Hebrew Manuscripts

Preserved and displayed in the British Library, London


Full list of Hebrew Digitalised Manuscripts

Vera Basch Moreen, List of Judaeo-Persian Manuscripts, 1995

A Judeo-Arabic Serial issued in Bombay

The title page for vol. 3. no. 35 of Doresh tov le-‘amo, published in Bombay in June 1858. BL, ORB 40/595

Published in Bombay from 1856 to 1866, the serial Doresh tov le-‘amo takes its Hebrew title from a biblical verse (Esther 10:3) which roughly translates as 'Seeking good for one’s people', a fitting name for a journal purporting to inform and educate the community. The English subtitle The Hebrew Gazette was only added with the eleventh issue. In the first two years of circulation the journal appeared fortnightly, then weekly until 1866 when publication finally ceased.
Printed by lithography, the language used throughout is the Judeo-Arabic dialect of the Baghdadi Jews penned in their distinctive Hebrew cursive script. Due to these peculiarities, the journal’s readership was obviously limited to the Baghdadi Jewish community. The first two issues were lithographed on blue paper by Sason ben David Sason who, as acting editor, set out the main goals of the journal in an opening essay. Thereafter, editorial responsibility passed on to David Hayim David, Doresh tov le-‘amo being subsequently printed on white paper, except from numbers 8, 9 and 16 for which blue paper was again used.
The serial’s most salient features are undoubtedly its unique calligraphy and decorated front pages of individual issues, particularly those printed in the years 1857-1858. As seen– in issue no.35, vol.3, June 1858 – the ornamentation is fairly simple consisting mainly of floral embellishments flanking the title panel and a pair of sketchy steamboats serving as text markers.
Each issue imparts a wealth of information, ranging from general news such as the movement of ships in and out of Bombay harbour, to notices relating to the local Baghdadi Jewish community, such as for example weddings and philanthropic acts. Historical articles and short accounts on overseas Jewish communities were published only occasionally.
The front pages are excellent sources of information in their own right, the one shown here being no exception. Not only does it provide details of the weekly Torah portion and prophetical readings for the Sabbath service, but it also shows the tidal periods and even the exact timing of the cannon firing at the Fort of Bombay. The first steamboat, marked 'London' in Hebrew script, announces the sailing of a ship to England via Aden and Suez on June 4th 1858. The ship, which was serviced by the Peninsular and Oriental Company, ran a postal collection the day before sailing.
This journal provides a fascinating insight into the social and cultural habits of the Baghdadi Jews of Bombay, as well as glimpses of Indian life in the early second half of the 19th century (Ilana Tahan, A Judeo-Arabic Serial Issued in Bombay, 2013).

45 Hebrew Manuscripts go Digital

We previously alerted our readers to a landmark digitisation project aimed at opening up the British Library’s invaluable repository of Hebrew manuscripts (Opening up the Hebrew Manuscript Collection). Over a three-year period 1250 objects from this outstanding collection, comprising well over 3000 manuscripts, would be made freely available online.
The project has been made possible by a £1.2 million lead grant from the Polonsky Foundation. This significant award has provided a springboard for attracting additional funding for this ground-breaking initiative.
Dr Leonard Polonsky, Chairman of the Polonsky Foundation said, "I am delighted that these important and beautiful treasures have been made more widely available for the public to enjoy. I look forward to seeing the entire collection online and freely accessible in the future."

