"Of the Making of Books there is no end…" (Ecc 12:12)

On Hebrew Book Codicology and Paleography

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“Books without readers, for readers without books”: Nation Building and the Study of Medieval Hebrew Poetry from Spain

A strange note by the publisher of the 1952 edition of Judah al-Harizi’s Tahkemoni caught my eye years ago, in graduate school. After the introduction by Yisrael Zemorah, and before the title page, on a separate page, there are two paragraphs entitled “A Few Things from the Publisher.” I translate part of the first paragraph here:

“[The Tahkemoni] deserves, as do all early works with a similar fate, to be studied by scholars who are experienced in [codicology, paleography, and philology] in order to bring back the glory of the first full version, as much as possible. However, a tragic professional rivalry, about which H. N. Bialik has already lamented in his letters, and which has not changed since, may cause detrimental delays in renewing the state of Hebrew literature and postponing the revival of works of great value, which this historical moment requires and forcefully, if not loudly, demands” (8).

I first naively assumed that the editor was referring particularly to the Tahkemoni–imagining that there was some scholarly battle over the right to study and edit its various manuscripts (ala the struggle over the Dead Sea Scrolls), and that this had already started during the time of Bialik. Further I imagined that when he was talking about the need to publish a lesser edition of the Tahkemonias soon possible, he could have been referring to a specific lesson that could be learned in the present by reading al-Harizi’s medieval work. I went looking through Bialik’s letters to try to find any answers to these questions, and of course I found none–or rather what I found made me realize that I had misunderstood the publisher’s comments.

First let me start with the easy part: “the historical moment” to which the publisher referred was the foundation of the State of Israel; it demanded a national literature, and a national literature need to have roots. This need required immediate publication of even flawed editions of ‘works of high value” from the past.

Now to the “professional rivalry” that, according to the publisher, H. N. Bialik already lamented in his letters. I believe he is referring to the following idea, expressed in Bialik’s introduction to the first volume of the collected poetry of Shlomo Ibn Gabirol, which he edited with Ravnitski 1914/15: “It is now two decades since the research and study of the [Hebrew] poetry of Spain has begun, and we have not received in this area even one complete thing. Not one single begging has been brought to its end” (Bialik 219). He goes on to list several different projects, all of which are not yet complete, and whose literature remains “outside,” that is, outside of the canon of Hebrew literature. Other projects are “incomplete, flawed, and otherwise literarily blemished” or found only in limited expensive editions. This reason he gives for this situation is revealing: there is, according to Bialik, an “iron barrier” between scholarship which takes place in the “West” (that is, in Europe) and the “creation of Hebrew, which is living and continuous in the East.” In her book, Poetic Tresspass: Writing Between Hebrew and Arabic in Israel/Palestine, Lital Levi devotes a whole chapter to Bialik’s role in founding modern Hebrew literature. There she discusses this piece by Bialik and deftly shows the complicated way that he nods to this continuous literary tradition even as he works to cut off contemporary authors working within its tradition from modern Hebrew literature—and the response from those authors working within that tradition.

What I want to focus on is a specific aspect of his argument. Bialik argues that what is needed is to “uproot the poetry of Spain from the private sphere of scholarship and place it in the public sphere of literature of the current generation,” for it is needed to fill the “blank space between the poetry of the Bible and the poetry of our times.” This seems to me to be the “scholarly rivalry” to which the publisher refers, a philosophical rift between those who view studying and editing medieval Hebrew poetry from Spain as a tool in creating the national literary canon and those who see it as part of the broader project of Jewish Studies and notas part of the project of nation building. As Lital points out, of course, just as the “land without a people” in the early Zionist maxim erases the people who were living there, Bialik’s dichotomy erases Eastern Jews who maintained a living relationship with the literary heritage of Muslim Spain. And Bialik’s impact was such that for a long time the editing, publishing, and studying of medieval literature was viewed in the terms he dictated. For example, it wasn’t until 2010 that a modern scholarly edition of the Tahkemoniwas published, so scholars studying it had to work with an edition made in service of the nation-building agenda.

