Containing the text of the Pentateuch and written by hand on specially prepared animal skins by a trained scribe according to traditions that date back thousands of years, the Torah scroll is the most sacred ritual artifact of the Jewish faith and is most often used for public worship services in Jewish communities around the world. The present manuscript is remarkable not only for its rarity as a survivor of the expulsions of Jews from the Iberian Peninsula, but even more so as a witness to the exactitude and skill of one of the most esteemed scribes of medieval Toledo.
Israel ben Isaac Ben Israel of Toledo’s known work survives today in two manuscripts held in public collections: MS Oxford, Bodleian Library Kennicott 7, a copy of the Latter Prophets (originally a full Bible) completed in 1222, and MS New York, Jewish Theological Seminary Lutzki 44a, a copy of the Pentateuch (also originally a full Bible) completed in 1241. Crucially, Israeli paleographers Malachi Beit-Arié, Benjamin Richler, and Shlomo Zucker all agree that the hand of the present scroll bears a strong resemblance to that of this renowned scribe.
In the colophon of his 1241 Pentateuch, Israel ben Isaac notes that he checked his work against “the accurate copy known as Hilleli.” The legendary Hilleli Codex, supposed to have been written circa 600 by one Rabbi (Hillel ben) Moses ben Hillel, is now lost but was for centuries considered an extremely accurate model codex and used as such by generations of Sephardic scribes and scholars of the intricate system of philological and textual notes known as the Masorah. The fact that Israel ben Isaac consulted this exemplar when copying the Hebrew Bible endows his manuscripts with an extra degree of precision and makes them highly valuable witnesses to this ancient biblical tradition.
Indeed, it seems that already in his own day Israel ben Isaac was held in high regard for his scribal virtuosity. Provencal Rabbi Menahem ben Solomon Me’iri (1249-1316) records in his Kiryat sefer that a greatly respected and learned rabbi, Samuel ha-Katan ben Jacob, made the long journey from Germany to Toledo and there commissioned a model codex that he could bring back home with him to correct Ashkenazic Torah scrolls. The copyist ultimately chosen for the task was “Israel ben Rabbi Isaac the Scribe,” who should most probably be identified with the aforementioned expert (and not his grandson who bore the same name). Likewise, long after Israel ben Isaac’s death, the revered fifteenth-century scribe Moses ben Jacob Ibn Zabara “relied upon” a Bible written by “Rabbi Israel the Scribe, of blessed memory” when he copied MS Sassoon 1209 in May 1477; and the statesman, Bible commentator, and theologian Don Isaac Abrabanel (1437-1508) had recourse to “the accurate copies we have in Spain from [the hand of] Rabbi Israel” when resolving a textual issue in his commentary to Amos 3:12.
One interesting feature of the present scroll is how the scribe chose to format the biblical songs. The Song of the Sea (Ex. 15:1-19; membrane 29), copied on thirty lines, begins as plain text, but, starting on the second line and continuing all the way to the end, the words are spaced to look like brickwork (ariah al gabbei levenah), in accordance with the ruling of Rabbi Meir ha-Levi Abulafia (ca. 1170-1244). By contrast, the Song of Moses (Deut. 32:1-43; membrane 89), laid out in two mini-columns with a space in the center, is copied on sixty-seven lines, in agreement with the prescriptions of Rabbi Moses Maimonides (1138-1204), not on seventy lines, as required by Abulafia. Zucker has noted that the scribes of several medieval Sephardic Bibles adopted this practice as a type of compromise between these two leading halakhic luminaries. One such scribe was Hayyim ben Israel Ben Israel, presumably the son of the famed Israel ben Isaac, who copied and signed MSS Paris, Bibliotheque Nationale héb. 26 (1272) and Parma, Biblioteca Palatina Cod. 2668 (1277). It would seem, then, that the division shown here was an authentic Ben Israel family tradition.
Also noteworthy is the fact that in line 39 of the Song of Moses, the words gam bahur (both youth) and gam betulah (and maiden) in Deut. 32:25 appear together; however, gam bahur is written over a correction. In Zucker’s opinion, the scribe originally split these two phrases between the end of line 38 and the beginning of line 39, just like in another authoritative exemplar, the Aleppo Codex. If this was in fact the case, it would make the present manuscript the only extant recorded Torah scroll or book-form Pentateuch to have once followed the layout of that famous model codex! Moreover, the paragraph breaks in this scroll correspond exactly to the prescriptions of Maimonides (following the Aleppo Codex), according to the authoritative version of his Hilkhot tefillin u-mezuzah ve-sefer torah, ch. 8 (MS Oxford, Bodleian Library Hunt. 80).
Of additional interest to scholars of Masorah are some of the scribe’s choices regarding disputed readings. The names Chedorlaomer, Melchizedek, and Potipherah are spelled as one, two, and two words, respectively, and many issues pertaining to plene and defective spellings accord with old Sephardic traditions, including those represented in the Hilleli Codex (as preserved in the aforementioned MS JTS L44a). For example, the words mi-neso (to bear) and ha-pilagshim (the concubines) in Gen. 4:13 and 25:6, respectively, are both spelled plene (with an extra vav and extra yods, respectively).
Complete Torah scrolls from pre-Expulsion Iberia are exceedingly rare, and the present scroll is likely the second oldest among those known to have survived, preceded only by one from the late twelfth or early thirteenth century sold in our London rooms December 4, 2007 (lot 38). Furthermore, this scroll appears to be the only one in the group copied before the fifteenth century that can be attributed to the hand of a named scribe (the one likely copied by Ibn Zabara in the third quarter of the fifteenth century was sold in our London rooms December 3, 2008 [lot 22]). The prominence of Israel ben Isaac Ben Israel and the Jewish intellectual center of medieval Toledo invests this scroll with special significance and ensures its worthiness as a subject for further scholarly research.
Sotheby’s is grateful to Dr. Malachi Beit-Arié, Dr. Benjamin Richler, and Shlomo Zucker for providing information that aided in the cataloging of this Torah scroll. Copies of their reports are available upon request from the department.
Isaac Abrabanel, Peirush al nevi’im u-ketuvim (Tel Aviv: Abrabanel Press, 1960), 88.
Katrin Kogman-Appel, Jewish Book Art Between Islam and Christianity: The Decoration of Hebrew Bibles in Medieval Spain (Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2004), 61-63.
Menahem ben Solomon Me’iri, Kiryat sefer al hilkhot sefer torah tefillin u-mezuzah, ed. Moshe Hirschler (Jerusalem, 1956), 48-49.
Benjamin Richler, “The Scribe Moses ben Jacob ibn Zabara of Spain: A Moroccan Saint?” Jewish Art 18 (1992): 140-147.
Nahum M. Sarna (ed.), The Pentateuch (Jerusalem: Makor, 1974) (facsimile of MS New York, Jewish Theological Seminary Lutzki 44a).
Nahum M. Sarna, “Introduction to the Hilleli Manuscript,” Studies in Biblical Interpretation (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 2000), 239-251.
Gabrielle Sed-Rajna, “Toledo or Burgos?” Journal of Jewish Art 2 (1975): 6-21, at pp. 7-8.
Gabrielle Sed-Rajna, “Hebrew Manuscripts from Toledo and Tudela: Creation or Transmission?” in Fernando Díaz Esteban (ed.), Abraham Ibn Ezra y su tiempo: Actas del Simposio Internacional Madrid, Tudela, Toledo. 1-8 febrero 1989 (Madrid: Asociación Española de Orientalistas, 1990), 301-307, at pp. 301-303.
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