Lot 1
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  • ink, parchment
Scroll (23 in. x 158 ft, 4 in.; 585 mm x 48.26 m). Ink on parchment, in a thirteenth-century Ashkenazic square script. Eighty-six membranes, containing 257 columns written in 48 lines; ruled in hardpoint; four later (ca 17th-18th century) replacement membranes [Ex. 27:9- Lev. 3:17]; text arranged according to the vavei ha‘amudim format. Some erasures or patches with corrected text in later hands. Sewn with giddin (sinews); stitched in characteristic medieval Ashkenazic configuration; occasional defects in sewing between membranes, some repaired by vellum patches on verso,  The verso of the scroll immediately preceding and following the replaced section with a widely diffused reddish brown stain; other soiling and staining commensurate with age.


Ephraim Caspi, “Gvilim Nisraphim be-Shabbat Rosh Hodesh” Yerushatenu, vol 7, Bnai Brak: Makhon Moreshet Ashkenaz, 2014, pp. 231-251.

Jordan Penkower, New Evidence for the Pentateuch Text in the Aleppo Codex. Bar-Ilan University Press: Ramat Gan, 1992 (Hebrew);
___________, “A Sheet of Parchment from a 10th or 11th Century Torah Scroll: Determining its Type among Four Traditions (Oriental, Sefardi, Ashkenazi, Yemenite)”, Textus 21 (2002), pp. 235-264;

Yossi Peretz, The Pentateuch in Medieval Ashkenazi Manuscripts, Tikkunei Soferim and Torah Scrolls: Text, Open and Closed Sections and the Layout of the Songs, PhD thesis, Bar-Ilan University: Ramat-Gan 2008, pp. 249-282 (Hebrew);
___________, “Traditions in the writing of “The Song at the Sea’ in Ashkenaz,” in Yisrael: Mehkarim be-Lashon le-Zikhro shel Yisrael Yeivin, Jerusalem: 2011, pp. 179-203 (Hebrew);
___________, “Nusah ha-Ottiyot be-Sifrei TorahAshkenaziyim mi-Yemei ha-Beinayim,” in Minhat Sapir, 2013 (Hebrew);
___________, “Traditions of layout concerning the poem of "Ha'azinu" in medieval biblical manuscripts from Ashkenaz,”, in Zer Rimmonim (International Voices in Biblical Studies,) SBL, Atlanta: 2013, pp. 355-374 (Hebrew);
___________, “Traditions in the division of Open and Closed sections in Medieval Ashkenazic Codices,” JSIJ, (forthcoming);
___________, “Scribal Techniques for Writing the Lines Preceding the ‘Song of the Sea’ and ‘Haazinu’," in Qunteres, 3, 2012, pp. 35-59 (Hebrew).

Catalogue Note


The prevailing form of the book in antiquity was the scroll. Ancient texts were copied onto specially prepared animal skins, then sewn together to form longer rolls. Even with the later development of the codex (manuscript in book form), Judaism has continued to maintain the scroll format for the liturgical recitation of its most sacred text, the Torah, containing the Five Books of Moses, also known as the Pentateuch.

Torah scrolls from antiquity are virtually nonexistent, with only a handful of surviving fragments known to scholars. And even from the later medieval period, the vast majority of textual witnesses which have survived to the present are in codex form. This is especially true in Ashkenaz, the region centered in the Rhine River Valley, and encompassing parts of present day Germany and France, where Jewish communities began to spring up between the 7th and 11th centuries. There are some 82 extant Ashkenazic codices of the Hebrew Bible which may be dated to the 13th century (33 actually dated and another 49 presumed). Torah Scrolls from this period are much scarcer, and only a handful have survived to the present, mostly as fragments. When it comes to complete Ashkenazic scrolls, available records indicate that there may be only one, and perhaps two, complete Ashkenazi scrolls which may be considered coeval with the present lot and which may, on paleographic grounds, be deemed as having emanated from the milieu of 13th century Ashkenaz. 

Since a Torah scroll has no punctuation, vowel signs, signatures, colophons, or date, identifying the origin of a particular scroll is a notoriously difficult undertaking. Scholars are able, with varying degrees of success and accuracy, to conjecture at both the geographic origin of a Torah Scroll as well as its approximate date of creation, by an impressionistic approximation of the scribal hand. Such examination of the present scroll has unequivocally resulted in the dating of the scroll on paleographic grounds to the thirteenth century.

