The Hebrew Manuscripts of the Bodleian Library in Oxford: An entirely Non-Academic Account

At some point in the course of my studies, I decided that I am not a manuscript-person. Maybe this was simply due to laziness, or haughtiness, or both: After working for a couple of months on the transcription of a Hebrew manuscript from Renaissance Italy (precisely: Yohanan Alemanno’s magnum opus, Hay ha-Olamim), I tossed all my work into the archive, and never opened the microfiche-pdf again.

On my way to the manuscript-collection of the Bodeleian library in Oxford I therefore did not expect anything overtly spectacular. Together with a group of some 15 academics, I had attended a (very cool) summer-school in a nearby castle-hotel, and after being transferred to downtown-Oxford for Shabbat, we were offered a guided tour through the Hebrew collection of the library. The chief-librarian, César Merchán, welcomed us at the entrance: An old building, high ceilings, a lots of marble, a security counter, lockers for bags and jackets, acclimatized air, silence. Like many times before, I sensed that old, academic buildings imbue their guests with an aura of authority, secrecy, importance, as if one enters a temple, in which matters of higher orders are being stored, made accessible only to the selected few – one immediately becomes a little too underdressed, a little too profane, a little too working-class.

Passing another few doors with locks secured by secret codes, we entered a room, into which César had previously moved some manuscripts. On a wheeled cupboard, one next to the other, they were waiting. César heaved a huge Mahzor upon a plastic-foam-construction on a table in the middle of the room, and let his hands wander through the pages. 13th century, Ashkenaz.

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For a quarter of a second, I thought that something’s utterly wrong here, that César is not really the Bodleian’s Hebrew chief-librarian, but a charlatan who had tricked his way illegally into the temple: How come, I asked him, that you touch the pages without gloves? Shouldn’t there be some kind of protective barrier between your hands and the 13th century? How can you touch something so fragile? “Oh no,” he said, turning to me, “there are two schools among librarians of manuscripts. One advocates the use of gloves, but the other holds that you have to feel the pages.” The use of any additional tool would not protect them, but reduce the sensibility of the hands, as nothing is more sensitive, more perceptive, than real skin. The preferred method of the Boldelain library is, therefore, literally “skin on skin”: the skin of human hands gliding over the skin of an animal, the parchment. A sensory meeting of the hands of the living, the active, the powerful, with letters, motionless on parchment, fragile, a thousand years old. Or maybe the other way around – for what would we be without those letters?

Ohhh, I murmured, and was reminded of the Brit of Joel: In an attempt to understand the medical dimension of the intervention, I had asked our Mohel if he would use any devises, or tools, besides the regular ones. But he assured me, that he would need solely his hands. Any “medical” addition would interrupt the procedure unnecessarily, and bear the risk of complication. Skin on skin, again.

The Mahzor measured some 50 x 30cm, with a width of approximately 15cm. Its script and layout were even, almost as if printed, without mistakes. One could see how the pages had been prepared: cut, smoothed, nearly invisible lines being embossed at each page, an incredible amount of work before the scribe had set his first letter on the parchment. Someone in our group rejoiced upon identifying at first glance a particular part of the Sukkot-liturgy: Did the scribe of this Mahzor ever imagine, that 1000 years apart from his own life, the eyes of a professor for Talmudic law would meet his letters, and mean precisely the same thing they meant to him? How many eyes, how many places, how many hands had this Mahzor seen? How many Jews have carried its weight, how did it survive? It must be heavy, I thought, its transportation not especially convenient, and difficult. Each page was illustrated with ornaments, fable-animals, human-beings without faces, colors and layers of gold. Meticulously, millimeter-by-millimeter, the illustrator had beautified each page, as if the immeasurable value of the words needed to be accompanied by material, aesthetic worth.

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Each page had a “micrography” at its bottom, which César explained us to be a particularly Jewish type of illumination. Mircographies are tiny, tiny Hebrew letters combined to form an ornament, that is, it is not the illumination of a letter, but the very use of the letter itself as a “limb” of the illustration. It is unknown what motivated this kind of artwork: possibly, it circumvents a prohibition of images, yet possibly, too, the use of a letter as a physical component of a larger image, or ornament, is also a visualization of the Jewish interpretative tradition: Viewed from above, it is an image, a coherent whole, an entire world, yet the closer you draw, the more you become aware of a multitude of components, details, interwoven one into the other, a “massekhet,” a web, made up of tiny little bodies of letters, each one in and of itself an indispensable, corporeal component of the universe.

César turned the pages, something he had done probably at least a dozen times before our visit. Despite British correctness and professionalism, his face seemed to be filled with admiration, affection, love for what he was doing.

On our way out of the library, we passed a few high-ceiled reading-halls named after people. Serious scholars dressed in neutral colors were sitting in rows above their books and manuscripts. No food, no drinks. If I had decided to become a manuscript-person, would I sit here, too? Would I be smart and patient enough to prepare a critical edition, or would I schedule as many coffee-dates as possible and sneak into facebook for digression? Would I be fond of my manuscripts like César? Glancing over the ethereal-looking scholars, I saw myself sitting on the ground with Joel, handling toys, strollers, bottles, bananas, ice-cream, invitations to the kindergarten’s summer-party, team-days, and the laundry, tired. I envied their tranquility, the quietness and cleanliness of their temple, their effortless appropriateness. The Mahzor was an expat here: It was written by the light of the sun and candles, it wandered through the hands of those, who prepared the parchment, the ink, the script, who illustrated it, who carried it from place to place on their backs, or in wagons, who recited its words on the Festival of Sukkot. A few of its pages had been damaged by the teeth of a mouse. It must have seen the fullness of life.

(César had advised us to look at the manuscripts in their digitalized form, accessible on the library’s website. A collection of micrography-highlights, for example, is here).

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