The Golden Haggadah. Miriam and her maidens rejoicing (top right); distribution of haroset ('sweet meats') by the master of the house (top left); preparations for Passover (lower right and left). BL MS Add. 27210, f. 15r

We are very pleased to announce the launch of the first 45 Hebrew manuscripts on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site. The Hebrew Bible or Tanakh features prominently within this small corpus of handwritten books. Tanakh is an acronym based on the first letters of each of the sections that make up the Hebrew Bible, namely Torah (Pentateuch or Five Books of Moses), Neviyim (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings). The Torah is considered the most sacred part of the Hebrew Bible, because, according to tradition, Moses wrote it at divine dictation.
Among the released biblical treasures viewable on the Digitised manuscripts site is the London Codex (Or. 4445) one of the oldest surviving Hebrew Bibles. This manuscript bears great similarities with the Aleppo Codex (930 AD) and the Leningrad Codex (1008-1010 AD), held respectively in Jerusalem and St. Petersburg.
It contains the masoretic notation compiled by Aaron Ben Asher, a tenth-century scholar from Tiberias, Palestine. Ben Asher’s notation is considered to be the most authoritative masoretic version extant. The Masorah is a body of rules of pronunciation, spelling, vocalization and intonation of the scriptural text, intended to preserve it and transmit it correctly.
The London Codex was probably copied in Egypt or Palestine around the 10th century. The more recent paper additions with Yemenite square script are from the 16th century. As its colophon is missing, the exact date and place of its creation are unknown. The scriptural text was penned in a neat oriental square script in three columns per page. The masoretic notation was copied above, beneath and in between the textual columns. The scribe’s name Nissi ben Daniel, who apparently was also the punctuator, is embedded in the masoretic rubrics on folios 40r, 113v, 139r. The manuscript was acquired by the British Museum in 1891 from a private collector.
With the Jewish Passover approaching, we are also thrilled to launch digitally the Golden Haggadah (Add. 27210), one of the finest surviving Haggdah manuscripts from medieval Spain and the British Library’s most famous Hebraic treasure. Haggadah, which literally means ‘telling’, is the service book for Passover Eve recounting the story of the Israelites’ miraculous liberation from slavery in Egypt. Created in Catalonia, probably in or near Barcelona around 1320 AD, this elegant manuscript written and illuminated on vellum, consists of three distinct parts: a series of small illustrations (miniatures) depicting biblical scenes, the Haggadah text, and religious poems for the Passover festival.

Moses (holding a staff) leads the Israelites out of Egypt (top left); Pharaoh’s army in pursuit (lower right); crossing of the Red Sea (lower left). The Golden Haggadah, BL MS Add. 27210, f. 14v

The sumptuous illuminations found in the preliminary section of the manuscript (fourteen full pages of miniatures) are set against gold-tooled backgrounds, and have earned the manuscript its name. They were executed by two unnamed artists in the Gothic style common in Europe at the time. Gothic style decorations also embellish the Hebrew text in the second part of the manuscript and include foliage scrollwork, illuminated words, zoomorphic letters and text illustrations of significant Passover symbols.

Zoomorphic lettering with dogs and rabbits spelling ve-yotsiany (and we were taken out [of Egypt]…). The Golden Haggadah, BL MS Add. 27210, f. 36v

The manuscript's earliest known owner was Joav Gallico, Rabbi in Mantua in 1602 and formerly a judge in Governolo. The Golden Haggadah was a wedding gift to Eliah Rava who married Gallico’s daughter, Rosa, in Carpi, on 25th October 1602, as recorded on the title page added on a blank page in the manuscript.

The Matsah (unleavened bread), one of the obligatory foods consumed during the Passover festival. The Golden Haggadah, BL MS Add. 27210, f. 44v

The Maror (bitter herb) which symbolises the hard life endured by the Israelites while in Egyptian bondage. The Golden Haggadah, BL MS Add. 27210, f. 45v

The last private owner of this gem was Joseph (Giuseppe) Almanzi (1801-1860), an Italian-Jewish poet, born in Padua, who was an avid collector of rare books and manuscripts. We do not know when the Golden Haggadah entered Almanzi’s manuscript collection, which was bought in 1864 by the British Museum, and now belongs to the British Library (Ilana Tahan, 45 Hebrew Manuscripts go Digital, 2014).

