To Read or Not to Read — Is Not the Question (Dalia-Ruth Halperin)

To read or not to read - is not the question

Dr Dalia-Ruth Halperin examines figured micrography and the relationship between text and design in this unique Jewish art.
Figured Micrography is the term applied in research to the Jewish scribal art that forms the outline of various designs with micrographic script. These designs, as well as most micrography forming texts, are taken from the Masorah (tradition), which is essentially a text created as a way to stabilise and maintain the accuracy of biblical text. Figured micrography makes up the main decoration for manuscript Add MS 21160, also known as the ‘Jonah Pentateuch’ – a large manuscript measuring 387 x 286 mm, created in Germany in the second half of the 13th century CE. The manuscript is decorated with micrographic Masorah formed into flora, fauna, human, and fantastic animal figures. It got its name from a micrographic image depicting a man with the name Jonah above his head, standing inside the open mouth of a fish, his hands clasped in prayer.

The Yonah Pentateuch

Figured micrography in Jonah Pentateuch, Germany, 2nd half of 13th century CE, Add MS 21160, Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project, British Library

Figured micrography in Jonah Pentateuch, Germany, 2nd half of 13th century CE (Add MS 21160, f. 300v)

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The Yonah Pentateuch

Jonah inside the fish’s mouth. Jonah Pentateuch, Germany, 2nd half of 13th century CE, Add MS 21160, Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project, British Library

Jonah inside the fish’s mouth. Jonah Pentateuch, Germany, 2nd half of 13th century CE (Add MS 21160, f. 292r)

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The image of Jonah inside the fish’s mouth can be seen on the bottom and lower left margin of f. 292r. The main text on the page includes Jonah’s prayer (Jonah 1:8–2:9). However, as we read in verse 2:2, this was said ‘out of the fish’s belly’. The standing figure has been described as a visual midrash (that is, a biblical interpretation) taken from Pirke de-Rabi Eli’ezer (Chapters of Rabbi Eliezer, 2nd century CE), chapter 10, which tells of Jonah’s journey in the fish’s belly under the foundations of the world. In the story, when the fish told Jonah he was under the Temple Mount, he asked it to stop and allow him to stand in prayer to God for his release. Thus, the micrography image is directly related to the main text on f. 292r.
The lexical text includes words of pleading, including ana Adonai (please Lord), boreah (escaping) and hevele (worldly worthlessness). These words are obviously associated with Jonah – but do they reflect a meaningful connection between the forming text, the image, and the main text? Or are they simply present because they are words whose content is marked for counting on this page by the Masorator from Masoretic lists?[1]
Another micrographic image identified by a title appears on the bottom of f. 192v, and depicts a mounted knight called Joseph, facing right and riding away from a dragon biting its tail. The main text is Numbers 4:26–33, which speaks of distributing the burden of carrying the Tabernacle from place to place among members of the Levite families Gershon and Merari. Gershon is assigned to carry the various furnishings – the curtains and coverings – and Merari has the task of transporting the boards, bars, and pillars. The lexical text sees the recurrence of the word ye’aseh (meaning ‘will be done’).

The Yonah Pentateuch

A mounted knight and a dragon. Jonah Pentateuch, Germany, 2nd half of 13th century CE, Add MS 21160, Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project, British Library

A mounted knight and a dragon. Jonah Pentateuch, Germany, 2nd half of 13th century CE (Add MS 21160, f. 192v)

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Among the verses composing the horse’s forelegs is a complete verse from Esther 6:11, with some 20 words recounting the episode in which Haman is forced to dress Mordechai in the king’s royal garments and lead him through the streets of Susa on the king’s horse. The use of a complete verse is extremely unusual within the two types of Masoretic lexical text – the masorah parva and the masorah magna.
The masorah parva indicates the number of times each word chosen for counting by the Masorator, with its specific cantillation[2] and punctuation form which appears in Scripture. The number of recurrences is shown with a Hebrew letter that has that numerical value, and is found between columns of text. The masorah magna is the referral system for the masorah parva, concerning the verse in which the counted form appears. It is located at the top and bottom of columns of text, citing only the first three words of the verse.

