The Rediscovery of an 11th-Century Volume of the Hebrew Bible in an Egyptian Synagogue

February 25, 2020 | Amanda Borschel-Dan
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In 1905, Richard Gottheil—a leading scholar of Semitics and one of the early leaders of American Zionism—discovered a millennium-old manuscript of the Bible in a Karaite synagogue in Cairo. At 616-pages, this extremely rare codex includes only the Writings: the third section of the Hebrew Bible comprising Psalms, Job, Esther, and other books. The volume had not been seen since 1981, raising concerns that it had been lost. But the Israeli historian Yoram Meital recently rediscovered it, finding it on a shelf in the same synagogue. Amanda Borschel-Dan writes:

In a stroke of scholarly luck, the colophon, or book’s imprint, includes the name of the scribe, Zechariah ben Anan, and the person who commissioned it, as well as its date of completion. These are rare and important details . . . and show the provenance of the work as well as the wealth and philanthropy of the family who presumably donated the text to the local synagogue.

Based on notes left by ben Anan, we know it was completed in the Jewish year 4788, which corresponds to the Gregorian year 1028. Ben Anan’s notes [also include] his computations of how many verses he wrote, and that [the volume] was once part of a complete Hebrew Bible—the other two sections, [the Pentateuch and Prophets], are gone without a trace.

The manuscript Meital found not only holds the complete Writings but also twelve pages of Masoretic [scribal] notes on the trope, or the cantillation system according to which it is to be read, and the nikud, or vowel and pronunciation marks. This [latter] system of little dots and lines overlaid on the biblical text indicates how the ancient Hebrew words should sound, since Hebrew is written without vowels. The system was established by a group of Jewish scholars [known as the Masoretes] living in Tiberias near the Sea of Galilee circa 750–950 CE.

“It would be difficult to remain indifferent to the beauty of this manuscript,” wrote Meital.

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