Crossing Borders—Without Passports

By Moshe Sokolow
Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Crossing Borders,” a current exhibit at New York City’s Jewish Museum featuring works on loan from the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, displays medieval Jewish manuscripts embedded in their native Christian and Muslim scribal milieus.  No passports are required for this intercontinental tour, though occasionally it requires a scorecard to tell the Jewish, Christian, and Islamic players apart.

The selected works of text and illumination, originating in territories that extend from the eastern reaches of the Muslim Orient, through the Asian and Aegean preserves of Byzantium, across North Africa to the western ranges of Iberia, and into the northern stretches of the Holy Roman Empire, blend together harmoniously, so that their mutual influences are patent. Indeed, the Jewish manuscripts on display exhibit a greater affinity for their neighboring Latin, Greek, or Arabic manuscripts than they do for comparable Jewish works from other cultural domains.

The cross-religious similarities give evidence of the Jews’ proximity to their non-Jewish neighbors, but perhaps they also owe something to the universal exactitudes of the scholarly calling.  They recalled to me a time, 30 years ago, when I visited the Bodleian to get a firsthand look at a manuscript I had previously examined only on microfilm.  I arrived in Oxford on Christmas Eve; in only a few hours, the library would close and my opportunity would be lost.  I hurried to the registrar’s office to obtain the requisite entry pass only to find him in coat, muffler, and hat, locking up for the holiday.  I explained my predicament, and he graciously agreed to reopen the office. He unlocked the door, went to his desk, withdrew the pass form, and filled in my name.  He then removed his hat, muffler, and coat—and donned his academic gown before stamping the pass and handing it to me.

I had previously pondered the talmudic declaration that the sacrificial order in the Temple is voided if the kohanim, the priests, are missing even one of their vestments.  At the time, I was unable to grasp why their apparel should either validate or nullify their activities.  I now understood: clothes, occasionally, do make the man.

The exhibit first utilizes a 13th-century traditional Sefer Torah as a benchmark to introduce us to the rotulus, a scroll unrolling vertically rather than horizontally, on which mainly liturgical passages were recorded.  Scrolls, however, were uneconomical and were eventually replaced by the codex—in the plural, codices.  These were made up of individual leaves of parchment or paper, laid upon one another and fastened together, that could exhibit writing on both sides.  While Christian codices began to appear in the earliest centuries of the Common Era, Jewish codices did not appear until the 8th to 9th centuries.  The delay may attest to the persistence of a strong oral tradition in the transmission of Jewish texts.

Jewish codices were also distinctive in the manner of their preparation.  Christian works were copied in monasteries and hewed to standardized forms dictated by ecclesiastical authorities. Jewish works, lacking the influence of centralized authorities and catering to more widespread literacy, were produced by private copyists, many for their own personal use, and tended toward greater individualism.  While many Jewish codices were lost or destroyed due to the vicissitudes of persecution and expulsion, the evidence of the Cairo Genizah—which suffered neither—suggests that the greatest danger to the preservation of a Jewish codex was posed by the wear and tear of its regular use.

One private party who produced a Jewish codex was Maimonides (1135-1204), and the exhibition displays a leaf from a draft of his monumental code of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah, written in the sage’s own hand.  A comparison between this holographic draft and the standard printed edition illustrates another lesson of the exhibition: unlike modern books, which are published only in completed form, medieval works were ongoing.  Drafts of Maimonides were circulating even as he was engaged in revising them.  While most of the differences between drafts and final editions were stylistic, a study of Genizah texts indicates that Maimonides occasionally altered his halakhic rulings, not just their formulation.

If you follow the link to the Maimonides manuscript, or to Nahmanides’ (1194-1270) Torat Ha-Adam, on laws of death and mourning, a further lesson emerges, concerning Jewish calligraphy.  Jewish scribes and copyists utilized different styles of writing, distinguished from one another by the number of strokes required to form letters.  The most formal script, called “square,” was reserved for copying monumental texts such as the Bible, Talmud, and liturgy.  A less formal “cursive” script was used initially for private records and correspondence and later for personal copying. The works of Maimonides and Nahmanides on display were written in a Sephardic cursive hand closely resembling that of a contemporary Arabic manuscript exhibited alongside them.  Such resemblances also characterize Jewish codices that originated in the Christian world: Ashkenazic manuscripts were influenced by Latin Gothic script, Italian Jewish manuscripts by humanistic script.

There are resemblances in content as well as form. Christian manuscripts on biblical themes, such as those of Nicholas of Lyra (1270-1349), borrowed shamelessly from Jewish predecessors such as Rashi (1040-1105).  Indian fables transmitted through Arabic reappear in later Hebrew translation.  Secular subjects that aroused no partisan passions, like Euclidian geometry, were presented identically in Arabic, Latin, and Hebrew.

The most striking meeting of cultures, though, occurs in the several illuminated manuscripts on display. Only in a miniscule number were the illuminators Jewish; the lion’s share of artwork on Jewish manuscripts was done by Christians, whose lack of any acquaintance with Hebrew led to such anomalies as the upside down figures adorning a mahzor.  Occasionally, religious Christian motifs spilled over onto the pages of Jewish manuscripts, with cherubs and putti, unicorns, and even the Virgin Mary adorning Hebrew Bibles.

Samuel Ibn Tibbon (1165-1232), the preeminent translator of Judeo-Arabic literature into Hebrew, wrote of Hebrew codices, “Make your books your companions; let your cases and shelves be your pleasure grounds and gardens. Bask in their paradise, gather their fruit, pluck their roses, take their spices and myrrh.”  He would have found “Crossing Borders” not just a meeting place of cultures but as sensually satisfying as one of those gardens.

Moshe Sokolow, professor of Jewish education at the Azrieli Graduate School of Yeshiva University, is the author of Studies in the Weekly Parashah Based on the Lessons of Nehama Leibowitz (2008).

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