Tuesday, March 25, 2008


A 15th century Byzantine manuscript with many kabbalistic items. In the margins of Azriel of Gerona's commentary to Sefer Yetsirah, someone wrote:
גוזר אני עליך שלא תלמוד בו עד היותך בן ל' שנים
I forbid you to study this until you are 30 years old.

Maybe he had someone specific in mind. Maybe it was just a general warning. Especially since the manuscript used to belong to an Italian Jewish community.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Magic, again

Last week's New Yorker had an article about the present state of close-up magic - the world of illusion and card tricks. The article repeatedly emphasized that explaining how a magic trick works spoils it for the audience, who are now unable to appreciate it.

I thought of that while listening to Bruce Zuckerman speaking at Yeshiva University on Thursday. In demonstrating the magic he performs on Semitic artifacts and manuscripts, he commented that, when he "cleans up" a text to make it more legible, he can really do whatever he wants. In fact, he can put your name in the Genesis Apocryphon. If you're really important, he'll make you the Teacher of Righteousness. But when he shows people how he actually does it, they become suspicious and start pointing out all the mistakes he made.

The lecture was fun, and it drew a large crowd of YU Jewish studies people. From there I went down to JTS, where Menahem Kahana gave a speech to the NYC Talmud community, on the relationship between the Mishnah and Sifre Bamidbar. Kahana is preparing his critical edition and commentary on Sifre Bamidbar this year. His lecture was very methodical, and it was a real pleasure to hear. More American-oriented scholars there felt it was unsatisfying - because who really cares whether the Sifre quotes "our" Mishnah or a different "Mishnah"? Fair enough, but I have learned that there is a great deal of wisdom in choosing questions that can have good answers.

The latest issue of Tarbiz is chockablock full of fascinating articles. I've only seen a couple of them so far. TOC here.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

"Our land abounds in nature's gifts..."

Australia, besides its other attributes, has some medieval manuscripts. No Hebrew ones, though, as far as I am aware. There are a few early modern Kabbalistic manuscripts, in a few places, including Melbourne. I once heard a funny story about a manuscript of Shoshan Sodot that was brought over by one of the people who fled Safed after the earthquake (1920s?) and moved to Perth. He gave it to a local monastery, where it languished for decades. A few years ago, someone convinced the monks to let him bring it to Israel, and it is now in the National Library.

Monday, March 10, 2008

My email address

manuscript.boy _at_ gmail dot com

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

A topic worth studying

An anonymous reader questions my choice of dissertation topic in light of the late Professor Ta-Shma's emphasis on the importance of Byzantine halakhah.

Yes, Byzantium - meaning the Balkans and Turkey - is largely uncharted territory in terms of halakhic literature. And there is surely need for more research on the topic.

But there are a number of reasons why so little has been done. For starters, there is not a very large amount of material. According to a quick search of the IMHM catalogue, most manuscripts in Byzantine script and halakhic content are Karaite. Of the rabbinic manuscripts, most are copies of well-known works from Western Europe.

Next, Byzantine Hebrew is markedly different from the Hebrew used by most medieval rabbis. It is often quite difficult to make it out.

The paleography of Byzantine Hebrew script is still being developed.

Byzantine rabbinic literature did not have much of an afterlife, because the communities were swamped by Spanish refugees in the 15th and 16th centuries. Therefore there were fewer opportunities to copy manuscripts, and many were surely lost.

One other factor to keep in mind is that the geographic boundaries are rarely enforceable, and some Byzantine halakhic discussions have been dealt with under the rubric of Italian halakhah (the study of which is not in such great shape either).