Reviewed by Steven Bowman (University of Cincinnati)
Published on H-Judaic (November, 2002)
To paraphrase an ancient cynic, "Of the making of books about books there is no end." European scholars have excelled in the dating of paper manuscripts by watermarks, palaeography, quire study, literary styles and textual analysis, analysis of ink and skins, and a host of scientific investigations including carbon 14 dating. The latest discipline is codicology, an art that encompasses all previous skills and so has revolutionized the practical and conceptual study of Hebrew manuscripts. Codicology allows for a systematic examination of all facets of a text, from the writing itself to the nature of the material upon which it is written, in order to determine the circumstances of its production. In the process codicology can resolve some of the controversies of palaeographers, who often differ wildly about the dates of manuscripts. In addition to Hebrew manuscripts, Sirat observes that we can now distinguish where and when Torah scrolls were copied. This latter research is in its infancy, however, since scholars are just now recognizing that the writing of Torah scrolls has changed during the past 1000 years.
Whereas most Jewish scholars are interested in the content of the text rather than the text itself, Hebrew codicology remains somewhat of an arcane discipline. In the past generation two scholars have introduced the modern codicological study of Hebrew manuscripts: Malachi Beit-Ari, and the author of this volume, Colette Sirat. Sirat is a distinguished Semiticist and scholar of Jewish philosophy in her own right. Indeed, the bibliography of this volume contains twenty-nine entries, including seven books, of her work. (Beit-Arie's work covers twenty-one entries and three books.) Beit-Arie and Sirat previously collaborated on three books about medieval Hebrew manuscripts, and Sirat co-authored five other items. For some reason the prolific Hebrew publications of these two codicologists are not included in the bibliography to this English translation of the Hebrew version.
Sirat then is fully qualified to present to the scholarly community, students, and the general public something quite rare in Jewish Studies, a comprehensive, readable, and useful text that explores all facets of the world of medieval Hebrew manuscripts. From the mundane to the sublime, there is something for everyone--Hebraist and non-Hebraist alike--in these well-illustrated pages (169 illustrations and ten texts). All phases of the medieval Hebrew script are explored, and here in her very presentation is a revelation that may change our perception of the medieval period. Sirat, with no prejudice, gives equal time to the four major areas of Jewish settlement--Byzantium, Ashkenaz, Sepharad, the Orient--with full attention to the important regional areas of Italy, Persia, and Yemen. Here we may emphasize the potential revolution for Jewish Studies of this important book. Rather than arbitrarily define Judaism by a handful of books and their authors and extrapolate an elitist history of the Jews from these choices as have many of our scholars of the Ashkenazi, the Sephardi, and the Mustaribah centers of Judaism, Sirat provides a shulhan arukh of the entire medieval Hebrew literary experience. As physics redefined literary criticism at the beginning of the twentieth century, so codicology may broaden the vision of Jewish Studies at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
In addition to the palaeographical and codicological study of Hebrew manuscripts and a survey of their diaspora, Sirat enters into the "life and death of manuscripts." Who ordered the production of a manuscript and was subsequently immortalized along with the scribes in the colophons? Who were their neighbors in medieval libraries and what does this tell us about the scholars who owned them? What is the relationship between monographs and anthologies? Three of our most interesting texts for example come from Byzantine Italy--Sepher Yosippon, Megillat Ahima'az, and Sepher hazikhronoth hu divre hayamim liyerahmeel--and supersede in their collective impact (at least for Wissenschaft scholarship) many of the manuscript treatises or extracts so assiduously studied by our graduate students. Most of traditional Jewish scholarship however is interested in Talmud, Philosophy, and Kabbalah with little sense of history or regional influences. The ubiquity of manuscripts in the last three areas in fact defines the main trends of scholarly study throughout the medieval period. Indeed, if we were to add the modern period, these three would continue to dominate Jewish education and study as well, at least insofar as Hebrew language is concerned. Yet the three Byzantine Italian texts open new vistas for students and no doubt did so for medieval readers as well, excluding the eleventh century (not ninth century as noted) Megillat Ahima'az which was fortuitously rediscovered only towards the end of the nineteenth century (and is the only one of the three mentioned by Sirat). It may be worthwhile to note that the author of Sepher Yosippon was fluent in Latin in light of her statement that "In Europe, extremely few Jews knew Latin."
Medieval scribes lovingly, one might even say religiously, produced their texts and many are inscribed with an ancestral calligraphic skill. A sub-discipline of art history is calligraphy, whose Greek ancestry illustrates the beauty of Yaphet in the tents of Shem. And a sub-category of calligraphy is micrography, which Jewish scribes embraced for religious reasons and developed as an art form that continues to the present day. Verses were used to outline fantastic animals and flora (pp. 156-7), geometric colophons (p. 154), hints of humor in books copied for self study (p. 145); sometimes a whole book was used in a micrographic work of art (as in the use of Deuteronomy by a modern scribe to depict the Temple). The book also contains an introduction to calligraphy, the tools of the scribe, how to make ink, page layout, how to make letters, whether to suspend from the line or write on the line, and so on. The book is a vade mecum for the scribe and his craft.
In short we have an elegantly produced and superb introduction to the study of Hebrew manuscripts, their scribes, and their contents that will enlighten students and scholars alike, both those who work with these texts and those who can benefit from a comparison of Hebrew manuscripts with other language manuscripts. It is a book written by a master of the material with a sensitive eye and a sharp reed. Its readability is enhanced by the fluid translation of Nicholas de Lange, who kindly took time off from rendering Modern Hebrew authors to grace another of his scholarly interests. It is a tribute to the book making craft and Cambridge University Press should be praised for its aesthetic production. In such a wide-ranging book a few lacunae are bound to appear. One in particular is noteworthy: the absence of Norman Golb's innovative study of a Mastaura text studied by the first doyen of Genizah Studies, Jacob Mann, and identified as the same site as the well known ketubbah from Maustara (illustrated p. 97). Golb showed by use of an infra-red technique that he elsewhere successfully applied to a number of Hebrew manuscripts (not mentioned as a scholarly technique in the book) that the site is better read as Marathia located 'in the land of Yawan', i.e., on the Greek mainland and not in Asia Minor.
. See Bulletin of Judaeo-Greek Studies, No. 1, Autumn 1987, p. 7.
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Steven Bowman. Review of Sirat, Colette, Hebrew Manuscripts of the Middle Ages.
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