Through the Revolving Door: The Fisher Library Blog

Torah Manuscripts and Early Printings at the Fisher Library

Date posted: Wed, May. 27, 2020

At the end of this week, Jews around the world will be celebrating the holiday of Shavuot (Pentecost; literally: “weeks”). While in the Hebrew Bible Shavuot is primarily an agricultural holiday, marking the wheat harvest, Jewish tradition has come to identify its date (6 Sivan) as the day on which the Torah (the Pentateuch) was given to the Israelites on Mount Sinai (a date that is not specified in the Bible). Consequently, this holiday has become a holiday celebrating the Torah, and one of its main traditions is staying up all night to study that holy book and religious books more generally. This is thus a good time to highlight some of the special Torah holdings of the Fisher Library. 

Last November, headlines were made when the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC unveiled a thousand-year old manuscript of the Pentateuch. Its 10th–11th century date place it in an exclusive club of the oldest surviving codices of the Hebrew Bible (the oldest known biblical manuscripts, the scrolls and fragments of scrolls of biblical books that were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Qumran caves and at Masada, are a millennium older). Other members of this exclusive club include the St. Petersburg Codex and the Aleppo Codex—two codices that are today considered the most important, and on which most modern editions of the Hebrew Bible are based. 

Τhe Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library has one manuscript that also belongs to this exclusive club. The Friedberg manuscript of the Pentateuch, Ḥamishah Ḥumshe Torah (friedberg MSS 9-005), which was donated to the library by Albert and Nancy Friedberg in the 1990s, is one of the two oldest codices in the Fisher Library (the other being another Hebrew manuscript from the Friedberg collection). This massive manuscript was originally written in the Middle East, perhaps in Egypt, in the 10th century. It was partially destroyed at some point, and the missing part was then completed by a scribe named Meshulam ben Todros in Spain in 1188, as attested in the colophon. 


Leaf 31v of the 10th century Ḥamishah Ḥumshe Torah

Another very interesting Pentateuch codex in the Fisher is a manuscript of the entire Masoretic text of the Bible; i.e., it includes all three parts of the Hebrew Bible—Torah, Neviʼim and Ketuvim (Pentateuch, Prophets, and the “Writings” or “Hagiographia”)—in one codex (friedberg MSS 5-001). According to its colophon, this manuscript on vellum was written in Toledo, Spain by Yosef ben Yehudah ben Merṿas for Mosheh ben Yosef Yehudah ha-Nasi, and was completed on Kislev, 5068 (December 1307). Ibn Merwas was a well-known scribe, renowned for the quality and accuracy of his work. This manuscript codex has been digitized and can be accessed from home. 

The end of the Book of Genesis and beginning of the Book of Exodus in the 1307 Bible manuscript
The end of the Book of Genesis and beginning of the Book of Exodus in the 1307 Bible manuscript

Final page of the Torah in the 1307 Bible manuscript
Final page of the Torah in the 1307 Bible manuscript

The Friedberg collection also includes a medieval manuscript of the commentary on the Torah by Rashi, Rabbi Shlomoh Yitshaki (France, 1040–1105), the most important traditional biblical commentator (friedberg MSS 5-005). This manuscript, which contains the original commentary alone, without the biblical text—alongside which it would later be customarily printed—was written in Spain in the 13th or 14th centuries and is one of the earliest extant manuscripts of this important commentary. Unfortunately, the beginning and end of this manuscript are lost, and the surviving part covers the Pentateuch from the end of the book of Genesis to the middle of Deuteronomy. This manuscript has also been digitized and uploaded to the World Wide Web.

End of the Book of Numbers and beginning of the Book of Deuteronomy in Rashi’s commentary on the Pentateuch
End of the Book of Numbers and beginning of the Book of Deuteronomy in Rashi’s commentary on the Pentateuch

The Fisher’s collections include several other important manuscripts and very rare early printings of the Pentateuch and commentaries of it, in the Friedberg collection as well as in other collections, which have yet to be digitized. Here, I highlight only one additional very rare and significant example: an incunable (=first half-century of printing) of the Pentateuch, with the Targum (literal Aramaic translation) Onkelos (composed probably around the second century CE) and the commentary of Rashi alongside it, which was printed in Hijar, Spain in 1490 (friedberg 00081). Hebrew printing was short-lived in the Iberian island, given that the Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1497, and this Pentateuch was the last book printed by the press of Eliezer ben Abraham Alantansi.

The beginning of Deuteronomy in the Pentateuch printed in Hijar, 1490.
The beginning of Deuteronomy in the Pentateuch printed in Hijar, 1490.

- Nadav Sharon, Judaica Librarian