I will end by looking at an excerpt from another introduction, this time to the collected works of Judah HaLevipublished in 1946, edited with an introduction by Yisrael Zemorah. After sections contextualizing HaLevi’s place among the Hebrew poets of Spain, a summary of his biography, a list of the themes of his poems, and a short discussion of his poetics, Zemorah concludes by talking about his trip to the Holy Land: “Judah HaLevi’s journey  to Israel should not be viewed as merely an episode”; he argues that “one can almost not imagine his poetry without this  journey, which is his final great poem” (10). Zemorah says that generations of Jews in various diasporas recognized this aspect of his work, even those who foolishly denied any connection to idea behind it, that is, even Jews who did not believe in the need to return to the Holy Land. “Therefore it should be easy for us,” says Zemorah, “to picture for ourselves, that now, especially now, the star of Judah HaLevi arises anew among us, and that we are the first generation to discover its full brilliance, to reach his souring spirit, to learn from how to do great things in poetry, to attain for ourselves his spiritual perfection, the lofty harmony of his soul” (10). According to Zemorah, not only is HaLevi’s poetry an important component of nation building, it (and his entire corpus) can only truly be appreciated by the nation’s citizens.

Obviously it is not possible to cover in this forum the full range of ways people have conceived of the study medieval Hebrew literature in the modern era, and certainly there are many who do not come to its study from the ideological space expressed by the people I have quoted. It is important to know that this strand exists, however, and to critique its influence on the field—just as we so (and should) when thinking about the nationalist roots of medieval studies in Europe and, mutatis mutandis, North America.


Bialik, Hayim Nahman. Complete Writings(Tel Aviv, 1938), pp. 219-220.

Levi, Lital, Poetic Trespass: Writing Between Hebrew and Arabic in Israel/Palestine (New Jersey, 2014),Chapter 2: “Bialik and the Sephardim: The Ethnic Encoding of Modern Hebrew Literature.”

Al-Harizi, Judah. Tahkemoni, ed. Toporofsky, with an introduction by Yisrael Zemorah (Tel Aviv, 1952).

HaLevi, Judah.Complete Poetry, ed. and with an introduction by Yisrael Zemorah (Tel Aviv, 1946).


“Patching the poet’s garment”: Antar the Black Knight and Medieval Studies.

There are, in my opinion, many great reasons to be excited about Nnedi Okorafor’s new comic book series, Antar the Black Knight (Antar the Black Knight #1 Preview). You don’t need me to tell you that she is a master storyteller- she has the awards and reviews to prove it. Further, while I believe that the subject of her book is extremely timely it is not my place to write about that- I will leave it to others who are more qualified. What I do feel qualified to write about is not divorced completely from these aspects of the work, but stems from an issue that I have been thinking about a lot for some time.

For almost a year now scholars in medieval studies have been engaged in a long overdue self-evaluation of the field’s role in supporting various forms of European nationalism and White Supremacy. A number of factors have brought this about at this time: including vocal and explicit support of Milo by a prominent medievalist, the use of medieval and pseudo-medieval symbols at the White Supremacist rally at Charlottesville, and racially problematic comments made at a panel at last year’s International Medievalist Congress at Leeds. It became urgent to many of us to address the role medieval studies is playing (and had always played) in supporting White Supremacist thinking. Further many of us became certain that unless we were willing to do something to change the field we were part of the problem. There have been a number of good pieces written on this topic- see for example the statement on Race and Medieval Studies made by the Medievalists of Color: http://medievalistsofcolor.com/statements/on-race-and-medieval-studies/

or this one on White Nationalism and the Ethic of Medieval Studies by Sierra Lomuto: http://www.inthemedievalmiddle.com/2016/12/white-nationalism-and-ethics-of.html.

One aspect that I and others touched on is the role of fantasy people read growing up in inspiring them (us) to become medievalists, and how this in turn shapes our expectations of what the middle ages looks like. To put it bluntly if our fantasy middle ages looks like a white Christian or Pagan Europe, and that’s what prompts people to come study the middle ages, then that’s what they will expect to find in the “real” middle ages. Further we noted that many first (and even higher level) courses work on this expectation- knowing that students are interested in Templars, Castles, Dragons etc- choosing the texts and topics that will feed this interest hoping to draw students in to the field. Obviously this is just one strand of the problem- but it is not an unimportant one.

And this is why Okorafor’s Antar excites me- imagine students drawn to our field because they have read about a knight who is black, who is biracial, a story that does not come from a Eurocentric context (just look at the cover of issue #1 and you will get a sense of what I mean). Students who have seen characters from an African language in comic books, as well as quotations from pre-Islamic poetry? And that’s just for starters, because, and I won’t get into this at length here, Antar was both an important poet  in his own right (the first part of the title of my post is a play on a line of his poetry), as well as a character in a lengthy epic transmitted orally for many years. He connects and crosses so many different important cultural and literary categories that students who come to the field inspired by his story are really primed to engage with a very complicated middle ages. Imagine generations of medievalists who saw themselves represented in a comic book and said: “I want to study that middle ages”!

