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13th-century Pentateuch

An example of a uniquely Jewish art from the 13th-14th century: micrography, the weaving of minute lettering into abstract or figurative designs. Scribes were discouraged from creating distracting illuminations in the main text, and so they put their ingenuity into creating micrographic designs from the masoretic notation (that is, advice to the reader on pronunciation and intonation).

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13th century Pentateuch

Pentateuch with Prophetical Readings and the Five Scrolls, France or Germany, 13th to 14th century. Ruth 4: 13-22
BL Add. MS 21160, f. 300v
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 is micrography?

Unique to Jewish art, micrography is the weaving of minute lettering into abstract, geometric and figurative designs. The practice started around the ninth century in Egypt and Palestine, and then spread to Europe and Yemen, its heyday being between the 13th and 15th centuries. It was initially used in biblical codices (handwritten books).

Perhaps because the strict rabbinic rulings on letter shaping, text layout and decoration applied to Torah scrolls but not to codices, scribes felt freer to use them as a medium for artistic expression. In the margins of a Hebrew Bible scribes would customarily have to write masorah: advice on matters such as pronunciation of the unwritten vowels and intonation of the text. Fancy illumination of the sacred main text might be discouraged, or need extreme caution, but the masorah offered the artist ample scope for ornamentation. Rather than copying its text in plain lines, scribes began to pattern it into a variety of forms and shapes.

Not everyone approved of micrography. The 12th-century rabbi Judah he-Hasid complained that masorah were becoming unreadable. But the practice still survives. Some scribes from the 19th and 20th centuries have taken the art to extraordinary lengths, forming their minuscule lines of text into detailed pictures of animals, ships, or personal portraits. The Psalms and Proverbs are often used as the basic text.

What is on this page?

In this example, the masoretic annotations were fashioned into an elaborate frame composed of architectural structures, lush scrolls of foliage, and fabulous creatures.

Copied within the frame in a fine Ashkenazi hand is the end of the book of Ruth (4: 13-22), which provides the lineage of King David. The Five Scrolls are Ruth, the Song of Songs, Ecclesiastes, Esther and Lamentations.