Academic journal article The Jewish Quarterly Review

The First Jewish Books and the Early History of Jewish Reading

Academic journal article The Jewish Quarterly Review

The First Jewish Books and the Early History of Jewish Reading

Article excerpt

AMONG THE EARLIEST SURVIVING dated Jewish books, tkat is, codices, are a group of Bibles tkat were produced in tke Near East - Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Tunisia, and Iraq-between tke early tentk and mideleventk centuries.1 Tkis group includes one complete text of tke Hebrew Bible, several codices containing either the Pentateuch or large sections of the Propkets and the Hagiographa and more than a few scattered groups of leaves representing lost codices. All in all, twenty-one separate dated works are represented; in addition, there are eigkt or nine other manuscripts without colopkons.2 All these texts contain vocalized texts of the Hebrew Bible with cantillation marks and the scribal notes known as the madorah? On account of the latter, these codices are known as JVlasoretic Bibles. Because these manuscripts skow extraordinary scribal sopkistication, they were clearly products of a tradition of codex-production that must have begun centuries earlier. This would place the origins of the codex in Jewisk culture around the beginning of the eigkth century, the date that sckolars kave given to some of the earliest undated Hebrew codices.4

These codices have long attracted sckolarly attention. The standard critical edition of the Bible, Eibua Hebratca, is based upon the Leningrad Codex (Russian National Library, St. Petersburg, B 19A), the single surviving codex to contain the entire Tanakk.5 Its rival modern edition, the Hebrew University Keter Yerushalayin, is based on the no less famous Aleppo Codex.6 Paleographers and codicologists see these codices as marking the transition in Jewish literary culture from scroll to codex/ For students of Jewish art, these codices are milestones inasmuch as they contain the first medieval examples of Jewish book illustration and decoration.8

In this essay, I will argue that these codices also mark a watersked moment in the kistory of Jewish reading and its tecknology; indeed, they are our first evidence for "professional" Jewish readers of the Bible. I will begin by describing the codices and their background and then sketch out wkat I consider to be the larger significance of the codices and the cultural pkenomenon that they represent.

In addition to their other common features, all the masoretic codices kave more or less the identical page format. Figure 1, a typical page from the Aleppo Codex (f. 189v), containing Ezeh 47.22-48.20, is a representative example of that format.9 The overall layout of the codex page three columns across - roughly replicates the appearance of the text as laid out on the parckment skeets of a Torak scroll, with the words written m the same prominent, square, so-called Assyrian letters (albeit in sligktly narrower columns in the codex). Unlike a Torak, however, the Hebrew text in the codex contains both vowels and the cantillation notes that, aside from indicating the liturgical chant for the text, also mark punctuation and accentuation. The masorak itself is found on the page in two forms - first, in the spare intercolumn abbreviations, usually consisting of one letter; second, in the two (sometimes three or four) line notes on the very top and very bottom of the page. The former is known as the masorak parva, or mcdorah ketanah; the latter as the masorak magna, or mesoorah gedolah.

Both types of masoretic notes annotate the same kinds of textual phenomena. Masorah parva, as its name suggests, consists of very abbreviated, almost code-like notations. The most common single-letter notation is a lamed, which stands for the Aramaic term leit, literally, "there is none," meaning that the word in the form in which it appears in the text is unique, a hapax legomenon.10 The masorah, however, is not interested solely in hapaxes; it also records the specific number of times any word or phrase with an unusual form or atypical synctatic construction appears in the Bible.11 So, too, it pays special attention to and annotates all instances of exceptional orthography, in particular defective and pLene spellings. …

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