popular phrases. Why people from the market? A marketplace was seen as a gathering place for strangers, idlers, and perhaps even rascals. Owners were concerned that such suspicious characters would claim their precious books. The owner of an 18th-century Passover hagadah expresses his opinion about such false claimers very explicitly:
"诇注讜诇诐 讬讻转讜讘 讗讚诐 砖诪讜 注诇 住驻专讜 砖诪讗 讬讘讜讗 专' 讞诪住谉 讜专' 讙讝诇谉 诪谉 讛砖讜拽 讬讗诪专 砖诇讬 讛讜讗."
[People put their name into their book lest Rabbi Robber and Rabbi Thief come from the market and say 鈥業t is mine鈥.]

Passover Hagadah. Italy, 1756.Or_12324_f001r det
Passover Hagadah. Italy, 1756. British Library, Or 12324, f. 1r Noc

The owner of a halakhical miscellany composed an entire poem to declare his right to possess the book with a warning at the end:

讛驻谞拽住 讛讝讛 诪讗谉 讚讗砖讘讞转讬讛 / 讛讞讻诐 讛讜讗 讗诐 讛讜讗 砖讜讟讛 / 讘诪讛专讛 讬砖讬讘讛讜 诇讬 讘讞驻爪讬 / 讜诪讻讬住讜 诪注讜转讬讜 讬讜爪讬讗 / 讻讗砖专 注砖讬转讬 讻讬 专爪讬转讬讜 / 驻专注转讬讛讜 讜讗讞专 诇拽讞转讬讛讜
讗谞讬 专讗讬转讬 讗谞砖讬 诪讚讜转 / 砖拽讜谞讬诐 住驻专讬诐 讘诇讬 诪注讜转 / 专拽 讘讞诪砖讛 讗爪讘注讜转 / 诇讻谉 讞转诪转讬 注诇讬讜 砖诪讬 / 讻讚讬 砖诇讗 讬讘讗 讗讞讚 诪谉 讛砖讜拽 / 讜讬注砖讛 诇讬 爪讜拽 / 讜讗谞讬 谞讜转谉 诇讜 驻讜拽.

[Whoever finds this book, be he wise or a fool, quickly return it to me in accordance with my wishes,
And take his money out of his pocket, as I did when I wanted it: I paid for it, and then I took it.
I have seen people who bought books not with money but only with their five fingers, thus I wrote my name on [this book] lest someone come from the market and bring me trouble, [because then] I will tell him to scram.]

Collection of halakhical works. Italy?, 18th-19th century.Or_10092_f046r Collection of halakhical works. Italy?, 18th-19th century.Or_10092_f045v
Collection of halakhical works. Italy?, 18th-19th century. British Library, Or 10092, f. 45v and 46r Noc

As you can see, the owner wanted to make sure that his message gets through to whoever tries to take his book, so he added the first part of his little poem also in Italian on the other side of the opening:
Questo libro chi la cata sia savio o sia matto tosto tosto al mio piacere lo renda e danari della sua borscia spenda come fece io quando lo volso lo pagai e poi lo tolso
[Whoever takes hold of this book, be he wise or be he foolish, quickly quickly return it in accordance with my wishes, and spend coins from his purse as I did when I wanted it: I paid and then I took it.]

The first stanza is somewhat obscure both in Hebrew and in Italian. A possible interpretation is that if someone gets hold of this manuscript, they should return it to the owner without hesitation, and buy one for themselves.

Such Italian inscriptions in Jewish books are not something unique. In the British Library collection, there is a large number of Italian Jewish manuscripts, and they often contain notes by the owners in Italian. These notes are very often put in rhyme. Raffael Vita inscribed the following little verse into his manuscript:
Questo libro e di carta chi 猫 orbo non lo quarda. Se piace a qualcheduno se ne vada comprar uno com' ho fatto ancor'io questo libro 猫 mio Raffael Vita 鈥
[Paper was used to make this book; those who are blind cannot look. Whoever likes and covets it must buy their own, just like I did. This one鈥檚 mine! Raffael Vita鈥

