A Mysterious Erasure in a 700-Year-Old Manuscript of the Hebrew Bible

One recent Saturday morning, I was following the Torah portion from a late-13th-century manuscript and noticed some strange faded text and stress lines. What did they mean?

The opening of Parashat Eikev from the Rothschild Pentateuch, Ashkenaz, 1296. J. Paul Getty Museum and Research Center in Los Angeles, Ms. 116 Acquisition 2018.43, fol. 424v.

The opening of Parashat Eikev from the Rothschild Pentateuch, Ashkenaz, 1296. J. Paul Getty Museum and Research Center in Los Angeles, Ms. 116 Acquisition 2018.43, fol. 424v.

Observation
April 11 2022
About the author

Marc Michael Epstein is professor of religion and visual culture and director of Jewish studies at Vassar College. He is the author of, among other books, The Medieval Haggadah: Art, Narrative, and Religious Imagination (2011) and Skies of Parchment, Seas of Ink: Jewish Illuminated Manuscripts (2015).

It’s not easy following the Torah reading from a 13th-century manuscript. The marginal drolleries—little decorated images—can be distracting, and the Masoretic notes and annotations persist in twisting themselves into interesting geometric (and other) forms. The Hebrew cursive for the Rashi commentary is impossible to parse, looking for all the world like a series of identical brushstrokes. And the text itself is compressed, quirky, hedged about with a thicket of vowels and cantillation marks intended to ease reading but in fact further cramping the already tightly-spaced text column. And how in the world is one to even see the tiny marks that indicate the ends of sections and readings? And yet following the Torah portion from a late-13th-century manuscript was precisely what I was doing one recent Saturday morning when a mystery appeared.

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More about: Arts & Culture, Hebrew Bible, Religion & Holidays