“they shall serve as signs for the set times—the days and the years”: Time and Memory in Oxford, Bodleian ms Heb. d.11

by sboyarin

Oxford, Bodleian ms Heb. d.11 is an autograph manuscript, compiled mostly by a man named Ela’zar HaLevi who lived in Germany in the mid 14th century. In his 2008 book about the manuscript, known variously in scholarship as “the Chronicle of Jerahme’el” or “The Book of Memory,” Eli Yassif argued that at least part of the codex is actually a well-crafted historical chronicle. This chronicle section begins on fol. 7r  with the words זהו ספר הזכרונות (see image below)–This is the Book of Memory–and runs all the way to fol. 258v.


fol. 7r (my photo)

Yassif argues that, in this section of the codex, Ela’zar carefully brought together texts to tell the story of the world from Creation to the Messianic Age. He shows that what seems like a random assortment is actually a masterful act of editing and curating of textual traditions. Yassif calls this technique, following Ela’zar’s own description, the “hook and loop” technique. As Ela’zar says:

 .(Yassif 70) ומאד עמלתי ויגעתי בו עד שהייתי [מחבר] עניין אצל חברו ולישבו כמרגלית במשצבת ובקרסים ולולאות

“I labored and toiled greatly over it until I could [connect] one issue to its companion, fitting it like a pearl in its setting, and with hooks and loops.” (my translation)

As an example of this technique, Yassif notes that the texts dealing with the creation of the fetus in the womb, for instance, are interpolated into a text dealing with traditions about the creation of man on the sixth day. There is a topical connection between the two, as both deal with ways humans are created–either the original one-time creation or the continual ongoing creation of new humans. Yassif lists more examples of this technique, and it becomes quite clear that it is in operation for much of book.

Yassif argues that only this section (fols 7r-258v) should properly be referred to as “The Book of Memory,” and his edition thus leaves out other kinds of materials found in the codex–texts before and after the section edited by him. This partition of the codex omits many items, including at least 7 texts listed by a later medieval owner as part of “The Book of Memory,” that is: The Book of Judith, the Book of Alexander, Ben Sira, The Tales of Sendebar, Mivhar HaPeninim, Brachia HaNaqdan’s Fox Fables, a text on dream interpertation, and a lapidarium. See items 20-27 in the image below:

4r (Image taken from microfiche of the manuscript)

fol. 4r, top  (image is blurry because taken from a microfiche of the manuscript)

Importantly, Yassif’s partition also leaves out much of the other material found in the manuscript that is not listed in the above image. For a more complete list, check out Neubauer’s description here:


In this series of blog posts, I will show connections between the section treated by Massif (which I will refer to as the “historical chronicle” section) and other parts of the manuscript. I can’t at present provide an argument connecting all of the materials in the manuscript together, but it is worth exploring connections beyond what Yassif outlines. Further, I will argue that a lot of what is going in the Book of Memory parallels and anticipates what Elisheva Carlebach argues occurs in the later Sifre Evronot, the subject of her excellent book Palaces of Time: Jewish Calendar and Culture in Early Modern Europe.

“Let there be lights in the firmament of the heaven”: The Role of the Stars in Ela’zar HaLevi’s Compilation

The historical chronicle section begins by expanding on the story of creation recounted in the first two chapters of Genesis. Accordingly, on the fourth day, which includes the creation of the sun and the moon and the stars, Ela’zar includes traditions pertaining to the stars and their role in keeping time. After discussion of the sun and the moon, we find the following:

These seven servants S’ V’ M’ M’ S’ J’ M’ [ם צ ש ל כ נ ח] were created by God, and He ordered them in the heavens to serve the needs of the world, that those who come into the world will count with them signs, and set times, and calculations and summer, and the number of hours and days, months, times and days, and set times [sic], as it says: “they shall serve as signs for the set times—the days and the years” [Gen 1:14]. These are their names: Hammah [Sun], Nogah [Venus], Kochav [Mercury], Levanah [Moon], Shabtai [Saturn], Tsdek [Jupiter], Maadim [Mars]. (my translation – see Yassif’s page 80 for the Hebrew).

Ela’zar then provides various information about how these “stars” have been set up to serve the needs of the world. For example, he copies from text found in an astronomical/astrological treatise known as the Beraita Deshmu’el that discusses the areas which fall under the purview of each star. Here, for example, are his descriptions for Saturn and Venus:

“שבתאי [Saturn] is in charge of poverty and suffering and times of illness, and of disease and injuries of the body that cause death. His form is like an ancient of days sitting with a scythe in his hand. That is what he looks like.

