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'This project helped bring about historical justice'

Israeli scholar wins prize for recreating medieval Catalonian Jewish prayer book

Comparing 6 manuscripts in archives from St. Petersburg to Rome, National Library of Israel’s Idan Perez pieces together lost rites of vibrant community that’s all but disappeared

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Dr. Idan Perez holds the 'Siddur Catalunya,' a reconstruction of the prayer book used in parts of pre-Expulsion Catalonia, at Jerusalem's National Library, September 15, 2019. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)
Dr. Idan Perez holds the 'Siddur Catalunya,' a reconstruction of the prayer book used in parts of pre-Expulsion Catalonia, at Jerusalem's National Library, September 15, 2019. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

For the first time, an Israeli scholar has been recognized for promoting Catalan presence and culture around the world.

National Library of Israel director of rare books Dr. Idan Perez was awarded the Josep Maria Batista i Roca – Enric Garriga Trullols Memorial Prize for 2020 for his publication of the “Sidur Catalunya,” the first complete recreation of a prayer book used by the Jews of Catalonia, Valencia and Majorca before the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.

The choice of Perez and his siddur, or prayer book, also marks the first time in the prize’s 32-year history that the Institute for the External Projection of Catalan Culture (IPECC) has chosen to honor work related to the rich contributions of Jews to Catalonian culture over the centuries. IPECC is a founding member of The International Federation of Catalan Entities (FIEC), an umbrella organization for Catalan associations around the world.

“I feel that with this project I have helped bring about some historical justice. The Jewish community of Catalonia had first-rate scholars, and it is a pity that so few people know about this, and that the community has disappeared and been forgotten,” Perez told The Times of Israel in a recent interview.

Perez himself knew nothing of Catalonian Jews’ customs and traditions despite having been born, raised and educated in Barcelona.

“I thought all Sephardic Jews [Jews from Spain] were the same,” he said.

A page from a circa 15th century prayer book that was used as a source for Dr. Idan Perez ‘Sidur Catalunya,’ a reconstruction of the prayer book used in parts of pre-Expulsion Catalonia. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

It was only when he immigrated to Israel in 2004 and studied at a Sephardic yeshiva in the Old City of Jerusalem that he discovered the literature of the rabbinic scholars of Catalonia, which mentioned the unique customs of the Jews of that community. His interest was piqued, leading to years of investigation into the subject and culminating in the publication of “Sidur Catalunya” in 2019.

The Jews of Catalonia fled following anti-Jewish riots in 1391, and those who remained were expelled in 1492. They went on to recreate their communities in places such as Rome, Saloniki (Thessaloniki in the Ottoman Empire) and Algiers, but these too were destroyed due to persecution in subsequent historical periods. Only a small number of people are still familiar with the unique traditions of the Catalonian Jews.

“Sidur Catalunya” recovers the ancient nusach Catalunya, or Catalonian prayer custom and traditions, based on six manuscripts dating from the 14th to 16th century. Based on his knowledge of rare manuscripts and many connections in the archival world, Perez managed to track down the manuscripts in Russia, Italy and England.

The oldest, from 1352, is part of the Günzburg Collection in Moscow. Another 14th century manuscript was found at the Biblioteca Palatina in Parma, Italy. Three manuscripts from the 15th century were located — one at the Russian Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg and two at the Bodleian at Oxford University. The final manuscript dates to 1507 and is housed at Biblioteca Casanatense in Rome.

Dr. Idan Perez holds a circa 1280 CE Catalonian Machzor, at Jerusalem’s National Library, September 15, 2019. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

After tracking down the manuscripts with the help of archivists and Haredi religious scholars, Perez, 45, spent several years painstakingly restoring the text.

“As a first step, I prepared tables of contents for all the manuscripts. I compared all the parts of the prayer book as they appeared in all six manuscripts and recorded the differences. In the prayer book [his ‘Sidur Catalunya’], I used the earliest version [Manuscript A – the one from the Günzburg Collection] as the basis, noting differences in versions or spelling in the footnotes and sometimes in square brackets in the text. The parts of the prayer book that are not found in Manuscript A were copied from the other manuscripts and this was noted in the footnotes,” Perez explained in an interview for a blog post on the NLI website.

Perez told The Times of Israel that dealing with differences among the manuscripts was challenging.

“I wanted to be faithful to the tradition, but sometimes I had to make a determination myself. It’s a lot of responsibility to shoulder,” Perez said.

Unlike a standard siddur that contain prayers for only weekdays and the Sabbath, the “Sidur Catalunya” is far more expansive. It also includes prayers for festivals like Shavuot and Sukkot, the High Holidays, fast days, life cycle events, and even the Passover haggadah.

In addition, “Sidur Catalunya” has a series of bakashot (supplications sung in the pre-dawn hours of the Sabbath) composed by medieval Catalonian scholars published for the first time, including ones by Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban), Rabbi Shlomo ben Adret (Rashba) and Rabbenu Zerachya ha-Levi. The prayer book also includes commentaries by ancient rabbis from Babylonia, and ones by medieval rabbis from Spain, France, Provence and the Catalonian centers of learning in Barcelona and Girona.

A circa 1280 Catalonian Machzor, at Jerusalem’s National Library, September 15, 2019. (Amanda Borschel-Dan/Times of Israel)

“One of the things that distinguishes the Catalonian prayer services is the abundant singing of piyyutim [liturgical poems]. They are interspersed between the prayers, and I included some of them in ‘Sidur Catalunya,'” Perez said.

Most of the Catalonian piyyutim were collected in a separate book called a machzor. Printed versions of this book were used in the Jewish communities of Saloniki and Rome in the early first half of the 20th century, before they disappeared.

“Be careful not to confuse this machzor with the prayer book for the High Holidays that we commonly call a machzor,” Perez cautioned.

Perez said he never imagined he would recover the melodies with which the piyyutim were sung. However, to his surprise he discovered cantors from the Algerian Jewish community now living in Israel and France who sing these melodies. Although Sephardic rabbinic rulings stopped the interspersing of piyyutim within the prayer service, the Algerian communities descended from the Catalonians continued to include them.

“They told me that what they are singing is about 90 percent the same as the original Catalonian tunes,” he said.

In addition, Perez found a joint ethnomusicology project by the NLI, the Hebrew University and Bar-Ilan University from 2000 that recorded the singing of the Catalonian prayers.

Illustration depicting Catalonian custom for lighting Hanukkah candles. (Courtesy of Idan Perez)

In the course of his research, Perez unearthed several idiosyncratic customs among the Catalonian Jews. One involves the lighting of the Hanukkah candles. Instead of lighting as most Jews do today, the Catalonians would light the candle for the first night on the far left, and then add a candle to its right on each subsequent night.

The two major Jewish communities of Catalonia sometimes even differed with regard to particular traditions. In Barcelona, they would begin reciting selichot (penitentiary prayer services during the High Holiday season) the 25th of the month of Elul, before Rosh Hashanah. In Girona, these prayers were only recited during the Ten Days of Repentance between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

Reconstructing “Sidur Catalunya” was a labor of love for Perez. He hopes it will be used by academics, religious scholars and lay people.

“I didn’t want to write something that would sit on a library shelf and be consulted once in a blue moon,” he said.

Although Perez has no illusions that the Catalonian prayer mode will be fully resurrected, he would be pleased if some individual worshipers and congregations use it. Perez has already heard that a small minyan [prayer quorum] in Barcelona is using it.

“The most satisfying moment of this whole project for me was when I took some of the first copies to my synagogue so that I and others could use them in prayer,” Perez said.

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