Malachi Beit-Arié on Hebrew Manuscripts

Hebrew manuscripts are medieval artefacts, 'briefcases of wisdom' produced by the Jewish people, according to a metaphor of the Spanish Hebrew medieval poet Moses Ibn Ezra. Like all other medieval books, they performed the same magnificent role as did later printed books, propagating texts and knowledge, preserving cultural continuity over far-removed areas and periods. They distributed the many-faceted Hebrew and Jewish literature, such as biblical, legal, liturgical and philosophical texts, as well as scientific, mostly works in medicine, mathematics and astronomy. They introduced new ideas and inspired intellectual and social changes. Like Latin, Greek, or Arabic scribes, Hebrew scribes transmitted the verbal records of their civilization by reproducing texts, shaping their forms, forging their visual appearance and enhancing their legibility in the ages before printing. They were instrumental agents of cultural evolution, revival and rupture.

But medieval pre-print manuscripts are not just vehicles of verbal records. They are also cultural artefacts, physical, visual and figurative objects, which display technical practices, calligraphic and artistic skills and mirror the intellectual activity and interests of the society of their time and region of production. Like all other medieval hand-produced books, Hebrew manuscripts are also complex pre-industrial products, combining, coordinating and reflecting diversified components and considerations in the process of their production – technological, aesthetic, economic and social; they involved craftsmanship and artistry, variety of techniques, shapes and elaborate designs, script and illumination.

Hebrew hand-produced books are cultural artefacts produced by a religious, ethnic and cultural minority. Yet, the extraordinary historical circumstances which dispersed the Jewish communities around the Mediterranean basin and further eastward, northward and westward, interweaving them within various civilizations, religions, and cultures, and transplanting them within others, have made Hebrew manuscripts significant and valuable for the study and history of the handwritten book in all other civilizations around the Mediterranean in general.

Flourishing or impoverished, secure or oppressed and harassed, small and large Jewish communities in the Middle Ages were spread out from central Asia in the east to England in the west, from Yemen and North Africa in the south to Germany and central and eastern Europe in the north, embraced by the great civilizations of Islam and Christianity, the Latin West, the Byzantine East, and many other minority cultures, languages and scripts. Notwithstanding their firm adherence to their unique religion, language, culture and customs, their self government and educational system, they were strongly influenced by the surrounding societies and shared with them not only goods, tools, crafts and techniques, but also literary styles, aesthetic values, philosophical theories and principles and calligraphic fashions. The mobility of individual Jews, by choice or by economic necessity, and of entire communities by force, made them agents of cross-cultural contacts and influences and intercultural confrontations.

Despite the adoption of the spoken languages of their host societies in everyday life – the wide use of Greek by Hellenized Jews in late antiquity, the extensive employment of Arabic as the main written language in countries under Muslim rule, and later, to a much lesser extent, the application of European vernacular languages in their literature, the Jews have always remained loyal to their own script. Jews have adhered to their Semitic national writing, rendering in it not only epigraphic writings, literary texts and documents written in the Hebrew language, but also other borrowed languages, including the European ones, in transcription. Learned Jews in medieval Christian Europe apparently never employed the Latin script, nor did they use the Latin language in Hebrew transcription. On the other hand, since the eleventh century Jews did employ occasionally and in the late Middle Ages more extensively, the vernacular languages of their environments, transcribing them in Hebrew characters. Old French, Provençal, Catalan, Castilian, Spanish and, of course, Italian, Greek and particularly German were assimilated by the Jews and incorporated into their Hebrew written texts, but always rendered in Hebrew transcription.

Thus, Jews in the East and the West, and since the ninth century rather exclusively, utilised the Hebrew script for written communication, documentation, legal proceedings and particularly for writing their literature and disseminating it, mainly in Hebrew, but also in other languages, especially Arabic. This remarkable phenomenon, together with the vast territorial dispersion of the Jews, turned a minor marginal script and book craft into a culturally rather major one. From the viewpoint of extent and diffusion, the Hebrew script was employed in the Middle Ages over a larger territorial range than the Greek, Latin or Arabic scripts, as Hebrew manuscripts and documents were produced within and across all these and other script zones.

This marginal Hebrew script and book craft naturally encompassed diversified regional shapes, types and styles of the common script, book technology and the scribal practices involved in its production. Medieval Hebrew books shared the same script, but were divided by different geo-cultural traditions of fabrication, design and writing modes, strongly influenced by contacts with local non-Jewish values and practices and by the Latin and Arabic scripts. Hebrew manuscripts indeed present a solid diversity of well-differentiated script types, techniques and scribal practices, moulded by the different places where they were made.

About 100,000 handwritten Hebrew codices and their remains have survived to this day. They are kept in some six hundred national, state, public, municipal, university and monastic libraries and private collections all over the world. Some 300,000 fragments of medieval manuscripts were preserved in the Cairo Genizah, a store room for worn-out books in a synagogue in old Cairo. In addition, numerous remains of re-used bisected medieval European Hebrew manuscripts have been and still are being recovered from the binding covers books in many European collections.


