Asian and African studies blog

33 posts categorized "Hebrew"

10 April 2022

Christian Bibles in Muslim Robes with Jewish Glosses: Arundel Or.15 and other Medieval Coptic Arabic Bible Translations at the British Library

Today's guest post is by Miriam L. Hjälm, Sankt Ignatios Academy, Stockholm School of Theology

One of the most impressive Christian Arabic manuscripts at the British Library is Arundel Or.15. This beautifully ornamented codex, presented like a Mamluk Quran, contains a carefully copied translation of the Psalms into Arabic preceded by an elaborate introduction on the use and perception of this biblical book.

1.Beginning of Psalm 1
Beginning of Psalm 1, c.1350 (BL Arundel Or. 15. ff. 38v-39r)

The codex is undated and anonymous but the handwriting of the main text appears to be identical with that of the Arabic translation of the Pentateuch in Paris (BnF. Ar. 12). The latter was composed by Jirjis b. al-qass Abū al-Mufaḍḍal b. Amīn al-Mulk Luṭf Allāh and dated 1353. It was copied from a manuscript copied by (bi-khaṭṭ) al-Shams ibn Kabar (f. 290r), a known Coptic writer who served as the secretary of a Mamluk minister. Ibn Kabar died in 1324, around thirty years before the copy was made, but it is likely that both he and Jirjis belonged to the same scribal elite and shared common views on the literature they produced.

The ornamented frames and calligraphic style used for the rubrics in the two copies differ somewhat, but both codices are exactly the same size, are arranged in groupings of five sheets (quinions) with the quire number written in conjunction with the word kurrās (quire) and are foliated using Coptic Epact numbers.

2. The end of Psalm 40:41
The end of Psalm 40/41 (BL Arundel Or.15, f. 106r)

Yet another luxurious copy produced by Jirjis is found in Copt. Museum, Bibl. 90. Here he is called Jirjis Abū al-Faḍl ibn Luṭf Allāh, yet the handwriting in the main text appears to be identical to that in Arundel Or.15 and the Paris manuscript, which are both written in elegant naskh and include headings in muḥaqqaq and other scripts associated with Qurans. This Gospel translation was produced in 1340 (Hunt, p.122) during the time of Buṭrus, the metropolitan of the Copts in Jerusalem and Syria.

Both the Paris manuscript and Arundel Or.15 contain a similar text critical apparatus. The scribe collated the main text with several different copies and marked alternative renderings preceded by various sigla in red color. The same system is described in detail in another manuscript at the British Library: Or. 3382, dated 1264–65. This copy contains the Gospels in Arabic, which are carefully compared with the Coptic text and with Arabic translations from Greek and Syriac. In an epilogue appended to the translation, we learn that the text was originally composed by Ibn al-ʻAssāl. The text-critical system in these three copies can thus be associated with Ibn al-ʿAssāl and his text-critical projects of the thirteenth century.

The system is described in the epilogue to the Gospels: the letter qāf is used for Arabic translations of Coptic, sīn for Arabic translations of Syriac, and rāʼ for Arabic translations of Greek. A Coptic translation is also referenced. Combinations of letters, such as sīn- rāʼ, indicates that both the Syriac-based and the Greek-based translation share a reading. This interpretation makes perfect sense if applied to Arundel Or. 15. In the latter, we also find the siglum ʻayn, which almost certainly stands for Hebrew. From this and other various sigla used, we know that the scribe collated a considerable number of texts, some of which represented standard versions in Jewish and Christian communities in the Middle East. Most notably, the Hebrew-based version coincides with Rav Saadiah Gaon’s (d. 942) tafsīr of the Psalms, and Syriac-based glosses often match the Arabic translation by the East Syriac polymath Abū al-Faraj ʿAbd Allāh ibn al-Ṭayyib (d. 1043).

3. From Psalms 1 and 2 (BL Arundel Or.15  ff. 39v–40r)
From Psalms 1 and 2 (BL Arundel Or.15, ff. 39v–40r)

A beautiful illustration of king David precedes the Psalm translation. The illustration does not imitate typically Coptic iconography but rather resembles Byzantine images. David is featured as a scribe, in the process of composing his psalms.

4.King David writing psalms (BL Arundel Or.15  f. 38r)
King David writing psalms (BL Arundel Or.15, f. 38r)

In format the codex resembles a Mamluk Quran, and the scribe used terms associated with Islam, such as al-fajr for ‘morning prayer’. The iconography, however, is Byzantine while the Psalm translation itself was compared with Coptic, Rūm (Orthodox), East Syriac, and Jewish bible versions. The manuscript thus testifies to an astonishing openness to other communities among the Copts in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. We understand from his ecclesiastical encyclopedia Miṣbāḥ al-Ẓulmah wa Īḍāḥ al-Khidmah (The Lamp of Shadows and the Illumination of Service) that Ibn Kabar was questioned for his inclusive approach to other people’s texts and traditions and to counteract such claims, he explains (my italics):

Also included are those later writers … who composed anything on religion, whether from those sects that are joined with us in confession, or those that are separated from us in creed. But we have not listed the compositions of this latter group, unless we have received thorough knowledge of them and grown in understanding from them, even though something differing from the views of the orthodox and inconsistent with the aims of the Jacobites [i.e. miaphysites] might be mixed in among them, for eminent men do not gather gems, without being interested in pearls: they pick out what is suitable without harping on the differences (Abū al-Barakāt, Catalog of Christian Literature in Arabic; tr. A McCollum).

5. Beginning of the introduction to Psalms (BL Arundel Or.15  ff. 2v-3r)
Beginning of the introduction to Psalms (BL Arundel Or.15, ff. 2v-3r)

The same or a similar scribal Coptic workshop produced several other impressive manuscripts. In addition to those already mentioned above and without the text-critical apparatus, British Library, Or. 1327 contains a beautifully ornamented Arabic Gospel translation, dated 1334.

