THE BRITISH LIBRARY

Asian and African studies blog

26 posts categorized "Hebrew"

03 July 2020

Count your fingers: calendrical hand diagrams in Hebrew manuscripts

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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 峁琽v ben Yeshu士ah 岣i entitled She示erit Yosef (Joseph鈥檚 legacy). This peculiar-looking hand diagram below serves as a tool for calendrical calculations.

Hand diagram in Josef ben Shem 峁琽v ben Yeshu士ah 岣i鈥檚 She示erit Yosef, Algeria, 1804Hand diagram in Josef ben Shem 峁琽v ben Yeshu士ah 岣i鈥檚 She示erit Yosef, Algeria, 1804
Hand diagram in Josef ben Shem 峁琽v ben Yeshu士ah 岣i鈥檚 She示erit Yosef, Algeria, 1804 (British Library Or 9782, ff. 13v-14r)
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The manuscript has a colophon (literally 鈥渇inal point鈥), 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鈥檚 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鈥檚 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鈥 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鈥檚 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)
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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 鈥渢rue with the sun鈥, 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 She示erit 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鈥 [the day on which Jews begin reciting the prayer for rain, occurring during the pilgrim festival of Sukkot].

Josef ben Shem 峁琽v ben Yeshu士ah 岣i. She示erit Yosef, Tangier (Morocco), 1797. Or 10310 f.49r
Josef ben Shem 峁琽v ben Yeshu士ah 岣i. She示erit Yosef, Tangier (Morocco), 1797 (British Library Or 10310, f. 49r)
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Moreover, similar hand diagrams were included into the so-called Sifre evronot (鈥楤ooks of Intercalations鈥, from the root 注讘专 meaning 鈥榩regnancy鈥 or 鈥榠ntercalation鈥). 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 lua岣 ha-yad, that is, hand calendar. Another, less embellished example is a copy of Eliezer ben Jacob Berlin鈥檚 Sefer evronot from the mid-18th century. Both of these diagrams are based on the same principle as the diagrams in the She示erit Yosef.

(Molad Yits岣岣) 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 Yits岣岣) 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)
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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鈥檚 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
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References

Straus, Josh, 鈥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. 鈥The Jewish Calendar,鈥 The Jewish Bible Quarterly, 29:3.
Cohen, Martin A., 鈥榁ecinho, Joseph鈥, in Encyclopaedia Judaica vol. 20 (Detroit: Macmillan, 2007; 2nd edition), pp. 487-488.

15 June 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ilana Tahan
Lead Curator Hebrew & Christian Orient Studies
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Further readings

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

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

Gaster, Moses. Hebrew Illuminated Bibles of the IXth and Xth Centuries (Codices Or. Gaster, No. 150 and 151)鈥︹︹ Reprinted from the 鈥淧roceedings of the Society of Biblical Arch忙ology,鈥 June, 1900. .London: Harrison & Sons, 1901.

Narkiss, Bezalel. Kitve-Yad 士Ivriyim Metsuyarim鈥; mavo me-et Sesil Rot鈥; [士Ivrit, Daliyah Sha岣岣斥; 士arikhah, Daliyah 峁琫sler].'Mahad. 士Ivrit 岣dashah u-Metu岣砮net. Jerusalem: Keter, 1984. (in Hebrew)

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

01 June 2020

Written in your palm, just read it!

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We all wish to know the future. Wouldn鈥檛 it give us peace of mind if we knew what is waiting for us? Our Hebrew collection offers a fair number of manuscripts discussing different kinds of divination techniques. Perhaps the most well-known form of foretelling the future is palmistry, or chiromancy (from the Greek words kheir = hand and manteia = divination). If you want to know your future, you just have to consult a palmistry manual or show your hand to a person knowledgeable in this field.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A printed illustration of a hand and palm lines
A printed palmistry diagram. (Jacob ben Mordechai of Fulda, Shoshanat Yaakov. Amsterdam, 1706.) (Source: https://www.hebrewbooks.org/24310)
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There is one more example of a palmistry diagram in the Hebrew collection. The late 13th-century North French Miscellany offers a more elaborate mapping of the human hand. Here, the short explanations of the lines are inserted into the diagram itself. Although, palmistry is often integrated with astrology, none of these Jewish examples seem to have any connection to it.

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

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

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

Zsofi Buda, Asian and African Collections
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Further reading:

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

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

Thorndike, Lynn. 鈥淐hiromancy in Mediaeval Latin Manuscripts.鈥 Speculum 40 (1965): 674-706.



[1] EJ 鈥淐hiromancy鈥, v. 4 p. 653.