Now obviously I can’t predict that one comic book series will have such a profound impact- I think, or rather hope it can, but also I believe that we who are currently scholars and teachers of the medieval ages need to be proactive in changing the field or else this changes won’t happen. Imagine the student coming to study the middle ages inspired by a black Muslim knight who gets the message (explicitly or implicitly) that “oh no, that’s not really part of the medieval world), or is asked (again maybe it’s never stated explicitly) “why would someone who is not of European ancestry be interested in studying the middle ages.” This is why the Medievalists of Color collective is so important to our field- we must do more to support it. This is also why the work of @medieavlpoc, much of it public facing, which is aimed at showing people that even the European middle ages was not so white needs support. And of course there is other work being done to change the field- my point here not to list all the work being done- just to note how that work can be reinforced by pop culture phenomenon like this new comic book.

So, I would urge my fellow medievalists to support Antar the Black Knight (again if you happen to like comic books I also recommend it on that level). Here are some ways that I can think of:

  1. Perhaps the most easiest: we’ve all had that student who is super eager to talk about places where “medieval stuff” is found in pop culture- when/if you are having this conversation you can say something like “Also I heard about this new comic, that focuses on a medieval knight from the Arabian peninsula called Antar- you might want to check it out”. Some students might go out and read the comic, some might be blown away by it. But even if not, that sends a message- “this also is a moment of connection between the middle ages and pop culture, not just the Viking thing.”
  2.  If/When it comes out as a “trade”- collecting all five of the monthly issues of this limited series- ask your institution’s library to buy it. University library’s prefer this format because its more durable. They will occasionally buy the monthly format- but I’m told that then its stored in Special Collections- making it harder to access. (on the other hand for medievalists who might already teach classes in Special Collections this might open up interesting possibilities.)
  3.  If you teach courses that explore medievalism- consider adding this comic book to your syllabus.

Please note that I have a disability that impacts my writing- I try to make things as polished as possible- but sometimes in the interest of just getting something out there both in a timely manner- and in away that reflects my thinking- it’s not always possible to have it fully copy edited. Please don’t let any typos, grammar errors etc influence how you evaluate the post.

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

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.

CFP: Jews and Christian Materiality 51st International Congress in Medieval Studies, Kalamazoo, Michigan (May 12-15, 2016)

Add. 11639  742b

The Brazen Serpent from BL MS Add. 11639

In the conclusion to her Christian Materiality (2011), Caroline Walker Bynum opens the door to an expansion of her discussion of medieval materiality and religion to Judaism and Islam: “Understanding the full materiality of Christian belief and practice,” she says, “may help to clarify at least one of the ways [i.e., the material way] in which medieval Christianity (and, in certain aspects, its modern descendants) is similar to, yet differs from, its sister religions, Islam and Judaism” (273). This session proposes to go beyond Bynum’s brief concluding survey, focusing specifically on the relationship between Judaism and Christianity. The rational for the focus is the well-documented tendency in Christian thought to present Judaism as the “material other” to Christian spirituality. On the one hand, many accounts of debates between Jews and Christians turn on the kind of generative matter Bynum describes in her book. On the other hand, the idea that Jews, bound to a literal reading of scripture, are blind to the spirit even as they physically bear their scriptures to the corners of the earth, is based on the spirit/matter binary that Bynum’s work problematizes. As much recent work on materiality has radically changed how we think of medieval Christianity’s relationship to the material, it makes sense to rethink how this impacts thinking about Jews and Judaism. The revaluation cannot be one-sided, however, not just about how Christians related to Jews; it must also involve a rethinking of Jews and “holy matter” as well. Christian “holy matter” surrounded Jews—on the outside of cathedrals and churches, displayed in processions, even in Jewish illuminated books–and Jewish natural philosophers drew on the same theories of the natural world as their Christian counterparts. On the other hand Judaism (at least as in the form dominant in the middle ages) grew out of a different ontological attitudes toward the spirit/matter hierarchy than did Christianity (at least in theory); it embraced the material and did not view it as negatively as early Christians, a rabbinic stance that influenced medieval descendants. Might the new understanding of medieval Christian materiality change how we understand the medieval Jewish attitude toward the material too? How does it inform, or react to, Jewish attitudes toward holy matter?

This session invites papers that rethink medieval Judaism in light of the material turn and the new materialisms generally, either from the perspective of Christianity (how did Christians relate to Jews and materiality?), or from the Jewish perspective (how does our changing understanding of materiality in the surrounding Christian culture apply to, or contrast with, our understanding of medieval Jewish culture?). Ideally, this session will stimulate discussion between people working in diverse topics and fields. It is a chance to make use of the varied audiences and disciplinary foci of a big conference like Kalamazoo, and it seeks to make space for fruitful and unpredictable interactions.

