In the Middle Ages, the Jewish Bible—the actual Bible that Jews held in their hands and used in their daily lives— existed in several distinct generic types, and each of these types assumed a different material format in the various diasporic geographic and cultural centers in which Jews lived during the medieval period.  The eight Bibles for sale in this catalogue offer a superb selection of these types and formats.

The earliest writing-platform in which the texts of the Hebrew Bible were inscribed in the ancient world was the scroll; typically, the scrolls were relatively small, each one comprising a single Biblical text, like the book of Genesis or Exodus alone.  By the third or fourth century in the Common Era, the Sefer Torah, the monumental Torah scroll containing the entire Pentateuch (like the Torah scrolls still read in the synagogue today) had come into existence and become normative.  The Hebrew Bible in the form of a codex—the technical term for what we call a book—began to appear only in the ninth century.  Our earliest surviving examples, including the fabled Aleppo Codex and the Leningrad Codex (our earliest complete Bible), were produced in the tenth century, all of them either in the Near East or in North Africa.  The pages of these early Biblical codices presented the vocalized and accentuated Hebrew text in two or three column formats (thereby roughly imitating the form of a scroll), with the Biblical text accompanied by the Masorah, a vast corpus of annotations that recorded every textual, orthographic, and synctactic peculiarity found in the text.  The Masoretic notes were written in micrography, miniature writing.  These notes appeared either between the columns on the page, typically in one or two letter abbreviations, or in a lengthier, more expansive form, in two to four lines written across the page’s width at its bottom and top.  These annotated Bibles are known as Masoretic Bibles.

valmadonna_stern_essay_1Pentateuch, Aragon: 11th-12th Century (Lot 5)

The contents and page format of these early codices set the basic model for nearly all Hebrew Bibles subsequently produced by Jews in the Middle Ages.  The direct heir of the early Near Eastern tradition was Sepharad, the conventional name for the culture of Jews living in the Iberian peninsula and southern France.  In Sepharad, the Masoretic Bible was the most common type of Bible.  Sometimes, the entire Hebrew Bible was copied, typically in two or three separate volumes, or only one section, like the Pentateuch or the Prophets.  A particularly early example of a Sephardic Masoretic Bible is a complete Pentateuch (missing only the final twelve verses of Deuteronomy), copied in the eleventh or twelfth century (lot 5).  Spanish scribes were famous in the Middle Ages for the accuracy of their copying.  The skill of the scribe of this codex is reflected in the clarity of his script, as can be seen in the remarkable legibility of the micrographic Masoretic comments on the top and bottom of the page.  The text shown here is from Exodus, chapter 15, a section that includes the Song at the Sea, with its poetic text written in the special stichography or line-layout known as ariah ‘al gabei leveinah, “a half-brick over a full brick.”  This scribal convention goes back to Rabbinic rules for writing Torah scrolls, and is another example of the continuing influence of the Sefer Torah upon the Jewish Bible codex.

Ashkenaz, the second main center of Jewish life in Europe during the Middle Ages, covered the territories of Germany and Northern France (and, during the period of Norman rule, England).  While scribes in Ashkenaz also produced Masoretic Bibles, the most common type of Ashkenazi Bible was the liturgical Pentateuch, or humash (the direct ancestor of today’s humashim).  As its name indicates, the liturgical Pentateuch is geared to the weekly reading of the Torah in the synagogue.  A humash typically consists of the weekly Torah portions (as read in the annual cycle), the haftarot, or prophetic readings that accompany the weekly Torah section, the Five Scrolls (Megillot) and Targum Onkelos, the classic Aramaic translation of the Bible.  In some Ashkenazic humashim, the Targum is either accompanied or replaced by Rashi’s commentary.  In many cases, though not always, liturgical Pentateuchs also contained the Masorah, which was copied in the same conventional form as in Masoretic Bibles.

