How the Vatican Acquired One of the World’s Most Impressive Collections of Hebrew Manuscripts

According to a widespread, persistent, and entirely unfounded legend, the menorah and other ritual objects from the Second Temple remain hidden in the secret archives of the Catholic Church in Rome. While the Vatican in fact possesses no such artifacts, it does posess an impressive trove of rare Hebrew manuscripts—including volumes of Talmud, ancient and medieval Bible commentaries, liturgical poetry, and much else. There is nothing secret about these texts, however: they were microfilmed for the use of the National Library of Israel in the 1950s, and Jewish researchers have had regular access to them since. Lawrence Schiffman describes the collection and explains its history:

Many of the manuscripts are beautifully illuminated, having been copied in the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance (i.e., from the 9th to the 16th century). The collection includes a manuscript that is probably the earliest Hebrew codex (bound book) in existence: a copy of the Sifra [a halakhic exegesis of Leviticus] dating from the end of the 9th century or the first half of the 10th. . . . There are well over 50 codices of biblical texts, excluding small fragments, among them a copy of the entire Tanakh written around 1100 in Italy. . . . No other collection includes as many copies of tractates of the Talmud as the Vatican Library.

Over the course of the 16th century, cardinals, bishops, and popes occasionally contributed various Hebrew books, which numbered 173 by the 1640s. A few manuscripts were transferred from the estates of converts or sold by Jewish vendors to Christian collectors. . . . In 1472, the city of Volterra was laid to waste by the forces of Count Federico of Urbino. Among the victims of the indiscriminate pillaging was the wealthy merchant Menahem ben Aharon Volterra, whose Hebrew manuscripts were secured by Federico himself for his personal library. In 1657, the collection of the dukes of Urbino became part of the Vatican Library.

[W]hile we can never be sure how the previous owners got their manuscripts, the Vatican did not pillage them from Jews. What we can say is that if these manuscripts had been in the hands of Jewish institutions, they would certainly have been stolen by the Nazis.

Read more at Ami Magazine

More about: Italian Jewry, Jewish-Catholic relations, Manuscripts, Rare books, Vatican

Recognizing a Palestinian State Won’t Help Palestinians, or Even Make Palestinian Statehood More Likely

While Shira Efron and Michael Koplow are more sanguine about the possibility of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict, and more critical of Israel’s policies in the West Bank, than I am, I found much worth considering in their recent article on the condition of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Particularly perceptive are their comments on the drive to grant diplomatic recognition to a fictive Palestinian state, a step taken by nine countries in the past few months, and almost as many in total as recognize Israel.

Efron and Koplow argue that this move isn’t a mere empty gesture, but one that would actually make things worse, while providing “no tangible benefits for Palestinians.”

In areas under its direct control—Areas A and B of the West Bank, comprising 40 percent of the territory—the PA struggles severely to provide services, livelihoods, and dignity to inhabitants. This is only partly due to its budgetary woes; it has also never established a properly functioning West Bank economy. President Mahmoud Abbas, who will turn ninety next year, administers the PA almost exclusively by executive decrees, with little transparency or oversight. Security is a particular problem, as militants from different factions now openly defy the underfunded and undermotivated PA security forces in cities such as Jenin, Nablus, and Tulkarm.

Turning the Palestinian Authority (PA) from a transitional authority into a permanent state with the stroke of a pen will not make [its] litany of problems go away. The risk that the state of Palestine would become a failed state is very real given the PA’s dysfunctional, insolvent status and its dearth of public legitimacy. Further declines in its ability to provide social services and maintain law and order could yield a situation in which warlords and gangs become de-facto rulers in some areas of the West Bank.

Otherwise, any steps toward realizing two states will be fanciful, built atop a crumbling foundation—and likely to help turn the West Bank into a third front in the current war.

Read more at Foreign Affairs

More about: Palestinian Authority, Palestinian statehood