LONDON — An Italian rabbi’s letter to King Henry VIII concerning the Tudor monarch’s effort to annul the first of his six marriages, a 16th-century spellbook, and what is believed to be the earliest dated copy of the “Guide for the Perplexed” by Moses Maimonides are among the Jewish treasures featured in a Hebrew manuscripts exhibition at the British Library.
The exhibition, which is available online for virtual visitors around the globe and will open for in-person viewing beginning December 3, showcases around 40 of the roughly 3,000 Hebrew manuscripts held by the UK’s national library. Running through April 11, 2021, it aims, among other themes, to highlight the interaction between Diaspora Jewish communities and their non-Jewish neighbors.
The library’s collection — which has been put together over the past 250 years — has recently been digitized. Ilana Tahan, the exhibition’s curator, describes it as “a sort of celebration” of the completion of the six-year project.
“By digitizing these manuscripts we ultimately expose them to a global audience and people wherever they live… in every corner of the world, can access them freely,” she says.
Spanning across science, religion, law, music, philosophy, magic, alchemy and kabbalah, the displays feature items from Europe and North Africa, the Middle East, India and China.
“Alongside iconic documents and manuscripts that people know, we wanted to place things that people have never seen before,” says Tahan.
The earliest object on display is a 10th-century Hebrew Bible which is thought to be one of the oldest-surviving Hebrew biblical codices. The manuscript, which hails from Egypt, shows the influence of Islamic art with its geometric and floral-patterned illustrations. Among several other religious texts in the exhibition are a Catalan Bible whose vivid colors belie its 14th century origins and a Torah scroll which belonged to the Jewish community in Kaifeng, China, some three centuries later.
But the exhibition is not primarily focused on religious texts. The relationship between Diaspora communities and their non-Jewish neighbors — sometimes harmonious but often also marked by discrimination and persecution — is a major theme of the exhibition. The curators wanted to show “the interplay, the interaction, the mutual influences” between the two, says Tahan.
A 13th-century deed of sale for a house in Norwich in the east of England shows Miriam, the wife of Rabbi Osha’ya, giving up her rights to the property before it could be sold. It’s a rarity in more ways than one, and depicts a Medieval Jewish woman owning property and engaging in business dealings. The deed is one of a small and, argues Tahan, “extremely important historically” collection of charters among the library’s Hebrew manuscripts.
“What fascinated me about these documents — some of them are in Latin with a little bit of Hebrew but there are some that were written entirely in Hebrew — is that it appears that these kind of documents were accepted in England at that period,” says Tahan.
But, although the deed indicated that Jewish legal documents written in Hebrew were in use in Medieval England, it is dated just 10 years before King Edward I’s infamous expulsion of the Jews from the country in 1290.
A consequence of that decision was felt by one of Edward’s successors, Henry VIII, nearly 250 years later. Desperate for biblical grounds on which his marriage to Catherine of Aragon — who had failed to bear him a male heir — might be annulled, the king canvassed the opinion of religious scholars.
Having previously obtained a special dispensation from the Pope to marry Catherine, who was the widow of Henry’s brother, the validity of the levirate marriage was a focus of attention and a rabbi’s opinion was among those sought. But, given the expulsion of the Jews, the king’s advisers had to cast a wider net and obtained the view of Italian rabbi Jacob Rafael.
The rabbi’s response — shown in a letter contained in a ledger of correspondence in the exhibition — didn’t provide the answer Henry wanted. The rabbi stated that the justification for the levirate marriage in Deuteronomy overrode the prohibition in Leviticus (which bars sexual relations with a brother’s wife), which Henry’s advisers were attempting to use as a loophole to annul the marriage.
Undeterred, the king separated from Catherine in 1531, and had the marriage annulled by the Archbishop of Canterbury in May 1533 (five months after he’d secretly married his new wife, the ill-fated Anne Boleyn). At the same time, a burst of legislation in parliament — including the 1534 Act of Supremacy which declared the king to be “Supreme Head of the Church of England” — ushered in the Reformation and the break with Rome.
The censor cometh
More often, though, Jewish opinion was stifled rather than sought. A rare copy of a Babylonian Talmud, which dates back to the 13th century, illustrates the manner in which Medieval Christian authorities destroyed many Jewish texts they considered to be blasphemous.
But such manuscripts were not always destroyed. A 17th-century edition of the 1596 “Book of Expurgation,” which is also on display, lists in alphabetical order some 450 Hebrew texts which the Catholic Church viewed as theologically dangerous or blasphemous. Censors then set to work deleting suspect passages.
The book’s author, Dominico Irosolimitano, censored more than 20,000 copies of Hebrew books and manuscripts. One of the manuscripts scanned for potential anti-Christian content is a 700-year-old text on Jewish law by German Jewish scholars. The constant checks that were undertaken are indicated by the signatures it contains of four different Italian censors — three of them Jewish converts to Catholicism — who examined the text between the years 1599 and 1640.
