Sefer Torah (Pentateuch), in Hebrew, attributed to the celebrated biblical scribe Moses ben Jacob ibn Zabara, manuscript scroll on vellum
Sefer Torah (Pentateuch), in Hebrew, attributed to the celebrated biblical scribe Moses ben Jacob ibn Zabara, manuscript scroll on vellum

Details & Cataloguing

Sefer Torah (Pentateuch), in Hebrew, attributed to the celebrated biblical scribe Moses ben Jacob ibn Zabara, manuscript scroll on vellum

80 membranes, approximately 520mm. high and 51.29 metres long, complete, membranes with three or four columns each (except 60th membrane which contains only 1 column), each column 420mm. by 140mm., 42 lines ruled in brown ink, text in dark black formal square script, some minor modern repairs to text throughout (see for example 55th and 57th membranes), stitching between sheets now loose in last two books, else excellent condition

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The Hebrew Pentateuch is the oldest version of the first five books of the Old Testament.  The present manuscript has been identified as in the hand of the celebrated scribe of the Kennicott Bible, Moses ben Jacob ibn Zabara


Written by Moses ben Jacob ibn Zabara in Spain (and probably the north-western area around La Coruña), in the third quarter of the fifteenth century, for a patron who must have carried it into exile in 1492.

Catalogue Note


The Torah (or Pentateuch) contains the five books of Moses: Genesis (בראשית, Bereshit: 'In the beginning ...'; here 1st membrane), Exodus (שמות, Shemot: 'Names'; here 21st membrane), Leviticus (ויקרא, Vayyiqra: 'And he called ...'; 36th membrane), Numbers (במדבר, Bamidbar: 'In the desert ...'; here 48th membrane), and Deuteronomy (דברים, Devarim: 'Words', or 'Discourses'; here 66th membrane). Consensus agrees that it is the oldest section of the Hebrew Old Testament, traditionally ascribed to the hand of Moses himself, and narrates the creation of the Universe and its early history. It is of fundamental importance to Christians and Jews alike, and forms the absolute base of their collective biblical history and theology, as well as a legal and ritual guide for life. Current scholarship agrees that the text was fixed in its present form in the Persian period (before c. 520 BC to 331 BC), after the return of the Jews from exile in Babylon, and tradition ascribes the organisation of the work to the priest and scribe Ezra.

The transmission of this text is like no other in the history of human achievement, because of the extreme care and attention of the Jewish scribes to keep the text in the same form as the ancient world knew it. While Jewish communities began to produce codices or books from the eighth century AD, and continued to produce them throughout the medieval period, this text continued to be written in the most ancient of written-formats, the scroll. Talmudic law includes a number of very precise specifications about the methods of production of a Torah scroll. It must be written on gevil (ie. parchment from kosher animals which is prepared for writing only on one side, and washed with salt, flour and m'afatsim, a residue of wasp enzyme and tree bark); this is the material which Moses reportedly used for the scroll which he placed inside the Holy Ark, and is the material of the majority of the Dead Sea Scrolls found in the Qumram cave complex. The scribe's pen cannot be from unclean animals or even base metals. The text itself contains 304,805 letters, and must be duplicated perfectly by a professional scribe, word-by-word from a correct exemplar, as any mistakes could render the work unfit for ritual use. Furthermore, specifications are given for the amount of space to be left between individual letters and words, and the scribe must not alter the design of the sections or paragraph configurations. The result is a breathtaking example of textual art, in which the beauty of the script is the only avenue of artistic expression.

Moreover, Spanish texts of the Hebrew Bible are highly regarded for their meticulous accuracy, and the present example is a notably early example of these. No complete Torah scrolls survive before the late twelfth or early thirteenth century, and those from medieval Spain are exceedingly rare. In total only nine Sefardic Torah scrolls are recorded up to the fifteenth century: one from the late twelfth or thirteenth century (sold in our rooms 4 December 2007, lot 38); four from the fourteenth century (one in the holdings of the JNUL, which is written by Rabbi Nissim Gerondi; one from the second half of the fourteenth century which was sold at Christie's New York, 10 December 1999, lot 171; and two listed by G. Margoliouth, Catalogue of the Hebrew... Manuscripts in the British Museum, 1899, I: nos. 1-3 & 5); three from either the fourteenth or fifteenth century (including the fourteenth- or fifteenth-century scroll from Rhodes in the holdings of JNUL); and two from the fifteenth century (one catalogued by Margoliouth, I: nos. 1-3 & 5; and another in the de Rossi collection in the Palatina Library in Parma: B. Richler, Hebrew Manuscripts in the Biblioteca Palatina in Parma, Catalogue, 2001).

