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

On Hebrew Book Codicology and Paleography

Category: Uncategorized

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).