More recently, however, scholars have begun to successfully date and localize these scrolls by applying rigorous methodological tools to conduct a thorough analysis of the scribal variants distinctive to a particular region or group. Textual variants, the presence or absence of certain “open” and “closed” section divisions, the layouts of the two biblical “songs” as well as occasional halakhic references may help to ascertain when and where certain customs or practices obtained.  Over the past two decades these techniques have been refined by a cadre of dedicated scholars, including Professor Jordan Penkower and most recently by Doctor Yossi Peretz, who have demonstrated in their respective writings that the medieval manuscripts of the Pentateuch as well as the few Torah Scrolls which survive from that period can be typologically categorized by their geographical area of origin; this is accomplished by comparing the incidence of the above features to both, the very few other known exemplars of early scrolls, and even more importantly, to the numerous dated and localized codices of the Pentateuch. For the purposes of this type of research, the benchmark comparison is to the Aleppo Codex, (10th century, Tiberias) universally recognized as the most accurate recension of the Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible.

One of the challenges of this type of comparative analysis has always been the tendency of later scribes to “correct“ the work of their predecessors, reflecting shifts in the development of halakhic understanding of the ancient traditions surrounding the writing of the Torah. These well-meaning efforts to achieve a more “accurate” Torah Scroll have all too often yielded the unintended consequence of rendering the original scribal traditions unrecognizable. Fortunately, technological advances in multispectral imaging (a non-invasive, non-destructive form of computational photography which can enhance difficult-to-read text using an extended light spectrum) are now capable of peeling back these accreted layers of later scribal interference and revealing the original scribe’s work with renewed clarity. These processes have successfully produced dramatic results in such important manuscripts as the Magna Carta, Codex Sinaiticus, and the Dead Sea Scrolls. The entire series of multispectral images of the present scroll by Professor Gregory Heyworth of the University of Mississippi, is available upon request.

Thus, scholars have been able to discern that in addition to the distinctive thirteenth-century Ashkenazic square script, the present scroll includes many features, which attest to its extremely early date, its specifically Ashkenazic character, or both. These include:

As is the case with other very early Ashkenazic sources, there are several spelling variants in the present scroll. Most of these are instances in which the presence or absence of a letter yields either a plene (malei), or defective (haser) spelling. In addition there are a few other examples in the present scroll of the traditional early Ashkenazic orthography, not found in most non-Ashkenazic sources. It cannot be overemphasized that these variants are by no means errors or omissions, but rather that they represent an authentic Ashkenazic textual tradition, descended from earlier, even pre-Ashkenazic sources.

The present scroll has parshiyot not found in the Aleppo Codex; conversely, there are parshiyot in the Aleppo Codex which are not included in the present scroll. There are also some instances where parshiyot which are “open” in the Aleppo Codex are “closed” in this scroll; and vice versa. Finally, the present scroll has at least three instances of parshiyot sedurot, an exceedingly rare type of section division only found in medieval scrolls and codices. These differences in section divisions, as compared to the Aleppo Codex, have been shown by Dr Peretz to be an important determinative factor, attesting to the early Ashkenazic origins of the scroll.

Likewise, as noted above, analysis of the two poetic songs included in the Pentateuch, "The Song at the Sea" (Shirat-ha-Yam: Ex. 15) and "The Song of Moses" (Ha’azinu: Deut:32), including the arrangement of the final two lines (29-30) of the Song at the Sea, as well as of the lines which precede and follow both songs, are also indicative of the scroll’s early age and Ashkenazic origins.

The original practice of ornamenting some two thousand specific letters in the Pentateuch, by the addition of from one to seven strokes, stems from a tradition embodied in Sefer Tagey. Widely known throughout the medieval Jewish world, as early as the ninth century in Babylonia, in Ashkenaz, a version of the Sefer Tagey is included in the late 11th- early 12th century  Mahzor Vitry.  The current practice of placing tagin of three strokes (called zaynin or daggers) on only the letters shin, ayin, tet, nun, zayin, gimel, tzadi, (shatnez getz), became widely practiced only at a later date and in the present scroll, these strokes were indeed added by a later hand.