6. Frontispiece to the Gospel of John (BL Or.1327  ff. 185v-186r)
Frontispiece to the Gospel of John, dated 1334 (BL Or.1327, ff. 185v-186r)

Another manuscript from the same time period is Add. MS 11856, a Gospel translation dated 1336–1337. This copy was presented to the Patriarch of Alexandria and all Africa and includes, besides the Gospel texts, short summaries of each book. Add. 11856 is less lavishly decorated than Arundel Or. 15 but includes beautiful frontispieces and  illustrations (Jerusalem 1000-1400: Four Gospels in Arabic):

7.Add MS 11856 Portrait of St Luke
Portrait of St. Luke. Palestine, 1336 (BL Add.MS.11856, f. 95v)

The examples provided in this blog represent a peak in Christian Arabic Bible production. Despite the political hardship the Coptic communities faced in the fourteenth century, scribal workshops thrived and produced expensive and scholarly advanced copies of the Bible, which impress their readers still today. These copies are not only aesthetically appealing but also show us how Bible translations could be used to mediate –or dominate– in socio-religious conflicts. By dressing their Bibles in typically Muslim robes, the robes were no longer Muslim, but an expression of holy Scriptures, and by using Jewish translations as one of several authoritative sources, the Jewish claim to Scripture was partially disarmed. It appears that for Ibn Kabar, ‘eminent men’ were those bold enough to delve into other peoples’ traditions and confident enough to decide what was good in them, regardless of origin. The ‘Coptic renaissance’ was indeed a bold project.

This post was written with the support of the Swedish Research Council (2017-01630)

Miriam L. Hjälm. Sankt Ignatios Academy, Stockholm School of Theology



Further reading

Wadi Awad, ‘al-Shams ibn Kabar’, in Christian-Muslim Relations: A Bibliographical History, vol. 4 (1200-1350), ed. Thomas et al. (Brill: 2012), 762–766.
Miriam L. Hjälm, ‘1.2.12 Arabic Texts’, in The Textual History of the Bible, vol. 2A, ed. Feder and Henze (Brill, 2020), 483–495.
Lucy-Anne Hunt, ‘Christian Arab Gospel Book: Cairo, Coptic Museum MS Bibl. 90 in its Mamluk Context’, Mamlūk Studies Review 13, no. 2 (2009): 105–132.
Duncan B. MacDonald (ed. and trans.), ‘Ibn al-ʿAssāl’s Arabic Version of the Gospels’, in Homenaje á D. Francisco Codera en su Jubilación del Profesorado, ed. Saavedra (M. Escar, 1904), 375–392.
Ronny Vollandt, ‘The Conundrum of Scriptural Plurality: The Arabic Bible, Polyglots, and Medieval Predecessors of Biblical Criticism’, in Editing the Hebrew Bible in the Variety of its Texts and Versions, ed. Lange et al. (Brill, 2016), 56–85.
————————, ‘Flawed Biblical translations into Arabic and How to Correct Them: A Copt and a Jew study Saadiah’s Tafsīr’, in Studies on Arabic Christianity in Honor of Sidney H. Griffith, ed. Bertaina et al. (Brill: 2018), 56–90.
Vevian Zaki, ‘Al-Asʿad Hibat Allāh ibn al-ʿAssāl: His Contribution to the Formation of New Identity of Copts in Egypt Through his Critical Translation of the Gospel of Luke’. MA thesis, Evangelical Theological Seminary in Cairo, 2011.
——————, ‘The business of copying manuscripts: Tuma al-Safi and his elite clients’ (forthcoming).

17 May 2021

"Oyez, Oyez, Oyez": Hebrew Manuscripts Exhibition Re-opens

After sporadic closures throughout 2020 and the recent national lock-down, we are pleased to announce the eagerly anticipated re-opening on 18th May of the stimulating and beautifully designed British Library exhibition, Hebrew Manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word.

Embellished initial word panel with dragons and fabulous animals
Embellished initial word panel with dragons and fabulous animals. Sefer ha-Terumah (Book of the Heave Offering). Germany, 1307 (Add MS 18424, f. 31r detail)

The 44 artifacts brought together for this exhibition convey powerful messages:

  • the magnitude of written culture as the bond connecting Jewish communities from all corners of the world
  • the centrality of Hebrew language and script linking Diaspora Jews, and documenting their experiences
  • the living proof of the centuries-long culture, history, and traditions of the Jewish people
  • high points and signs of conflict, as well as the exchanges of ideas and knowledge in the relationships between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbors in the communities they lived in

Spanning a millennium, most of the showcased objects come from the British Library’s outstanding, multi-faceted Hebrew manuscript collection. In the glass cases arranged in the centre of the gallery well-known iconic specimens rest alongside unknown pieces on display for the very first time.
Viewers are taken on a voyage of discovery through four sections clearly demarcated by thematic text panels. The Bible and beyond section presents core Jewish religious texts from around the world.

Micrographic masorah. Duke of Sussex’s German Pentateuch. Lake Constance  Germany  1300-1324
Micrographic masorah. Duke of Sussex’s German Pentateuch. Lake Constance, Germany, 1300-1324 (Add MS 15282, f.28r)

The beautifully wrought, 700-years old Duke of Sussex’s German Pentateuch is open at the story of Abraham sacrificing a ram instead of his son Isaac, captured here in a stunning micrographic design. Micrography is the weaving of minute lettering into abstract, geometric, and figurative patterns. It is a scribal practice unique to Jewish art that began in the 9th century CE in Egypt and the Holy Land and has continued to this day.