Please submit abstracts of no more than 300 words to sboyarin@uvic.ca by Tuesday, Sept. 15, 2015.

Thinking about punctuation and other marks used by Christian Hebraists

Note: if you are new to this blog please read the short disclaimer in my “about” page, thanks.

The excellent Grammar Rabble session on “Unsettled Marks” at Kalamazoo has me thinking about punctuation and other markers used by Christian Hebraists in Hebrew. Would elements used by scribes and authors trained in the Latinate manuscript tradition (such as Tironian notes, other common symbols and abbreviations) be imported into Hebrew texts? Would they use symbols found in traditional Hebrew writing in a different way? And as I think on this even usual use of Hebrew punctuation by Christian Hebraists is an interesting topic. And so I’m planning to seek out manuscripts containing Hebrew composed by Christians (medieval and early modern) and see what I can find.

One example already comes to mind, from the 16th century translation of  the Epistles to James and Jude preserved in BL MS Royal 16 A II made by John Shepreve, a Hebrew professor at Corpus Christi College, Oxford.

In addition to the dot that mark the vowelling in Hebrew, one also occasionally finds the following symbol:Screen Shot 2015-05-27 at 1.32.53 PM (MS Royal 16 A II f.23v)

This symbol, called an etnahta appears twenty-five times in Shepreve’s translation of the Epistle of Saint James, and six times in the shorter Epistle of Saint Jude. It is part of the set of te’amim: a series of symbols that mark the way Jewish scripture should be chanted when read as part of the liturgy. Developed by the masorites (an early medieval group of Jewish Hebrew grammarians localized in Tiberius) as part of their stabilization of the textual tradition of Jewish scripture, they are standard across the Jewish diaspora (although different Jewish communities developed different traditions about what they are called, and how they are sung). By and large they are only used for scripture, although apparently there are a few early manuscripts of the Mishna that have te’amim as well.

In addition to the musical function, the te’amim also serve to indicate syntactical units, and as such can be seen as also serving as a kind of punctuation. The etnahta, which means “pause” is one of the ways to mark the ending of the first section in a verse, and it serves a bit like a comma, which is how Shepreve is using it. However Shepreve seems to be using the etnahta only in cases where not marking a syntactic break might lead to a misunderstanding:

Screen Shot 2015-05-29 at 12.12.12 PM(BL MS 16 A II f.25v)

This is his translation of James 1:17- “Every best gift, and every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no change, nor shadow of alteration.” (in the Douai-Rheims)

Or to give a sense of Shepreve’s Hebrew: “Every trace of good and every perfect gift from above it is, coming down from the Father of Lights…”

In this example, the etnahta serves to break between “it is” and “coming down”- I think because it would be possible to read the verse “…and every perfect gift from above, it is coming down from the Father of Lights”.

Or for example:

James 4:5 “Or do you think that the scripture saith in vain: To envy doth the spirit covet which dwelleth in you?”

Or more closely to Shepreve’s Hebrew: “Do you think in vain it has been said what has been written: to envy…”

Screen Shot 2015-06-02 at 11.51.03 AM(MS 16 A II f.37v)

Here the etnahta marks a break after “what was written” so that the verse is not confused as saying: “…in vain it has been said: what has been written to envy…”

Usually Shepreve places the etnahta below the last letter of the word, which is not its normal place in traditional Hebrew texts. This practice causes him difficulty in the following case, where he can not fit the mark beneath the elongated final final nun:ן, so he places it after in between the words.

Screen Shot 2015-06-03 at 10.56.51 AM(MS 16 A II f.24v)

Compare to the placement of the etnahta in this example from a 14th century Pentateuch:

Screen Shot 2015-06-03 at 11.13.28 AM(BL MS Add. 15252 f.116v).

So to conclude in this example, Shepreve “borrows” a mark used in a Jewish context for Hebrew scripture to use for his translation into Hebrew of two books from the New Testament, using it in a way that kind of resembles its original purpose, but in a way that’s different from the source.

As should be clear, this is my first foray into this subject- I would love to hear from people with other examples, or thoughts about this! More examples and posts as I find them.

