The Medieval Review 11.11.04

Di Donato, Silvia. Bibliothèque National de France: Hébreu 214 à 259, Commentaires bibliques. Manuscrits en caractères hébreux conservés dans les bibliothèques de France. Turnhout: Brepols Publishers nv, 2011. Pp. 416. . . 85 EUR. ISBN 978-2-503-53467-1.

Reviewed by:

Susan L. Einbinder
Hebrew Union College

The present volume, edited by Sylvia DiDonato, is the third in a series presumably intended to catalogue all of the Hebrew manuscripts now held in the Bibliothèque Nationale (hereafter BN) and ancillary state libraries. The project relies on the gifted paleographers and codicologists of the Institut de Recherche et d'Histoire des Textes at the Centre Nationale de la Recherche Scientifique (hereafter CNRS), under the supervision of Colette Sirat, the founding mother of Hebrew paleography. Funding sources include the state and private foundations, in this case the Fondation pour la Mémoire de la Shoah. Two preliminary volumes appeared in 2008: Philippe Bobichon's catalogue of Hebrew theological manuscripts in the BN, and Michele Dukan's catalogue of biblical fragments from the Genizah in the libraries of the Alliance Israelite Universelle. Volume 3 treats forty-six manuscripts whose major interest is biblical exegesis, Bibliothèque Nationale MSS héb. 214-259. DiDonato has produced a disciplined, meticulous work, and it is a pleasure to browse its pages. This is a very fine achievement indeed, and I wish to emphasize its successes before raising questions of conception and gaps.

All three volumes rely on the same descriptive template. Each entry is preceded by a facing illustration of two full folios of the manuscript under study; a smaller image is inserted with the descriptive material. The descriptive format begins with codicology (dimensions of paper or parchment, quire structure, ruling patterns, ink), and paleography (script, scribal corrections, marginal notations, colophons). It then turns to content, identifying specific works or, if unidentified, providing a brief description by type; the incipit and explicit of each text; and relevant scholarly bibliography. A third section is focused on provenance ("Histoire du manuscrit"), tracing previous owners and libraries, and attempting to account for the manuscript as it currently exists. A final section provides a cache for "remarques." In this section, for instance, DiDonato theorizes the existence of scribal "schools" to explain the phenomenon of multiple hands under the supervision of a head scribe, illustrated in several Byzantine manuscripts (MSS BN héb. 220, 230, 231). Here, too, one finds tantalizing "microhistorical" tidbits, such as one owner's marginal description of a colleague's huge gambling loss to the Marquis Ercole de Ferrare in 1478 (Paris MS BN héb. 219, on p. 69), or a scribe's flight from a plague outbreak in 1484 (Paris MS BN héb. 222).

A number of the listings are not "codicological unities," but consist of miscellanies or composite manuscripts bound together long after the individual units were copied. Thus, mixed in with straightforward works of exegesis, we find homiletical texts, kabbalistic tractates, astrological or medical works, and even bits of poetry. In other respects, the group is surprisingly homogeneous: most of the manuscripts contain tracts of biblical exegesis by Moses b. Nahman (Nachmanides--thirteenth-century Spain) or Levi b. Gerson (Gersonides- -fifteenth-century Orange). The manuscripts range in date from the fourteenth to the early sixteenth century, and most were produced in Spain, Provence and Italy; a few are of northern French, Byzantine, or Ashkenaz provenance. DiDonato's detailed descriptions permit her to make connections between manuscripts that may have shared scribes or owners, to identify textual variants, and to glimpse some of the anecdotal life that transpired around these material artifacts. All of this is a great delight, as are the high-quality images, which practically constitute a paleographical workbook in themselves.