The Yonah Pentateuch

Masorah magna (marked in blue) and masoarh parva (marked in red). Jonah Pentateuch, Germany, second half of 13th century CE, Add MS 21160, Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project, British Library

Masorah magna (marked in blue) and masoarh parva (marked in red). Jonah Pentateuch, Germany, second half of 13th century CE (Add MS 21160, f. 192v)

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Furthermore, there are words in the image of the rider with apostrophes which do not appear in the main text – this is highly unusual. These words are ye’aseh la-ish (‘will be done to the man’) and va-yivek (‘and he cried’), which can be seen in the penning of the horse’s abdomen and hind leg. These are followed by the beginning of a verse from Genesis 47:20, ‘So Joseph bought all the land of Egypt’. There seems to be no connection between the Masoretic and the biblical text on the page. So why is Joseph depicted and those particular verses used?
The link is an associated line of thought around the ‘garments’ of the House of the Lord; the choosing of the word ye’aseh, and its immediate association with Mordechai’s garments through ye’aseh la-ish, and the latter’s connection to Joseph via the gift of garments to Benjamin (after Joseph fell crying on his brother’s neck). This connection not only demonstrates the tight relation between the penned text form and main text, but also highlights the scholarship of the micrograph, showing his knowledge of texts and his patterns of thought.
A rider of special interest is found on the bottom masorah magna of f. 181v. It shows a mounted falconer holding his bird of prey by strings attached to its legs in his right hand which is stretched out behind him. His dog lags behind to the left of these lines. The Masoretic text on f. 181v is Leviticus 26:30–39, which includes verses that speak of the calamity that will befall Israel if they ignore God’s commands. The lower Masorah’s ‘choreography’ (the direction of the writing flow) reveals that the micrography text was penned starting with the straight text lines (right to left), continuing to form the dog on the left, and finally used to shape the falconer facing right at the beginning of the Masorah text lines. The lexical words are: ezreh (‘I shall disperse’), nadaf (meaning scattered or dissipate) and ezreh etkhem ba-goim (‘I shall disperse you among the gentiles’). To understand the possible relationships between the forming text, the image, and the main text, we must understand the falconer scene and any apparent changes from its conventional model.

The Yonah Pentateuch

A mounted rider with his falcon and dog. Jonah Pentateuch, Germany, 2nd half of 13th century CE, Add MS 21160, Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project, British Library

A mounted rider with his falcon and dog. Jonah Pentateuch, Germany, 2nd half of 13th century CE (Add MS 21160, f. 181v)

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Falconers are found frequently in medieval manuscripts, and hunt scenes were abundant in medieval religious and secular art from the 12th century CE. The complete scene generally included a falconer with a falcon or hawk perched on his hand either in front or behind him, and dogs running ahead chasing a deer or hare.

The Hispano-Moresque Haggadah

Hunting scene in the  Hispano-Moresque Hagadah: Haggadah for Passover according to the Spanish rite, Or 2737, Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project, British Library

Hunting scene in the Hispano-Moresque Hagadah (Or 2737, f. 69r)

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Looking at our micrography image we can see that the dog is lagging behind his master, his head bent submissively. The bird, the only element in this image not formed by script, is being restrained by strings attached to its legs; its head faces the direction in which the falconer is proceeding, but, held as it is, it is unlikely that it will be able to hunt. This does not appear to be an ordinary hunt scene.
This portrayal is unusual because hunt scenes in Jewish art have been understood to symbolize the persecution of Israelites (the hunted) by the Christians, with the hound representing the Dominicans – Domini Canes. Interpretations from Jewish literature identify the dog as the Nations, and the mounted man or falconer as the righteous Jewish knight in the service of God, or even the Messiah of flesh and blood. The differences in this scene are telling.
As noted, the falconer is holding the bird behind him by strings attached to its feet, which implies that it cannot hunt; nor is the dog, now submissively lagging behind, about to chase after prey. The falconer, whose forming text is made up of scattering words, may now be understood to represent a reversal of the contemporary real-world situation.
As we read in the beginning of the chapter (Lev. 26:1–13), when the children of Israel again follow God’s orders, they shall be redeemed and lead the Nations. In this scene, the falconer may represent the much-anticipated Messiah – an idea that can also be seen in other Hebrew manuscripts from this period. Having interpreted the foregoing depictions, we may wonder whether micrography images always convey visual meaning or even arguments? Probably not, but reading their forming texts can definitely reveal hidden messages captured by time.

Footnotes


[1] Masorators were scribes responsible for applying the Masorah to Bible manuscripts during the Middle Ages. The Masorator copied from treatises of Masoretic compilations which had existed since the 10th century CE, such as the anonymous compilation ‘Okhlah ve-‘Okhlah, or the grammatical compilation by Aharon ben-Asher, Dikduke ha-teʿamim. Masoretic compilations were sometimes appended to the Bible manuscripts. As part of the Masorators’ work, they had to count letters in words in order to ensure the accuracy in the transmission of the text.
[2] The ritual chanting of readings from the Hebrew Bible in synagogue services

Dalia-Ruth Halperin
  • Dalia-Ruth Halperin
  • Dr. Dalia-Ruth Halperin is a lecturer in the Department of Art Talpiot College of Education, Holon, Israel. Dalia-Ruth is a specialist in Hebrew Micrography and focusses on the complex ties between the penned texts and the images formed, as well as on the eschatological and kabbalistic content of such images. Her monograph on the Catalan Micrography Mahzor entitled Illuminating in Micrography, was published by Brill in 2013.

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