Hebrew Manuscripts of the Middle Ages

Hebrew Manuscripts of the Middle Ages (Before the start of Hebrew printing, around 1460-1480, all books were handwritten; even after that date, many still were) are our cathedrals. They are made of parchment or paper and are hidden on shelves. After long and strenuous wanderings with their owners, most of them rest quietly, in an almost complete oblivion, in the collections of public libraries of many countries of the Occidental world. One to two millions codices (the books made of quires, as are our modern books) in Hebrew characters were written by Jews during the Middle Ages (900 AD to 1540) in the Holy Land and in all the countries of the Diaspora. From them some 35000 to 40000 (which are complete or fragmentary) were preserved voluntarily, about 300000 fragments remain by mere chance: they were buried in a genizah or recycled in the binding of later books.

Manuscripts give us the three components which are necessary to build a more complete Jewish history.

1. The history of texts (Wissenschaft des Judenthums) began more than 150 years ago; it is mostly based on earlier printed books (generally they use 1 or 2 manuscripts) and, for a number of very good scholars, on the manuscripts they could have access to. The world of Hebrew manuscripts is very large, but the number of texts they contain is even larger. The texts allow us to read the entire Jewish tradition from its beginning until the end of the Middle Ages, along with many translations from Greek, Latin, and Arabic. With few exceptions, they are written in Hebrew letters and usually in the Hebrew language; but there are also texts in the vernaculars spoken by Jews - Aramaic, Arabic, French, Spanish, German (Yiddish), and others. This history has brought about the disciplines which are taught in the universities: Bible and biblical commentaries, Talmud, Haggadah and Midrash, grammar and linguistics, religious and secular poetry, mysticism and kabbalah, philosophy and sciences etc.

Nowadays, the texts may be studied using two- dimensional images (microfilms and digitalized photographs). In the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts, Jewish National Library, in Jerusalem, one can read almost all (about 90%) the texts of the Hebrew manuscripts (about 74,000 reels) which are kept in the world's libraries, so much so that, in all actual publications, the mention of the number of the film in the Institute now follows the signature of the manuscript in the Library it is kept in. Moreover, most libraries already began to put on screen digitalized images of their Hebrew manuscripts collections. The Friedberg Genizah Project, when completed, will give the possibility to view on screen the more than 250,000 Genizah fragments. The project Book within Books will do the same for the thousands fragments which are extant mostly in bindings.

2. Manuscripts are three dimensional concrete objects which have kept the trace of the souls and of the hands of those who wrote them, read them, loved them. Hebrew Paleography is a new discipline (it began 50 years ago). It describes the "body" of the manuscript: its material features (codicology) and its writing (paleography in its stricter meaning). This study put us in touch with the persons who ordered the manuscript, copied them, read them along the centuries. It gives us a contact with the social context, Jewish and not Jewish, where the manuscript was conceived.

3. The study of the history of the manuscript from the moment it came to existence five to eight centuries ago, bring us new historical elements. Its owners, Jew and non-Jew, left on its pages deeds of sale or mentions of purchase, seals, stamp of the library, serial number etc... Many bindings display the coat of arms of their aristocratic or kingly owners. Hebrew manuscripts survived mostly owing to their conservation in libraries, most of them Christian, and because of this history, we have the privilege to take them in our hands and to study them.

These three studies are to be made one after the other for each of them needs the entire attention of the student and the observation of very different aspects of the object: to understand a text one has to have the necessary linguistic capacity and also the use of the kind of thinking people had at the time this text was composed and copied. To measure a manuscript, appreciate the parchment it is made of, describe its writing, its decoration, its binding, one has to use his senses: his eyes and his hands, in a way similar to that of the scribe, the reader, the owner. To reconstruct the story of the manuscript's life through the ages, one has to know the social and cultural history of the owners' books in the different countries the manuscript once was and is actually.

It is only when these three kinds of history are put together that we are able to restore the manuscript to its time and place, make acquaintance with the material cultures it was born in and lived in, approach the persons who created the manuscript, used it and preserve it and thus enrich our knowledge of the past. A small number of manuscripts (between 100 and 200) remarkable for their illumination or the importance of their texts have been described completely. However, all the others also preserve the past and they wait for someone who will give them life again.