Lot 165
  • 165

An Exceedingly Rare Ashkenazic Hebrew Bible with Numerous Micrographic Decorations, Scribe: Mattithiah ben Jedidiah, [Northern France: ca. 1250-1275]

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  • ink, leather, parchment

Catalogue Note

An early Ashkenazic witness to the Jewish scribal tradition of figurative Masorah and one of only two known Ashkenazic Hebrew Bibles with micrographic ornamentation in private hands.

This exceptionally important Ashkenazic Hebrew Bible was only recently discovered and is completely unrecorded in scholarly literature. Based on the distinctive script, filigree pen flourishing, and puzzle blue-and-red initial word panels, experts have determined that this manuscript was created in Northern France during the third quarter of the thirteenth century. This Bible is remarkable not only for its rarity, but also for its beautiful calligraphy, elegant ornamentation, extensive rubrication, profuse micrographic illustration, and the uniquely Ashkenazic biblical traditions it preserves. 

Since at least the tenth century in the Islamic Middle East, Jewish scribes have been copying the Hebrew Bible together with short philological and textual comments called Masorah (lit., tradition), which they wrote in miniature script. These notes were meant to transmit to subsequent generations of copyists precise information about the exact form of the biblical text, including both its consonantal skeleton and its proper vocalization. The Masorah magna, or large (more expansive) Masorah, which included quotations of biblical verses where a particular form occurred, was traditionally written on a few lines in the upper and lower margins of a codex page; while the Masorah parva, or small (abbreviated) Masorah, was usually inscribed in the outer margins or between columns of biblical text.

Already in this early period, we find copies of Scripture where scribes would shape the text of the Masorah into various geometric shapes and designs. This scribal art, known as micrography, would continue to adorn Hebrew Bibles through the twelfth century in the East, at which point the center of micrographic ornamentation shifted to Christian Europe. There, particularly in Ashkenazic lands, the more abstract decorations of previous centuries gave way to full-fledged illustrations of birds, (mythical) animals, grotesques, and even human beings by the fourth decade of the thirteenth century. Scholars refer to this distinctly Jewish art form as Masorah figurata (figurative Masorah), on the model of the ancient carmina figurata (figurative poetry), where lines of poetry are arranged to take the shape of the object the verses describe. In addition to abstract and figurative Masorah, alphabetical Masorah, which forms large Hebrew letters that usually spell out a colophon, also began to appear early in the thirteenth century.

The present Northern French Bible exhibits all three types of Masorah decoration, especially in the Pentateuch section. Animal illustrations (schools of fish, birds, serpents, dragons), including a large sea creature positioned next to a dove at the start of the book of Jonah (f. 254r), appear on thirty-three pages, and elaborate designs in the form of floral motifs, wavy lines, pinwheels, zigzags, and interlocking rings, embellish the manuscript throughout. A total of 233 pages of this manuscript are ornamented with micrographic decorations.

We learn the identity of the scribe, Mattithiah ben Jedidiah, as he added flourishes to the biblical text whenever his name appears. Further information about an early owner of this codex is gleaned from a sales note on f. 245v, which records that Mattithiah sold the Bible to “Rabbi Michael, son of Rabbi Cresbia,” and indeed Michael’s name is boldly inscribed in alphabetical Masorah in the lower margins of ff. 337v-338r.

Another exquisite feature of our text are the puzzle blue-and-red initial word panels which adorn the beginning of several of the biblical books and which appear only seldom in Hebrew texts of this period.

Ashkenazic scribes sometimes penned initial words or letters in red ink, a form of decoration known as rubrication. The present manuscript is distinguished by extensive use of this form of ornamentation. In the Pentateuch section, red letters were employed to number the verses in each new paragraph. The rubricator also made sure to tally the number of verses in each paragraph in the margin, presumably to make it easier to calculate the total number of verses per parashah (biblical pericope) at its close. By contrast, in the Prophets and Hagiographa, rubrication is used to highlight the first letter (or two) of every verse. In addition, in these sections, red marginal samekhs indicate sedarim (early Jewish chapter breaks) on a number of pages, and marginal paragraph (not chapter) numbers in Psalms are also marked in red. The expansive use of rubrication found in this manuscript is unparalleled among surviving medieval Hebrew codices. A fascinating glimpse into the production of medieval manuscripts can be seen in the guide letters that have been preserved in the margins of this codex. These were left by the scribe as a memory device so that when it came time for him to rubricate the text, he would know which characters had to be filled in.

