Asian and African studies blog

31 October 2013

Opening up the Hebrew manuscript collection

This summer saw the beginning of a major project to digitise 1250 Hebrew manuscripts held in the  British Library.  Funded mainly by the Polonsky Foundation, the three-year project aims to make these invaluable manuscripts freely available to scholars and the public worldwide.  The manuscripts are being photographed in-house by the Library’s Imaging Services team, and stored in preservation format.  Detailed catalogue records will be available for each manuscript, to enable users to search by various fields such as date, place of origin, author/scribe and keywords to find manuscripts of relevance to their work. All manuscripts will be displayed in their entirety on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site free of charge.  We will also create a special ‘tour’ of the manuscripts on the website, highlighting aspects and themes of the collection in order to introduce it to wider audiences.

Acknowledged as one of the finest and most important in the world, the British Library’s Hebrew manuscripts collection is a vivid testimony to the creativity and intense scribal activities of Eastern and Western Jewish communities spanning  over 1,000 years.  In the collection there are  well over 3,000 individual objects, though for this project we are focusing on just 1,250 manuscripts. 

Hebrew Bible, Italy, 13th century, decorated opening  to the Book of Isaiah.  British Library, Harley 5711, f.1r.  noc

The collection is strong in all major areas of Hebrew literature, with Bible, liturgy, kabbalah, Talmud, Halakhah (Jewish law), ethics, poetry, philosophy and philology being particularly well represented. Its geographical spread is vast and takes in Europe, North Africa, the Middle and Near East, and various countries in Asia, such as Iran, Iraq, Yemen and China. Included in the project are codices (the large majority), Torah scrolls and Scrolls of the Book of Esther.  Hebrew is the predominant language of the material to be digitised; however, manuscripts that were copied in other Jewish languages utilizing Hebrew script, such as Aramaic, Judeo-Arabic,  Judeo-Greek, Judeo-Italian, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Spanish,  Yiddish, and others, have also been included in the project.

The Duke of Sussex’s Italian Bible, Italy, 1448, The Song of the Sea, Exodus 15.  British Library, Add. 15251, f. 49v.  noc

The collection contains numerous items of international significance, including the following:
  • Over 300 important biblical manuscripts including the London Codex dating from c. 10th century, one of the oldest Masoretic Bibles in existence and the Torah Scroll of the Jewish community of Kaifeng.
  • Anglo-Jewish charters in Hebrew and Hebrew/Latin attesting to the Jewish presence in England before the expulsion of the Jewish population in 1290 by King Edward I. They include debt acquittances (releases from debt), attestations (formal confirmations by signature), and other types of contractual transactions between Jews and non-Jews.
  • A collection of 142 Karaite manuscripts, one of the best Karaite resources in the world, comparable only to the Abraham Firkovitch Karaite manuscript collection in St. Petersburg.
  • Some 150 illuminated and decorated manuscripts representing the schools of medieval Hebrew illumination in France, Germany, Italy, Portugal and Spain. Treasures include the Golden Haggadah, the Lisbon Bible, the North French Hebrew Miscellany, the Duke of Sussex German Pentateuch, the Harley Catalan Bible, and the King’s Spanish Bible.
  • About 70 manuscripts containing texts of the Mishnah and the Talmud (Jewish legal code),  and  about 130 manuscript compendia and commentaries on Talmudic and Halakhic topics by some of the greatest Jewish luminaries such as Moses Maimonides, Rashi, Moses ben Jacob of Coucy, Isaac of Corbeil, and others. Many of these manuscripts date from the 14th and 15th centuries, with some dating back to the 12th century.

Ilana Tahan
Lead Curator, Hebrew and Christian Orient Studies 



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