Jews have used prayer books in the synagogue communal services since early medieval times. One of the most significant liturgical books is the Mahzor, from the consonantal Hebrew root hzr (hazor), meaning cycle or repeating. It incorporates the prayers for the major holidays, fasts and special Sabbaths of the Jewish year.
This mahzor is one of eleven extant manuscripts of the lost 11th-century CE original. The work has been attributed to the French rabbi and scholar Simhah ben Samuel of Vitry (c. 1070 – 1105 CE), who was a pupil of Solomon ben Isaac of Troyes, best known as Rashi (1040 – 1105 CE).
Stored in various libraries around the globe, the surviving non-identical manuscripts date from around the 12th to the 14th century CE. Each includes prayers for the entire year and laws pertaining to the annual Jewish festivals and to life-cycle customs and traditions. The Mahzor Vitry specimens created from c. 1250 CE onwards, present richer contents where additional literary genres including calendrical, ethical, mystical and scientific supplement the liturgical-legal core. The inclusion of such a diversity of texts suggests that these mahzorim (plural form of mahzor) were meant for both prayer and study.
The British Library Mahzor Vitry was written c. 1242 CE. It consists of 451 folios bound into two exceptionally large parchment volumes. The anonymous scribe penned the text in square and semi-cursive Ashkenazic script (of French origin). This is a unique compendium holding not only prayers for the entire year according to the north French rite and a host of laws on everyday practices, but also many anonymous commentaries on these laws. Mahzor Vitry is acknowledged as the principal source of the lost northern French custom which disappeared when the medieval Jewish communities were banished from France in 1306 CE.
Images 1 (f.156v), 2 (f.45r) and 3 (f.37r) are from volume 1, Add MS 27200, of the Mahzor Vitry and you can browse through the entire manuscript on the Digitised Manuscripts website.
Images 4 (f.37r), 5 (f.40v) and 6 (f.190r) are from volume 2, Add MS 27201, of the Mahzor Vitry and you can browse through the entire manuscript on the Digitised Manuscripts website.