Miscellany, Italy?, 16th century. Or_10485_f009v det
Miscellany, Italy?, 16th century. British Library, Or 10485 f. 9v Noc

Almost identical inscription appears at the beginning of a 17th-century miscellany, but someone, probably a later owner deleted the name at the end:
Questo libro 猫 di carta che un 鈥 orbo non lo guarda se piacere a qualche uno si ne vada a comprar uno et per questo mi son sotto il mio nuome Jacob .. da 鈥
[Paper was used to make this book; those who are blind cannot look. Whoever likes and covets it must buy their own, just like I did. And this is why I have my my name here Jacob鈥.of 鈥

Miscellany, Italy, 17th century.Or_12360_f001v det
Miscellany, Italy, 17th century. British Library, Or 12360, f. 1v Noc

Another popular rhyme, used not only by Jewish, but also by Christian book owners, was a note in case the book would get lost:
Se questo libro mai se perdesse e il nome del padrone non si sapesse io che morire sono nato graziadio et angeli Sacerdoti son nominato. Reggio 12 aprile 1767
[If this book ever gets lost and the name of its owner is not known, I who was born to die thank God and the angels Sacerdoti is how I am called. Reggio 12 April 1767.]

Book of Psalms in Hebrew and Italian translation. Italy, 18th century.Or_9902_f001r
Book of Psalms in Hebrew and Italian translation. Italy, 18th century. British Library, Or 9902, f.1r Noc

As you can see, more than one member of the Sacerdoti family left their mark on this page.

The owner of a 16th-century collection of commentaries wanted to use the same rhyme, but for some reason he left the note unfinished. The most important thing - the name - is missing!
Se questo libro mai se perdesse e il nome del padrone non sapesse che lo trova che lo rende鈥.
[If this book ever gets lost, and the name of the owners is not known, whoever finds it, whoever returns it...]

Collection of biblical commentaries and other works. Italy, 1535.Or_9155_f002r det
Collection of biblical commentaries and other works. Italy, 1535. British Library, Or 9155, f. 2r Noc

If you decide to compose a short poem to ensure that everyone knows this book is yours, do not forget to add your name at the end! Otherwise you might never get it back!

Zsofi Buda, Asian and African Collections Ccownwork


04 March 2020

Until the donkey ascends the ladder: Hebrew scribal formulae

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Johanan, having copied a manuscript in Tivoli in 1514 in neat Sefardi script, describes himself in the colophon as 鈥渢he smallest of the disciples, who laps up the dust of the feet of the sages, the servant of their disciples鈥 Johanan ben Jacob Siracusi.鈥

Midrash on the Minor Prophets. Tivoli, 1514. Harley_ms_5704_f199r det
Midrash on the Minor Prophets. Tivoli, 1514. British Library, Harley MS 5704, f. 199r Noc

A colophon, meaning 鈥渇inal point鈥 in Greek, is a note that provides details about the production of the manuscript such as when and where it was copied, who copied it for whom, and so on. Jewish scribes often used certain set phrases in their colophons; 鈥渢he dust of the feet of the sages鈥 was one of them. The expression, portraying the scribe as a humble, insignificant fellow, probably comes from the Mishnah: 鈥渓et thy house be a house of meeting for the Sages and sit in the very dust of their feet, and drink in their words with thirst.鈥 (Mishnah, Pirke Avot 1:4)

The phrase became popular as an expression of humility in Jewish rabbinical literature, and it appears also in Hebrew colophons from various eras and lands. Here is another example from 17th-century Yemen: a certain Hayyim on the Mishnah calls himself 鈥渢he smallest of the scribes, dust of the feet of the sages, the young Hayyim ben Shalom ben David ben Isaac ben Solomon ben Jacob al-岣gagi鈥. We should not necessarily imagine Hayyim as a young man, though. 鈥淵oung鈥 here is a synonym for insignificant or minute. Also, notice that humility does not prevent him from listing his ancestors back to five generations!