On Henry VIII and Hebrew

Here’s a guest blog post I wrote for the British Library about a Hebrew book belonging to Henry VIII: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/asian-and-african/2015/03/what-to-give-the-english-king-who-has-everything.html#

About Books and Writing

My admiration for authors, people who have written books, goes back to my childhood and runs deep in my psyche. This admiration is threefold. I grew up idolizing those authors–Anne McCaffrey, Frank Herbert, Isaac Asimov, and Michael Moorcock–who filled my youth with their imaginative worlds. At the same time I grew up in a traditional Jewish household, and from a young age I was exposed to traditional Jewish scholars, many of whom are referred to by the title of their books (e.g., The Tur for Rabbi Yaakov Ben Asher and Beyt Yossef for Rabbi Joseph Caro). Being a member of “The People of The Book” for me was understood to mean you were expected to write a book. Finally I grew up in academic household, with a father and an uncle who were prolific writers and publishers (even as my uncle struggled to find an academic position, he had no problems writing and getting published). A big part of my parents’ social world were scholars, and I was frequently introduced to them with “this is professor X, she just published a book on Y”. My decision to be an academic, specifically to go to grad. school, was, more than anything, a decision to write books, to be published (yes, I knew there were other elements to being an academic and that they were important, but this part felt like it was fulfilling a childhood dream).

Also at a young age, although not quite as early as my idolization of authors and their books, we discovered that I have a learning disability that affects my ability to write: dysgraphia http://www.ncld.org/types-learning-disabilities/dysgraphia/what-is-dysgraphia. As a child this manifested itself in an inability to write legibly, and an inability to learn how to spell properly (in two different languages).

In the public Israeli school system, there was not much awareness ( at least at the time I was a student) of how to deal with this, and my parents tried to work on this on their own–this included buying my a computer at what was then a fairly young age (13, with my Bar Mitzvah money), taking me to special tutors who would try to work with me on spelling and on techniques to improve my handwriting (I spent a few weeks during a summer in Oxford working with an older gentleman, who insisted that the way to fix things was to have me use a fountain pen–by the end of it I could write my name fairly nicely, if I spent 15 minutes doing it…).

The only real accommodation I had in school in Israel, and I confess it was big, was that I got to dictate my answers to someone on the final subject exams required in high school.

Then I came to college in the U.S.– first a junior college (Vista College in Berkeley), then UC Berkeley. Both schools had facilities to deal with my disability, and I looked into it, but I did not take the required tests to get my disability officially recognized. Why? Not because I was ashamed of it, and not because I was too proud to ask for help. But for two (contradictory) reasons: part of me was unaware (or in denial) about the scope of my challenge: I thought that it was mostly an issue with spelling (and most of my assignments were typed by then). I had made into college (and at Vista I had straight As), so I did not expect Berkeley to be much different. I expected that the nature of the assistance would resemble what I had had in high school, even though I hadn’t done the tests to verify my disability.

Also  I was scared that someone would say, “Oh, with this you will not be able to write at a high level, you cannot be a professor”.

If there is any lesson in this for anybody reading, it is in that aspect–don’t make the same mistake. My whole life would have been easier if I had taken the steps at that point to get my disability properly diagnosed and get the help I needed.

I got through undergrad. primarily because I spoke a lot in class and most professors gave me credit, looking beyond that obvious flaws in my writing to the kernels of good ideas there. Some were not so forgiving, and I know (even then I kind of knew, but now I really know) that from their perspective the gap between who I was in class and who I was on paper likely indicated either that I was lazy, did not care to put effort into writing, or arrogant and did not care to produce something respectful.

The first indication that I was going to have problems moving forward was when I asked a professor for a letter of recommendation for grad. school, and he said that he would have to say in the letter that my writing skills were not ready for grad school… But I got the letters of recommendation, and I got into grad school.

Then things got really hard. To be honest, I could not complete all of the final essays required at the end of the term, and I had to take “incomplete” for one out of every three courses I took. It was not hard for me to think of ideas for any paper, and even to talk about them with profs, but I could not actually carry out writing them in the allotted time. Also I was beginning to realize that writing papers (and longer scholarly texts) was just a small part of the writing an academic is expected to do. The other forms of writing–emails to profs or classmates, reading lists for exams, casual notes that might be circulated, etc–were as hard or even harder for me to carry out as written class assignments.

It became clear, although not until year three, and after some pretty biting comments from profs (again, from their perspective, I was turning in very substandard work, and, since I had done well enough to make it into Berkeley, clearly this was by choice), that I had to tell my professors about my learning disability. I explained, and they were understanding and some even very supportive.

I stuck through it, in part I told myself that every one has difficulties in grad school, and my in-class talents and other advantages (for example, coming from an academic home, being multilingual) balanced things out. I also told my self: just get through to other side (PhD, a job, grants, etc), and you will be able to pay for copyediting and everything will be solved.

I did not publish or even try to publish anything while I was a grad student. Some profs actively encouraged this (not just of me): “Grad writing should be a time for experimenting, feeling ok with not producing things for the sake of publication”; “What you publish stays with you, especially during the long process of writing a dissertation. Do you want people to come to associate you with something you published in grad school, even as you become a more mature scholar?” Many of my peers ignored this advice, but I didn’t; it made my life a bit easier (I wonder if having to face the process of submitting and getting rejected earlier would have actually helped later…).

