Vat. ebr. 142

More than 130 years have elapsed since the release of the pioneer work entitled Die Vaticanische Handschrift der Halachoth Gedoloth by Azriel Hildesheimer (Berlin, H. Itzkowski, 1886), almost entirely dedicated to the textual analysis of ms Vat. ebr. 142 (the full manuscript on our Digital Library: Part 1; Part 2).


The Halakhot Gedolot was written by Shim’on Qayyara of Basra, probably at the beginning of the ninth century, and represents one of the earliest attempts to codify halakhic material. Otherwise said, it gives a systematic and comprehensive summary of all the talmudic laws. Such a material may be presented in the order and sequence in which it is found in the Talmud; but, on the other hand, the Talmudic sequence may be abandoned in favour of an independent system, whereby the material is presented topically ‒ as in the much later Mishneh Torah by Maimonides, and Arba'ah Turim by Jacob ben Asher.


Among the most prominent manuscripts bearing the Halakhot Gedolot, is so far the two until now detected recensions are concerned ‒ although arguably debatable in their existence, for the sake of simplicity we still make reference to both of them ‒ and (possibly) apart from some dozens of Genizah fragments, ms Vat. ebr. 142 appears to be by far the most ancient surviving testimony, as, mostly according to palaeographical criteria, it is somewhat datable to the (mid-) eleventh century.


But despite a recent, substantial improvement of previously available descriptions, nobody seems to have focused on the early history of this parchment codex, so vividly depicted in its colophon ‒ which the high-definition online pictures, now featured by the Polonsky Project, made patently readable:


I am Iṣḥaq ha-ṣaʿīr (the younger), son of the righteous holy man Rabbi Šaul, from the city of Ferrara, lying on the river Pādō [> lat. Padus], which is likely to (originate) from the (country of) Lōnbardiyā. I bought those Halakhot Gedolot in Miṣraim [Fusṭāṭ], from our Rabbi and Teacher Kokhav, the enlightened judge in the city of Cairo (ʾalqah[i]), located at a short distance of half a parasang by Miṣraim. The final purchase was done in Cairo, (but) the lineation (sirgul) had been accomplished in Miṣraim by the hand of our Master and Teacher Rabbi A[v]ner […]


A preliminary remark: the ductus of the Italian Jew Isaac Sair, the self-mentioning author of the above colophon, exhibits a a remarkable closeness (arguably, also in terms of temporal contiguity) with the hand of the main scribe of ms Vat. ebr. 142. Moreover, according to the historical framework inferable from his narrative, an active Jewish community still lived in Miṣraim, as Benjamin of Tudela called Fusṭāṭ. Those elements suggest, for the voyage of Isaac Ferrariensis, a date between the second half of the twelfth and the first half of the thirteenth century.


Vat. ebr. 142, f. 380v