Among the hundreds of collections of surviving Hebrew manuscripts in the world, only the collections of some dozen libraries are regarded as major collections, both in quantity, by containing at least several hundred manuscripts, and in quality, by having important and rare copies in all the areas of Jewish textual creativity and old, precious and aesthetically designed written books. Those collections are found in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, the Vatican Library, the Biblioteca Palatina in Parma, the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris, the Russian National Library in St. Petersburg, the Russian State Library in Moscow, the National Library in Jerusalem, the British Library in London, the Oriental Institute of the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg, Cambridge University Library and the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin.

It may seem rather paradoxical that the extant Hebrew manuscripts which have mostly survived from Christian countries, while escaping mass expulsions and persecutions, were saved mainly by European libraries which purchased them, preserved, conserved and kept them accessible for students and scholars. These Christian institutions became guardians of Jewish literary heritage, like the Bodleian Library and Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana.

The Bodleian Library is a treasure trove of about 2700 medieval and early-modern Hebrew manuscripts. It keeps one of the largest collections of Hebrew handwritten books, and certainly the most important one. The value of this remarkable collection can be clearly measured and proved by simply counting the overwhelming number of times the Bodleian Hebrew manuscripts are cited, referred to and published in scholarly journals and books. They represent all the written heritage of Judaism and Jewish intellectual creativity: Biblical texts and commentaries (some 330 manuscripts), early Talmudic and medieval halakhic-legal literature (the largest section of some 560 manuscripts), Midrashic literature (about 110 manuscripts), liturgy (some 200 manuscripts), Kabbala (some 440 manuscripts, the largest collection of early and medieval Jewish mysticism), philosophy (220 manuscripts), lexicography and grammar (about 100 manuscripts), sciences – mathematics, astronomy and medicine (about 150), secular poetry and literature and history. They reflect the variety of scribal traditions, types of script and artistic styles of the Hebrew book craft of the Jewish communities from Yemen and the Maghreb in the south, to central, northern and Eastern Europe in the north, from central Asia in the east to England in the west. Moreover the Bodleian collection of Hebrew manuscripts contains the largest number of explicitly dated manuscripts or those with indication of the scribe’s name, totalling about one quarter of the entire collection. Such manuscripts are essential for establishing a typology of the Hebrew hand-produced book and the contribution of the Library to Hebrew palaeography and codicology is unequalled.  

In addition the Bodleian Library holds a most important collection of fragments which were kept in the Cairo Genizah, the old depository of worn-out books. The Bodleian purchased the fragments as early as 1890 and many of them are very old and valuable.

The library holds an extensive collection of early printed Hebrew books. A considerable part of the books produced before 1500 are parchment copies of incunables. The collection of Hebrew and Yiddish books produced in the sixteenth, seventeenth and early eighteenth century is the most important worldwide.

The extraordinary manuscript collection has been accumulated over four centuries of interest in Hebrew literature at Oxford University. At the end of the seventeenth century the library purchased two remarkable collections which were gathered in the Middle East by English Orientalists while serving in Aleppo, Robert Huntington (233 manuscripts) and Edward Pococke (107 manuscripts). In 1817 it purchased the superb collection of the Venetian Jesuit, Matteo Luigi Canonici (116 valuable volumes). In 1829 it purchased the largest Jewish collection ever accumulated, that of Rabbi David Oppenheimer (1664-1736) who was the Chief Rabbi of Prague and during his lifetime he had amassed 758 manuscripts and 4,220 printed books. In 1848 the Library purchased the library of Heimann Joseph Michael, numbering 620 volumes.

The value of the remarkable collection of more than 900 manuscripts assembled in the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana and taken care of by devoted curators since the sixteenth century can be also be measured by counting the overwhelming number of times (relative to the extent of the collection) the Vatican manuscripts are cited, referred to and published in scholarly articles and books. The significance and importance of the collection are manifested both by its contents, covering most of the facets of Jewish creativity, and by its materiality – the usually excellent state of the manuscripts, their diversified origins of production (from all over Europe and Byzantium) and their richness in providing precise copying dates whose relative contribution to Hebrew codicology and palaeography is outstanding and unmatched by any other collections in the world. Almost half the medieval codices are either dated or provide the copyist's name. About a quarter of the collection is explicitly dated. Notwithstanding the small number of the Oriental codices, the collection contains a few of the oldest extant manuscripts produced in the Middle East, among them one that seems to be the earliest surviving Hebrew codex (Vat. ebr. 66). The collection holds the earliest dated Hebrew codex produced in Europe (Vat. ebr. 36, written in 1072/3, most probably in Otranto in southern Italy) and the earliest localized manuscript of Christian Europe (a Bible copied in La Rochelle, France, in 1214). It holds the largest number of Byzantine manuscripts anywhere.

The combination of the Hebrew collection of both the Bodleian and the Vatican libraries presents every possible genre of Jewish literature in the East and the West and the Jewish book craft produced and designed within the civilisation of Oriental and Occidental Islamic territories as well as within the civilisations of Occidental Christian territories and Byzantine Christendom. The digitisation of both collections is a unique cultural and scholarly enterprise which will provide students, scholars and the general public with easy access to these rich hidden treasures, promote dramatically the study of and the acquaintance with the diversified texts produced over a millennium in the Orient and the Occident, unveil the artistic quality and the artisan practices of the hand-produced artefact and enhance cultural continuity and the artefacts themselves.  


Malachi Beit-Arié is Ludwig Jesselson Professor Emeritus of Codicology & Palaeography at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.