Also on view in this section is a 13th century incomplete copy of the Babylonian Talmud. The Talmud (literally ‘learning’) is the ultimate guide to religious law in Judaism. It is the largest corpus of Jewish knowledge, teachings and traditions accumulated over many centuries. The Babylonian Talmud, as its name implies, was compiled by scholars in Babylonia (present day Iraq). Although committed to writing around the year 500 CE, it continued to be edited for close to two centuries afterwards. During the Middle Ages and early modern period, the Talmud was the target of unrelenting condemnation and censorship by Christian authorities. Its allegedly offensive and blasphemous contents, led to frequent public burnings and the destruction of numerous copies. The copy on display has fortunately survived intact.
Babylonian Talmud  fragments. 13th century
Babylonian Talmud, fragments. Germany (?), 13th century copy (Add MS 25717, f.72v)

The Living together part of the exhibition offers glimpses of the interaction between Jews and non-Jews through historical accounts, legal documents, and literature. Among the splendid artifacts on display are Perek Shirah and Sefer ha-zikuk. Perek Shirah (Chapter of Song) is an ancient hymn of praise in which every created thing – from the animate to the celestial – thanks God for its existence. The praises are mostly biblical verses, often taken from the Book of Psalms. The right page illustration which shows 13 different animals, opens the chapter on the four-legged beasts.

Perek Shirah (Chapter of Song). Copy  ca.1740 (Or 12983  f.13r Perek Shirah (Chapter of Song). Copy  ca.1740 (Or 12983  f.13r
Perek Shirah (Chapter of Song). Vienna, Austria (?). Copy, ca.1740 (Or 12983, ff. 12v-13r)

The pictorial style in this charming 18th century manuscript copy of Perek Shirah was evidently influenced by contemporary European art. The 5 miniatures and the Hebrew and Yiddish text in the manuscript are the work of Aaron Wolf Schreiber Herlingen of Gewitsch, a prominent Moravian scribe-illustrator who was active from 1719 to 1752, primarily in Vienna. Some 50 manuscripts created by him are known to have survived.

Sefer ha-zikuk (Book of Expurgation) is a manual of censorial principles and index of some 450 Hebrew works that allegedly contained morally detrimental, anti-Christian words and passages. Expurgators or revisers of Hebrew books, as they were sometimes called, deleted content they suspected referred to Christians in a negative way. On show is a 17th century manuscript copy of the original Sefer ha-zikuk Dominico Irosolimitano compiled in 1596 in Mantua.

Sefer ha-zikuk (Book of Expurgation). Modena  Italy  17th century copy. f.42r Sefer ha-zikuk (Book of Expurgation). Modena  Italy  17th century copy. f.42r
Sefer ha-zikuk
(Book of Expurgation). Modena, Italy, 17th century copy (Or 6639, ff. 41v-42r)

An established expurgator of Hebrew books in the service of the Catholic Church in Italy, Dominico Irosolimitano was a converted rabbi formerly known as Samuel Vivas (b. Holy Land 1550; d. Italy 1620). He was active in many Italian cities including Mantua, Milan and Rome, and was responsible for censoring some 20,000 Hebrew books and manuscripts during a career that extended over 40 years.

The Power of letters and words section reveals how Jewish kabbalah seeks to better understand the world and the Divine, and shows the centrality of the Hebrew alphabet in kabbalistic theory and practice.
One of the most prominent Jewish kabbalists in medieval Spain was Abraham Abulafia (b.1240- d. after 1290). He founded Prophetic Kabbalah, a unique mystical method to reach a state of union with God. Among his many works Haye ha-‘olam ha-ba (Life in the World to come), known also as Sefer ha-‘igulim (Book of circles) is particularly significant.
The circles in this 15th century manuscript copy of the work, contain Abulafia’s instructions for mystical meditation, reminiscent of practices in Buddhism and Hinduism. The techniques include: combining letters, reciting and visualising the Divine names, breathing exercises and poses. The reader is meant to enter each circle through an ‘entrance’ clearly indicated by a decorative pin-like marker at the top. Latin translations of Abulafia’s writings influenced many Renaissance Christian kabbalists, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola being one of them.

Haye ha-‘olam ha-ba and other kabbalistic works. Italy  15th century copy (Or 4596  f. 89r) Haye ha-‘olam ha-ba and other kabbalistic works. Italy  15th century copy (Or 4596  f. 89r)
Haye ha-‘olam ha-ba and other kabbalistic works. Italy, 15th century copy (Or 4596, ff. 88v-89r)

The exhibited small parchment amulet was created sometime in the 18th or 19th century. Its creases clearly prove that such amulets were folded and kept in the owner’s clothing, purse or in an amulet holder, and were carried around.

Hebrew amulet. 18th-19th century (Or 16206)
Hebrew amulet. 18th-19th century (Or 16206)

Amulets are believed to have magical powers, bring good luck and ward off evil, sickness, and other misfortunes. They have been used for centuries and are mentioned in the Talmud (the Talmudic term is kame’a). The most common types were for childbirth. In earlier times, high levels of childbirth and infant mortality led people to seek protection from the mysterious forces that seemingly had power over these events.

Hebrew amulets include symbolic designs, kabbalistic inscriptions, angels’ names, and permutations on the Names of God, as this specimen written for Esther bat Miriam shows. It was intended to guard her from all possible misfortunes at all times of day.

The final part of the exhibition – Science and scholarship - explores how Jewish thinkers have spread knowledge and have contributed new ideas to scholarship.

Living in communities scattered across the globe, many Jewish scholars were multilingual. At the crossroads of different cultures, they translated works between Arabic, Latin and Hebrew. Their most important contribution was transmitting Arabic and Greek ideas from these works to Christian Europe and their own co-religionists.

Avicenna  The Canon of Medicine (Hebrew translation of Books III and V). Spain or Italy  1479
Avicenna, The Canon of Medicine (Hebrew translation of Books III and V). Spain or Italy, 1479 (Harley MS 5680, f. 209r)

In 1279, the Italian Jew, Nathan ha-Me’ati, translated the 11th-century Canon of Medicine by Ibn Sina (known as Avicenna) from the original Arabic into Hebrew. The Canon was the most influential work of medieval medicine and the translation created new Hebrew medical vocabulary. This page from a 15th-century copy shows the end of Book V, which lists 650 recipes for medicines.