Maimonides鈥 Commentary on Seder Mo士ed. Yemen, 1652. Or_2218_f096v det
Maimonides鈥 Commentary on Seder Mo士ed. Yemen, 1652. British Library, Or 2218, f. 96v Noc

In 1476, another scribe uses a very similar phrase in his colophon: 鈥淚 am the youngest among the disciples, who embraces the dust of the feet of the sages, Moses ben Masud ben Jacob鈥︹

Digest of several Talmud tractates by David ben Levi of Narbonne. 1476.Add_ms_19778_f151r det
Digest of several Talmud tractates by David ben Levi of Narbonne. 1476. British Library, Add MS 19778, f. 151r Noc

While humble, and insignificant, Moses also make sure that his work pays off: in exchange for his efforts he asked for protection against ill fate: 鈥淏lessed He who helps his servant鈥 who gives strength to the tired 鈥 may no harm befall the scribe not now and not ever, until the donkey ascends the ladder that our father Jacob dreamt about.鈥

鈥淯ntil the donkey ascends the ladder鈥: that is, never, since the donkey is not ever likely to climb up the ladder. This is another nice example of set phrases Jewish scribes used in colophons. It first cropped up in some 13th-century Ashkenazi (German) codices, and has in time developed into a very popular formula. 鈥淏e strong and strengthened, no harm befall the scribe, not ever, until the donkey ascends the ladder鈥 writes Nehemiah ben Jacob at the end of a 14th-century Ashkenazi festival prayer book.

Festival prayer book. Germany or Eastern Mediterranean, 1349.Add_ms_10456_f172v det
Festival prayer book. Germany or Eastern Mediterranean, 1349. British Library, Add MS 10456, f. 172v Noc

Another 14th-century scribe inscribed his colophon at the end of the carmina figurata 鈥 text written to form various shapes 鈥 here forming the word hazak, meaning 鈥榖e strong鈥. His colophon, like many others, starts with the same word, hazak: 鈥淏e strong and strengthened, may no harm befall the scribe, not today and not ever, until the donkey ascends the ladder that Jacob our forefather dreamt about.鈥

Harley_ms_1861_f219r Detail of Abraham's Pentateuch. Harley_ms_1861_f219r det
'Abraham's Pentateuch and Rashi'. Germany, 14th century. British Library, Harley MS 1861, f. 219r, with detail Noc

The second half of the rhyme refers to the biblical story of Jacob, who in a dream saw a ladder reaching the heavens with angels ascending and descending (Genesis 28:10-19). So what could be the connection between angels and donkeys? The Babylonian Talmud has an answer: 鈥淚f the early generations are characterized as sons of angels, we are the sons of men. And if the early generations are characterized as the sons of men, we are akin to donkeys.鈥

Jacob鈥檚 ladder. Golden Haggadah. Spain, 14th century. Add_ms_27210_f004v det
Jacob鈥檚 ladder. Golden Haggadah. Spain, 14th century. British Library, Add MS 27210, f. 4v Noc

We can agree that while angels can ascend and descend between earth and heavens with ease, donkeys would have a much more difficult time.

There is another possible source of this phrase that has nothing to do with Jacob鈥檚 ladder, and it comes from a midrash (a type of biblical interpretation): 鈥淔our things were said by the wise: As the sack can be washed white, so knowledge can be found with the ignorant; when the donkey ascends the ladder, then you can find wisdom with fool; when the kid puts up with the panther, then the daughter-in-law can put up with her mother-in-law; when you find an entirely white raven, then you find a good woman鈥 (Otsar midrashim, Hupat Eliyahu 139). The donkey ascending the ladder is thus a metaphor for impossibility or improbability.