The Valmadonna collection contains two Ashkenazi liturgical Pentateuchs.  The first of these, completed in the year 1189, is the earliest dated Ashkenazi humash (lot 7).  As the Israeli codicologist Malachi Beit-Arié has shown, this codex is also the earliest datable Hebrew manuscript to be produced in England, and the only surviving Hebrew manuscript to have been written in Norman England. Shortly after its completion, riots began that culminated in the sack of London’s Jewry and, in 1190, the massacre of Jews at York.  This codex also contains the earliest European dated text of the Targum, with the Aramaic translation transcribed inter-verse, each verse of the Hebrew text followed by its Targum.  This scribal practice may reflect the way in which the Targum was originally read aloud in the synagogue along with the Torah reading; at the very least, it enabled a medieval reader easily to fulfill the Talmudic injunction obligating every person “to complete the weekly lectionary readings with the congregation [by reciting] the words of the Hebrew Scripture twice and the Targum once” (B.T. Berakhot 8a-b).  In the margins of one folio in Leviticus, another type of translation is recorded: a list of fourteen unclean (not kosher) birds. The list is written in Judeo-French, that is, Old French in Hebrew script, the daily language spoken by Jews in both medieval France and pre-expulsion England.  It is the presence of the uniquely Anglo-Norman vocabulary found here, that serves as both an indication of the codex’s original locale, and a telling sign of how readers sometimes needed a translation into their own vernacular so as to know the precise meaning of important Biblical injunctions.

The other Ashkenazi liturgical Pentateuch in the sale (lot 6), was probably composed in the twelfth or thirteenth century in Germany, and was written by multiple scribes; a scribe named Isaac wrote the Pentateuchal text, while another by the name of Jacob wrote the haftarot.  As in the English humash, the Targum is written inter-verse.  What is most striking about this codex is its decoration.  The enlarged initial words of each parashah (weekly reading) are set off with delicate studded borders and highly stylized floral decorations, while the final word in the Pentateuch, Yisrael, is written in elegant super-sized letters in an almost intaglio fashion, with the heads and tails of hybrid beasts cavorting in the blackened hollows of the letters.  While this type of decoration closely mirrors contemporary decorations found in Latin Gothic volumes, the later travels of this volume carried it far from its original Christian site of production.  A bill of sale recorded at the end of the Pentateuch was written in Cairo at the end of the fifteenth century, while another note indicates that the Bible was later sold again in the reign of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent (1520–1566); still later the Bible came into the possession of the Rambam Synagogue in Cairo.  How it reached Egypt from Germany in the first place is unknown.

valmadonna_stern_essay_2Hebrew Bible: Pentateuch with Haftarot
and the Five Scrolls, England:
15 Tammuz 4949=2 July 1189 (Lot 7, Detail)

The journeys of this particular codex show how, for all their differences in material form, and despite the geographical distances, Bibles produced by Jews in one center (like Ashkenaz) reached Jews in another (like Spain or Egypt); these seemingly random peregrinations also transmitted scribal practices and conventions from one place to the other.  The single remaining Bible produced in Europe in this auction comes from still another center, Italy.  This Jewish community was, at different points in its history, the direct tributary of influences from both Ashkenaz and Sepharad, particularly after the mid-fourteenth century when both centers underwent severe periods of religious persecution and social disruption.

The Italian Biblical codex (lot 8), a Psalter with the commentary of  David Kimhi (1160–1235), was written at the very beginning of the fifteenth century, and represents the third type of Hebrew Bible codex produced by Jews in the Middle Ages—the Study-Bible.  To be sure, all Hebrew Bibles were probably used for study at some point—what book, let alone the Bible, have Jews not studied?—but this genre designates Bibles specifically composed for this purpose, a function indicated by the presence of a commentary like that of Kimhi.  Psalters with commentaries, which were often written for personal devotion rather than communal use, became a very popular genre in Italy, and this volume, with its exquisite pen-work and delicate floral decoration, is a truly deluxe example of the type.  Kimhi, the scion of an illustrious Rabbinic family from Narbonne, Provence, was the last major proponent of the Sephardic tradition of grammatical and philosophical exegesis, which he combined with an astute psychological realism.  In his commentary on Psalms, he actively engaged and criticized Christological readings of the Psalms, which he called irrational and baseless.  Not surprisingly, copies of his commentary were a favorite target of Christian censors, and this particular Psalter bears the signatures of two censors, one in the sixteenth century, the other in the seventeenth.  Even so, the Jewish provenance of this volume is especially distinguished; it was owned by three generations of the Norzi family of Ferrara; later occupying a place of pride in the collection of Sholem Asch, the noted Yiddish novelist.

