My first contact with manuscripts

My first contact with manuscripts was a memorable experience. When I was 22, I opened a manuscript for the first time. It was a copy of the biblical commentary by Rashi (the acronym by which Rabbi Solomon ben Isaac of Troyes, 1040-1105 is known), ms Hébreu 155 in the Bibliothèque nationale de France. It was composed almost nine centuries before I began trying to read and understand it. The text was certainly that of the Chumash Rashi, a commentary on the Pentateuch almost as famous as the Bible itself. Today, this text can be read in countless editions, with or without super-commentaries, and is available on a number of websites. The text is identical, no matter the edition and page layout. It will remain that way, the same tomorrow as today, unchanging, paralyzed, frozen in type or pixels. Should a student reread a passage later, her thought may have matured a bit: he may think he understands certain details better, or perceive a problem. But the body of the text, stagnant in its letters and the white space between the words, paralyzed by the print, remains fixed, petrified, like a corpse, eternally steady like a platonic idea.

But the manuscript that I was reading was quite different. It was unique because a human hand had executed each stroke. My manuscript had not been written by Rashi (no autograph manuscript by Rashi survives; moreover, it is very probable that Rashi dictated his commentaries) but by a scribe who, according to the catalogue, lived in the 13th century. The "same" work, read in another manuscript, was distinguished from this one by a different handwriting, different page layout, and a text that was almost but not quite the same - just as no person is identical with any other.

My hands were holding an object that was 700 years old. The man who had spent months copying out this magnificent text was long dead and the only thing I knew about him was that, for me, he was still alive. I traced out the strokes of his quill: Perhaps he stopped here to rest for a while? Or was it there? How many hours had it taken him to write a page? Where was he when he made this copy? How did he sit? These are concrete and material questions, of the sort we can direct to the living but can no longer ask the dead. Was this manuscript truly dead, though? Did it have nothing to teach us about its life and that of the human beings who had held it in their hands over the centuries, as I was doing?

I had the sudden impression that libraries all over the world were crowded with scribes, potential friends, historical personages who were waiting to come back to life and answer my questions. There were so many things I wanted to ask them! But I did not know which questions to ask, or how to ask them. Back then, there were no Hebrew scholars who could guide me.

I had entered the world of medieval Hebrew manuscripts but it cannot be embraced in toto; one can merely follow a few of its many paths.