In a 16th-century codex from Safed, someone crossed out the bit about the donkey in the colophon. Perhaps it did not seem appropriate or humorous for everyone? 鈥淚, Solomon Ezobi, the youngest among the disciples in the yeshiva of Safed 鈥 copied this book鈥 be the will of God that no harm befall the scribe until the donkey ascends the ladder that Jacob our forefather dreamt.鈥

Kabbalistic treatise Or_6835_f235r det
Kabbalistic treatise. Safed, 1524. British Library, Or 6835, f. 235r Noc

All of these colophons were from neatly executed manuscripts. The last example is less orderly, scribbled down by a more cursive hand: 鈥淭his Birkat ha-mazon [Grace After Meals] is finished with the help of the Lord鈥. May no harm befall the scribe not today and not ever, until the donkey ascends the ladder that Jacob our forefather dreamed. Amen selah 鈥 I Joseph bar Gershon the scribe鈥

Fragment of a prayer book, 18th century? Arundel_or_50_f082v
Fragment of a prayer book, 18th century? British Library, Arundel Or 50, f. 82v Noc

The doodles under the colophon seem to be added by the same person but they have nothing to do with donkeys or ladders. As far as I know there is only one manuscript with a little doodle depicting a donkey climbing a ladder held in the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, Milan (Cod. Milan. Nr. 7). Sadly it has not been digitised yet, but here is a reproduction of its reproduction!

Donkey climbing a ladder
From Alexander Scheiber, Essays on Jewish folklore and comparative literature (Budapest, 1985), p. 3.

Composed by me, Zsofi in Shevat 5780. Be strong and strengthened,
may no harm befall the scribe, not today and not ever,
until the donkey ascends the ladder
that Jacob our forefather
dreamt about.


Zsofi Buda, Asian and African collections Ccownwork

17 June 2019

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

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

Jewish Wedding Song Siman Tov & Mazal Tov (YouTube)

To mark the occasion a marriage contract 鈥 a ketubah [1] (literally 鈥榓 writ鈥) is drawn up stipulating the couple鈥檚 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).

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

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鈥檚 original date of 1757 was changed to 1557.

 Italian ketubah, Modena, 1 October 1557 [ie. 21 October 1757] (BL Or.6706)
Italian ketubah, Modena, 1 October 1557 [ie. 21 October 1757] (BL Or.6706)

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 Pin岣s, son of Yosef, to Batsheva, daughter of Nethan鈥檈l 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鈥檚 dowry amounts to 80 zehuvim (gold coins).

Afghan ketubah, Herat, 1889 (BL Or 15893)
Afghan ketubah, Herat, 1889 (BL Or 15893)

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) 鈥 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鈥 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鈥榓kov Hai Yosef Avraham Ta鈥榓zi 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鈥檚 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.

Indian ketubah. Calcutta, 11th November, 1887 (BL Or.15651)
Indian ketubah. Calcutta, 11th November, 1887 (BL Or.15651)

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.

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

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鈥檚 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 鈥 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
鈥 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


[1] from the Hebrew consonantal root 鈥榢tv鈥 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.

IMAGE 1 - or_1404_f009r_det
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鈥檚 Haggadot, and this year we want to talk about 鈥渕aking a mess鈥 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 鈥榦rder鈥. 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鈥 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鈥檚 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?

IMAGE 2 - sloane_ms_3173_f002r_det
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.鈥 (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 ...

IMAGE 3 - or_2737_f091r_det
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鈥檚 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.鈥 (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!).

IMAGE 4 LEFT -add_ms_14762_f003r IMAGE 4 RIGHT - add_ms_14762_f002v
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鈥檛 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).

IMAGE 5 - add_ms_14761_f028v
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鈥

IMAGE 6 LEFT - add_ms_27210_f028r IMAGE 6 RIGHT - add_ms_27210_f027v
Pouring the second cup. Golden Haggadah, Spain, 14th century (Add MS 27210, ff. 27v-28r) Noc

IMAGE 7 LEFT - add_ms_14762_f027r IMAGE 7 RIGHT - add_ms_14762_f026v
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 鈥檇essert鈥). 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).

IMAGE 8 LEFT - or_1404_f019v IMAGE 8 RIGHT - add_ms_26954_f124r
The fourth cup is poured before reciting Psalm 79:6 which begins with Shefokh 岣matkha (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鈥檚 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, print them out and make your own wine stains!
Hag samea岣!

IMAGE 9 - or_1404_f033r
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鈥檚 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.