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

18 May 2020

The Kaifeng Torah Scroll: A British Library Treasure

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 



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

08 April 2020

Mah Nishtanah? Why is Tonight different from all other nights? In celebration of Passover

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Passover is a major Jewish Spring festival that has been celebrated annually since ancient times. It typically falls between late March and late April, and marks the Israelites鈥 liberation from Egyptian bondage through divine intervention, as told in the biblical Book of Exodus. The highlight of the Passover celebration is the reading of the hagadah. 

The hagadah (plural hagadot), which literally means 鈥榥arration鈥 or 鈥榯elling鈥, is the ritual book used in Jewish households on Passover Eve, at a festive ceremony and meal known as the Seder (order).  In the Jewish Diaspora the Seder is conducted on two consecutive nights.  

 

Seder table from Hispano-Moresque Jewish manuscript Seder table from Catalan Jewish manuscript
Seder table. (Hispano-Moresque Hagadah.  Castile, Spain, 1275-1324. Or 2737, f. 91r)

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Seder table. (Sister Hagadah. Catalonia, Spain1325-1374.  Or 2884, f.18r)

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This is a book of remembrance and redemption, aiming primarily to teach the young about the continuity of the Jewish people, and their unswerving faith in God:  鈥淎nd you shall explain to your son on that day: It is because of what the Lord did for me when I went free from Egypt鈥 (Exodus 13:8).  

Written chiefly in Hebrew with Aramaic additions, the hagadah is a mosaic of biblical extracts, rabbinical discussions, legends, symbolic foods, prayers, Psalms and songs that were probably assembled as early as the 2nd century CE, evolving gradually into the set pattern of fifteen steps that is known today.

 

Seder table from the Ashkenazi Hagadah

Seder table. (The Ashkenzi Hagadah.  Ulm (?), Germany, 1430-1470.  Add MS 14762, f. 6r)

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Its enthralling contents and the fact that it is used at a domestic ceremony attended also by young children have been a fertile ground for artistic creativity and expression since medieval times.  Over the centuries, the hagadah has thus become one of the most endearing texts to Jews everywhere, and equally one of the most frequently decorated texts used in Jewish practise. The earliest extant illustration in a hagadah appears in an 11th-century manuscript fragment found in the Cairo Genizah.[1]  The illustration[2] depicts the maror (bitter herbs) a mandatory food eaten at the Seder.

 

Illustration of the maror from a Cairene fragment
Drawing of maror (bitter herbs) in a hagadah fragment from the Cairo Genizah (La Haggada enlumin茅e. 1., Etude iconographique et stilistique des manuscrits enlumin茅s et decor茅s de la Haggada du XIII. au XVI. sie虁cle / Mendel Metzger. Leiden: Brill, 1973. (pp. 285-287)). (Image is not Creative Commons)

 

Throughout the 14th and 15th centuries, richly illuminated manuscripts of the Passover narrative were produced in limited numbers in various European centres.   Of the surviving hagadah manuscripts the finest and most luxurious specimens were created in Spain, particularly in Catalonia, in the 14th century.  The Brother and the Sister hagadot in the British Library鈥檚 Hebrew collection are a good case in point. 

The images seen here originate from these two splendid artefacts.  They contain the hymn Dayenu (It would have been enough), a Passover thanksgiving hymn that extols God鈥檚 magnanimity towards the Israelites. Its decoration is often encountered in other medieval Spanish Passover ritual books. The text is flanked by ornate vertical bands created by the repeated words ilu (if) and ve-lo (and if not) placed on filigree grounds.

 

Illuminated Dayenu hymn from the Brother Hagadah Illuminated Dayenu hymn from the Sister Hagadah

Embellished Dayenu hymn (It would have been enough). (Brother Hagadah. Catalonia, Spain, 1350-1374. Or 1404, f. 15v)

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Decorated Dayenu hymn (It would have been enough). (Sister Hagadah. Catalonia, Spain, 1325-1374. Or 2884, f. 48v)

CC Public Domain Image

 

The exact figure of extant illuminated hagadah manuscripts is difficult to determine, nonetheless, it can be stated with some degree of certainty that a small number date from the Middle Ages, whilst the majority are 18th century artefacts.

 

The 18th century witnessed a revival of Hebrew manuscript art, which has been linked to the emergence of a wealthy class of central and northern European Jews. Influenced by trends prevailing in their Christian milieu, these well-to-do patrons began to commission illuminated Hebrew manuscripts for everyday use and special occasions, hagadot being particularly popular.  This phenomenon, which some scholars have named the 鈥滼ewish Renaissance,鈥 was made possible by the formation of a school of professional scribe-artists, chiefly from Bohemia and Moravia, who travelled around Europe in search of commissions. 

