Menachem Mendel

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Hebrew Codicology

As a follow up to my previous post, the National Library of Israel has posted a pre-publication text of the entire Hebrew version of Malachi Beit-Arié’s book, Hebrew Codicology: Historical and Comparative Typology of Hebrew Medieval Codices based on the Documentation of the Extant Dated Manuscripts in Quantitative Approach online. A pre-publication summary of the English version is available, with the intention to post the entire book in the future.

Here are a few selections from the English version that show why this will be such an important book.

A salient gap of some eight hundred years exists between the abundant finds of Hebrew books dating from the late antiquity (namely the Dead Sea Scrolls and the fragments from the Qumran caves and the Judean Desert dating from the Hellenistic and early Roman period) and the earliest dated and datable surviving Hebrew codices, during which there is hardly any extant evidence of the Hebrew book. Since post- biblical literature was transmitted mainly orally, none of the few dozen existing literary fragments dating from this lacuna, mainly papyri of the Byzantine period excavated in Egypt, derives from a codex. The codex was adopted by the Jews in the Orient much later than it had been by the Christians and not before the eighth century or following the Islamic expansion. The extant Hebrew codices, mostly medieval, number around 100,000 items (including many composite manuscripts) and, in addition, more than 300,000 fragments, all kept in some 800 collections, mainly European.

While some undated codices can be ascribed to the ninth century, dated ones survived only from the beginning of the tenth century and onwards. Thus the codicological typology of the medieval Hebrew manuscripts, based on the in situ documentation of almost all the explicitly dated extant manuscripts (numbering more than 3000 codicological units – about half of them with indication of locality – which were documented in 3400 records, as each hand in multi-handed manuscripts was recorded separately) is confined to the central and late Middle Ages.

Unlike the basically centralised character of medieval Latin, Greek and, to some extent, Arabic book production, unlike the authoritative supervision of the copying of Latin texts and the control over their versions and dissemination, and unlike the preservation and concentration of non-Hebrew books mainly in institutional collections, the Hebrew medieval book was initiated, produced, consumed and kept individually. Testimonies provided by scribes and copyists, and the absence of contrary evidence in indirect historical sources, such as the responsa, attest to the fact that no Jewish establishment – be they centres of learning, religious academies, synagogues, or community authorities – instigated and financed the production of Hebrew manuscripts, or administered the selection and the versions of texts to be copied. Nor did they assemble and preserve them in communal or in academic collections.

HT: Alfonso de Zamora on Twitter.

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