03.03.09, Sirat, Hebrew Manuscripts of the Middle Ages

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Ira Robinson

The Medieval Review baj9928.0303.009


Sirat, Colette De Lange, Nicholas, ed. and trans.. Hebrew Manuscripts of the Middle Ages. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002. Pp. xvi, 349. ISBN: 0-521-77079-3.

Reviewed by:
Ira Robinson
Concordia University

This is the third version of this book to be published, though the first in English. It was originally published in Hebrew in 1992 with the purpose of acquainting Israeli students wishing to specialize in codicology and paleography with the study of Hebrew manuscripts. When it appeared in French, in 1994, it "included a brief account of the texts for the benefit of a more general readership" (xiii). This English edition is thoroughly revised, apparently with considerable imput by the translator/editor, and attempts to do two things at once: to present a comprehensive picture of the history of medieval Hebrew texts as well as to present the ways in which these texts were produced for readers. All this was done so that both specialists and non-specialists in Hebrew texts would benefit.

The scope of this book is conceived broadly. It deals with the entire range of writing in Hebrew letters, regardless of the specific language the letters were meant to convey (not merely Hebrew, but Judeo-Arabic, French, etc.), from the earliest period in which this writing is attested until well into the era of printing. This is in order that the non-specialist should be properly oriented. On the whole Sirat achieves her ambitious purpose.

After an introduction, which serves to orient the reader to the nature and character of the texts to be dealt with as well as some of the technical issues involved in the preservation and study of manuscripts, the reader is presented with a survey of Hebrew texts from earliest times through the medieval period. In approximately eighty pages, this section succeeds in giving a comprehensive picture of the nature and range of texts produced in Hebrew from ancient until medieval times. While, as would be expected, the Hebrew Bible and its commentaries take pride of place in this survey, the author gives extensive space to other aspects of medieval Judaic literature and culture, including law, liturgy, mysticism, poetry, philosophy and science, and secular literature.

Part two deals with important issues in the production of books. They include the production of the materials on which scribes wrote: papyrus (in ancient times), vellum, and paper, as well as the ways these materials were prepared to receive the scribes' writing. Preparation of inks and pens (made out of reeds in Islamic countries, and of quills in Christian countries) is likewise dealt with in detail. Finally, evidence regarding the scribe and his or her (evidence is presented of female scribes) personalities and working conditions is marshalled.

Part three, entitled "The History of Books and Texts," attempts to build on the knowledge of the Jewish textual tradition and of the production of Hebrew manuscripts, which had been presented in parts one and two. It speaks of the ways in which Hebrew manuscripts were destroyed and preserved. Ironically, it appears that the manuscripts had a better chance of survival into modern times when they passed from Jewish into non-Jewish hands. That is because they were in more constant use in Jewish hands, as well as because in non-Jewish hands they were spared the vicissitudes of expulsions and persecutions which were visited upon numerous major Jewish communities. This section also speaks of the methodologies of the study of manuscripts, which is directed more to those who will utilise this manuscript material in their research. Such researchers are urged to pay due attention to the interplay between oral and written "texts." They are also warned of the methodological pitfalls of dealing with textual variants in manuscripts.

Part four, which is shorter in the English edition than in the Hebrew or French versions of the book, gives excerpts from ten manuscripts, giving concrete examples of the diversity of the material (from liturgical poetry and Biblical commentary to a medical treatise on urine and a method of determining real from fake pearls) and its potential for research. The book concludes with a useful bibliography.

In general this volume is successful in achieving its aims. Its numerous black and white illustrations effectively reinforce the points made in the text. Any medievalist will find it well worth reading. Those interested in codicology and paleography will be interested in the similarities and differences between Hebrew and Latin manuscripts. The general medievalist will benefit primarily from the portrait of the literate culture of medieval Jews. If widely read in medieval studies circles, this book will contribute to a lessening of the marginality of Jews to the study of medieval culture as a whole.

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Ira Robinson

Concordia University