Several sorts of things are missing from this catalogue, however, some of which become evident quickly and others on comparison to recently produced catalogues of Hebrew manuscripts. DiDonato's short introduction provides an overview of her corpus with a brief methodological summary that defers to a fuller essay cited for the preliminary volumes. Dutifully, I sought out volumes 1 and 2, but this essay was not in them; ideological differences among the editors apparently sidelined it for separate publication. Correspondingly, there is no way to situate this volume in a larger context; we have no idea how many Hebrew manuscripts the BN owns (according to Benjamin Richler's Guide to Hebrew Manuscript Collections, approximately 1,478) and how significantly exegetical works figure among them. [1] A brief overview of the entire collection would have been helpful. Likewise, the supporting apparatus is thin. One general index, nine pages in length, combines references to proper names, place names, libraries, secondary scholarship, titles, and biblical books. By way of contrast, the recently published catalogue of over six hundred Hebrew manuscripts in the Vatican Library includes approximately one hundred pages of indices, in Latin and Hebrew alphabets: indices of persons; subjects; place names (Latin then Hebrew alphabet); manuscripts mentioned; illuminated and decorated manuscripts; titles (Latin then Hebrew alphabet); piyyutim and poems (Hebrew first line). [2] DiDonato does add a handy list of abbreviations (414-16), a relief when dealing with some of the less familiar acronyms and shorthand of the scribes. Overall, though, volume 3 remains a piece of a larger work for which the key lies elsewhere.

In fact, the CNRS project raises larger methodological questions. In both France and Spain, state-sponsored institutes have harnessed excellent teams of Hebrew paleographers and codicologists to undertake the piecemeal production of new catalogues for the treasures in their municipal and national library collections. [3] Both efforts have produced individual volumes of enviable caliber and consistency, and both have the blessing and subsidization of their governments, which recognize these holdings as part of a national and cultural legacy. What a gift that appreciation is, and how it contrasts with the situation of larger and endangered Jewish manuscript collections in Jewish foundations and seminary libraries like my own Hebrew Union College Klau library in Cincinnati (close to 2000 manuscripts) or the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York (over 11,000 manuscripts plus thousands of Genizah records and other archival documents) [4]. Neither Hebrew Union College's Klau nor the Jewish Theological Seminary collection has a modern or published catalogue of its rare holdings, and neither will see one soon. Even worse, neither is firmly protected from neglect and deaccession. Indeed, the list of private Jewish libraries that have unburdened themselves of rare holdings over the past few decades is a long one, and includes private collections in Israel, Great Britain, Eastern Europe and Russia. Now it is the turn of the Americans. On this level, it is reassuring to see projects like the BN/CNRS collaboration proceed, steadily and surely, making available to scholars a reliable inventory of the treasures we have yet to plumb, and the history we will rewrite if we plumb them.

At the same time, it is worth comparing the decision to produce multiple volumes divided by thematic specialty, each treating a relatively modest number of entries, with the relatively recent appearance of new catalogues for the Hebrew manuscripts in the Biblioteca Palatina at Parma and the Vatican Library, both produced under the aegis of Benjamin Richler and Malachi Beit-Arié of the National Library in Israel. Both works treat all Hebrew manuscript holdings in the respective collections, some six hundred for the Vatican and approximately 1,600 for Parma. The individual paleographical, codicological and textual entries are skimpier than the French cataloguers' but rigorous, and the presence of so much thematic variety permits a sense of historical and cultural breadth unavailable in the closer, mono-themed volumes of the French project. Why, I find myself asking, does one opt for one kind of catalogue model over the other? Clearly, funding is part of but not entirely the answer. A fuller explanation, or at least the CNRS scholars' perspective on the question, lurks in that missing methodological essay. For now, the loss is in the aerial view that would provide a comprehensive sense of the production, interests, and intellectual life of the (mostly) men who wrote, copied, bought, borrowed and sometimes unwillingly forfeited the books they loved. For love them they surely did, as even the ground's eye view of this lovely volume confirms--and facilitates the enlisting of new readers and admirers.



1. Benjamin Richler, Guide to Hebrew Manuscript Collections (Jerusalem, 1994).

2. Benjamin Richler, ed., Hebrew Manuscripts in the Vatican Library: Catalogue (Vatican City, 2008).

3. See my review of Francisco del Barco del Barco, ed. Catálogo de Manuscritos Hebreos de la Comunidad de Madrid, Volume 1, Manuscritos bblicos, comentarios bblicos de autor y obras gramaticales en las bibliotecas de El Escorial, Universidad Complutense de Madrid y Palacio Real (Madrid, 2003), in Manuscrita 52.1 (2008): 175-79.

4. All figures come from Richler's Guide (see n. 1, above).