士Ets ha-da士at by Elisha士 ben Gad of Anconah, Italy, 1535/6
士Ets ha-da士at
by Elisha士 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)

The majority of these magical/medical manuscripts are small in size, and don鈥檛 look anything special at first sight. One exception is a 16th-century Italian copy of 士Ets ha-da士at (Tree of Knowledge) by Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, a treatise containing 125 kabbalistic formulae (keme士ot). 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.

士Ets ha-da士at by Elisha士 ben Gad of Anconah, Italy, 1535/6: love potion recipe (BL Or 12362 , f. 30r)
士Ets ha-da士at by Elisha士 ben Gad of Anconah, Italy, 1535/6: love potion recipe (BL Or 12362 , f. 30r)

诇讗讛讘讛 鈥 诇讛专讘讜转 讗讛讘讛 讘讬谉 讞转谉 讜讻诇讛 讻砖转讘讗 讛讻诇讛 诪讛讞讜驻讛 诇讗讞专 讙诪专 注砖讬讬转 讛讘专讻讛 讻转讜讘 砖诐 砖谞讬讛诐 注诐 讚讘砖 注诇 讘' 注诇讬 住诇讜讜讬讗讛 讜转谉 诇讗讻讜诇 讛注诇讛 砖讻转讜讘 注诇讬讜 讛讗讬砖 诇讗讬砖 讜砖诐 讛讗砖讛 诇讗砖讛

For love 鈥 to increase love between bridegroom and bride 鈥 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鈥檚 name on it to the man and the one with the woman鈥檚 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?

Collection of medical recipes, Italy?, 18th-19th century: love potion (BL Or 10268 , f. 10r)
Collection of medical recipes, Italy?, 18th-19th century: love potion (BL Or 10268 , f. 10r)

诇讛专讘讜转 讗讛讘讛 讘讬谉 讞转谉 讜讻诇讛 鈥 讻砖讬讘讗讜 诪讛讞讜驻讛 诇讗讞专 注砖讬讬转 讛讘专讻讛 讻转讜讘 砖诐 砖谞讬讛诐 注诐 讚讘砖 注诇 讘' 注诇讬 住诇讜讜讬讗讛 讜转谉 诇讗讻讜诇 讛注诇讛 砖讻转讜讘 注诇讬讜 砖诐 讛讗讬砖 诇讗砖讛 讜砖诐 讛讗砖讛 诇讗讬砖

To increase love between bridegroom and bride 鈥 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鈥檚 name on it to the woman and [the one with] the woman鈥檚 name to the man.

This latter manuscript might have been someone鈥檚 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鈥檚 Belarus or Lithuania. This version written in Hebrew peppered with some Yiddish, recommends to apply the potion before the wedding night:

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)
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)

诇讗讛讘讛 讞转谉 讜讻诇讛 讘诇讬诇讛 专讗砖讜谞讛 讬拽讞 讘' 讝注诇讘谉 讘诇注讟讬专 讜讻转讜讘 注诇讬讜 讘讚讘砖 讜转谉 诇讜 诇讗讻诇 砖诪讜 讜砖诪讛

For love between groom and bridegroom at the first night: take 2 Selben(sic!) bletter (鈥榮age leaves鈥, 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鈥 Moreover, on a practical note, the identification of some of the ingredients is challenging.

Collection of folk remedies, Italy, 17th century: love potion (BL Or 10161 , f. 34r)
Collection of folk remedies, Italy, 17th century: love potion (BL Or 10161 , f. 34r)

诇讗讛讘讛 拽讞 注讬谉 爪驻专讚注 讛谞拽' 讘讜讟谉 讜注讬谉 注讜专讘 讜转注专讘诐 注诐 砖诪谉 专讜住讟谉 讜诪砖讞 驻谞讬讱 讜讙讜驻讱 讜讬讗讛讘讜讱 讻诇 讛讗讚诐 讜转诪爪讗 讞谉 讘注讬谞讬 讻诇 专讜讗讬讱 讘讗讛专

For love: take an eye of a frog called 'boten' and an eye of crow and mix them with 'rus峁璦n' 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 [鈥

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.