Another medieval Jewish scholar whose translations helped disseminate scientific ideas and knowledge was Jacob Anatoli (c. 1194-1256) who hailed from Provence, southern France.
In 13th century Naples, under the patronage of the enlightened Emperor Frederick II, Jacob Anatoli translated al-Farghani’s Compendium into Hebrew using both the original Arabic text and a Latin translation. The Compendium was an Arabic summary of Ptolemy’s Almagest, and it played a key role in spreading Greek astronomical knowledge in medieval Europe. Titled Sefer Alfargani be-hokhmat ha-tekhunah (Compendium of Astronomy and Elements of Heavenly Movements), the manuscript on view is a 16th-17th century copy of Anatoli’s Hebrew translation.

Sefer Alfargani be-hokhmat ha-tekhunah f147v Sefer Alfargani be-hokhmat ha-tekhunah f147v

Al-Farghani, Sefer Alfargani be-hokhmat ha-tekhunah (Compendium of Astronomy and Elements of Heavenly Movements). North Africa (?), 16th-17th century (Add MS 27107, ff. 147v-148r)

Hebrew Manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word is open until Sunday 6 June 2021.

Follow this link for a 3D virtual tour of the exhibition.

Other platforms with Hebrew manuscript content:

We are extremely grateful to the Dr Michael and Anna Brynberg Charitable Foundation for generously supporting this exhibition. With thanks to the Harold Hyam Wingate Foundation, the Shoresh Charitable Trust, and The David Pearlman Charitable Foundation.

Ilana Tahan
Lead Curator Hebrew and Christian Orient Collections

28 August 2020

Hebrew Manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word

I am thrilled and delighted to inform our readers and followers, that the long awaited exhibition Hebrew Manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word will be opening to the public on Tuesday 1st September in PACCAR2, the newest gallery of the British Library.

The exhibition has been put together by Ilana Tahan and Zsofia Buda, who have worked diligently and tirelessly with colleagues from across the Library, to bring about its realization.

Temple implements. Harley Catalan Bible, Catalonia, Spain, 14th century (Harley MS 1528, f.7v-8r)Temple implements. Harley Catalan Bible  Catalonia  Spain  14th century (Harley MS 1528  f.7v)
Temple implements. Harley Catalan Bible. Catalonia, Spain, 14th century (Harley MS 1528, f.7v-8r)
CC Public Domain Image

Showcasing 44 outstanding objects, including 39 manuscripts from the British Library’s remarkable Hebrew collection, the exhibition transports the visitor on an exciting journey of discovery, via four distinct sections:

  • The Bible and beyond
  • Living together
  • The Power of letters and words
  • Science and scholarship

What do all these treasured manuscripts have in common? They all share the same script, Hebrew; one of the oldest writing systems that has been in continuous use, from around the 10th century BCE to this day. This significant exhibition thus embraces the assiduous, unrelenting journeys of both the written word and the Hebrew script.
Micrographic masorah.  Duke of Sussex’s German Pentateuch.   Lake Constance, Germany, 14thcentury. Add MS 15282, f.28r
Micrographic masorah. Duke of Sussex’s German Pentateuch. Lake Constance, Germany, 14th century (Add MS 15282, f.28r, detail)
CC Public Domain Image

Viewers will come face to face with the centuries-long culture, history and traditions of Jewish people from various parts of the world. Rare handwritten texts, spanning from the 10th to the 19th century, some handsomely illuminated or decorated, will take audiences from Europe and North Africa, through to the Middle East and China, to explore the relationships between Jews and their non-Jewish neighbours in the communities they lived in.

Calendrical calculations in the shape of a hand
Visual aid for calendrical calculations in Joseph ben Shem Tov ben Yeshu’a Hai’s She’erit Yosef (Joseph’s Legacy). Tlemcen, Algeria, 1804 (Or 9782, f.14r)
CC Public Domain Image

The interplay, high points, as well as signs of conflict and discord in the relationships between these groups, are conveyed through a captivating display of writings on legal issues, calendrics, kabbalah , literature, music, philosophy, and science.

Decorative motifs in Shalom Shabazi’s Diwan (Collection of poems). Tan’am, Yemen, and Jerusalem, Land of Israel, 17th-18th century
Decorative motifs in Shalom Shabazi’s Diwan (Collection of poems). Tan’am, Yemen, and Jerusalem, 17th-18th century (Or 4114, f.2v, detail)
CC Public Domain Image

Some of these works were created by prominent Jewish scholars, such as Moses ben Maimon (b.1135, Cordoba, Spain, d. 1204, Cairo, Egypt), and Abraham bar Hiyya (ca. 1065- ca.1136). The former, known in the Christian world as Maimonides , was not only a legal authority, compelling philosopher and accomplished physician, but also the most influential spiritual leader of his time. His Moreh Nevukhim (The Guide for the Perplexed), completed ca. 1190, was probably the most authoritative Jewish philosophical treatise of the medieval era. Two important manuscript copies of this work are on view in the exhibition.

Illuminated pages in Moses Maimonides’ Moreh Nevukhim (Guide for the Perplexed). Catalonia  Spain  14th century copy (Or 14061  f. 156v-157r)Illuminated pages in Moses Maimonides’ Moreh Nevukhim (Guide for the Perplexed). Catalonia  Spain  14th century copy (Or 14061  f. 156v-157r)
Illuminated pages in Moses Maimonides’ Moreh Nevukhim (Guide for the Perplexed). Catalonia, Spain, 14th century copy (Or 14061, f. 156v-157r)
CC Public Domain Image

Abraham bar Hiyya , known by his Latin name as Savasorda, was an eminent Spanish Jewish philosopher and scientist, who is credited with writing the first works on astronomy and mathematics in Hebrew. Among these was his vastly popular astronomical treatise Tsurat ha-arets (Shape of the earth), a 15 th century copy of which is included in the exhibition.

Diagram of phases of the moon
Diagram of the four main lunar phases in Abraham bar Hiyya’s Tsurat ha-arets (Shape of the Earth). Byzantium, (now parts of Turkey and Greece), 15th century copy (Or 10721, f. 27v)
CC Public Domain Image

Visitors will be in for a treat, particularly as many of the exhibits have never been on public view. Moreover, as part of the recently completed Hebrew Manuscript Digitisation Project, digital access to all 39 Hebrew manuscripts on display is available on the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website .

