Intrigue surrounds text, which was 'clearly written by more than one hand'

World’s ‘oldest known siddur’ unveiled in Jerusalem

Prayer book no bigger than iPhone said to be 1,200 years old, but experts wonder precisely when it was written, and if all its pages belong together

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Is this the world's oldest prayer book? (photo credit: Ardon Bar Hama/Courtesty Green Collection)
Is this the world's oldest prayer book? (photo credit: Ardon Bar Hama/Courtesty Green Collection)

Jerusalem’s Bible Lands Museum presented what it termed as the oldest known Jewish prayer book, or siddur, at a closed ceremony Thursday evening.

The tiny manuscript, about the size of an iPhone 4s, is estimated to be 1,200 years old, and is about 50 pages long, with Hebrew script covering each thick, rough-edged page.

It’s the property of Steve Green, the Oklahoma City scion of national retail chain Hobby Lobby that owns The Green Collection, with more than 40,000 biblical antiquities. The family members are devout Christians, descendants of preachers, and major donors to evangelical ministries.

Now they’re taking what is considered the world’s largest private collection of rare biblical texts and artifacts and using it as the core of the family’s planned $800 million, eight-story Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC. The prayer book will eventually be part of the museum’s collection.

Green was on hand Thursday night to present the siddur, currently displayed alongside similar texts in the museum’s ongoing Book of Books exhibit. Before it was unveiled, it was shown by Green to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who examined it and hailed it as a “connection between our past and present, and that is something of great value.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu examines what is said to be the world's oldest prayer book, now on display at the Bible Lands Museum. (photo credit: Chaim Tzach)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu examines what is said to be the world’s oldest prayer book, now on display at the Bible Lands Museum. (photo credit: Chaim Tzach)

But some scholars have expressed doubt that the collection of prayers was written in one piece. Shown on Thursday night without a glass cover, museum director Amanda Weiss commented that “this book needs to be studied.”

“I’m sure it’s going to be the subject of many PhD doctorates,” said Weiss.

It’s already the subject of some debate, as several academics and Hebrew experts wonder about the provenance and content of the prayer book. With as many as 10-15 different handwritings in the text, and a curious combination of prayers and liturgical poems, experts wonder when the book was actually written.

“Having only seen photos of the book, and not the original, it looks like the pages are genuine, but the unity of this item is an issue that remains to be clarified,” said Matthew Morgenstern, a professor of Hebrew at Tel Aviv University.

According to Morgenstern, who has worked on similar materials from the same period in which the prayer book was provenanced, the siddur contains prayers from the daily morning service, liturgical poems and sections of the Passover Haggadah.

He thought it was strange that a prayer book would join three such disparate subjects. He also pointed out the size of the pages, which are similar, but unequal.

An expert on the binding of manuscripts could “probably tell you in five minutes” if the sheets of the book were stitched together in the Middle Ages or in more modern times, said Morgenstern.

“There’s an enormous amount of hype here,” said Morgenstern. “It’s not logical; where’s the evidence?”

An ancient prayer book is seen on display at the Bible Lands museum in Jerusalem, Thursday, Sept. 18, 2014 (photo credit: AP/Sebastian Scheiner)
An ancient prayer book on display at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem, Thursday, September 18, 2014 (photo credit: AP/Sebastian Scheiner)

The prayer book floated around antiquarians and book dealers for a long time before being purchased by the Green Foundation, said Ben Outhwaite, head of the geniza research unit in the Cambridge University Library, which has the world’s largest collection of medieval Jewish manuscripts.

“It’s been around for a good few years, but people were loath to have anything to do with it,” said Outhwaite. “They wanted to be sure. In Cambridge we could never have had anything to do with it because the origins were obscure.”

According to museum director Weiss, the text was handed down by a family for generations before ending up on the antiquities market.

Looking at the siddur on display, Green added that there has been “a lot of intrigue about the book,” which was clearly written by “more than one hand.”

“There are many questions to answer,” he said. “It will take our experts years to determine its significance. But we felt it would be of value to the collection.”

Steve Green “must have been satisfied” with the text’s provenance, or he wouldn’t have purchased it, said Outhwaite.

It’s difficult to determine the provenance of such a text, experts say, primarily because there are so few found that were written after the period of the Dead Sea Scrolls and before the time of the Cairo Geniza.

The Green Foundation did do carbon testing on the prayer book, a process in which a centimeter-sized square of the page is burned and tested in order to determine its age. Experts said it was written in the first half of the ninth century.

The results of the carbon testing surprised Outhwaite, who said that photos of the book showed a text that looked more similar to what he has in the Cambridge Library, dating from the 11th century.

Still, without proper research, it’s hard to determine certain salient facts about the book.

“This is the first instance of a manuscript from a dead period,” said Outhwaite. “It’s really important if it’s genuinely from that period. We’re just waiting for that information to come out.”

Both Morgenstern and Outhwaite said the Greens would never knowingly present a questionable artifact.

Nevertheless, said Morgenstern, the information about the book needs to be clarified.

“It’s being put on display as a siddur,” he said, “without the questions having been answered in public.”

The historic prayer book will be displayed in the museum for the next four weeks, until the exhibit closes after Sukkot.

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