Writing the dissertation was almost impossible, and I probably would not have been able to finish it without support, some from parents, but a lot a lot from my wife, who copyedited each section (even while working full time at her first academic post, parenting two young boys, and all that goes with it).

I also realized by that point that things will not get easier: no magic hand will produce funds for me to pay for proper copyediting for papers and books; in fact, presses are cutting back on any such services that they once had–authors are expected to handle more and more of that themselves.

Finishing my dissertation felt like a big accomplishment, but I felt as far as ever from achieving the dream of publishing a book. I also tried to be more reasonable, focusing on getting an article (or articles) published. I still have little to no success. Now I am aware that it is hard to get published early on, even in the best of circumstances, and my Dad loves to tell me how many times he has had articles rejected. But its just not the same for me. First, it takes me much longer than most people even to produce anything. Second, that little voice we all have, that “imposter syndrome” voice, rears its head each time a submission is rejected (and it is compounded by failures on the job market), whispering that since I have dysgraphia I will never be able to publish something.

It is not just about my childhood dreams, or even about the very real need to get published to advance my career; it is very much about the need to be a part of the academic community, to express my thoughts in writing, to have people cite them, argue with them, review them.

This is part of why I have really taken to Twitter–it has given me a measure of this feeling, communicating with others, in my field and not, sharing discoveries answering questions, etc.

We live in a time of change in terms of academic writing (among other things)–blogs for example offer a chance for academics to augment more traditional forms of academic writing. Last year, I figured that a blog might offer me a bit of a solution to a growing crisis over my inability to get published. I told myself that I would allow myself not to care about typos, formatting, etc That it would give me an outlet for expressing my ideas, and that perhaps I could use the blog as a stepping stone to producing writing that I could then edit and turn into more traditional academic writing.

But I have realized a few things. Even if I don’t care how things look from an ego standpoint, I can’t put stuff out there that looks bad, or people will just have the same reaction my profs in grad school had–its lazy scholarship done by someone who does not care to put the work in (and here some of the prejudices against blogging that some have might reinforce this). This impression might be confirmed in a reader’s mind if they checked the list of my publications (or the lack thereof).

Which brings us to this post: I had to write it to explain (to myself) why I need to try to blog (even though it might seem that I should be spending my time producing more traditional academic writing), why my blogs may not look as good as they do in my head, why they may appear in fits and starts, etc.

Also, I wanted to say that I am so happy about the other parts of academic work–particularly teaching–and I can’t imagine myself doing anything else.

As soon as I can afford it, I plan to experiment with voice transcribing software which may be a way to meliorate some of the issues of dysgraphia.

(Even this post, which is intended to express something I feel is very important is very different in writing from how it appears in my head–but if I try to get it to be closer to that, I don’t think it will ever be written).


Some anecdotes from the Introduction to Hebrew Manuscript Studies Workshop , Berlin July 15-19.

In this post I will not attempt to present the important points we learned in the Introduction to the Hebrew Manuscripts Studies workshop (http://www.ihiw.de/w/scriptorium/hebrew-manuscripts-studies-an-introduction/)- there are far too many of them to this adequately- but rather I want to present some anecdotal information about and from the workshop (I hope to follow up with some more in depth posts derived from the workshop in the near future).


Entrance to the library

One of the things that made the workshop really special was generous way the Staatsbiblothek Zu Berlin made actual Hebrew manuscripts available for use in illustrating points of codicology and paleography. Petra Figeac and Sophia Fock, from the library put a lot of effort in making this happen, and their work was appreciated by all (as well as all the others who put a lot of work into the planning and execution of the workshop). For example here are all the shelfmarks of the manuscripts they brought out for us to look at during one segment on one day:

Mittwoch 9:30-11:00

 fol 581, fol 583, fol 585, fol 4105, fol 4200, fol 4215; quart 9, quart 514, quart 516, quart 568, quart 576; octavo 256, Hamilton 80, fol 120, fol 581, fol 585, fol 628, fol 4105, fol 4215,

fol 4223, quart 1, quart 9, quart 514, quart 568, quart 570, quart 576, quart 578, quart 835

octavo 256, octavo 351, octavo 516, Hamilton 80


Sample of manuscripts on a book-cart

Among the manuscripts we got to see were, the Erfurt Giant Bible- the biggest Hebrew manuscript, the oldest dated Yemenite manuscript, the oldest copy of the Tosefta, and a Bible copied by the son of Berachiah HaNaqdan in which he mentions his fathers’ works (I hope to post about each of these manuscripts in the near future). Not a single glove was worn during the week!