A final decorative device relates to the layout of the text itself. Biblical songs, like the Song of the Sea (f. 32r-v), the Song of Moses (ff. 71v-72r), the Song of Deborah (ff. 89v-90v), and the Song of David (f. 130r-v), are either (in the second and third cases) written in two mini-columns with a space in between or (in the first and fourth cases) made to look like brickwork. The concluding portions of biblical books, too, often afforded the scribe opportunities to arrange the text into an aesthetically pleasing design, like a series of diamonds, a keyhole, or a portal. Several other passages (see ff. 41v [Ex. 37:10-24], 80r-v [Josh. 12:9-24], 116v [I Sam. 30:27-31], 281v-283r [Ps. 119], 284v [Ps. 136], 338v [Est. 9:7-9]) also feature special ornamental layouts.

This Bible is noteworthy not only on account of its decoration; the contents, too, demand attention. Scholars of Masorah will observe that the paragraph breaks in our manuscript differ from those standard in today’s Bibles; that the Song of the Sea is written on thirty-one (instead of the usual thirty) lines, and the last two lines are laid out to look like brickwork (whereas the vast majority of medieval Ashkenazic Bibles have no breaks whatsoever in those lines); and that the Song of Moses is written on seventy (not sixty-seven) lines, the right column is justified to the right (but not the left) and the left column is justified to the right and the left, and line 23 begins with the words benei bashan (not ve-eilim). Students of the history of Jewish liturgy will take an interest in the slight variants in the blessings for the haftarot recorded on f. 246r, including the pre-censorial ve-la-agumat nefesh tinkom nakam bi-meherah be-yameinu (avenge the vengeance of the anguished [nation] quickly, in our days) and the explicit menahem tsiyyon be-baneha (Who comforts Zion through her children). Lastly, codicology experts will find unusual the quiring of this codex in senions (six bifolia = twelve leaves), given that only about 4% of surviving Ashkenazic codices dated before 1500 consist of senions, whereas 93-94% consist of quaternions (four bifolia = eight leaves).

A final point of interest is the book’s ownership history. As noted in the Provenance, this codex eventually made its way to Mardin. During the Ottoman period, this city was a center of the transit trade between Europe and Asia. Rabbinic emissaries from Hebron visited Mardin as early as 1765-1768 as part of charity collection missions to the Jews of the Middle East. Judging from the inscriptions on the front flyleaf of the present manuscript, it seems to have been these emissaries’ practice to visit the city’s synagogue and write short prayers for protection and success, “in the merit of the prophet Elijah, of blessed memory,” in the Bible. Some of the more prominent names to appear here include those of Rabbi Raphael Ohana (1850-1902), one of the most important Tiberian emissaries, who signed 6 Shevat [5]651 (January 15, 1891); his son Hayyim, who accompanied his father on some of his missions to the Jews of the East; Rabbi Elijah Abraham Zevi (1856-1898), another Tiberian emissary, who signed 20 Kislev 5655 (December 18, 1894); Rabbi Abraham ben Atar (d. 1917), yet another Tiberian emissary, who signed 8 Kislev [5]658 (December 3, 1897); Rabbi Hayyim Bejaio (1873-1960), an emissary of Hebron who eventually became the rabbi of the Jewish community there and signed Iyyar [5]668 (May 1908); and Rabbi Elijah Hayyim Abulafia (1848-1927), a Tiberian emissary and Torah scholar, whose signature is not accompanied by a date. 

Hebrew Bibles from medieval Ashkenaz seldom come to auction; the last time one of a level of completion matching ours was offered for sale was in 1980. Thus, the rarity of this type of manuscript, coupled with its extraordinary decorative program featuring figurative Masorah, fine filigree pen flourishing, extensive rubrication, and elegant textual layouts, make it a truly exquisite and highly valuable monument to Ashkenazic book culture in the Middle Ages.


ff. 1r-24v: Genesis 1:26-5:30a, 10:19-15:6, 18:2b-end

ff. 24v-43v: Exodus 1:1-24:9a, 26:13b-29:22a, 33:1-end

ff. 44r-53v: Leviticus 1:1-17:13a

ff. 54r-73r: Deuteronomy

ff. 73v-87r: Joshua

ff. 87r-99v: Judges 1:1-21:4

ff. 100r-132r: I Samuel 1:1-20:38a, 22:22-end of II Samuel

ff. 132v-133r: blank

ff. 133v-165v: I-II Kings

ff. 166r-185v, 210r-219r: Jeremiah

ff. 186r-209v, 219r-222r: Ezekiel

ff. 222v-245v: Isaiah

f. 245v: deed of sale

f. 246r: blessings for the haftarot

ff. 246v-263v: Hosea 1:1-Zachariah 1:3a, 4:2-13:6a

ff. 264r-286v: Psalms 20:2-end

ff. 286v-295v: Proverbs

ff. 296r-306r: Job

ff. 306r-313v: Daniel

ff. 313v-326v: Ezra-Nehemiah

ff. 327r-328v: Song of Songs

ff. 328v-330r: Ruth

ff. 330r-332r: Lamentations

ff. 332r-335v: Ecclesiastes

ff. 335v-339v: Esther

ff. 339v-373v: I-II Chronicles

Sotheby’s is grateful to Rahel Fronda for providing information that aided in the cataloging of this manuscript.