All the Bibles described so far derived from Europe.  The Valmadonna sale also includes two Bibles from Yemen, whose Jewish community has one of the lengthiest continuous histories in all Jewish history, lasting more than two millenia, from antiquity until 1949-50 when, in the fabled “Operation Magic Carpet,” much of the Jewish population was spirited out of the country and airlifted to the State of Israel.  Early on the Yemenite Jewish community developed a distinctive scribal tradition of its own whose singularity was only intensified by the growing isolation of Yemenite Jewry in the larger Jewish world.  Because printing arrived in Yemen only in the late nineteenth century, manuscript culture continued to possess there a prominence that it lost elsewhere in the West.

As in Ashkenaz and Sepharad, Yemenite scribes produced both Masoretic Bibles and humashim although these were called by different names in Yemen.  The title for a Masoretic Bible was the Arabic word Taj, literally “crown,” a term that appears to have originated as an honorific designation for the Aleppo Codex and that subsequently became—either in its original Arabic or in the Hebrew equivalent, Keter—the cognomen for many deluxe Masoretic codices.  The Valmadonna collection contains two such Tajim, both written on burnished paper, the preferred writing material in Islamic realms.  The first of these is a Yemenite Taj (lot 3) composed in the fifteenth century and distinguished by the colored decorations on its pages— an abundance of highly stylized birds and floral patterns.  The designs, influenced by both Islamic and Coptic models, reflect the aversion to representation of human figures characteristic of the broader Islamic culture in which Yemenite Jews lived. The second, is a complete Pentateuch accompanied by a Yemenite Masoretic treatise, that was copied in Sana in 1470 (lot 4).  The distinctive bold Yemenite script is surrounded by Masoretic notes written in energetic geometric patterns as a border around the page, in diamond-shaped designs or in zig-zag lines. 

As we have noted, Biblical codices from Sepharad and Ashkenaz similarly mirrored the visual cultures of their host countries.  This is significant because the material Bible—that is, the Bible as a physical artifact, as it existed in scrolls and codices—has never been solely a vehicle for transmitting divine Scripture.  In Jewish culture, the Biblical book has also served as a medium for defining the Jews as God’s chosen people, as a vehicle for religious identification. 

At least since the beginning of the Common Era, the Bible has been, arguably, the most contested text in Western culture, with Jews, Christians, and (albeit to a lesser extent) Muslims vying over its “ownership,” each one claiming to being the true and exclusive heir of the Biblical tradition, the authentic subject of its promises, the correct interpreter of its meaning.  These struggles over ownership have also informed the material shape of the Hebrew Bible.  If Jewish Bibles, like all Jewish books, invariably reflect the books of the larger cultures in which the Jews producing the books have lived, the scribes who wrote and decorated Jewish Bibles went to great lengths to Judaize their books in their material form.  Even when they appropriated features from the larger book culture, they have transformed them into unmistakable markers of Jewish identity. 

valmadonna_stern_essay_3Pentateuch and Haftaroft, Franco-German: 12th-13th Century (Lot 6)