Other British Library platforms, with wide-ranging Hebrew manuscript content are:

Hebrew Manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word is open from 1st September 2020 until 11th April 2021. Follow the link for details about opening times, booking timeslots, etc.

We are extremely grateful to the Dr Michael and Anna Brynberg Charitable Foundation for generously supporting this exhibition. With thanks to the Harold Hyam Wingate Foundation, the Shoresh Charitable Trust, and The David Pearlman Charitable Foundation.

Further reading

The following posts feature manuscripts on display in the exhibition.

Ilana Tahan, Lead Curator Hebrew and Christian Orient Collections
CCBY Image


19 August 2020

The Tree of Knowledge: magic spells from a Jewish potion book

One of the items in our postponed exhibition Hebrew Manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word is a tiny little codex from sixteenth-century Italy. It is entitled The Tree of Knowledge (Ets ha-Da’at) and contains a collection of some 125 magic spells for all sorts of purposes: curses, healing potions, love charms, amulets. There are a good number of such magical-medical manuscripts in the Hebrew collection, but this volume is special for at least two reasons. First, because of its neat layout and accuracy in its execution. Secondly, because it has an introduction in which Elisha the author tells the story of how he collected these spells.

Title page in Hebrew with architectural design
Title page of The Tree of Knowledge by Elisha ben Gad of Ancona. (Safed, 1535-1536 (Or 12362, f. 2r)).
CC Public Domain Image

According to his introduction, Elisha is overcome with a great thirst for knowledge, and he starts on a journey to satisfy it. He is wandering from town to town until he arrives in Venice, the great city full of wise and knowledgeable sages. There, thanks to God’s mercy, he wins the trust of Rabbi Judah Alkabets, and gains access to the rabbi’s library. He soon discovers that the Rabbi’s collection contains precious kabbalistic volumes “that emerged for fame and praise, and all written with the finger [of God – Ex. 31:18].” So he swears in his heart that he will not leave the library until he has collected all its secrets. As he is looking through the books, he notices “a book hidden and sealed, in a chest within another chest covered with a cloth and sealed.” When he opens this hidden book, he finds in it all sorts of magic spells, and decides to copy them. After the death of Judah Alkabetz, Elisha leaves Venice and continues his journey, and eventually arrives in Safed, in the Land of Israel. He spends there a long time before he gains the trust of the sages of Safed, but at the end they share with him their secret wisdom. His book, which he calls the Tree of Knowledge, is based on the secrets he acquired in Venice and in Safed.

After relating his painstaking efforts to obtain such precious hidden knowledge, Elisha explains the way he organized the collected material and structured his book. He provides a table of contents for the users to facilitate their access to the spells they are looking for. The table of contents is divided into four sections:

1. Spells that use divine names;

2. Spells that use names of the “Spirit of Impurity” and those of the “Other Side” (that is, references to evil powers);

3. Medicines based on nature and experiment;

4. All the rest.

So what kind of secret knowledge did Elisha ben Gad acquire in Venice and Safed? Let’s see a couple of spells from each section. Oh, it is so difficult to choose!

Page with writing in Hebrew and title in ribbon
The First Section of the Tree of Knowledge. (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536). (Or 12362, f. 5r))
CC Public Domain Image

Among the 52 spells using divine names contained in the first section, there are many amulets providing protection against illnesses like nose bleed, fever, and ear ache; spells for the enhancing intellectual capabilities such as facilitating learning, understanding, or improving memory; and various other spells.

Amulet in Hebrew with text in stylized scrolls
An amulet for fever. (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536). (Or 12362, f. 11r))
CC Public Domain Image

The very first entry is an amulet against fever:

Av avr avra avrak avraka avrakal avrakala avrakal avraka avrak avra avr av – “The people cried out to Moses. Moses prayed to the LORD, and the fire died down.” (Num. 11:2). Cure from heavens for all sorts of fever and consumption and fire for such and such [here to put the name of the specific person]. Amen a[men] a[men] selah.

It is easy to discover the well-known magic word “abracadabra” in this spell. It appears first in a second-century Latin medical poem by the physician Quintus Serenus Sammonicus. The origin of this word is not clear. It may come from Aramaic avra ke-davra, meaning “I create as I speak”, but there are several other theories around.

Text of spell in Hebrew with floral illumination
A spell for shortening one’s journey (no. 39). (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536). (Or 12362, f. 27r))
CC Public Domain Image

Spell no. 39 is for shortening a long road, and goes like this:

Shortening the road: write on a piece of kosher parchment made of deer and sew it into your robe. When you see the countenance of the town, mention these names and say this: “I adjure you, Kaptsiel, Malakhel, shorten for me the road and the country as you shortened them for Abraham. Cafefiel – and in the name of the Lord of the whole earth. Amen S[ela]”

Text in Hebrew of contents of section with title inside stylized ribbon
The second section of the Tree of Knowledge. (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536). (Or 12362, f. 7v))
CC Public Domain Image

The second section is supposed to contain spells that use the names of evil spirits “the spirit of Impurity and the Other Side”, as Elisha puts it. To be honest, I did not always find such names in the charms of this section, though it may just be due to my limited knowledge and experience of the Other Side. Still, the section contains many useful spells – 19 altogether –, among others some that make you invisible, help you find scorpions and snakes, make you “snake-proof” or “sword-proof”, and quite a few that help you catch thieves. Here is an example of the latter (no. 80):

To find the thief write on a piece of kosher parchment these names [see words at the end of the spell], and hang them around the neck of a black rooster. Then circle around the suspects with the rooster, and it will jump on the head of the thief. And this has been tested.

