The superlative precision and beauty of Sephardic Hebrew Bibles have long made them particularly desirable to collectors of Hebrew books. With the expulsion of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula at the end of the fifteenth century, Sephardic Jews were dispersed to virtually every corner of the Jewish world, and along with them came their books. Even so, complete Hebrew Pentateuch codices copied in pre-Expulsion Iberia are exceedingly rare.
In addition to its rarity, the present manuscript exhibits a number of noteworthy features. Most impressive and visually striking are the micrographic masoretic decorations on the openings of new quires. The practice of forming the Masorah magna into matching geometric designs at these important points in a text seems to have developed originally in the Orient and subsequently traveled first to Ashkenaz and then to the Iberian Peninsula. It has been suggested that marking the quires in this way helped the reader and/or bookbinder keep track of the codicological structure of the work (see the sources quoted by Halperin ).
Another interesting aspect of this volume relates to the layouts of the two Pentateuchal songs, the Song of the Sea (f. 49r-v) and the Song of Moses (ff. 146v-147v). The first, copied on thirty lines, follows the halakhic prescriptions of Rabbi Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) almost completely, with the interesting exception that it is written entirely in brickwork format starting on the second line, whereas Maimonides had ruled that the last two lines should be laid out as two separate blocks of text. By contrast, the second song more closely follows Maimonides’ specifications, as it is copied on sixty-seven lines instead of the more common seventy. In addition, it appears that a later scribe, whose tradition on the proper breakup of the text into paragraphs differed from the primary copyist, “corrected” the work by marking certain sections as either “open” or “closed.”
While the present manuscript was undoubtedly written in Iberia, scholars have, based on thorough codicological analysis, put forward an interesting suggestion in an effort to more specifically localize its geographic area of origin: It is known that all medieval Hebrew manuscripts written on parchment follow Gregory’s Rule, named for the nineteenth-century scholar who observed that the two facing pages of an open manuscript codex always show the same side of the parchment, either the hair (grain) side or the flesh side. The norm for Hebrew manuscripts copied in Spain was to begin with the hair side for f. 1r, followed by the flesh side for ff. 2v-3r, and alternating thereafter until the end of the text. Contrary to expectations, the present volume begins on the flesh side. An identical placement of flesh side occurs in the so-called First Ibn Gaon Bible (MS Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale heb. 20), copied by Joshua ibn Gaon (fl. ca. 1300-1312) in Tudela in 061 (1300). Furthermore, that Bible shares with our manuscript a number of exceptionally rare variants in the vocalization of the text. This combination of codicological and masoretic parallels helps reinforce the suggested localization and dating of the present manuscript to Tudela, ca. 1300.
Dalia-Ruth Halperin, “Decorated Masorah on the Openings between Quires in Masoretic Bible Manuscripts,” Journal of Jewish Studies 65,2 (Autumn 2014): 323-348.
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