Collection of remedies, Orient, 17th century: love potion (Or 10462 , f. 11v)
Collection of remedies, Orient, 17th century: love potion (Or 10462 , f. 11v)

注"讗 - 讞转讜讱 爪驻专谞讬讱 讘住讻讬谉 讗讞"讻 专讞爪谉 讘诪讬诐 讜转谉 诇砖转讜转 诇诪讬 砖转专爪讛 讜讗讛讘讱 讗讜 讞转讜讱 讘讜 转驻讜讞 讜谞转谞讛讜 诇讗讻讜诇

One more [for love] 鈥 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鈥

Collection of cabbalistic charms and remedies, 17th century: love magic (BL Or 10568 , f. 12r)
Collection of cabbalistic charms and remedies, 17th century: love magic (BL Or 10568 , f. 12r)

诇讗讛讘讛 拽讞 诪专讗讛 讟讬讛专讗 讜砖驻讬专讗 讜转讗诪专 诇诪专讗讛 转转住讻诇 讘爪讜专转讬 讜讗谞讬 讗住转讻诇 讘爪讜专转讱 讜讗转讛 转住转讻诇 讘爪讜专转' 讜转讗讛讘转讛 讗讜转讛 注诇讬讜 讜讻谉 转注砖讛 讙' 讬诪讬诐 讝讛 讗讞专 讝讛 讜转谞讞 注诇讬讜 讙' 诇讬诇讜转 讜转讗讛讘讜讱

For love 鈥 take a clear and good mirror and say to the mirror: 鈥楲ook 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.鈥 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.

Image 8-Or 10462 f.11r_2000
Image 8-Or 10462 f.11v_2000
Collection of remedies, Orient, 17th century: love potion preceded by a recipe to stop menstrual bleeding (BL Or 10462, f. 11r-11v)

诇讗讛讘讛 讘讬谉 讗讬砖 诇讗砖转讜 讜讗驻讬' 诪讻讜砖祝 拽讞 诪讬诐 诪谉 谞讛专讜转 讜讬讬谉 讜诪讜专 讜驻诇驻诇 讜砖谞讬 讘爪讬 讬讜谞讬诐 讜砖谞讬 讘爪讬 转专谞讙讜诇转 讜砖讞拽诐 讜注专讘 讛讻诇 讬讞讚 讜讛砖拽讛 讛讗讬砖 讜讗转 讛讗砖讛 讜讬讗讛讘讜 讝讛 讗转 讝讛

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

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).

Festival Prayer Book, Italy, 1427-11499
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 鈥楽habbat Bride鈥 under a wedding canopy. The manuscript can be found in dataset Heb19

Formed in 2013, BL Labs is an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation funded project which supports and inspires the use of the British Library鈥檚 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鈥 support service using this form) and promotes engagement with the Library鈥檚 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鈥檚 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鈥檚 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

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 鈥楽efer Refu鈥檕t鈥 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 鈥楾he Polyglot Bible鈥 (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.

The Polyglot Bible, England, 1665 Add MS 5242, ff. 7v-8r: the commandment of keeping the Sabbath3_add_ms_5242_f007v
The Polyglot Bible, England, 1665 Add MS 5242, ff. 7v-8r: the commandment of keeping the Sabbath

The Polyglot Bible, England, 16, Add MS 5242, ff. 14v-15r: Canticum B Virginis5_add_ms_5242_f014v
The Polyglot Bible, England, 16, Add MS 5242, ff. 14v-15r: Canticum B Virginis

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 鈥 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 鈥 19th-century German manuscript 鈥楶erek Shirah鈥 (Or 12983), a midrashic commentary with a Yiddish translation.

Perek Shirah, Germany, 1750 鈥 1899, Or 12983, f. 1r
Perek Shirah, Germany, 1750 鈥 1899, Or 12983, f. 1r: a depiction of the world God created at the beginning of Chapter 1 of 鈥楶erek Shirah鈥: 鈥淭he Heavens are saying: 鈥楾he Heavens speak of God鈥檚 glory, and the skies tell of His handiwork.鈥 (Ps. 19:2)鈥

The dataset also includes two early copies of parts of the Talmud 鈥 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鈥檌m, and was written in Spain in the 12th century. The manuscript Harley MS 5508 contains eight tractates of Seder Mo鈥檈d 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 鈥 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鈥檚 textile conservator Liz Rose. An article discussing her work can be seen here. As part of the Hebrew Manuscript Digitisation Project鈥檚 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.