Kematin kanit kukeiri ve-hikani yazaf

Text of spell in Hebrew with title inside ribbon
A spell for identifying a thief (no. 80). (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536). (Or 12362, f. 37r))
CC Public Domain Image

While I was not able to identify these magical words at all – could some of them be names of evil spirits? – I had better luck with spell no. 97 for burns by fire:

A wonderful incantation, tried and tested many times. For small and big burns. With these words complete recovery without pain! Say these names [i.e. the incantation] seven times:

Agrifuk agrifar agripyri chi vol tu fer di pyro nocesti di acaro fosti generato, e elo fonti fosti portato, all'acqua fosti gettato, non fossi far più male qua (?) chi fai la!

And then blow on the burn with the breath of your mouth and repeat again the incantation seven more times, and the fire will not damage him.

As you can see, the actual incantation addressing Fire itself is in Judeo-Italian, that is, Italian written in Hebrew characters, and it reads something like this:

"Agrifuk agrifar agripyri whom did you want to hurt with fire? You were generated from an acarus [probably from Greek akarḗs, meaning “tiny”), you were brought forth from such a source, [and] you were thrown into the water. You cannot do any more harm...!"[1]

Text of spell in Hebrew with title in stylized scroll
A spell for burns (no. 97). (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536). (Or 12362, f. 41r))
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Text of section contents in Hebrew under title inside ribbon
The third section of the Tree of Knowledge. (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536). (Or 12362, f. 8v))
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Elisha tells us that in the third section of his work we can find “remedies based on nature and experiment”. Among these 31 remedies, there are a few for fevers, suffering from worms, cancelling witchcraft, complications related to pregnancy and childbirth, and so on. He also discusses the magical properties of snake skin. It seems, however, that quite a few of the remedies listed here are not based on nature but use some sort of incantation or magic words instead.

Text of spell in Hebrew under illustration of nude woman
A spell for a woman who does not have milk (no. 104). (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536). (Or 12362, f. 42v))
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Remedy no. 104 is a good example of the latter. It is a spell for a woman who does not have milk. The title of the spell is inscribed in a ribbon and it is illustrated with the bust of a naked woman.

To bring milk to the woman write the name of the woman or her brother or her son [on a piece of parchment?], and write on the woman’s right breast: AV SU SAS, and on her left breast write: AV HU SIA, and she will immediately have milk in abundance, and it will spill onto the ground as water.

Text of spell in Hebrew under title inside stylized ribbon
Spells using snake skin (no. 116). (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536). (Or 12362, f. 45r))
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Entry 116 is about the magical qualities of snakeskin, and according to the title, this spell is based on “the words of Solomon the physician of Tulitul” (Tulitula is the Arabic name of Toledo). Elisha says that he read in an Arabic book that if you burn the skin of a snake during a certain period in March, you can use the ashes of the skin for all sorts of purposes. Then he lists the 12 magical qualities of snakeskin based on important Arabic magic spell books (number 12 is missing). Here are some of the best ones:

Hebrew textHebrew text
Text about the magical qualities of snake skin (no. 116). (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536). (Or 12362, ff. 45v-46r))
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No. 1 If you sprinkle some of the dust into your eyes, you will see but you will not be seen (invisibility!);

No. 6. If you hold some of the dust in your hand when you appear before a king or princes, and they will heed your words;

No. 10. If you put some of the dust into a plate and leave it on the table, if the elixir of death, or “poison weed and wormwood” [Deut. 29:17] gets there, the dust will scatter on the table and [then you would know to] avoid eating there.

Text of contents in Hebrew under title inside ribbon
The fourth section of the Tree of Knowledge. (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536). (Or 12362, f. 10r))
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Section four is the shortest with its 17 items. It has several love spells and potions, spells to make a positive impression on rulers, on how to gain someone’s trust, and how to defeat your opponents. No. 58 is a spell that helps you to make a reluctant person answer your questions:

If you ask a question and they do not give you a reply, wash your hands in fresh water, and then write on your palm these words and characters. Then put your palm on the palm of the fellow, and ask your question. And this is what you have to write:

Here you can see a drawing of a palm with a same word written three times, and two characters from a cryptic alphabet. Two ribbons coming out from behind the palm. The inscription in the upper one contains further instructions:

Write this with a new pen.

The ribbon at the base of the hand contains the title of the next entry: no. 59, a spell about how to win a court case:

It is tried and tested many times. How to defeat your opponent in court even if he is a king. Take the tongue of a hoopoe and hang it on your right side close to the heart at the time when you go to speak with him.

Text of formula in Hebrew along with diagram of a human palm
Spells for extracting an answer and defeating the opponent at court (nos. 58 and 59). (Elisha ben Gad of Ancona, Tree of Knowledge (Safed, 1535-1536.) (Or 12362, f. 32r))
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You can certainly see even from this small selection of spells how valuable the Tree of Knowledge is! Elisha’s long journey from Italy to Galilee through the Mediterranean, his painstaking efforts to acquire hidden and ancient knowledge, were not in vain. And you, dear reader, are only one click away from all this treasure!

Disclaimer: We do not take responsibility for the endurance of these spells. Even strong magic can lose or modify its power over the centuries! Please, do not blame us if you turn into a frog. Try these spells only at your own risk.

Zsofi Buda, former Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project Cataloguer, Asian and African Collections
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Further readings:

Continuity and Innovation in the Magical Tradition, ed. Gideon Bohak, Yuval Harari, and Shaul Shaked. Leiden: Brill, 2011. (YD.2011.a.4537)

Ortal-Paz, Saar. Jewish Love Magic: From Late Antiquity to the Middle Ages. Leiden: Brill, 2017. (OIC 133.4)

Harari, Yuval. “Magical Paratexts: Ms. London, The British Library Or. 12362 (Ets ha-Da‘at) as a Test Case.” Kabbalah: Journal for the Study of Jewish Mystical Texts 42 (2018): 237-268. [Hebrew] (WZOR.1998.a.24)

Harari, Yuval. “‘Practical Kabbalah’ and the Jewish Tradition of Magic.” Aries: Journal for the Study of Western Esotericism 19 (2019): 38-82. (ZA.9.a.2272)

[1] Thank you to Giulia Baronti for helping me with the translation!