Some more anecdotes (things I learned either from Malachi Beit-Arie or Judith Olszowy-Schlanger):

Medieval Jewish texts circulated via an active “Open Accesses” Policy:

  1. In his responsa The Rosh (Rabbi Asher Ben Yehiel 1250-1328) writes: “As for what you have asked about a judge who ruled about one who has books and does not want to lend them [to be copied], and he [the judge] fined him ten gold coins for every day because of bitul torah [i.e. causing the loss of learning] in the city due to the lack of books in the city and there were people who had books but did not want to lend them- he [the judge] ruled properly and I agree with him.” (My translation from The responsa of the Rosh, principle 93, 3. here: http://www.hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=44347&st=&pgnum=307&hilite=  also quoted in M. Beit-Arie Hebrew Codicology footnote 60).
  2. Authors would frequently send out sections of a book to be copied even before the whole book would be completed. There is much evidence for this practice, including the RaDaK (Rabbi David Kimhi 1160-1235) apologizes in his Sefer Hashorashim, “the Book of Roots” (a dictionary of Hebrew based on the roots of words) that he had put a certain root earlier and it should have been later, but the section containing the root had already been released to the public.
  3. Sons mention that people would look through their father’s books and copy their “teaching notes” and publish them before they (the father or the son) had had a chance to prepare them for publication.
  4. Books were frequently left unbound so that multiple people could make copies of different sections at one time. I.e. Person A would copy section 1 and person B section 2 at the same time, then they would swap and when they were done 2 new copies were ready at the same time that it would have taken to make one copy of a bound manuscript.

A scribe prays for an “Alt” career:

In a certain colophon a scribe amended a standard scribal formula asking God to make him worthy of copying more books (as in this example: http://sfardata.nli.org.il/sfardataweb/frmZiuiKai.aspx “Just as God made me worthy of finishing this book, may he make me worthy of starting and finishing more books”) word “not”- i.e. that God allow him “not” to copy more manuscripts, because says the scribe: “the pay is meager and the work hard. Perhaps he could find a different source of income.” (Sorry I’m paraphrasing from memory, I did not catch the source for the colophon when M. Beit-Arie read it in class…)

A long memory:

An anecdote told by Judith Olszowy-Schlanger (quoting Joseph Shatzmiller) to illustrate the frequent heterogeneous nature of medieval Jewish communities: in Northern France a fight broke out between two Jews and one of them said to the other that it was because the Jews of England had been clipping coins that they were expelled from England and are now causing problems in Northern France- this was 60-70 years after the expulsion…

My first steps into Hebrew Codicology

(Note I first had this section at the end of my post, but I felt it was the most interesting so put it first…)

A small sample of the things I have picked up from reading a portion of (my e-book tells me I have read 34% of it) Malachi Beit-Arié’s Hebrew Codicology: Historical and Comparative Typology of Hebrew Medieval Codices based on the Documentation of the Extant Dated Manuscripts in Quantitative Approach (more on Beit-Arié’ and this book below).

  • “The extant Hebrew codices, mostly medieval, number around 100,000 items (including many composite manuscripts) and, in addition, more than 300,000 fragments, all kept in some 800 collections, mainly European.”  (HC English Summary, page 3).

Important note 1: “Hebrew” in this context refers to the script, as the languages included can be Judeo-Arabic, Yiddish, or Judeo-Persian and more.

Important note 2: While this number includes recent discoveries such as the “Italian Genizah”: http://www.j-italy.org/sources/books-and-essays/the-italian-genizah, we are witnessing the discovery of many more new fragments and even whole collections (such as the Afghan Genizah: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/01/03/afghan-genizah-manuscripts_n_2403893.html) so the number should not be seen as final.


  • The codex was adopted by the Jews in the Orient much later than it had been by the Christians and not before the eighth century or following the Islamic expansion. (HC English Summary, page 3).
  •  The first words used for “Codex” as opposed to “scroll” in Hebrew were Arabic loan words:

מצחף mushaf مصحف and דפתר daftar دفتر. A Hebrew word מחזור mahzor appears later. None of these remained in use for long (HC Hebrew, 35-36).


  • There are 5Geo-Cultural  entities of Hebrew Manuscripts Ashkenaz, Sefarad, Italian,  Byzantium, Orient. Some of these then can be further subdivided: German vs French, Spanish vs. Tunisian etc. (See HC English Summary page 3 for a map).