Physical Description

373 folios (10 7/8 x 8 in.; 276 x 203 mm) (collation indeterminate due to gaps in the text; quires of twelve leaves each) on parchment; modern foliation in pencil in Arabic numerals in upper-outer corner of recto (cited) and premodern (original?) foliation in pen in Hebrew characters in upper-outer corner of recto in Prophets only (sometimes shaved); written in neat Ashkenazic square script in dark brown ink, copied by Mattithiah ben Jedidiah but perhaps vocalized, masorated, and/or rubricated by others; double-column text of thirty lines each per page, except in the case of biblical songs or other special texts (e.g., ff. 129v, 368v-369r, 371v-373v); ruled in blind with prickings visible occasionally in both outer and inner margins; justification of lines via dilation of final letters and use of anticipatory letters and ornamental space fillers; complete Tiberian vocalization and accentuation of biblical text throughout (consistent accentuation ends, however, on f. 343r); Masorah magna and Masorah parva written in micrography in margins (no Masorah magna in Psalms, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, or the vast majority of Chronicles); catchwords (sometimes ornamented) on verso of last folio of each quire only, currently visible on ff. 36v, 41v, 53v, 61v, 85v, 99v, 149v, 161v, 185v, 233v, 287v, 347v; strikethroughs and marginal corrections in hands of primary and subsequent scribes intermittently throughout (mistaken words often marked with circumscribed rectangles); sporadic marginalia or pen trials (e.g., ff. 179r, 283v, 289r, 291v, 323r, 332r, 355r, 371r). Filigree pen flourishing of initial enlarged word panels at the start of new biblical books through Jeremiah (excepting Leviticus, Deuteronomy, and Judges), usually preceded by decorated verse and paragraph (and, in the Pentateuch, parashah) tallies of the previous book; Hosea through Obadiah, as well as the Five Scrolls, also end with (decorated) verse tallies; in the Pentateuch, new parashiyyot begin with pictorial/zoomorphic or flourished initials, often preceded by tallies of the number of verses in the previous parashah; from f. 73v through f. 115r, initial letters at the start of new paragraphs are often enlarged, decorated, and/or zoomorphic (e.g., ff. 108v, 114v-115r); extensive use of figurative Masorah, rubrication, and ornamental layouts of the text (see below); book names (in the Pentateuch, parashah names or subject matter; see ff. 37r, 39r, 43r) intermittently visible in upper margin of folio recto; from f. 73v through f. 87r, and then again on f. 133v, a later scribe added book names to the upper margin of folio recto and verso and non-Jewish chapter numbers to the outer margins in black ink; marginal notations of the midpoint of most books and, in the Prophets, of the start and end points of haftarot for various parashiyyot or holidays (a later, Eastern hand added notations that matched his rite); periodic decoration of individual letters. Gaps in the text (approximately 10% of verses, or about 40 leaves, lacking; see Contents); edges of leaves at front and rear damaged; episodic natural vellum flaws, some sewn, and all avoided by original scribe; intermittent creasing; some text faded or washed out (see ff. 44v-45r, 50v-51r, 366v, 371r-v, 372v); a number of leaves frayed in corners, often affecting Masorah, particularly through f. 119; slight dampstaining in upper margin throughout (more extensive on ff. 98-100, 352-373); ff. 1-16, 27, 36-41, 177-185, 258-260, 340, 347 loose (ff. 341-362 loose toward foot); lower margins of ff. 12, 14, 91, 111, 131-132, 242, 266, 273-286, 293, 306-326, 342-345, 350-364 shaved, sometimes affecting text; staining on ff. 17r-20r, 29v-30r, 59r-60r, 121v-123v, ff. 221v-212r, 197v-198r, 268v-269r, at times affecting legibility; damage in gutter of ff. 21-23; tape repairs to ff. 57v-58r, 66v, 184, 239v-240r; small holes on ff. 52, 64, 66, 69-70, 85-86, 104, 299 (repaired), 365, 368, usually not affecting text; minor tears on ff. 99, 124, 168 (repaired), not affecting text; diagonal slit on ff. 177-185 (f. 184 accidentally taped to the quarter page that should have been matched to f. 185); ff. 210-221 (a single quire), comprising Jer. 38:7b-Ezek. 7:11a, misbound between the two halves of Ezek. 48:33 (ff. 209v and 222r, respectively); text of Isa. 40:3-19a repeated by original scribe after Isa. 66:12 on f. 245r; ff. 364-369, 371-372 stuck to one another in gutter at foot. Nineteenth-century brown morocco over stiff paper boards, somewhat worn; ruled stamped rosettes paneled in blind; front cover with overlap fore-edge fastening on rear cover with knots and ties; housed in a modern fitted cloth folding case with morocco spine and fore-edges; gilt title, place, and date on spine.


