The British Library holds one of the most important collections of Hebrew manuscripts. The core of the Library’s collection is in the foundation collections, and the holdings gradually expanded during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Of the approximately 3000 manuscripts around 300 have some type of decoration. All of the illuminated manuscripts and those with significant decoration (109 in total) are now included in the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. The inclusion of these manuscripts, currently illustrated by over 1100 images, with further images to be added in the autumn 2011, was made possible through grants from the American Trust for the British Library in memory of William T. Golden, the Harold Hyam Wingate Foundation, Roger and Julie Baskes, Chicago, USA, and an anonymous donor. Most of the illuminated manuscripts included in this catalogue have been fully digitised.
The Hebrew illuminated manuscripts included in the Catalogue are from the following collections: Additional (47), Oriental (38), and Harley (19), and one from each of Sloane, King’s, Egerton and the India Office. These manuscripts range from the tenth to the fifteenth century with two additional eighteenth-century Haggadot. Their geographical division is just as wide, including Europe, Northern Africa and the East. The majority of the codices, however, were made between the thirteenth and the fifteenth century in Italy, Germany, Spain, and Portugal. Most of them contain religious works, such as biblical and different liturgical texts, but there are a number of legal, philosophical and scientific books as well. Of the 109 manuscripts, 46 have a colophon providing either the name of the scribe or the date of completion, or sometimes both. Interestingly, there are no English Hebrew illuminated manuscripts in the collection.
The type of illumination of these manuscripts varies greatly. Most of them contain penwork decoration only, executed either in ink or in colours, such as decorated initial words/ initial-word panels, embellished parashah signs, and full or partial borders. Because many of the texts are accompanied with some kind of marginal commentary, two other types of decoration became widespread in Hebrew manuscript illumination: micrography and carmina figurata, both formed from the text itself. Ashkenazi codices of the thirteenth-fourteenth centuries also often contain catchwords with various figurative illustrations. Only one-fifth of the material has miniatures depicting narrative scenes.
The Catalogue entries include a description of the codicological and palaeographical features of the manuscripts, information about their provenance and a selected bibliography focusing on literature about their illumination. In addition, eventually each entry will include a selection of images from the manuscripts, illustrating various stylistic trends or types of decoration of the codices (such as initial-word panels, marginal decoration, full-page miniatures, etc), and highlighting their iconographic characteristics.
These images derive from different sources, including digital scans of existing slides to newly commissioned digital images, thus the image quality may vary.
For the description of the manuscripts, different printed catalogues on the Hebrew collections of the British Library have been used. Among these, the most comprehensive is the three-volume Catalogue of the Hebrew and Samaritan manuscripts in the British Museum (London, 1899-1935, repr. 1965) written by George Margoliouth and supplemented by Jacob Leveen (London, 1977). In addition to this catalogue, the following reference books/databases have been consulted:
- Bezalel Narkiss, Hebrew Illuminated Manuscripts. (Jerusalem: Encyclopaedia Judaica, 1969); and its Hebrew version, Kitvei yad ivriyim metzuyarim (Jerusalem: Keter, 1984).
- Bezalel Narkiss, Hebrew Illuminated Manuscripts in the British Isles: A Catalogue Raisonné. The Spanish and Portuguese Manuscripts (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982).
- Thérèse and Mendel Metzger, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages: Illuminated Hebrew Manuscripts of the Thirteenth to the Sixteenth Centuries (New York: Alpine Fine Arts Collection, 1982).
- Ilana Tahan, Hebrew Manuscripts: The Power of Script and Image (London, British Library, 2007.)
- Sacred: Books of the Three Faiths: Judaism, Christianity, Islam (London: British Library, 2007) [exhibition catalogue]
- the online catalogue of the Jewish National and University Library
- the online Codicological Data-Base of the Hebrew Palaeography Project, The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities(this site is under construction, the data is only partially available at the moment)
Certain features of Hebrew manuscripts differ from those of Latin or other western European language codices. Most notably, due to the nature of Hebrew script being written from right to left, the foliation of a Hebrew manuscript starts from the back of a volume, that is, the recto and the verso sides are opposite to those of a codex written in Latin characters.
In order to make the catalogue information accessible to a wide audience the catalogue records include transliterations of Hebrew characters (for the transliteration, see table below).
From an early period, the Church attempted to control the dissemination of Hebrew books. From the mid-thirteenth century, Jewish books were examined by Christian censors in order to eliminate those passages that were considered blasphemous. Although expurgation or even destruction of certain Hebrew books had started much earlier, the first official list of prohibited Hebrew book, the Index autorum et librorum prohibitorum, issued by the Pope, was published in 1559. Some decades later, in 1595 a converted Jew, Dominico Irosolomitano, composed another similar work, the Index expurgatorius (Sefer ha-ziqquq), in which he listed 420 titles of banned books. Official revisers were appointed to revise Hebrew books and implement these restrictions. These censors were usually converted Jews, who read Hebrew and were familiar with the texts.
Many of the illuminated manuscripts included in the Catalogue were present in Italy at some point and include evidence that they were examined by censors there. Approximately a dozen sixteenth-seventeenth Italian censors’ signatures are present, indicating approval of the contents. For the identification of these signatures, and a summary on the subject see, William Popper, The Censorship of Hebrew Books (New York: KTAV Publishing House, 1969).
Barcelona Haggadah, 255 x 190, Barcelona, c. 1340, signature of the censor Luigi da Bologna
Add 14761, f. 160
Examples of different Hebrew scripts:
For the description of the different Hebrew scripts, Malachi Beit-Arie’s terminology has been used (see, Malachi Beit-Arie, The Panizzi Lectures: Hebrew Manuscripts of East and West: Towards a Comparative Codicology (London: The British Library, 1992).
Ashkenazi Haggadah, Add 14762, 375 x 275 mm, Germany, c. 1460, f. 7v, punctuated Ashkenazi square script
Tripartite Mahzor, Add 22413 volume 2, 315 x 220 mm, Southern Germany, c. 1322, f. 138, unpunctuated Ashkenazi semi-cursive script
Lisbon Bible, Or 2627, 300 x 245 mm, Lisbon, 1482, f. 136v, punctuated Sephardic square script
Guide of the Perplexed by Maimonides, Or 14061, 300 x 210 mm, Catalonia, 2nd or 3rd quarter of the 14th century, f. 89, unpunctuated Sephardic semi-cursive script
Duke of Sussex Italian Pentateuch, Add 15423, 330 x 225 mm, Florence, 2nd third of the 15th century, f. 117, punctuated Italian semi-cursive script
First Gaster Bible, Or 9879, 330 x 260 mm, Egypt, tenth century, f. 14v, punctuated Oriental square script
Pentateuch, Or 2348, 400 x 280 mm, Sana (Yemen), 1469, f. 152v, punctuated Yemenite square script
The transliteration of Hebrew characters