  • Despite the shared religious, and scriptural elements, Hebrew codices from different “Geo-Political” regions will have more in common codicologically with none-Hebrew codices from the same Geo-Politcal region than a Hebrew one from a different geo-political region. That is a Hebrew codex from Italy from the 13th century will have more in common codicologically with a Latin codex from Italy from the 13th century, then a Hebrew one from Iraq or France.



  • Because of the migrant nature of medieval Jewish life, paleography is not as reliable in locating where a Hebrew manuscript was made as is codicology. People would maintain the handwriting they learned elsewhere, but the materials as well as other book making practies would stay local. For example, at one point in Italy there types of script were used: Italian, Sepharadi, and Ashkenazi.


  • The copying of Hebrew texts was an individual matter: there were no textual production centers (like the monastic scriptorium or at the University centers of Christianity). Individuals would lend or “rent” texts to other individuals for them to copy. Sometimes the copying was done for hire, but often one would copy the text for their own use. This is even the case when the text is for a synagogue, or is copied at a learning center. An individual will commission the copy for the synagogue donating as a private gift. Similarly an individual will copy a text from another for their private study at the academy. Copies were made for poor students who could not pay. (This is a big topic- covered in pages 69-82 of the Hebrew version.)


  • There are four extant volumes of Maimonides’ commentary on the Mishanah written in his own hand. Two are written on paper manufactured in the Sepharadi Geo-political sphere- suggesting that they may have been composed while he was in North Africa, the other two are on “Oriental” paper- pointing at Egypt.


Starting on Monday July 15th I am attending a 5 day “Introduction to Hebrew Manuscript Studies” workshop (see details here: http://www.ihiw.de/w/scriptorium/hebrew-manuscripts-studies-an-introduction/). This is a subject that I have been interested in for years (even before I started Graduate School I applied for a project that would have included working with Hebrew Manuscripts in person), but for one reason or another, I have not been able to pursue it properly until this summer . And here I must thank my wife for generously allowing me to leave her at home with three kids to fulfill this dream.

I have decided to try to make the most of this opportunity by reading up a bit on Hebrew Manuscript Studies before the workshop (more on this below), and by writing a blog about my experiences during the workshop  (which will hopefully help me retain things better, and be of benefit to others interested in the topic).

Leading up to the workshop I have been reading Malachi Beit-Arié’s Hebrew Codicology: Historical and Comparative Typology of Hebrew Medieval Codices based on the Documentation of the Extant Dated Manuscripts in Quantitative Approach.

A pre-publication internet version is available in Hebrew (500 pages), English summery, and English table of Contents of the Hebrew version, here: http://web.nli.org.il/sites/NLI/English/collections/manuscripts/hebrewcodicology/Pages/default.aspx

Although I have been reading the longer Hebrew version, I have also browsed the English summery, and I heartily believe that even the shorter version would be of use to those who have interest in Hebrew book culture or book culture in general.

For those who do not know Beit-Arié is one of the two founders, together with Colette Sirat ( http://www.colette-sirat.com/en/aventures.html ), of the study of Hebrew Manuscript Codicology and Paleography.


I’m a reading about the history of Hebrew Books in a .pdf on my e-book reader of – the “Pre-publication internet version(s)” of Hebrew Codicology were made available in this format for a number of reasons:  A. Making it easily available: indeed I would not be reading it at this time, if it were not available online) B. Allowing to electronically link to SfarData the Codicological Data- Base of the Hebrew Paleography Project (see here:  http://sfardata.nli.org.il/sfardataweb/home.aspx )- I haven’t come along any links to it yet in my reading but C. Allow for dynamic updating of Hebrew Codicology.

I have to confess that reading this book on my e-reader has not been the most comfortable experience, this is due to the limitations of my e-book reader, and I would imagine not be an issue on one with a bigger screen or a tablet.

Some reasons why I felt the need to share about this book:

As a scholar of Medieval Hebrew (and Arabic) literature I have frequently wondered about the medieval material conditions of the texts I work on, and how these relate to interpreting understanding the texts. Also frequently I have been asked by others, sometimes as part of job interviews, questions like: “Since Jews did not have monasteries, where were the manuscripts produced?” “Were there exemplars of important texts from which copies were made?”  “Do we know how many medieval books survive?” “Where were Hebrew Books produced” (For this one I assumed that anywhere that Jews lived, but I didn’t know for sure). Over the years I have made attempts to find answers to these questions, but while I have found answers to some, there was no one place that answer them clearly, nor that presented a comprehensive systematic treatment of the material conditions of the Hebrew Book- before this one! Now I have answers, to these questions, and many more. While I have focused in this post on the things we can know, the book is also very clear about the things we either do not know, or cannot be sure about- knowing these is also useful (but perhaps that is a topic for another post).