Hebrew Manuscripts in the Middle Ages

Art as text.

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The rich variety is particularly evident in the three types of script--square, mashait (intermediate), and cursive--but is revealed in other material and aesthetic elements as well: the parchment and later the paper, the ink, the collation of the sheets, design of binding and title page, illumination, and illustration. Over time six principal types evolved: Ashkenazi (France, Germany, England, and cen­tral Europe); Italian; Spanish (Iberian peninsula, Provence, and North Africa); Byzantine; Oriental; and Yemenite.

The Second Commandment, prohibiting the making of "graven images," did not prevent illumination of manuscripts during the Middle Ages. The style of illumination was dependent on contemporary fashions in each region. Thus it is difficult to define a Jewish style, although there are certain distinctively Jewish motifs.

For example, animal‑headed figures became one of the main Jewish motifs in southern German Hebrew illumination of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The absence of capital letters in the Hebrew script led to the decoration of initial words, or sometimes whole verses. Another peculiar Jewish element was the use of minute script to form geometric or floral design.

The spread of the printing press in the sixteenth century signaled the end of the manuscript as an independent art. Although unpublished texts--and in more impoverished regions even printed works--continued to be copied by hand until recent times, these were essentially imitations of printing.

The traditional division into types of script disappeared not only because of the printed letter, but also as a result of the expulsion from Spain and the settlement of Iberian Jews in other places. Neverthe­less, the art of the manuscript was revived in the eighteenth century in central Europe and in Germany with the fashion of copying illuminated Passover Haggadot and books of blessings.

The tradition of copying the Pentateuch on scrolls to be read in synagogues, as well as phylacteries, mezuzot, and divorce bills, continues to this day. Written in minute script, following strict rules, this work is done by specially trained expert scribes (sofer setam).

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Eli Barnavi is the Director of the Morris Curiel Center for International Studies and a Professor of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University