Judeo-Persian Bibles

Written in Hebrew characters, Judeo-Persian manuscripts and imprints are essentially works composed in a Persian dialect that closely resembles ‘classical’ or ‘literary’ Persian, combined with Hebrew words. The practice of writing the Persian language in Hebrew letters has been in use by Jews in Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia for over a millennium. Similar practices had equally been adopted by Jews living in other diaspora communities. Relevant examples include works in Arabic (see my previous post “A Judeo-Arabic serial printed in Bombay”), German, Greek, Italian and Spanish which were written or printed in Hebrew script. The centuries-long tradition of utilising the Hebrew alphabet for the local language was the diaspora Jews’ manifest way of preserving their identity and their cultural and historical heritage.

Torat Adonai, Constantinople: Eliezer ben Gershom Soncino, 1546. Beginning of Genesis with 2 woodcuts of the Hebrew letter 'bet'. BL Or. 70.c.10

Torat Mosheh (‘Moses’ Law’), a Judeo-Persian translation of the Five Books of Moses or Pentateuch copied in 1319, and Torat Adonai, (‘God’s Law’), a polyglot Pentateuch containing Jacob Tavusi’s Judeo-Persian translation, which was printed at Constantinople in 1546, are undoubtedly true gems in the Library’s collection.

Our rare copy of Torat Adonai is a beautifully crafted specimen boasting a finely decorated title page and handsome woodcuts of initial Hebrew letters. It was printed at the press of Eliezer Soncino, the last member of the famed Jewish Italian family of printers. The family was named after Soncino, a town in the Duchy of Milan in northern Italy, where it set up a Hebrew printing-press in 1483. Eliezer worked at Constantinople from 1534 to 1547 taking over the printing branch his remarkable father Gershom had established there a few years prior to his death in 1533 (Ilana Tahan, Important Judeo-Persian Bibles in the British Library, 2014)

Torat Adonai, Constantinople: Eliezer ben Gershom Soncino, 1546. Detail. The right column contains Jacob Tavusi's Judeo-Persian ('Farsi' in Hebrew) translation. BL Or. 70.c.10

Decorated title page of Torat Adonai, Constantinople: Eliezer ben Gershom Soncino, 1546. BL Or. 70.c.10

Opening up the Hebrew Manuscript Collection

Hebrew Bible, Italy, 13th century. Decorated opening to the Book of Isaiah. BL, Harley 5711, f. 1r

This summer saw the beginning of a major project to digitise 1250 Hebrew manuscripts held in the British Library. Funded mainly by the Polonsky Foundation, the three-year project aims to make these invaluable manuscripts freely available to scholars and the public worldwide. The manuscripts are being photographed in-house by the Library’s Imaging Services team, and stored in preservation format. Detailed catalogue records will be available for each manuscript, to enable users to search by various fields such as date, place of origin, author/scribe and keywords to find manuscripts of relevance to their work. All manuscripts will be displayed in their entirety on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site free of charge. We will also create a special ‘tour’ of the manuscripts on the website, highlighting aspects and themes of the collection in order to introduce it to wider audiences.
Acknowledged as one of the finest and most important in the world, the British Library’s Hebrew manuscripts collection is a vivid testimony to the creativity and intense scribal activities of Eastern and Western Jewish communities spanning over 1,000 years. In the collection there are well over 3,000 individual objects, though for this project we are focusing on just 1,250 manuscripts.
The collection is strong in all major areas of Hebrew literature, with Bible, liturgy, kabbalah, Talmud, Halakhah (Jewish law), ethics, poetry, philosophy and philology being particularly well represented. Its geographical spread is vast and takes in Europe, North Africa, the Middle and Near East, and various countries in Asia, such as Iran, Iraq, Yemen and China. Included in the project are codices (the large majority), Torah scrolls and Scrolls of the Book of Esther. Hebrew is the predominant language of the material to be digitised; however, manuscripts that were copied in other Jewish languages utilizing Hebrew script, such as Aramaic, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Greek, Judeo-Italian, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Spanish, Yiddish, and others, have also been included in the project.
The collection contains numerous items of international significance, including the following:
Over 300 important biblical manuscripts including the London Codex dating from c. 10th century, one of the oldest Masoretic Bibles in existence and the Torah Scroll of the Jewish community of Kaifeng.
Anglo-Jewish charters in Hebrew and Hebrew/Latin attesting to the Jewish presence in England before the expulsion of the Jewish population in 1290 by King Edward I. They include debt acquittances (releases from debt), attestations (formal confirmations by signature), and other types of contractual transactions between Jews and non-Jews.
A collection of 142 Karaite manuscripts, one of the best Karaite resources in the world, comparable only to the Abraham Firkovitch Karaite manuscript collection in St. Petersburg.
Some 150 illuminated and decorated manuscripts representing the schools of medieval Hebrew illumination in France, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Spain. Treasures include the Golden Haggadah, the Lisbon Bible, the North French Hebrew Miscellany, the Duke of Sussex German Pentateuch, the Harley Catalan Bible, and the King’s Spanish Bible.
About 70 manuscripts containing texts of the Mishnah and the Talmud (Jewish legal code), and about 130 manuscript compendia and commentaries on Talmudic and Halakhic topics by some of the greatest Jewish luminaries such as Moses Maimonides, Rashi, Moses ben Jacob of Coucy, Isaac of Corbeil, and others. Many of these manuscripts date from the 14th and 15th centuries, with some dating back to the 12th century (Ilana Tahan, Opening up the Hebrew Manuscript Collection , 2013).