Of course, many Jews suffered a fate far worse than censorship. A copy of Rabbi Ishmael Hanina’s account of the interrogation and torture he suffered at the hands of the Papal Inquisition in Bologna in 1568 details how he was forced to explain the meaning of certain passages in the Talmud.
“He was on trial as a representative of his religion and he had to defend the religion,” says Tahan.
The rabbi’s ordeal occurred just months before the Jewish community was expelled from the Italian city. Another description of persecution comes from a 17th-century manuscript which tells of the aftermath of an Arab revolt in the Maghreb in 1589 in which Yahya ibn Yahya, a local religious leader, temporarily seized control of territory ruled by the Ottomans.
Before the Sultan’s army reestablished control, the rebel leader gave the Jews who fell under his sway a stark choice between conversion or death. “You know that God has helped me with his good hands to abolish the kingdom of the Turks,” ibn Yahya is recorded in the manuscript as telling the Jews of Misrata. “Thus, from today onwards do not remember the name Israel any more. And if you rebel, I will do to you what I did to the Turks.”
But, as the exhibition shows, despite the threats, oppression and violence they so frequently suffered, Jews contributed mightily to furthering the spread of knowledge in the West.
“Living scattered across the globe, many Jewish scholars were multilingual,” the display explains. “At the crossroads of different cultures, they translated works between Arabic, Latin and Hebrew. Their most important contribution was transmitting Greek and Arabic ideas from these works to Christian Europe.”
One such example held by the library is a 15th-century copy of a Hebrew translation made some 200 years previously by an Italian Jew, Nathan ha-Méati, of the “Canon of Medicine.” Originally in Arabic, the 11th-century text by Ibn Sina became the most influential work of Medieval medicine. The richly illustrated page on display is from Book V which lists 650 medicine recipes.
Other examples contained in the exhibition include a 16th or 17th century copy of the translation made some 300 years before by another Italian Jew, Jacob Anatoli, of al-Farghani’s “Compendium of Astronomy and Elements of Heavenly Movements.” Anatoli was able to consult both the original Arabic and a Latin translation of the work which summarized Ptolemy’s “Almagest,” a 2nd-century treatise on the apparent motion of the stars and planetary paths. Such translations helped to spread Greek astronomical knowledge in Medieval Europe.
Similarly, the 12th-century Jewish astronomer, mathematician and philosopher Abraham bar Hiyya translated Arab scientific work into both Hebrew and Latin, pioneering the use of the former for scientific purposes. The exhibition displays the library’s 15th-century copy of Hiyya’s Hebrew work “Shape of the Earth” in which he wrote about the creation of the earth, heavens, moon and stars. Also exhibited is a copy of a book on calendrical calculations — vital for working out the dates of religious festivals — helpfully written in verse to make them easier to remember.
One of the most impressive items curators have included in the exhibition is a 1380 copy of the “Guide for the Perplexed” by Maimonides. The 12th-century Jewish philosopher born in Cordoba, Spain, was one of the most influential Talmudic scholars of the Middle Ages. The manuscript, owned by the Jewish community in the Yemen and written in Judeo-Arabic, is considered Maimonides’s most authoritative philosophical work. Alongside it, the exhibition has a brightly colored 14th-century copy of a translation into Hebrew; its images of a lion, scholars believe, may suggest it was commissioned for a royal court.
Some of the items on display, however, are perhaps less rooted in scholarship and science. Elisha ben Gad’s 16th-century “Tree of Knowledge” contains 125 spells and medicines. “It’s very, very charming,” says Tahan, “a lovely, beautiful book.”
It was, Elisha writes in his introduction, compiled from his journeys to Venice — where he gained access to the library of Rabbi Judah Alkabets and copied down the contents of a Hebrew book of magic he discovered in the collection — and “secret knowledge” he acquired in Safed on the shores of the Galilee. The recipes cover a wide range of eventualities from catching thieves to warding off demons, as well as curing fevers and diarrhea. There’s even some useful wedding-night advice: “To increase love between bridegroom and bride — when the bride comes from the hupah [wedding canopy] after finishing saying the blessing, write their names in honey onto two sage leaves” and give the leaves to each other to eat, the spellbook suggests.
But for the light-fingered thief detained thanks to Elisha’s spell, help is at hand from “Mafteah Shelomoh,” the “Key of Solomon.” A compilation of several magical works translated from Latin and Italian into Hebrew, it contains a drawing on how to escape from prison. Draw a boat on the floor and step into it, it indicates, and spirits will appear to carry you away.
After a year of lockdowns, curfews and restrictions, this Medieval magic manual might just have some contemporary resonance.
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