Finally, two distinctive manuscripts in the Valmadonna auction hearken back to the earliest period in which the Hebrew Bible can be seen to have figured as a medium for national self-definition and difference. These items are, respectively, the Samaritan Torah Scroll (lot 1) and Pentateuch codex (lot 2). The term Samaritan refers specifically to the Israelites whose center of worship in antiquity was (and remains today) Mount Gerizim in Samaria, near Shechem (Nablus), on the West Bank of the Jordan River. The roots of the Samaritan people have long been the subject of a contentious dispute. Samaritans themselves claim to be direct descendants of the ten Israelite tribes of the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Ancient rabbinic sources, however, claim that the Samaritans were Mesopotamian idolaters introduced into the Land of Israel following the conquest of the Northern Kingdom by Assyria in the eighth century BCE.  What is beyond dispute is that the Samaritans first emerge clearly in recorded history during the struggles between native Israelite groups in the early Hellenistic period (fourth century BCE) after the return of the Judeans from the Babylonian exile.  Whatever their origins, Samaritans developed their own religious identity early on, and considered themselves to be the “authentic Israel” with their own practices and beliefs.  While Jews centered their religious worship on the Temple in Jerusalem, Samaritans looked towards Mount Gerizim where they built a rival center of worship.  Both groups considered the Torah their religious source, but where the Jewish Bible consists of twenty-four books in three sections (Pentateuch, Prophets, and Writings), the Samaritans accepted only the first Five Books of Moses.

valmadonna_stern_essay_4Pentateuch, Yemen: 1470 (Lot 4)

The Samaritan Pentateuch differs from the authoritative Jewish version in many minor details as well as in three major ones.  First, in every instance in which the Jewish Bible refers to Jerusalem as the central place of worship, the Samaritan Pentateuch records its own center, Mount Gerizim.  Second, in its version of the Decalogue, the Samaritan text combines the ninth and tenth commandments (bearing false witness against one’s neighbor and coveting his property) into one and adds as the Tenth Commandment an injunction to build an altar on Mount Gerizim.  Third, and perhaps most importantly, the Samaritans wrote (and continue even today to write) the Hebrew language in a script known as paleo-Hebrew, one of the earliest versions of the Hebrew alphabet and the script that all Israelites used before the Babylonian Exile (in 586 BCE).  In the course of the exile, as Jews came to speak Aramaic, which was the common language of the Babylonian empire, they also adopted Aramaic script for writing Hebrew characters.  This different script, with its prominent square letters, came to be known in Rabbinic literature as “Assyrian writing,” and by the third century BCE, use of this script had become a sine qua non for writing a proper, legally correct Sefer Torah

valmadonna_stern_essay_5aIlluminated Hebrew Bible: Psalms with Commentary, Bologna: 1401 (Lot 8)

This absolute requirement can best be understood against the background of the Samaritans’ continued employment of paleo-Hebrew in their Torah scrolls, a practice which, for Samaritans, gave their Torah scrolls a special and singular identity all their own.  In addition, Samaritan scribes also developed over time other scribal practices that further defined the communal identity of their scrolls.  The most prevalent of these is their use of columnar writing, that is, the placing of single or multiple letters one atop the other, sometimes on the right or left margins, at other times in the middle of passages.  Both types of columnar writing can be seen in the Samaritan scroll and in the Codex.  The precise origins of this practice are still not completely understood but, as can be seen, the columns clearly lend an ornamental and decorative dimension to the text, making it far more visually interesting. 

valmadonna_stern_essay_6Samaritan Pentateuch Land of Israel: Late 14th-Early 15th Century (Lot 2)

The two items on sale here are among the earliest known survivors of the Samaritan Bible, and thus of enormous historical interest.  The Torah scroll was probably written in the second half of the twelfth century, either in Gaza or Sarepta.  The small codex is somewhat later, from the late fourteenth or early fifteenth century.  In either case, both items testify to one of the earliest moments in the history of the Hebrew Bible when material shape was a focal point of national and religious self-definition and the struggle over communal identity.

David Stern
Harry Starr Professor of Classical and Modern Hebrew
and Jewish Literature
Dept. of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations
Harvard University

valmadonna_stern_essay_7Samaritan Torah Scroll, Land of Israel, ca. 1166 (Lot 1)