05 August 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Middle) Armillary sphere illustrated in Sacrobosco’s Sphaera printed at Venice in 1488 (Source: Wolfenbütteler Digitale Bibliothek; CC BY-SA) and (right) in Solomon Avigdor’s Hebrew translation (Or 10661, f. 7v).
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It is not surprising, then, that in our Hebrew manuscript we find the armillary sphere at the beginning of Chapter 2. This image and the image in the 1488 Venice edition are very similar. Both depict a geocentric sphere modelling a universe with the Earth at its centre. The set of rings represents a series of moving spheres around a stationary Earth. The wider band with the signs of the Zodiac represents the annual journey of the sun through the heavens.

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

Manuscript diagrama of why water is roundPrinted diagram of why water is round
(Left) Manuscript diagram “That the water is round” (Add MS 27106, f. 108r)
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(Right) Printed diagram “That the water is round” from the 1488 Venice edition. (Source: Wolfenbütteler Digitale Bibliothek; CC BY-SA).

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

(Right) Manuscript illustration “That the water is round”. (Or 10661, f. 5v)
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The Hebrew copyist borrowed some more of Apianus’ diagrams with slight modifications. At the discussion on why the celestial bodies look larger when rising and setting from when they are in the middle of the sky, there is a compound diagram. Both in Apianus’ edition and in our Hebrew manuscript, the right side of the diagram shows a coin under water: when we look at it through water, the coin will appear larger than it really is (the effect of refraction). The same happens with the heavenly bodies, and this is what the left side of the diagram illustrates: the vapours in the atmosphere create an optical illusion and show the sun and the stars larger than they really are. Notice that while the inscription on coin (“tanova”, that is, moneta nova) in the Latin diagram is curling around a Greek cross, the Hebrew depiction omitted this symbol (probably to avoid any visual reference to Christianity) and has only the inscription (matbea, Hebrew for coin).

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

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

(Right) Why the sun and the stars seem to be bigger when rising and setting. (Or 10661, f. 4v)
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Some of the diagrams in our Hebrew manuscripts are based on later Christian editions. The diagram to demonstrate why the sphere of the heavens cannot be flat is practically identical with that in the 1538 Wittenberg edition. It shows a tiny (or giant, in relation to the globe) human figure standing on earth looking up to a flat sky. There are three stars in the sky: one is directly above him, and one on each side. If the sky was flat – the argument goes – then the celestial bodies directly above our head (in case of the sun this would be midday) would be closer and thus would seem bigger than when they appear low in the sky (when rising and setting). We know from experience, that this is not the case. The celestial bodies actually seem bigger when they are rising or setting than when they are directly above us. Consequently, the sphere of heavens cannot be flat.

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

(Right) If the sphere of the heavens was flat, an explanation in manuscript form. (Or 10661, f. 4v)
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There are many more fascinating illustrations in our Hebrew copy, but these few examples are perhaps enough to demonstrate how much these early printed Latin editions of Sacrobosco’s work influenced our copyist. Since the copyist does not tell us when (or where) he produced this manuscript, finding the models of the diagrams can also help in the dating of the manuscript. Based on the origin of these few illustrations, our manuscript must have been copied sometime after 1538. Of course, a more thorough study of the entire illustration program may lead to different results. Whenever it was copied, by then these diagrams had become part of the textual tradition of Sacrobosco’s Sphaera, so much so that our scribe felt the need to include them into his copy.

Zsofi Buda
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Further reading:

On Sacrobosco’s Sphaera:

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

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

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

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

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

On Abraham and Solomon Avigdor:

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

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

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

27 July 2020

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

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

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

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

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

Jews in medieval England: an overview

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

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

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

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

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

The Exchequer of the Jews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further reading

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


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

17 July 2020

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

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

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

Who was Maimonides?

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

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

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

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

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

What are responsa?

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

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

Autograph responsum of Moses Maimonides

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

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

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

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

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

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

Further readings

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

Ilana Tahan, Lead Curator Hebrew & Christian Orient Studies

03 July 2020

Count your fingers: calendrical hand diagrams in Hebrew manuscripts

This blog is inspired by our temporarily postponed exhibition Hebrew Manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word. As it happens, among the 39 exhibited manuscripts, there are three that have a hand diagram: a short tract on chiromancy (palmistry), a calendrical work, and a treatise on music.

While diagrams of chiromantic treatises help in revealing the character and fate of a particular person (see our previous blog: Written in your palm, just read it!), other kinds of hand diagrams work more like scientific instruments or visual aids. One of the manuscripts in our new exhibition contains a treatise on the calendar by the little-known Josef ben Shem Ṭov ben Yeshuʿah Ḥai entitled Sheʾerit Yosef (Joseph’s legacy). This peculiar-looking hand diagram below serves as a tool for calendrical calculations.

Hand diagram in Josef ben Shem Ṭov ben Yeshuʿah Ḥai’s Sheʾerit Yosef, Algeria, 1804Hand diagram in Josef ben Shem Ṭov ben Yeshuʿah Ḥai’s Sheʾerit Yosef, Algeria, 1804
Hand diagram in Josef ben Shem Ṭov ben Yeshuʿah Ḥai’s Sheʾerit Yosef, Algeria, 1804 (British Library Or 9782, ff. 13v-14r)

The manuscript has a colophon (literally “final point”), that is, a note that provides details about the production of the manuscript, such as when and where it was copied, who copied it and for whom. According to this colophon (at the bottom of f. 13v), Samuel the scribe copied the manuscript in Tlemcen (today in Algeria) within a week: he started working at the beginning of the Jewish month Kislev, and finished it on 6 Kislev 5565 (November 1804). The hand diagram is placed at the very end of the tract, on the page opposite the colophon.