Pentateuch Scroll, Or 13027, unknown, 1750鈥1899. Silk brocade mantle after conservation
Pentateuch Scroll, Or 13027, unknown, 1750鈥1899. Silk brocade mantle after conservation

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 鈥楪olden Age of Karaism鈥 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.

Sefer ha-Peli鈥檃h, unknown, 1562 Sefer ha-Peli鈥檃h, unknown, 1562
Sefer ha-Peli鈥檃h, unknown, 1562. Or 2672, ff. 31r and 67r: two folios from 鈥楽efer ha-Peli鈥檃h鈥 (The Book of Wonder), a Kabbalistic biblical commentary

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鈥檚 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 鈥楽efer ha-Levanah鈥, an astrological book about the stages of the moon鈥檚 orbit, and 鈥楳afteah Shelomoh鈥, a Hebrew translation of part one of the 14th or 15th-century grimoire 鈥楰ey of Solomon鈥, 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鈥檚 will. It also includes curses and spells such as for finding stolen items, invisibility, and love.

Collection of Astrological, Kabbalistic and Magical Fragments, unknown, 1600鈥1700. Or 6360, f. 1r
Collection of Astrological, Kabbalistic and Magical Fragments, unknown, 1600鈥1700. Or 6360, f. 1r: the first page of 鈥楽efer ha-Levanah鈥, with an Astrologer

Miriam Lewis, Project Manager Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project

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鈥檚 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.

Judeo-Persian introduction to the commentary on Proverbs, 11th-2th century
Judeo-Persian introduction to the commentary on Proverbs, 11th-2th century (BL Or 2459, f.64v)

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鈥檚 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鈥檚 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鈥檃dia 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鈥檚 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:

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; an example of the neat Persian Hebrew script used throughoutLeft (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)

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鈥檚 erudition and scholarship are perfectly reflected in his intensely lyrical and sensory poetical output, earning him the well-deserved appellation of Hakim (Sage).

Bahram Gur feasting in the Golden Pavilion Bahram Gur feasting in the White Pavilion
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)

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鈥檚 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鈥檚 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.

a girl holding a bouquet of flowers Or_10194_f028v Or_10194_f028v
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)

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-士Aq奴l墨's calendar of the cycles with rules for fixing the Jewish festivals (ff. 363v-375v).
  • Or 10482, a miscellaneous compilation comprising 鈥Amukot Shemu鈥檈l (Samuel鈥檚 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

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.

Five papyrus fragments, Oxyrhynchus, c. 4th Century CE (BL Or 9180A, Or 9180B, Or 9180C, Or 9180D, Or 9180E) 

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 鈥 except the last three lines 鈥搃s yet unidentified. This is where our mystery lies 鈥 and perhaps it is about to be uncovered by one of you.

Our 鈥榤ystery鈥 as it appears in its current housing (BL Or 9180C)

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.

3_Birnbaum 9180c
Photograph of Or 9180C from The Hebrew Scripts by S. A. Birnbaum (London: Palaeographia, 1954-1957), no. 152.

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

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

5_or_9180_c colophon
The so-called colophon - the last three lines of Or 9180C

These lines were written in Aramaic and have been identified as a colophon[1]:

讗谞讛 砖讗[讜诇] 讘讬 诇注讝专 讻转[讘]转 讗诇讬谉 讻转[讘讬]谉 砖诇讜诐 注诇 讬砖专讗诇 讗诪谉 讜讗诪谉 住诇讛

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

6_or_9180_c_f001r-photoshop-reconstruction for web
The reconstructed arrangement of Or 9180C

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 (鈥榝oreign language鈥, 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



[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 鈥楶ublications鈥 in the full catalogue record.