Fragments of documents from the time of Christ survive today, but through the effort of hundreds of generations of Hebrew scribes, this text in its most correct form is the closest we can get to that known by Christ and the figures of the New Testament.

The present scroll is of great individual significance. The hand has been identified by Professor M. Beit-Arié of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem, as that of the most formal and elegant type of biblical script used by the celebrated and revered scribe Moses ben Jacob ibn Zabara. He was a highly respected itinerant craftsman, with a reputation for great piety. His first surviving work is a collection of polemical works and poetry dated 1473, which was written in La Coruña (now Breslau, Jüdisch-theologisches Seminar MS. 92; B.D. Weinryb, Catalogue of the Hebrew MSS in the Library of the Juedisch-theologisches Seminar in Breslau, 1965, nos. 210, 250, 299, 300 & B. Richler, 'The Scribe Moses ben Jacob ibn Zabara of Spain: a Moroccan Saint', Jewish Art 18 (1992), p. 142). Three years later, when Isaac de Braga, a wealthy Spanish Jew, commissioned a lavish illuminated Bible manuscript (now the Kennicott Bible: Bodleian, Kennicott MS.1; facsimile edition by B. Narkiss and A. Cohen-Mushlin in 1985), he sought out the best craftsmen, including the scribe Moses ben Jacob ibn Zabara. In May 1477 Zabara wrote an illuminated copy of the Latter Prophets and Hagiographia at el-Muqasim (formerly D.S. Sassoon Collection, acquired in our rooms, 2 December 1930, lot 69; published in the 'Addenda and Corrigenda' on p. li of his catalogue Ohel Dawid, 1932), and at an unknown date he wrote the fragmentary Pentateuch (now British Library, Or. Ms. 2286; Margoliouth, Catalogue, 1898, item 87, I:61). The last of these has a near-contemporary note on fol. 103v recording the death of the scribe and heralding him 'A great scribe, his name great in Israel, the holy Rabbi, his name is famous and praised in Israel, our master Rabbi Moses Zabara of blessed memory', and another addition on fol. 137r notes that 'from the writing and preparation of the vellum I can see that it was not done by a man but by the angel of God, a perfect sage, pious and holy, a scribe as accomplished as Ezra'.

Richler has identified him as a scribe who produced a number of Torah scrolls, and who was also active in Morocco in the last years of the fifteenth century. He was an important authority on his craft, and wrote at least two books on the complex laws of writing Torah scrolls. One of these, the Mlekhet haSofer, survives in a sixteenth-century copy in Cambridge University Library (MS. T-S Misc. 34; there accidentally included in the Taylor-Schechter Geniza Collection), and later copies in the library of the Porat Yosef Yeshiva in Jerusalem and the JNUL, New York (MS. Heb. 28º2070; fragment of 6 leaves only).

All Bibles copied by Zabara were regarded as extremely accurate exemplars, and from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries copies attributed to him are frequently cited as an absolute authority on the text. Among the North African communities Torah scrolls attributed to Zabara were used to swear legal oaths on, and numerous legends about the scribe are recorded from the same region (see Richler, pp. 145-6 for these). Rabbi Hayyim J.D. Azulai noted that Zabara would write the whole Torah scroll but leave blank the Holy Names of the Lord, which he would add later with a special quill used on for that purpose, having immersed himself in a miqveh and fasted until sunset. When he died he requested that the special quill be buried with him, and when they came to lift his bed they could not move it until the quill was placed in his hand, whereupon the bed became light.

Apart from the present manuscript only three Torah scrolls by Zabara are known to be still extant (and these may well be fragments only). A piece of a single column of a Torah scroll, much damaged and difficult to read in normal light, is in the possession of Rabbi David Ovadiah (formerly of Fez), and has been published by Richler (with comment on p. 145 and with a photograph made with UV light on p. 146). It is conceivably a fragment of the same scroll identified by Rabbi Jacob Toledano in 1960 as brought to Fez by Spanish exiles. Toledano also noted two others, one of which was in Meknes (and this one is perhaps to be identified with one in a private collection in France, unavailable to scholars and hence its condition is at present unknown), and another in Tetuan which was damaged by Spanish bombs during the Spanish-Moroccan war in 1859 and discarded (Richler, p. 145, n. 25, suggests that the remnant of that may be the one which was carried by Mr. L. Curiel from Tetuan to Israel in 1973). Unless the Torah scroll in the French private collection is complete, the present manuscript would appear to be the only complete Torah scroll in the hand of Moses ben Jacob ibn Zabara to survive, and is the only one to come to light in the last half-century. As such it is of great academic and theological importance, and deserving of much future study.

Western & Oriental Manuscripts