Hebrew Medieval paleography


The idea of constructing a new discipline of medieval Hebrew paleography came of itself. Manuscripts are historical objects: paleography is an historical science. Latin and Greek paleography are ancient: Latin paleography began with Jean Mabillon’s De re diplomatica, published in 1681, which laid the initial foundations of Latin paleography. Greek paleography got it start in 1708, with the publication of de Montfaucon’s Palaeographia Graeca. These two disciplines are well represented in France.


This historical perspective, which had been developed for Greek and Latin only, exists for all scripts and handwritings. Since the 1950s, many other paleographies have emerged, including Hebrew paleography.


Paleography always rests on the principle that the shapes of letters change, as do the materials on which people write (parchment or paper), the format of documents and books (scrolls or codices [bound volumes like ours today]), and the social and technological environment. As it developed, paleography split into two main branches.

A. Codicology describes the concrete and physical details of the manuscript object associated with specific geographic locations and cultures: Islam, Christian Europe or Byzantium.

B. Paleography per se identifies individual scripts and handwriting. The shape of the letters, too, depends on the time, place, and cultural milieu. But every man has his own personal writing: forms learnt during youth are used along the whole life. Moreover, scripts are more static than technical innovations.


A. Codicology


The first stage in the invention of Hebrew paleography was codicology, which is based on quantifiable observations. Manuscripts that can be dated explicitly and with confidence (and sometimes assigned to a specific locale) provided us with physical and measurable codicogical parameters that served as the basis for a map, drawn on a sound historical and geo-cultural basis, of the production of Hebrew manuscripts. Using this map, undated manuscripts become datable manuscripts, to which one can assign a probable localization and date, with a margin of error running between five and fifty years.


The project was devised by Malachi Beit-Arié and myself at the end of 1965. From the outset we were encouraged by the Paleography Committee established by the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, chaired byGershom Scholem. At almost the same time (May 1966) was created in Paris by Jeanne Vieillard, the director of the IRHT, a French Paleography Committee presided by Georges Vajda. The joint project was soon covered by the France-Israel Cultural Accord.


This work, carried on during almost fifty years by the Israeli and French teams, is completed. Lists of questions about codicological, material, measurable details of all dated manuscripts have been compiled and a map of the production of medieval Hebrew manuscripts have been drawn. The publications have been numerous and a data base, SfarData, compiled by Beit-Arié is available over the Internet. It is the first codicological database of medieval manuscripts (http://sfardata.nli.org.il/sfardataweb/home.aspx). However, the degree of accuracy for dating undated manuscripts depend on the number of dated and undated ones in the considered period.


The numbers (estimates rather than precise figures) speak for themselves. From the end of classical Antiquity until the year 1,000 there are about 160 surviving fragments, of which only one is dated. For the next two centuries (1000–1200) we have 101 dated manuscripts, another hundred or so for from 1200 to 1280. During these two periods almost all the books originated in the Muslim near East; the first manuscript from Christian Europe (Otrante, Italy) was copied in 1073/1074. We do not know the number of undated manuscripts. Between 1280 and 1540, about 3,000 dated manuscripts have been described, they come from all the countries where Jews were living and represent about 5% of the datable manuscripts. Thus, it is only for the last period that we can offer for undated manuscripts a quite accurate localization and date.


B. Paleography


Medieval Hebrew script, with its geo-cultural variations, constitutes a single graphical unit, whatever the substrate – parchment, paper, stone, wood, or metal.


There are three types of script: (1) square and calligraphic; (2) semi-square, semi-cursive; (3) rapid and cursive. But the choice of script type depends as much on the substrate as on the nature of the text itself: for example, square and calligraphic letters were used for the Bible and tombstones, and cursive scripts for codices and most documents. Codices are only one form of the “books” used by Jews. There were also scrolls, inscriptions, and legal documents. Gravestones and documents are not only dated but also localized. All three categories (scrolls, inscriptions, documents) are necessary for a full study of Hebrew scripts. Their publication already began in the Series hebraica of the Monumenta paleographica Medii Aevi.


1. Scrolls. The most calligraphic Hebrew script is that used for Torah scrolls, because of their holiness (They are used for the Pentateuch read in the synagogue as part of the liturgy. Only post-Medieval ‘Scrolls of Esther’, have been preserved). Many medieval Torah scrolls survive; their material, format, and script vary as a function of their time and place of origin. Although none of them is dated, it is possible to deduce their century and geo-cultural milieu from “codicological” and paleographical details, as well as from their history. This study is to be done.


2. Inscriptions. We have inscriptions on tombstones and in synagogues from the 9th century in southern Italy. We also find them in Spain and in Germany, starting in the 11th century, and in France starting in the 12th century. The first volume of Spanish funerary inscriptions appeared in 2004.


3. Documents. The oldest surviving legal documents (cartae) come from Catalonia and Germany (11th century), and from 13th century England. The first volume of Hebrew Diplomatics describing English documents has already been sent to the editors.


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