NEW YORK — Seven hundred years ago a Sephardic Jew from the Iberian Peninsula immigrated to England. On his way he stopped in France where he bought an Ashkenazi siddur.
That he kept the leather bound prayer book with him upon arriving in England isn’t especially noteworthy — rather, it is the notes about his business dealings, handwritten in Judeo-Arabic, the language of Maimonides and Judah Halevi, that makes this book particularly significant.
Now, this 12th century siddur, thought to be the oldest in existence, is on display as part of “500 Years of Treasures from Oxford,” a new exhibit at the Center for Jewish History.
This is the first time this collection of literary treasures is available for public viewing. Normally the texts reside in a vault far below the library at Oxford University’s Corpus Christi College, accessible only to researchers.
“The fact that it hasn’t changed, that it’s exactly the same as the siddur you might pray from today shows the importance of text in Judaism and the continuity. It recognizes that original Hebrew texts were extraordinarily important in understanding the origins of Christianity,” said Joel Levy, president and CEO of the Center for Jewish History.
The exhibit, which runs through August 6, was put together with Oxford University’s Corpus Christi College, The Center for Jewish History and Yeshiva University Museum.
Coinciding with the 500th anniversary of Corpus Christi’s foundation, the exhibit chronicles the college’s pioneering role in the study of scripture, humanities and sciences.
When Bishop Richard Fox founded the college in 1517 he envisioned it becoming part of the new intellectual current spreading across Europe.
“The college was no longer going to be just a place to train priests. His vision for a humanist college was extraordinary. He had the idea of a trilingual library where there was Greek, Latin and Hebrew, mathematics and astronomy. It was about the importance of wisdom and recognizing it in other traditions apart form Christianity,” said Corpus Christi president Steven Cowley.
Together with Fox, the college’s first president John Claymond also procured books and manuscripts. In spite of knowing little Greek, and less Hebrew, Claymond acquired a pivotal group of seven Hebrew and bilingual Hebrew-Latin manuscripts written before 1290, the year of the Jewish expulsion from England.
From the 13th century manuscript of Samuel and Chronicles that Christians utilized to learn Hebrew, to two of the oldest extant manuscripts of noted 11th century biblical scholar Rashi, the exhibit’s curator Peter Kidd said he considers the Hebrew manuscripts to be the most culturally significant items on display.
“They kaleidoscope time and link us with our ancestors. The annotations on many of the books are like archaeological layers. We see what caught someone’s eye. It’s almost like looking over someone’s shoulder,” Kidd said.
Fox understood that if Christian scholars wanted to understand and edit the Bible, or understand Jewish commentary, they needed to learn Hebrew, said Kidd.
The first printed Hebrew grammar and dictionary printed in Pforzheim, Germany in 1506 is on display, as is Robert Burhill’s 1630 commentary on the Book of Job written in Hebrew and Latin.
Additionally, the exhibit includes books that explore the natural and medical worlds. One glass case holds Galileo’s observations of the moon’s surface; another contains a private letter written by Isaac Newton in which he discusses his theory about the orbits of comets.
Jacob Wisse, director of the Yeshiva University Museum, was struck by the way the college collected science texts together with religious texts.
“It’s not as strict a dividing line between the two as one would think. The separation of religion and science is a more modern day bias,” he said.
Cowley, who is a theoretical physicist, said he was also particularly taken with these texts.
“For me as a scientist it’s not a magical thing that sprang out of somebody’s mind,” he said. “To me it’s not just how they study, but what they chose to study. To see the way people thought at the time is very interesting.”
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