Digital Hebrew Treasures from the British Library Collections

In an earlier communication we informed our readers about a far-reaching 3-year project funded by the Polonsky Foundation, which aims to digitise 1250 Hebrew manuscripts held at the British Library, making them available to a global audience.
The first 45 Hebrew manuscripts that went live on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site last April (45 Hebrew manuscripts go digital) included chiefly Hebrew Bibles, such as the supremely significant London Codex dating from c. 9th century (Or 4445), and the elegant Golden Haggadah a medieval Passover liturgy sumptuously illuminated in Catalonia in the 14th century (Add MS 27210).

Detail of a miniature of the second plague, of frogs from the 'Golden Haggadah', Spain, 2nd quarter of the 14th century. BL, Add Ms 27210, f 12v.

Our devoted followers will be pleased to learn that our recent upload broadens the scope for discovery and research even further with over 300 Hebrew manuscripts now online. The manuscripts included in the latest ingest present a wider diversity of subjects, thus, apart from Bibles and biblical commentaries, one will find liturgies, manuscripts of the Talmud (large corpus of Jewish law and tradition; includes the Mishnah and the Gemara), Talmudic commentaries, midrash (rabbinic commentary on the Hebrew scriptural text) and halakhah (the legal component of Talmudic literature).
There is additionally a greater variation of languages. Though a fair number were written in Hebrew, languages such as Aramaic, Arabic and Judeo-Arabic (Arabic in Hebrew characters) are well represented. A good example of a Judeo-Arabic manuscript is Or 2220, a commentary on the Mishnaic order Mo’ed (Festivals) by the illustrious Jewish sage Moses Maimonides (1138-1204) which was penned in the 15th century in Yemen. Noteworthy too are the handwriting styles employed in these handwritten books, with square, semi-cursive and cursive Hebrew scripts peculiar to the geographic areas the scribes originated from. Add MS 26992, Tikune ha-Ri”f, a legal work by Abraham ben Shabbatai Del Vechio (d. 1654) written apparently during his lifetime, provides a fine example of an Italian cursive type of Hebrew writing. A Sephardi semi-cursive Hebrew hand can be identified in Harley MS 5719, a 15th century manuscript copy of the Mishneh Torah (Repetition of the Law), the legal code Maimonides composed between 1068 and 1078 while living in Fustat (Old Cairo), Egypt. Or 2220 mentioned earlier provides a good specimen of a semi-cursive Yemenite hand.
Among the uploaded manuscripts there are significant Karaite biblical commentaries and Karaite works dealing with religious legal matters that will form the subject of a future blog. For a full list of the manuscripts that are now online, please follow this link, Hebrew digitised mss_November 2014. Note that if the hyperlinks don't appear to work, you should refresh your browser.
The present upload features a considerable number of decorated and illuminated pieces representing all the schools of Hebrew manuscript painting that thrived in Europe between the 13th and 15th centuries. A beautiful two-volume Bible with subtly coloured illuminations is a telling example of Hebrew manuscript art that developed in Italy in the last quarter of the 13th century.

