This is an exceptionally rare item: a treasured medieval Jewish text, known as the Talmud, that somehow escaped the public burnings suffered by most of the other Jewish law books at the time. Fortunately, it has survived unmutilated and uncensored.
During the Middle Ages, Jewish communities were frequently subject to anti-Semitic attacks, in which property was destroyed and people murdered. The Talmud was constantly condemned and censored by the Christian Church, who claimed the book was offensive and blasphemous. This led to regular public book burnings, the first in Paris in 1242.
What is the Talmud?
The Talmud, meaning ‘teaching’ is an ancient text containing Jewish sayings, ideas and stories. It includes the Mishnah (oral law) and the Gemara ('Completion'). The Mishnah is a large collection of sayings, arguments and counter-arguments that touch on virtually all areas of life. The Gemara is known as a 'sea' of learning, a collection of stories about biblical characters, sober legal arguments and fanciful imaginings of the world of old and the world to come.
Why is this a 'Babylonian' Talmud?
The Talmud developed in two major centres of Jewish scholarship: Babylonia and Palestine. The Jerusalem or Palestinian Talmud was completed c.350, and the Babylonian Talmud (the more complete and authoritative) was written down c. 500, but was further edited for another two centuries. The Talmud served as the basis for all codes of rabbinic law.
From the Palestinian tradition of Jewish worship 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.
In genealogical discussions, people often use the term Ashkenazi and Sephardic to describe Jews who come from the respective regions.
What is the significance of the Talmud?
Getting to grips with a Talmudic text can be demanding. While it is possible to read a page of the Bible in a matter of minutes, depending on the difficulty, a page of Talmud may take an hour or considerably more to go through with understanding. Traditionally it is studied with a partner or 'friend' in order to recreate the internal arguments and make sure that the subject in question, whether marriage, business ethics, capital punishment, property law or dietary regulations, has been examined from every conceivable angle. This kind of study leads to sharpness of mind, but also creates an intense community of shared ideas and visions.
Along with its companion literature, the Midrash (multiple collections of interpretations of the Bible, much like the interpretations and sermons on their own Scriptures by Christians and Muslims), the Talmud ensured that male Jews, who engaged in this study their whole lives, and their womenfolk, who were taught the stories (but not the legal material) in more popular form, were armoured against an often unfriendly outside world by their own internal world of values.
Why is this manuscript so rare?
During the Middle Ages the Talmud was the target of relentless condemnation, vilification and censorship by the Christian Church. Vicious hostility to its allegedly offensive and blasphemous contents led to frequent public burnings, the first in Paris in 1242.
As a result, very few complete manuscripts of the Talmud have survived, and the remaining fragmentary ones are also rather scarce.
What do these pages show?
This manuscript (in square Ashkenazi hand) is an exceptionally rare specimen, which, fortunately, has not been censored or mutilated.
It shows the end of tractate Arakhin ('Valuations'), which deals with issues relating to the upkeep of the sanctuary, and the start of tractate Keritot ('Excisions'), which discusses sins that incur divine punishment.
Browse through the entire manuscript on the Digitised Manuscripts website.