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Hebraic Manuscripts

Prior to the invention of printing, all books were "published" in manuscript form, that is, in hand-written copies. Nevertheless, the printing press did not altogether supplant the Jewish manuscript tradition. Since scrolls of the Pentateuch and of the Book of Esther must, according to Jewish law, be written by hand on parchment, the Hebrew scribal art was always maintained, occasionally together with the art of manuscript illumination.

In certain parts of the Jewish world, all or many books were written by hand until the 20th century, mostly in places where printing was either non-existent or limited, such as Persia, the Yemen, and North Africa. Even in places where printing was fully developed, some books were still circulated in manuscript copies - usually mystical, esoteric, or non-orthodox literature. (Also part of the manuscript tradition are the marginal annotations, sometimes very ample commentaries, added by hand in copies of printed books.) Here are several centuries of Hebraic manuscripts from the entire Jewish world, reminders of the days of scribes and the ancient craft of bookmaking.

Megilat Esther 20th cent
Bible. Scroll of Esther. Hebrew
Graphical element
[ Megilat Ester ]
Manuscript: Western Europe (Holland,
Germany, or Alsace-Lorraine)?,
early 20th cent.

Written on seven segments of parchment by more than one Ashkenazi hand, this megillah (scroll) is illuminated with pink hearts and roses, other floral motifs in green and turquoise, and yellow cupids with bows and arrows. Its ornate silver cylindrical case, set with jewelled hearts and beads, is chased with two scenes of King Ahasuerus and Esther on a couch, and a verse in Hebrew (Esther 2:17). Extending above the case is a winged cherub, who bears a brass plate with the French inscription: "Lettre d'amour à la reine Esther l'élue d'entre 300 vierges."

Liturgy and Ritual. New Year
Graphical element
[ Mahzor le-Rosh ha-Shanah ]
Manuscript: North Africa, 19th cent.

This prayerbook for the High Holy Days, written in a fine cursive script, contains much Sephardic liturgical poetry (piyutim and pizmonim). It was originally a possession of the Zarka family of Tunisia; Solomon Zarka may have been the scribe.

Talmud Yeru- shalmi 1523
Jerusalem Talmud
Graphical element
[ Talmud Yerushalmi ]
Venice: Daniel Bomberg, of Antwerp,

The Jerusalem Talmud, a much shorter compendium than the Babylonian, was compiled in Palestine in the early centuries C.E. This editio princeps, issued by Bomberg after his completion of the larger Talmud, was based on a sole extant manuscript written in 1289. A commentary in cursive script appears in the margins of the first page of this copy, written by the hand of Isaiah Bassani, an 18th-century Italian rabbi.

Bible. Pentateuch. Polyglot
Graphical element
[ Hamishah humshei Torah ]
Manuscript: the Yemen, 19th cent.

In accordance with Yemenite practice, the biblical text in Hebrew (square script in inside margin) is accompanied by both the pointed Targum of Onkelos in Aramaic and the unpointed Judeo-Arabic tafsir of Saadiah Gaon, verse by verse in a single column. The commentary of Rashi and Midrash Tanhuma appear in the outermost columns.

Elijah b. Solomon Zalman,
Gaon of Wilna, 1720-1797
Graphical element
[ Perush al Shir ha-Shirim ]
Manuscript: Lithuania or
Russian Poland, early 19th cent.

One of the greatest Jewish scholars of modern times, Elijah of Vilna authored commentaries on virtually all of ancient Jewish literature. None, including this one on the Song of Songs, was published in his lifetime. The curved lines of this manuscript are unique to eastern European Jewish calligraphy, as is the cursive script.

Haft Brad- eran
Yusuf al-Yahudi, of Bukhara,
Graphical element
[ Haft Braderan ]
Manuscript: Bukhara?, 19th cent.?

"The Seven Brothers," written in the Judeo-Persian (-Tajiki) dialect of the Bukharan Jews, is a narrative in rhyming couplets based on the apocryphal story of Hannah and her seven sons. This manuscript of the poem, whose paper is green and stained, is incomplete, missing leaves at both ends.

Go to Chap. 17


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