The four sons illustration from German Jewish manuscript

The Four Sons. (The Sloane Hagadah, Hamburg-Altona, 1740. Sloane MS 3173, f. 6v)

CC Public Domain Image 

One of the most prominent Moravian scribe-artists of that period was Joseph ben David Leipnik, active in Hamburg and Altona.  Between 1731 and 1740 he created some thirteen hagadot. Featured here are miniatures from a beautifully wrought specimen Leipnik completed in 1740, now kept in the British Library鈥檚 Hebrew collection. The manuscript is called the Sloane Hagadah after its former owner, Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), founder of the British Museum.  Like other 18th century Passover ritual books, the illuminations in this one were modelled on the copper engravings in the 1695 and 1712 printed editions of the Amsterdam hagadah.

Finding Baby Moses from Germany Jewish manuscriptMoses receiving the law from German Jewish manuscript
Finding of baby Moses. (The Sloane Hagadah., Hamburg-Altona, 1740. Sloane MS 3173, f. 12v)
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Moses receiving the Law on Mount Sinai. (The Sloane Hagadah., Hamburg-Altona, 1740. Sloane MS 3173, f. 17v)
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The Passover ceremony is a major festive celebration for Jews everywhere. Families and guests gather round the beautifully set Seder table, to recite the hagadah, sing hymns and consume the traditional symbolic foodstuff arranged on special Seder plates.  

Two of the obligatory foods eaten on Passover eve are matsah (unleavened bread; knows also as 鈥榩oor man鈥檚 bread鈥) and maror (bitter herbs). The former symbolises freedom. It is the unbaked bread dough the Israelites took with them when leaving Egypt hastily. The latter represents the harshness of the Israelites鈥 slavery endured under Pharaoh.  The matsah we partake from nowadays is a flat, cracker-like bread. Vegetables used most commonly as bitter herbs are horseradish and romaine lettuce.

Illustration of matsah from Catalan Jewish manuscriptIllustration of maror from Catalan Jewish manuscript
Miniature of the matsah (unleavened bread). (Brother Hagadah. Catalonia, Spain, 1350-1374. Or 1404, f. 17v)

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Miniature of the maror (bitter herbs). (Brother Hagadah. Catalonia, Spain, 1350-1374. Or 1404, f. 18r)
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Another essential food consumed at the Seder ceremony is haroset (sweetmeats) which is symbolic of the mortar and bricks the Israelite slaves used to build Pharaoh鈥檚 cities. Traditionally this is a sweet relish made of fruit, chopped or ground nuts and sweet red wine. Over the centuries, Jewish communities from around the world have developed their own versions of haroset.  Countless recipes exist using a variety of local ingredients, but many still are closely guarded secrets.

 

Distribution of matsah and haroset from Catalan golden hagadah Distribution of haroset from Hispano-Moresque hagadah

Distributing matsah and haroset  to children. (The Golden Hagadah, Catalonia, Spain, 1320-1330. Add MS 27210, f. 15r (detail))

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Distributing haroset. (Hispano-Moresque Hagadah.  Castile, Spain, 1275-1324. (Or 2737, f. 89r)

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A while ago, I discovered an interesting recipe for making haroset in an 18th century manuscript held in our collection. I found it rather intriguing that a manuscript of liturgical poems for circumcision contained instructions and ingredients for making Passover sweet relish. If a concealed connection does exist, it has yet to be unveiled. In the meantime, I am delighted to share this recipe with you.

Written in Ladino (Judeo-Spanish) in Latin characters, I presume it was most probably used yearly by the previous anonymous owner/s of the manuscript, and must have been passed down by relatives or friends with Sephardi roots (from Spain or Portugal). The ingredients used in it point strongly to the rich culinary tradition of Spanish Jews.

 

Latin-script Judeo-Spanish recipe for haroset
Recipe for making haroset.  (Place of production unknown, 18th century. Or 10452, f. 33v)

CC Public Domain Image

My translation is only partial.  Since some of the ingredients and instructions were hard to make out, they have been omitted and replaced by dots.

Instructions for making haroset.

The haroset is made from:

black figs (higos negros)

sultanas (pasas del sol)

almonds (almendras) 

chickpeas (garvansos) 

walnuts (nuesis de Espania)

These are all toasted (toztado) and crushed (majado), then mixed well together with apples (mansanas), pomegranates (granadas) and orange rind (cascaron de naranjas)鈥 

To  this mixture add spices (especias)鈥︹ ginger (Xinjibre), cinnamon (Canelon de Brazil), nutmeg (Nuez moscada)鈥︹..  If preferred, the composition can be blended with kosher honey (miel) melted (deretida) with sugar and a bit of wine (un poco de vino).  The mixture is shaped into small round pellets/balls (balitas) that have been rolled in powdered cinnamon鈥︹he pellets can be made in advance and kept.   

Happy festival! (Buena vestas)!  

 

Our readers and followers would be pleased to know, that all the manuscripts featured in this blog have been fully digitised as part of the major Hebrew Manuscripts Digitsation Project undertaken by the British Library, 2013-2020. They are freely accessible on the Digitised Manuscripts website.