Menorah (Temple Candelabrum) flanked by foliate scrolls inhabited by animals and hybrids. Italy (Rome or Bologna?). BL, Harley MS 5710, f.136r

A splendid example of the art that developed particularly in Southern Germany in the Lake Constance area during the 14th century is found in the Tripartite Mahzor, a festival prayer book for Shavu’ot (Festival of Weeks) and Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles). This is in fact the second volume of a three-volume manuscript. Volumes one and three are kept respectively in the Library of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Budapest (Kaufmann Collection MS A384) and in the Bodleian Library, Oxford (MS Michael 619).

Historiated word panel depicting Moses, at left, receiving the Tablets of the Law on Mount Sinai, with Aron and the Israelites standing in prayer. Trumpets and rams’ horns pierce through the clouds, marking the occasion. The gilded word Adon in the centre of the panel opens the liturgical poem ‘The Lord has taken care of me’ which is recited during Shavu’ot, a festival celebrating the giving of the Torah to the Israelites. Germany, c.1322. BL, Add MS 22413, f. 3r

Decorated word panel showing a man with a pitcher and a cup at the opening of a liturgical poem. Germany, c. 1322. BL, Add MS 22413, f. 148r

An additional specimen from the German school of Hebrew illumination is the beautifully executed Coburg Pentateuch which was produced c. 1396. Beside the Five Books of Moses (the Torah) it comprises the Five Scrolls, Haftarot (weekly readings from the Prophets) and grammatical treatises. The text of the Pentateuch was penned in an Ashkenazi square script by a master scribe named Simhah Levi, while the vocalization was done by Samuel bar Abraham of Molerstadt. The other textual parts in the codex were penned and vocalised by other scribes.

King Solomon, famed for his justice and wisdom is depicted seating on a throne shaped like the roof of a building. At his feet there are several animals, most likely hinting at his ability to converse with the animal kingdom. Coburg, Germany, c. 1396. BL, Add MS 19776, f. 54v

A magnificently illuminated codex crafted in France in the 13th century is the North French Hebrew Miscellany. It was written by Benjamin the Scribe, whose name appears four times in the manuscript. The absence of a colophon has led scholars to assume that the scribe wrote the manuscript for his personal use. This was common practice among medieval educated Jews who often copied important Hebrew texts for their own libraries. There are eighty-four different groups of texts in this codex including dozens of poems, the liturgy of the entire year, calendars, and the earliest complete Hebrew version of Tobit. According to scholarly research the 49 full-page miniatures depicting biblical characters and narratives were executed by Christian artists attached to three major contemporary Parisian ateliers.

David and Goliath. France, 1278-1298. BL, Add MS 11639, f. 523v

Aaron the Priest pouring oil in the Candelabrum. France, 1278-98. BL, Add MS 11639, f. 114r

From the Portuguese school of Hebrew manuscript painting comes the Lisbon Bible, a three volume manuscript which was copied by Samuel ben Samuel Ibn Musa for Joseph ben Judah called Elhakim in 1482. The finely painted illuminations enhanced by gold leaf were executed by a team of skilled craftsmen in a Lisbon workshop which was active for the three decades preceding the expulsion of the Portuguese Jewry in 1497. The manuscript was sold to the British Museum in 1882, but nothing is known about its location and owners after 1482 until the year it was purchased by the British Museum (Ilana Tahan, Digital Hebrew Treasures from the British Library Collections, 2014).

