Maintaining an accurate calendar has always been an essential requirement to the fulfillment of Jewish ritual. Accordingly, sifrei ibbur (calendrical manuals) had appeared in the Sephardic geo-cultural orbit already in the twelfth century, while in medieval Ashkenaz these small treatises concerning calendar calculation had been incorporated into larger works like Bibles, mahazorim, haggadot, or sifrei minhagim (books of customs).
By the late fifteenth or early sixteenth centuries, however, elaborated versions of these texts began to take the form of self-standing works even in the Ashkenazic communities of Central Europe. These new compilations, often called sifrei evronot or simply evronot, contained the information and rules necessary for the fixing of the Jewish calendar, as well as the midrashic material attesting to the antiquity, divine provenance, and uniqueness of the Jewish lunisolar calendation system. Based on moladot (lunations, or conjunctions of the moon), these calculations determine the lengths of individual months, the scheduled intercalation (ibbur) of leap years meant to prevent the lunar and solar calendars from straying too far out of alignment, and, by extension, the dates of the holidays, fast days, and other observances of the Jewish liturgical year. In addition, such manuals included information relating to the solar tekufot (equinoctial and solstitial points) that begin each of the four seasons.
In order to more clearly and succinctly present this information, scribes of sifrei evronot often included tables, charts, and devices designed to ease the difficult and complex calendrical calculations. For example, in the present manuscript, an elaborate chart in the shape of a hand (f. 24v) would have been helpful in teaching people to calculate the beginning of each of the tekufot with their own hands, the practice of using one’s digits as mathematical tools having already become commonplace during the Renaissance and early modern period. Similarly, this volume makes ingenious use of multiple spinning dials, called volvelles (ff. 26r-27v), that serve as concentric circular slide rules and aid in elaborate computational exercises.
In addition, this text includes an extensive section of charts that allowed its owner to calculate the dates of the Christian calendar as well (ff. 52r-64v). This was particularly important as European Jews depended on their non-Jewish neighbors in matters of commerce and trade. The necessity of being aware of both fixed Christian holidays and saints’ days, as well as those holidays whose dates changed each year (i.e., the Easter cycle), made the incorporation of this material, together with the dates of the most important international trade fairs, essential.
One of the most remarkable features of early modern Ashkenazic manuscript sifrei evronot, beginning in the mid-sixteenth century and continuing for two hundred years or more, is the inclusion of various illustrations that, over time, came to constitute a distinctive iconographic program specific to these texts. In some cases, these images were meant to stake out theological claims about the divine, primordial provenance of the Jewish calendar; in others, they (also) implicitly polemicized against the dominant Christian culture and its calendar; and in still others, they playfully punned on the texts they accompanied.
Examples of all three types of illustrations can be found in our manuscript, whose scribe-artist made wide use of the practice of filling pen-line drawings with red, green, orange, and yellow washes. The images of Issachar descending the ladder from heaven having learned the secrets of the computus (calculation of the calendar; f. 2r); the sun and moon suspended above the scales (f. 11r); and Adam, Eve, and the Serpent surrounding the Tree of Knowledge (f. 18v) all convey the sense of the divinity and antiquity of Jewish calendrical knowledge. These same illustrations also implicitly polemicize against the Christian calendar, which begins with the birth of Jesus, not of Adam, and relies almost exclusively (excepting the case of the Easter cycle) on solar phenomena, without taking into consideration the waxing and waning of the moon. Additionally, the inclusion of the hunting scene (f. 24r) and the image of the hare escaping (f. 65v) plays on a fairly common motif in Jewish manuscript illustration, wherein the hunter stands in for Christian oppression while the escaping animal (often a deer or hare) represents Jewish survival and resistance through the ages. Lastly, our text also features punning art in the form of the panim-ahor (“forward-backward”) figure facing backward (f. 9r) and multiple bird drawings (ff. 3r, 11v, 12r, 24r, 25v, 38v, 41v, 53r, 66r-v), one of which (f. 53r) is explicitly labeled tsippor in what is probably a play on the Yiddish word tsifer (number).
One of the more interesting paintings in this work is an image of Jephthah sacrificing his daughter (f. 39r). The aggadic source for this scene’s inclusion in sifrei evronot lists four biblical events (the Binding of Isaac, the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter, the Plague of Blood in Egypt, and Moses striking the rock in the Wilderness) that, according to tradition, coincided with each of the four tekufot (Tishrei, Tevet, Nisan, and Tammuz, respectively) and resulted in all the world’s waters turning to blood. (In fact, partly because of this and/or similar aggadot, some important rabbinic legal authorities prohibited Jews from drinking water left exposed during the precise moment of the tekufah, considering it contaminated and potentially deadly.) Many scribe-artists of sifrei evronot therefore illustrated discussions of the tekufot with images of these four scenes; our manuscript is one of the very few to include an illustration of Jephthah and his daughter.
The manuscript was copied by Solomon bar Moses of Fürth, who signed his name in the colophon (f. 54v): “[Copied by] me, Solomon bar Moses, may my days be long and good, amen selah, from the Holy Community of Fürth, may God protect and sustain it. [Signing] three times is considered to have established a legal pattern, since we rule in accordance with Rabbi Simeon ben Gamaliel and not in accordance with the Rabbis [see Niddah 63b].” His name also appears on f. 33r and a second time on f. 54v, for a total of three signatures. The year in which the manuscript was copied can be determined by the frequent (e.g., on 4r, 11v, 17r, 23r, 26v, and 27r, among several other places) use of the phrase “as now, in the year 415 [1654-1655],” or some variant thereof (though see ff. 16v, 54r for slightly different dates). This relatively early date further sets the present volume apart: only about thirty sifrei evronot in public collections were scribed before this one.
Taken together, the clear penmanship, elegant illustration, and distinguished pedigree of our text make it a historically significant exemplar of this special genre of Hebrew literature.
Sotheby’s is grateful to Elisheva Carlebach for providing information that aided in the cataloging of this manuscript.
Moses Gosdorf of Fürth (f. 2r)
Elisheva Carlebach, “Palaces of Time: Illustrations of Sifre Evronot,” Images 2 (2009): 21-44.
Elisheva Carlebach, Palaces of Time: Jewish Calendar and Culture in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011).
Joshua P. Straus, “Calculating Celestial Cycles, Courses and Conjunctions: An Introduction to Sifrei Evronot (Books of Intercalations)” (B.A. thesis, Washington University in St. Louis, 2006).
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