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

 

Ilana Tahan
Lead Curator Hebrew and Christian Orient Studies

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Further readings:

The Ashkenazi Haggadah: a Hebrew Manuscript of the Mid-15th Century From the Collections of the British Library, notes on the illuminations, transcription and English translation by David Goldstein (London: Thames and Hudson, 1985) [facsimile].

Evelyn M. Cohen, Joel ben Simeon Revisited: Reflections of the Scribe鈥檚 Artistic Repertoire in a Cinquecento Haggadah, in A Crown for a King; Studies in Jewish Art, History and Archaeology in Memory of Stephen S. Kayser, ed. by Shalom Sabar, Steven Fine, and William M. Kramer (Jerusalem: Gefen, 2000), pp. 59-71.

Evelyn C. Cohen, 'The "Sister Haggadah" and Its "Poor Relation"', Proceedings of the Eleventh Journal of World Congress of Jewish Studies, D2 (1994), 17-24.

Marc Michael Epstein, Dreams of Subversion in Medieval Jewish Art and Literature (Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1997)

Marc Michael Epstein, The Medieval Haggadah. Art, Narrative, and Religious Imagination (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2011)

Katrin Kogman-Appel, Illuminated Haggadot from Medieval Spain. Biblical Imagery and the Passover Holiday (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2006), pp. 47-88.

Katrin Kogman-Appel, 鈥楾he Sephardic Picture Cycles and the Rabbinic Tradition: Continuity and Innovation in Jewish Iconography鈥, Zeitschrift f眉r Kunstgeschichte, 60 (1997), 451-82.

Katrin Kogman-Appel, 鈥楾he Picture Cycles of the Rylands Haggadah and the so-called Brother Haggadah and Their Relation to the Western Tradition of Old Testament Illustration鈥 Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library, 79, 2 (1997), 3-20.

Yael Zirlin, 'Joel Meets Johannes: a Fifteenth-century Jewish-Christian Collaboration in Manuscript Illumination', Viator, 26 (1995), 265-82.


[1] A storeroom of discarded religious and secular Jewish documents that had been preserved in the attic of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat (old Cairo) for nearly one thousand years.  The exact whereabouts of this particular fragment are currently unknown. The fragment might have been owned by David Kaufmann a famous 19th century Jewish scholar who held the chair of philosophy and religion at the Rabbinical Seminary in Budapest. 

[2] This Genizah fragment was published by David Kaufmann, 鈥淣otes to the Egyptian Fragments of the Haggadah,鈥 Jewish Quarterly Review, X (1898).  The fragment and illustration were also published in: 

La Haggada enlumin茅e. 1., Etude iconographique et stilistique des manuscrits enlumin茅s et decor茅s de la Haggada du XIII. au XVI. sie虁cle / Mendel Metzger. Leiden: Brill, 1973. (pp. 285-287).  

 

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)
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Decorated marriage contracts

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

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

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

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

Seen here is an elegant, exquisitely decorated contract from Modena, recording the nuptials of Ephraim son of Kalonymus Sanguini, and Luna daughter of Mordecai Faro. The elaborate ketubah features an imposing architectural structure, topped by winged cherubs holding trumpets and leafy branches. The magnificent double border is composed of intricate micrographic lacework, surrounded by cut out patterns on a red ground inhabited by biblical vignettes, and the signs of the zodiac. Perhaps in an attempt to increase its value, the contract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)
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Oriental marriage contracts are scarcer than European ones, and serve as important examples of Jewish art and illumination of the areas they originated from. Some specimens flaunt bold and brilliant colouring and crude designs, while others exhibit native motifs and indigenous symbols. Here are two telling examples from our collection.

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

The decorative programme is typical of contracts issued in Herat, and displays Islamic and Persian influences. The layout, as a whole, is very reminiscent of Persian carpets with a well-planned, orderly pattern. Written neatly in rows outlined in red ink, the square calligraphic text of the ketubah proper is framed by two concentric narrow bands. The rectangular band closest to the text is embellished with stylised violet and orange flowers and green foliage. The outer border is inscribed with copious good wishes, arranged in alphabetical order, each one beginning with the word siman (Hebrew for omen or sign) 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)
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The development of printing brought with it new decorating techniques, which were also employed to embellish Jewish marriage contracts. A case in point is copper plate engraving. Invented in Germany in the 15th century CE, the use of copper engraving for book illustration became widespread only in the mid-16th century CE. From the 17 th century CE onwards, this complex, skilled craft gained greater popularity, becoming widely practised in Holland and other European countries, including England.

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

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

The four Jewish marriage contracts described in this blog represent just a fraction of our significant holdings. As a matter of fact, a cursory survey of the ketubot preserved in the Library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
Ccownwork

 


[1] from the Hebrew consonantal root 鈥榢tv鈥 meaning writing; plural ketubot