Beginning of the Book of Genesis with foliate motifs and Masoretic notation outlined in micrography. Lisbon, 1482. BL, Or 2626, f. 23v


The Barcelona Haggadah, service book for Passover eve. Historiated initial word panel with Barukh (Blessed) opening the Havdalah benediction (Separation) recited at the end of the Sabbath. Note the lush marginal foliage scrolls, interwoven with humans, birds and hybrids. Catalonia, Spain, c. 1370. BL Add MS 14761, f. 26r

A family celebrating Passover, from the Barcelona Haggadah. Service book for Passover eve. BL Add MS 14761, f. 28v

The San'a Pentateuch. San'a, Yemen, 1469. Section from Shirat Ha'azinu (Give Ear; Deuteronomy:32) the lyrical poem Moses recited in front of the Israelites before his death. The central decoration consists of micrography (patterns outlined in minute script) and medallions inspired by Islamic art. BL Or.2348, f. 152r

The Lisbon Bible, volume 2. Embellished opening with juxtaposed borders to the Book of Amos. Lisbon, Portugal, 1482 . BL Or 2627, f. 252r

Source - The Polonsky Foundation and and the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project at the British Library

On Hybrids

Prayer book, vol. 2

Joseph Kara
Festival prayer book for Shavuot (Feast of Weeks) and Sukkot (Feast of the Tabernacles), German rite (aka the 'Tripartite Mahzor' ) including biblical readings: The Book of Ruth and the Book of Ecclesiastes with Joseph Kara's commentary
Germany, S. Area of Lake Constance, c. 1322

The codex is the second volume of a three-volume prayer book; the first volume is kept in Budapest (Library of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Kaufmann Collection MS A384), and the third volume is in kept in Oxford (Bodleian Library MS Michael 619). Originally the prayer book constituted a two-volume codex.
The manuscript is related stylistically to the Duke of Sussex Pentateuch (Add 15282) and the Gradual of Saint Katharinental (Zürich, Schweizerisches Landesmuseum, Frauenfeld, LM 26117).

Additional 22413

Additional 22413 f. 131 Shemini Atzeret

Add 22413 f. 71 Mixed The Book of Ruth

Add 22413 f. 85 Bird-headed figure Sukkot

Add 22413 f. 148 Historiated initial-word panel Man Simhat Torah

Add 22413 f. 98 Hybrid Initial-word panel. Detail of a page: inhabited initial-word panel with foliate and vine scroll decoration, and a hybrid, at the beginning of a liturgical poem for the second day of Sukkot composed by Eleazar ha-Kallir (Davidson vol. 1, no. 13).

Add 22413 f. 106 Hybrids Book of Ecclesiastes. Detail of a page: inhabited initial-word panel, Divrei (The words of the Preacher), at the beginning of Ecclesiastes.

Festival prayer book, Mahzor, according to the Askenazi rite. Askenazic 'Gothic' square script, Germany, 1st half of the 14th century. BL Add MS 26896, f. 337v

Additional Heb. Mss. Resources

A Digital Revolution

BL Hebrew Manuscripts Website

HUJI Vienna

Vienna, ÖNB, Cod. Heb. 75, fol. 37
Siddur, with a Small Book of Commandments (the "SeMak"), and a calendar.
Lake Constance School, 1468
The initial words Ha Lahma (This is the bread), (Vienna, ÖNB, Cod. Hebr. 75, fol. 37), in the Vienna Siddur-"SeMak," resemble a decorated page with the word Kol (All) from the Tripartite Mahzor (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Mich. 619, fol. 100v) from the Lake Constance region, c. 1320. The initial words in both panels are written in gold and surrounded by hybrids, part human and part animal.

Lipton: Books of Jewish Beauty



Hebrew Script