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San'a Pentateuch

A fine 15th-century example of illumination in a Pentateuch. Hebrew manuscripts from Islamic lands contained no images, but were decorated with Jewish elements and adapted Islamic motifs. The handwriting style here is typical of Yemen.

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San’a Pentateuch

San’a Pentateuch, Yemen, 1469 The poem Give Ear; Deuteronomy 32.
BL Or. MS 2348, ff.151v-152
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 this page show?

Penned in Hebrew square script in a typical Yemenite hand is a section from Shirat Ha'azinu ("Give ear, O ye heavens, and I will speak; and hear, O earth, the words of my mouth"), a lyrical poem that Moses recited in front of the Israelite congregation before his death (Deuteronomy 32).

The masoretic notes - instructions to readers on matters of intonation and pronunciation, written by Hebrew scholars - were added in the lower and upper margins and between columns.

Who wrote this document?

Although the scribe did not sign his name in the colophon (the 'credits panel' at the end of a manuscript, where the scribes and artists might identify themselves and even address the reader) the calligraphy and layout of the manuscript evoke the style of Benayahu ben Se'adyah ben Zeharyah ben Margaz, a major Yemeni scribe (d. 1490).

Why is this Hebrew Bible illuminated, not illustrated?

The Biblical ban on representations of humans or animals was often interpreted, literally, at face value in Jewish religious manuscripts. Hebrew manuscripts from Islamic lands were devoid of figurative imagery and their decoration was generally a combination of typically Jewish elements and adapted Islamic motifs. This is an example of non-figurative art, with Islamic-style fillers and decorative micrography.

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.