The scribes of medieval Ashkenaz created extremely distinctive renderings for the Hebrew letters: gimmel, heh, heth, lamed, peh, tzadi, kuph, and shin. The distinctive appearance of these letters, as written by the original scribe, has in some cases, prompted erasure and overwriting by a later hand. 

In addition to the crowning of letters with tagin, early kabbalistic traditions called for  a Torah Scroll to contain certain anomalously formed letters. Though the most commonly recognized of these is the Peh Lefufa or (spiral form of the letter peh), there are, in the present scroll, examples of anomalous forms for several other letters in the Hebrew alphabet. Some of these kabbalistic letterforms have been overwitten.

The scribal tradition in which the biblical text is painstakingly arranged so that all but six of the text columns in a Torah Scroll begin with the letter vav, has its beginnings in late 12th or early 13th century Ashkenaz, and the present scroll is the earliest example of this layout in a complete, rather than a partial, scroll. The vavei ha-amudim format requires that the remaining six columns begin with the letters formed by the mnemonic  beyah shemo (bet, yod, heh, shin, mem, and vav). The deciphering of that mnemonic differs by geographical area, with our scroll comporting to the specific Ashkenazic configuration. For details on vavei ha-amudim as well as a detailed analysis of the remaining distinctive characteristics of the present scroll, including a comparison to other known early Ashkenazic bible texts, and an evaluation of the scroll’s accuracy vis-à-vis the Aleppo Codex, see the complete report of Doctor Yossi Peretz, available upon request.

Unlike all Torah Scrolls today, the scribe of the present scroll left a small space at the end of each biblical verse, a practice not uncommon in medieval Ashkenaz.

Finally, by means of the latest highly reliable radiocarbon dating techniques, scientists are now able to further bolster the results heretofore acquired by paleographic examination or comparative analysis alone. Using advanced Accelerator Mass Spectrometry, radiocarbon dating has established that the window for the creation of the present scroll lies between 1245-1292 CE (2 sigma) and 1265-1282 CE  (1 sigma) with the center of the ranges falling between 1269-1273 CE.  The complete radiocarbon dating report, by Dr. Hong Wang, Director of Geochronology, University of Illinois, is available upon request.

The dating of the present scroll relies on all of the aforementioned approaches: paleographic examination by leading scholars of Hebrew manuscripts; rigorous comparative analyses of orthographic variants and “open and closed” sections; and state-of-the-art scientific imaging and testing methods. All lead to the ineluctable conclusion, that the present scroll was penned in the second half of the 13th century in the broad geographic area known as medieval Ashkenaz.

The present scroll comprises 86 membranes of which four contiguous membranes (containing the biblical text of Exodus 27:9- Leviticus 3:17) were replaced at some point after the original writing of the scroll ca. 1270. Both immediately before the first replaced membrane, and immediately following the fourth replaced membrane, the parchment bears several large, dark stains created by an unknown liquid. Forensic tests conducted to determine the composition of these discolored areas proved inconclusive. Nevertheless, in view of the evidence recently published by Dr. Ephraim Caspi concerning the violent circumstances which occasioned the severe damage to the Erfurt Torah Scrolls, it may not be unreasonable to speculate that the replacement of four contiguous membranes in this scroll, might not have been compelled by the perpetration of some similarly heinous act of anti-Jewish persecution.

The present scroll is a truly remarkable survivor. It is one of, if not the earliest, complete Ashkenazic Torah Scroll written in the thirteenth century. When paired with the latest available scientific methods of multispectral imaging and comparative analysis of both the text and layout of the scroll, this SeferTorah provides the earliest and best baseline reference with which to compare all later examples of Torah Scrolls written according to Ashkenazic tradition over the next eight centuries.

Sotheby's gratefully acknowledges the information provided by Doctor Yossi Peretz (Mikraot Gedolot Haketer, Bar-Ilan University and Orot Israel College, Elkana) and Shlomo Zucker (Hebrew University) for providing information which aided in the cataloging of this lot. Their respective reports detailing specific characteristics of this scroll are available upon request. We also express our gratitude to Professor Gregory Heyworth, Director of the Lazarus Project, University of Mississippi, who conducted the multispectral imaging of the present scroll.