Neither the technique of reckoning the calendar by using one’s hands nor related hand diagrams are specifically Jewish. Already the famous 8th-century Benedictine monk Bede the Venerable speaks about calculating the calendar with the help of one’s hands:

Some people, in order to simplify calculation, have transferred both cycles, the lunar and the solar, onto the joints of their fingers. Because the human hand has 19 joints if we include the tips of the fingers, by applying each year to one of these joints they begin the lunar cycle on the inside of the left hand… Again, because the two hands together, if you do not count in the fingertips, have 28 joints, they assign the years [of the solar cycle] to these, beginning at the little finger of the left hand. (Bede, The Reckoning of Time, translated, with introduction and commentary by Faith Wallis (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1999), p. 138)

A beautifully illustrated astronomical and calendrical miscellany from around 1300 offers an excellent Christian example of such hand diagrams. The illustration is spread over two consecutive pages providing a visual aid for the reader of Balduinus de Mardochio’s tract (f. 5v).

Hand diagrams in a calendrical tract by Balduinus de Mardochio Harley MS 3647 f.5r   Hand diagrams in a calendrical tract by Balduinus de Mardochio. Harley MS 3647 f.5v
Hand diagrams in a calendrical tract by Balduinus de Mardochio (British Library Harley MS 3647, ff. 5r and 5v)

Since one of the most important roles of calculating the calendar has always been to determine the dates of certain religious festivals, Hebrew calendrical hand diagrams are not identical to their Christian counterparts. While the Gregorian calendar is solar, the Hebrew calendar is a lunisolar, that is, its months are based on lunar months and its years are based on solar years. The sum of 12 lunar months is some 11 days shorter than the solar year, therefore every two or three years an intercalary month is added to the year (in these years, there are two months of Adar: Adar I and Adar II). The years with 13 months are called leap years, while the years with 12 months are the ordinary years. Why is it important to adjust to the solar year? Because festivals are often connected to specific agricultural seasons, which correspond to the solar year (the time taken by the earth to make one revolution around the sun). Therefore, if you want the festivals to fall within the right season, you need to keep your calendar “true with the sun”, that is, adjusted to the solar year.

To cut a long story short, Hebrew calendrical hand diagrams serve as tools to calculate the exact time of the four seasonal turning points (tekufot) in ordinary and in leap years. These are:

  • the tekufah of the month Nisan marking the spring equinox (beginning of spring);
  • the tekufah of the month Tamuz marking the summer solstice (beginning of summer);
  • the tekufah of the month Tishri marking autumnal equinox (beginning of fall);
  • and the tekufah of the month Tevet marking the winter solstice (beginning of winter).

By calculating these turning points, it is possible to determine the correct dates of the religious festivals. These Hebrew diagrams are often accompanied by a rhyming mnemonic to help memorise the rules. To help you imagine these short mnemonics, think of the old English rhyme:

Thirty days hath September, April, June and November,
All the rest have 31, Except the second month alone,
To which 28 we assign, And leap year gives it 29.

Another copy of the tract Sheʾerit Yosef from late 18th century Morocco displays a less intricate diagram than its copy from Algeria. The caption above the diagram reads: And now I will present you this strong hand so that you know from it the seasons of Samuel, so that you can learn from it their days, their hours, and the day of asking for rain… [the day on which Jews begin reciting the prayer for rain, occurring during the pilgrim festival of Sukkot].

Josef ben Shem Ṭov ben Yeshuʿah Ḥai. Sheʾerit Yosef, Tangier (Morocco), 1797. Or 10310 f.49r
Josef ben Shem Ṭov ben Yeshuʿah Ḥai. Sheʾerit Yosef, Tangier (Morocco), 1797 (British Library Or 10310, f. 49r)

Moreover, similar hand diagrams were included into the so-called Sifre evronot (‘Books of Intercalations’, from the root עבר meaning ‘pregnancy’ or ‘intercalation’). Such calendrical manuals were especially popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. A late-17th century Sefer evronot by Isaac Katzenellenbogen of Prague contains a hand diagram with elaborate floral motifs, in a style reminiscent of folk art. The caption above the diagram reads luaḥ ha-yad, that is, hand calendar. Another, less embellished example is a copy of Eliezer ben Jacob Berlin’s Sefer evronot from the mid-18th century. Both of these diagrams are based on the same principle as the diagrams in the Sheʾerit Yosef.

(Molad Yitsḥaḳ) Sefer Evronot by Isaac Katzenellenbogen. Poland, 1690. Or 10784 f.10v   Sefer Evronot by Eliezer ben Jacob Berlin. Hamburg, 1744/5. Or 10520 f.15r
Left: (Molad Yitsḥaḳ) Sefer Evronot by Isaac Katzenellenbogen. Poland, 1690 (British Library Or 10784, f. 10v); right: Sefer Evronot by Eliezer ben Jacob Berlin. Hamburg, 1744/5 (British Library Or 10520, f. 15r)

The origin of this Jewish version of calendrical hand diagrams is not clear. According to one tradition attributed to Joseph Vecinho, who may or may not have been the physician of the Portuguese king John II (d. 1495), and who may or may not have given calendrical tables to Christopher Columbus, this Jewish method of finger reckoning was invented by Vecinho’s teacher, the famous Spanish astronomer Abraham ben Samuel Zacuto (1452-ca. 1515). However, the mysterious figure of Joseph Vecinho could be the topic of another blog! And if you wish to know exactly how to calculate the beginnings of the seasons on your hand, consult the literature below.

Zsofi Buda, former Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project Cataloguer, Asian and African Collections


Straus, Josh, “Sifrei Evronot: An Introduction to Hebrew Calendar Manuals,Washington University Undergraduate Research Digest, vol 2:1 (2006).
Carlebach, Elisheva. Palaces of Time: Jewish Calendar and Culture in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap, 2011).
Munich double Evronot book, fol. 14, Index of Jewish Art online database
Chinitz, Jacob. “The Jewish Calendar,” The Jewish Bible Quarterly, 29:3.
Cohen, Martin A., ‘Vecinho, Joseph’, in Encyclopaedia Judaica vol. 20 (Detroit: Macmillan, 2007; 2nd edition), pp. 487-488.

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