1. The manuscript was copied by Mattithiah ben Jedidiah, who decorated the name Mattithiah each time it appears in the biblical text (f. 319r: Ezra 10:43; f. 322v: Nehemiah 8:4; f. 345r: I Chron. 8:31; f. 347v: I Chron. 15:18; f. 348r: I Chron. 15:21, 16:5; f. 352r: I Chron. 25:3; f. 352v: I Chron. 25:21) and marked the letters mem-tav-tav-yod-heh with dots at two other locations (ff. 266v, 316r). 

2. Subsequently, Mattithiah sold the work to Michael ben Cresbia ha-Kohen, as recorded in a deed of sale inscribed on f. 245v: “I, the undersigned, acknowledge wholeheartedly that I have sold and released this, my volume of the twenty-four [biblical] books, to Rabbi Michael, son of Rabbi Cresbia, willingly and without duress. To memorialize what I have done, I have written [this deed] and signed: Mattithiah, son of Rabbi Jedidiah.” Michael’s name also appears in large letters made up of micrographic Masorah magna (“alphabetical Masorah”) in the lower margins of ff. 337v-338r, suggesting that he was the patron who sponsored the volume. (The unusual name Cresbia itself occurs a number of times in thirteenth-century Northern French contexts, further supporting the above localization and date.)

3. Later, the Bible made its way to the Middle East, where it was rebound in its current binding by Abdallah ben Moses Solomon, who affixed his signature to the front flyleaf on 7 Elul 5598 (August 28, 1838). Numerous other signatures on the same flyleaf, the earliest of them dated Tammuz [5]646 (July 1886) and the latest dated Iyyar [5]668 (May 1908), as well as many undated signatures, testify that the manuscript resided for a time in Mardin, a city with a modest-sized Jewish community from medieval times through the beginning of the twentieth century. Many of the signatures belong to identifiable emissaries sent by the Jews of the Land of Israel to the Middle East to collect charity on their behalf. 


Élodie Attia, “Editing Medieval Ashkenazi Masorah and Masora Figurata: Observations on the Functions of the Micrography in Hebrew Manuscripts,” Sefarad 75,1 (January-June 2015): 7-33.

Oded Avissar, Sefer hevron: ir ha-avot ve-yishuvah bi-re’i ha-dorot (Jerusalem: Keter, 1970).

Oded Avissar, Sefer teveryah: ir kinrot ve-yishuvah bi-re’i ha-dorot (Jerusalem: Keter, 1973).

Malachi Beit-Arié, “How Scribes Disclosed Their Names in Hebrew Manuscripts,” in Irene E. Zwiep (ed.), Omnia in Eo: Studies on Jewish Books and Libraries in Honour of Adri Offenberg, Celebrating the 125th Anniversary of the Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana in Amsterdam (Leuven: Peeters, 2006), 144-157.

Malachi Beit-Arié, Kodikologyah ivrit: tippologyah shel melekhet ha-sefer ha-ivri ve-itsuvo bi-yemei ha-beinayim be-hebbet histori ve-hashva’ati mi-tokh gishah kammutit ha-meyussedet al te‘ud kitvei-ha-yad be-tsiyyunei ta’arikh ad shenat 1540, ed. Zofia Lasman (Pre-Publication Internet Version 0.5, 2015), 220-222, 366-368.

Joseph Gutmann, “Masorah Figurata: The Origins and Development of a Jewish Art Form,” in Emilia Fernández Tejero (ed.), Estudios Masoreticos (V Congreso de la IOMS) dedicados a Harry M. Orlinsky (Madrid: Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas, 1983), 49-62.

Therese Metzger, “Ornamental Micrography in Medieval Hebrew Manuscripts,” Bibliotheca Orientalis 43 (1986): 377-388.

Avraham Yaari, Sheluhei erets yisra’el: toledot ha-shelihut me-ha-arets la-golah me-hurban bayit sheni ad ha-me’ah ha-tesha esreh (Jerusalem: Mossad Harav Kook, 1977), 854.

Mordechai Yonah, Entsiklopedyah shel yehudei kurdistan, vol. 1 (Jerusalem: Mordechai Yonah, 2003), 280.