נוגה [Venus] is in charge of grace and beauty and love and lust and desire, and procreation– the birth of humans and on the birth of animals and the fruit of the earth and the fruit of trees. His [sic] form inside him is the shape of an adorned young women with a laurel branch in her hand.” (my translation – see Yassif’s pages 81-82 for the Hebrew)

I think that this is a key moment in the manuscript: it expresses the underlying explanation for much of the material found outside of the historical chronicle section– much of which happens to be calendric or connected to time in some way. For example, on the same folio (4r, image above) that includes the list of texts copied into the Book of Memory, the following table appears:


fol. 4r, bottom

This is a table that provides information about the 19-year cycle of intercalation (עיבור)–i.e., the years where a month is added to the Jewish calendar–and it lists the days of the year on which the Jewish New Year will fall, noting also whether the year is full or defective. It covers a 273-year period, starting in the year 5093 since creation (c. 1332 CE, and note that the final two lines are later additions — thanks to Justine Isserles and Nadia Vidro for help with this).

Tables such as these and other time-related materials can be found throughout the manuscript: they include religious material (such as information about Torah-reading cycles), medical material (such as information about the best times in the day for bloodletting), astrological material (such as good and bad days of each month for starting something new), and more.

Although there is never a moment explicitly pointing back from such tables to the narrative discussion of the creation of stars on the fourth day, there are several elements showing a connection. For example, the information about domains that fall under the previews of the stars, which I partially quoted above, is repeated later in the manuscript, albeit in a more concise manner and in a slightly different order, without reference to the moon. However, the visual presentation of the information differs in this second case. The first time this information is provided the text, it is laid out as a continuous narrative, but the second time it is set as a table. Compare the images below:

9v (on the left) 366v (on the right)

folio 9v













fol. 366v


The same information appears yet a third time in the manuscript, on the penultimate folio, in a version that’s closer to the one first appearing on 9v. See here:


Inner columns of folios 386v-387r.

Likewise the acronym of these seven stars (ם צ ש ל כ נ ח), introduced for the first time on fols. 9r-v, appears several times later in the codex, often just as an acronym but sometimes with the letters explained, almost always in this exact order but sometimes broken up in various ways.

For example, on fol. 367v there is a large table that connects the twelve signs of the zodiac, the days of the week (except the Sabbath), the times of the days, and the 7 stars. The table uses the first letters of the names of the stars in the order presented in the acronym–beginning with Mercury, represented by a כ (see the middle section of the chart in the image below), as well as the first letter of the names of the signs of the Zodiac starting with Aries, represented with a ט for טלה (the top line), and then, in the right hand column, listing the days of the week, with two entries, one for nighttime and one for daytime:


folio 367v (my photo)

As in the example of the domains under the purview of the stars, which showed the same information repeated several times, sometimes with slight variations, this kind of repetition appears frequently in the manuscript. There are at least two more tables pertaining to the 19-year intercalation calendar found in the manuscript, for example, as well as a “poem” presenting a method for calculating סוד העיבור, the secret of intercalation:


This short text is actually written sideways on folio 365r, and while it and several other pieces (such as the text already cited on the penultimate folio of the manuscript) may be later additions to the original text of Ela’zar, they are clearly building on a trend that he established and at least showing how the book used. The opening lines of this poem seem reminiscent of the trend in later Sifre Evronot (books dedicated to the ibbur and other technical elements of the Jewish calendar that appeared in the early modern period) to consider knowledge of the  ibbur “as coming from a divine realm” (Carlebach 86).

Even if Yassif is right and on some level El’azar’s focus was only or mainly on the historical chronicle section, and even if some of these materials were added by later scribes to the manuscript, these are also a product of the “loop and hook” approach adopted by Ela’zar. While to some extent all of these various charts, tables, and texts would have been useful to a medieval Jew–it is good to know the best times of day to pray, etc.–presenting them in this fashion goes beyond mere use: it serves an ideological function. A central theme of Oxford, Bodleian ms Heb. d.11, I think, is the nature of time. The book presents an overarching argument that all of these various systems were set in motion on the fourth day of creation. This argument leads to the deeper connection between the historical chronicle section of the manuscript and its other materials: the historical narrative–from Creation to the Messianic Age–is deeply entwined with these other elements of time, represented by cycles of years, cycles of Torah readings, astrological cycles, and so on. The book is doing something similar to what Elisheva Carlebach describes in relation to Bede and Christian time: “it conjoins computus in one seamless work with cosmology, chronology, history and [Jewish] eschatology” (9).

My next blog post will deal with the way Jewish time (and history) are intertwined with both Roman and Christian time and history in Oxford, Bodleian ms Heb. d.11. Until then…

Books cited:

Carlebach, Elisheva. Palaces of Time: Jewish Calendar and Culture in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2011.

Yassif, Eli. The Book of Memory that is The Chronicle of Jerahme’el. Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv UP, 2001.