Hebrew manuscript highlights - Spanish and Portuguese texts

Several of the manuscripts in Bodleian's Hebrew collection are not actually in Hebrew; there are the Judaeo-Italian manuscripts, MSS. Canonici Or. 10 and 11, which are Italian versions of the Hebrew Bible transliterated in Hebrew characters, and there are the Judaeo-Arabic manuscripts in the Oppenheim and Huntington collections. The manuscripts featured today are something different, however. They aren't written in Hebrew characters at all, but in Spanish and Portuguese, and they nevertheless form an important part of the history of Hebrew writing.


Many of the Bodleian's Hebrew manuscripts, particularly the ones produced in Italy, show the impact of the Catholic establishment on Hebrew literature and scholarship in the form of censors' notes and stretches of censored text. The manuscripts featured today are equally products of a climate of Catholic censorship and persecution of Jewish intellectuals, but the manuscripts themselves weren't censored; they were hidden. Texts by Jewish philosophers and apologists were circulated in Spain and Portugal in manuscript form in the 17th and 18th centuries, as it was impossible to have them printed.


Some of these manuscripts seem to have been cheaply produced, as might be expected considering that these were not volumes that could be proudly displayed in a personal library. MS. Oppenheim Add. 4° 149, for example, the Discurso del doctor Montalto sobre el capitulo LIII de Ezayas​, is undecorated, written in a hand that parallels the curls and long descenders of the contemporary Spanish semicursive Hebrew script:

MS. Opp. Add. 4° 149 fol. 1r
MS. Opp. Add. 4°​ 149, fol. 1r

MS. Oppenheim Add. 4° 148, Isaac Orobio de Castro's Explicação paraphrastica sobre o capitulo 53 do profeta Izahias, is even more humble-looking:

MS. Opp. Add. 4° 148 fol. 2r
MS. Opp. Add. 4° 148, fol. 2r

MS. Oppenheim Add. 4° 51, meanwhile, Isaac Orobio de Castro's Tratado en que se explica la prophesia de las 70 semanas de Daniel, is written in a more print-like italic script, with a decorated title page:


MS. Opp. Add. 4° 51, fol. 1r
MS. Opp. Add. 4° 51, fol. 1r

The most beautifully produced of these manuscripts, however, is MS. Oppenheim Add. 4° 49, Saul Levi Mortera's Providencia de Dios con Israel:


MS. Opp. Add. 4° 49, fol. [I]r
MS. Opp. Add. 4° 49, fol. [I]r
MS. Opp. Add. 4° 49, fol. 2v
MS. Opp. Add. 4° 49, fol. 2v

The earliest incunabula digitized for the Polonsky Project, such as the Gutenberg Bible, show how early printers tried to produce books that as closely as possible resembled manuscripts in their use of ligatures, rubrication and decoration. At that time, printed books were not regarded as superior to manuscripts; they were simply easier to produce. These heretical Spanish and Portuguese manuscripts, produced in the late 17th century, show how thoroughly the tables had turned in a mere 200 years. From the pen-and-ink title page, cross-hatched to mimic the texture of an engraving, to the painstakingly rendered roman and italic scripts, to the table of contents at the back of the book, MS. Opp. Add. 4° 49 echoes the aesthetic and design of a printed book, in what it is possible to interpret as an effort to reclaim the legitimacy generally conferred by printing but denied to works of this kind.