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Portuguese Pentateuch

Jews enjoyed a rich cultural life in 15th-century Portugal, as is demonstrated by this fine manuscript. It is one of only about 30 Hebrew examples that survive from the period up to 1496, when Jews were expelled or forcibly converted.

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Sacred Texts: Portuguese Pentateuch

Portuguese Pentateuch. Lisbon, Portugal, 15th century
British Library Add. MS 15283, f. 114v
Copyright © The British Library Board

What is the Pentateuch?

The Pentateuch is part of the Torah, one of the three main sections of the Bible in Jewish tradition, and also the most sacred. It comprises the first five books of the Old Testament, sometimes known as the Five Books of Moses, as they are believed to have been first written down by Moses at divine dictation.

The five books making up the Torah are Be-reshit, Shemot, Va-Yikra, Be-Midbar and Devarim, which in the English Bible correspond to Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy.

The Hebrew titles derive from the first characteristic word appearing in each book, while the name used in the English Bible (usually of Greek origin) describe the central theme dealt with in each book.

What does the page show?

This is the frontispiece to Numbers. The word written in gold letters in the exquisite filigree panel spells Va-Yedaber (And the Lord spoke) from the opening verse: 'And the Lord spoke unto Moses in the wilderness of Sinai.' (Numbers 1: 1).

The sacred text is in two columns separated by masoretic notes (notes on pronunciation and intonation for those reading out the text, composed by Hebrew scholars), and surrounded by a finely embellished outer border of large acanthus scrolls.

Who made this manuscript?

We can't be sure, but the illuminations in this manuscript show a marked stylistic affinity with those found in the Lisbon Bible, suggesting that they were probably from the same workshop.

What differs here is the style of Hebrew handwriting used to copy the main body of the text. The square calligraphy that is commonly used for copying Hebrew Bibles is here replaced by an elegant, semi-cursive, north African Sephardi hand, showing the influence of Arabic maghribi script.


Woodcut portraying Lisbon in 1553, illustrating a compilation of writings by the ancient Greek historian Polybius

What is meant by Sephardic?

Two forms of Jewish worship - those developed in Palestine and Babylonia - historically became dominant. From the Palestinian tradition came the Ashkenazi rite used in Western and Eastern Europe and Russia. From the Babylonian tradition came the Sephardi rite followed in Spain, Portugal, North Africa, and the Middle East. Both rites, as well as some others, are still practised in Orthodox Jewish communities worldwide.

When talking about geographical origins, people often use the term Ashkenazi and Sephardic to describe Jews who come from, or whose ancestors came from, the respective regions.

Do Hebrew Bibles ever have pictures?

The Biblical ban on representations of humans or animals was often interpreted literally in Jewish religious manuscripts. A Hebrew Bible would not be illustrated with pictures, though its text could be illuminated: examples from medieval Europe are often lavishly so.

However, pictures were allowed in copies of the Haggadah - a sacred book for use at home during the Passover ritual. These were often profusely illustrated, partly as an educational tool, partly as a status symbol for the owner. On the other hand, the Torah scroll, being God's direct word to Moses, is never decorated in any way.

The painting of medieval manuscripts was profoundly affected by the artistic methods and styles in host cultures. Hebrew manuscripts from Islamic lands lack figurative art. Those from Christian Europe often show great similarities in decoration to contemporary Christian manuscripts from the same region, for instance Italy or France.

Since the Hebrew alphabet lacks capital letters, first words rather than initial letters were illuminated.