Maimonides in Manuscript

Feb. 12 2019

A new exhibit at the Israel Museum on the life and work of Moses Maimonides, the leading halakhist and Jewish theologian of the Middle Ages, displays fourteen rare manuscripts of his work. Describing the exhibit, Rhona Lewis begins with a copy of the sage’s great code of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah, with a note in his own hand vouching for its authenticity:

Owned by the University of Oxford, [this edition of the Mishneh Torah] is handwritten in ink on paper (1170-1180). Next come two volumes of [an earlier work, his] commentary on the Mishnah. . . . I linger over the sketches of the Temple and notice some handwritten notes in the margins. “By comparing the handwriting with documents that we have from the Cairo Genizah, we can be pretty sure . . . that these are Maimonides’ own notes,” [the curator Anna Nitza Caplan] tells me. “These two . . .volumes were brought to Syria in 1375 and remained in Maimonides’ family until the 15th century. Between 1630 and 1635, one volume was taken to Oxford. The [other] volume . . . became the property of the Israel National Library. Now, 400 years later, the two volumes are temporarily together,” says Caplan.

We move on to the first two volumes of the Mishneh Torah from northern Italy (ca. 1457). The manuscripts are richly illuminated, with six large painted panels decorated in precious pigments and gold leaf, as well as 41 smaller illustrations with gold lettering adorning the opening words of each chapter. The volumes were separated some 200 years ago. Volume 1 is now owned by the Vatican Library; Volume 2 is jointly owned by the Israel Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. While illuminated siddurim, haggadot, and Hebrew Bibles aren’t that hard to come by, Maimonides’ works are unique in that they are scholarly texts meant for study. . . .

Caplan [also] points out a copy of the Mishneh Torah from Portugal at the end of the 15th century, about 20 years before the [forced conversion of the country’s Jews].

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More about: Halakhah, Moses Maimonides, Rare books, Religion & Holidays


Who Changed the Term “Nakba” into a Symbol of Arab Victimization?

April 19 2019

In contemporary Palestinian discourse, not to mention that of the Palestinians’ Western supporters, the creation of the state of Israel is known as the Nakba, or catastrophe—sometimes explicitly compared with the Holocaust. The very term has come to form a central element in a narrative of passive Palestinian suffering at Jewish hands. But when the Syrian historian Constantin Zureiq first used the term with regard to the events of 1948, he meant something quite different, and those responsible for changing its meaning were none other than Israelis. Raphael Bouchnik-Chen explains:

In his 1948 pamphlet The Meaning of the Disaster (Ma’na al-Nakba), Zureiq attributed the Palestinian/Arab flight to the stillborn pan-Arab assault on the nascent Jewish state rather than to a premeditated Zionist design to disinherit the Palestinian Arabs. “We [Arabs] must admit our mistakes,” [he wrote], “and recognize the extent of our responsibility for the disaster that is our lot.” . . . In a later book, The Meaning of the Catastrophe Anew, published after the June 1967 war, he defined that latest defeat as a “Nakba,” . . . since—just as in 1948—it was a self-inflicted disaster emanating from the Arab world’s failure to confront Zionism. . . .

It was only in the late 1980s that it began to be widely perceived as an Israeli-inflicted injustice. Ironically, it was a group of politically engaged, self-styled Israeli “new historians” who provided the Palestinian national movement with perhaps its best propaganda tool by turning the saga of Israel’s birth upside down, with aggressors turned into hapless victims, and vice-versa, on the basis of massive misrepresentation of archival evidence.

While earlier generations of Palestinian academics and intellectuals had refrained from exploring the origins of the 1948 defeat, the PLO chairman Yasir Arafat, who was brought to Gaza and the West Bank as part of the 1993 Oslo Accords and was allowed to establish his Palestinian Authority (PA) in parts of those territories, grasped the immense potential of reincarnating the Nakba as a symbol of Palestinian victimhood rather than a self-inflicted disaster. In 1998, he proclaimed May 15 a national day of remembrance of the Nakba. In subsequent years, “Nakba Day” has become an integral component of the Palestinian national narrative and the foremost event commemorating their 1948 “catastrophe.”

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More about: Arab World, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, New historians, Yasir Arafat