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Cambridge University Library

Q&A Wednesday: The Bible under microscope, with Nehemia Gordon

T-S NS 3.25
Detail of T-S NS 3.25, a scroll reused for writing practice.
Melonie Schmierer-Lee and Nehemia Gordon
Wed 13 Apr 2022

Nehemia, what are you working on today?

I’m a visiting scientist at the BAM Institute in Berlin (the Federal Institute for Research and Testing). One of the techniques they’ve developed is the use of a handheld device to distinguish between carbon and iron gall ink – the Dino-Lite. So, I’ve come to Cambridge University Library to look at a large number of Genizah Bible fragments – Torah scrolls, though not only – and I’m looking to see what the ink is: iron gall or carbon.

Are you hoping to tell from this when or where the manuscripts were written?

We know that carbon ink was used earlier than iron gall ink. There’s a statement in the Mishna where Rabbi Meir says there’s a material he could throw in the ink and it makes it so that it can’t be erased. We know that there’s that innovation in the first or second century CE. The assumption was that the older the manuscript, the more likely it would be to be written in carbon ink. But that seems not to be the case. We have very early manuscripts written in iron gall ink and very late manuscripts written in carbon ink. For example, I was looking at a Torah scroll yesterday – T-S NS 3.25 – where the scroll was used for writing practice after it was no longer a kosher scroll. The person who was practicing their writing traced over the letters and also added vowels. When I looked at it under the Dino-Lite I saw that most of the vowels were iron gall ink but some were carbon ink. This came as a surprise – two people had practised or added vowels to it. Perhaps after the student completed his exercise and traced the letters and added vowels, the teacher came and added in select places in carbon ink the vowels that the student had missed.

Is this part of a project?

Yes. In addition to the work with the BAM Institute I’m also working with the Institute for Hebrew Bible Manuscript Research. It’s a collaborative effort.

How did you become interested in Bible manuscripts?

My father was an Orthodox Rabbi, and I started studying the Torah at three years old sitting on his knee. I was always fascinated by this ancient recording of information preserved by the Jewish people and I had heard of the Cairo Genizah manuscripts. When I did my Masters degree at the Hebrew University I’d heard about these manuscripts and occasionally they would be selectively cited and referenced. But other than the Aleppo Codex and the Leningrad Codex there wasn’t really any access back then to manuscripts. Of course, now they’ve all been digitised and put online (partly by the Genizah Research Unit and the Friedberg Project) and the beauty now is that instead of coming here and looking at the fragments with the luck of the draw what you’ll find, now, in preparation I’ve looked through thousands of images and I can hone in on the ones I’m interested in. That’s a revolution in the field. Before coming to the University Library I spent hundreds of hours scanning images and collating lists of questions so that when I come here I’m looking to answer very specific things. Sometimes I do stumble upon something, like the second vocaliser in T-S NS 3.25. I have an article that has just come out in the Journal of Jewish Studies ('Medieval scribal procedures for writing the Tetragrammaton') on how scribes would leave blank spaces for God’s name in Torah scrolls and then add it in a second phase. Sometimes written in by the original scribe and sometimes by a second scribe.

Was that in case the scribe made a mistake in the rest of the text? 

There are three reasons given in the medieval sources. If a scribe wants to write God’s name he needs to be in a state of ritual purity. If you have to work six days a week, it’s more efficient to save that part for the end if you’re not ritually pure at that moment. Some scribes work like this today, but it was also done like this in the Middle Ages. The second reason has a basis in the Babylonian Talmud, where it says you have to write God’s name with intent. Which means you cannot be daydreaming when you write God’s name. You need to specifically be thinking ‘this is a holy word’, and in later forms you have to actually say ‘le-Shem qedushat ha-Shem’ (‘for the sake of sanctification of the Name’) and if there are two divine names in a row you must say that twice.

You have to really be in the right zone when you’re writing.

Exactly. If you had a fight with someone that day and you’re thinking about that, or your boss is mean to you, you can leave a space and come back to it when you’re in a different state of mind. The third reason is a bit strange – and even in the sources that mention it they say this has no basis in Jewish law. They wanted to write God’s name in the presence of ten righteous men, which is pretty impractical! I’m sitting writing a scroll and I have to go and gather ten people? Maybe in a village of a few hundred Jews, half of whom are women, and a quarter of whom are children? So, they would leave the blank space to be filled in. What’s interesting is that we have examples of this phenomenon in the Dead Sea Scrolls. Maybe not for this reason, but they would fill in God’s name in a second phase. In T-S NS 3.25 God’s name is in a different handwriting. Then we have the person who traced the letter and added vowels, and then a fourth added some vowels in carbon ink. Four scribes involved in the life of the scroll. 

You were brought up in an Orthodox family but you are now Karaite. Does your life as a Karaite affect how you approach the Bible in your scholarly work?

I wear two hats. As a person of faith I have certain beliefs, but when I do my scholarly work doctrine stays outside the door and whatever I find is what I find, with no preconceptions or assumptions. Sometimes doctrine needs to be modified, and that’s fine. One of the things I used to believe very strongly is that the Bible we have today is identical in every single manuscript that exists – but that’s not reality! That had to be a belief that was modified. It’s something I was taught on a university level – that there are all these manuscripts and only six differences: for example, an aleph on the word daka דכא in Deut 23:2 that was a heh in some manuscripts. But there are innumerable differences among the manuscripts. You could say some aren’t important and some are, but that’s already a judgment call.

You have spent time working on manuscript collections around the world. What is it like working with collections as varied as those of the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC, and the Firkovich collections in the National Library of Russia?

The Museum of the Bible mostly has very late Torah scrolls. They have approximately three or four thousand Torah scrolls, but it’s my estimate that there are only 500 or so that are 16th century or earlier and if we go to 13th century or earlier there’s only a handful. The beauty is that you can see Yemenite, Iraqi, Ashkenazi, Moroccan, Algerian Torah scrolls all in the same place. There’s a huge variety of material. I went there because during my PhD research I’d looked at around two thousand images of Firkovich shelf marks, but in that whole number I’d only examined images of two Torah scrolls (on the Vatican website). When the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts travelled around the world to get images of all Hebrew manuscripts, for the most part they didn’t photograph Torah scrolls, because there was an expectation that each one was identical. Of around 80,000 microfilmed manuscripts, a few thousand shelf marks are Bible manuscripts, and of those very few are Torah scrolls. For my research on corrections, erasures and different scribal phenomena I knew that I needed to see the manuscript in person, rather than a black and white photo. I went to the Museum of the Bible and ended up studying a few hundred Torah scrolls there. The Firkovich collection was a very different experience. They have many Torah scrolls, but what I was mostly able to look at were Bible codices and there it’s been claimed (by Prof. Dr. Viktor Golinetz of the Hochschule für Jüdische Studien in Heidelberg), that they have the largest collection of early non-fragment Masoretic codices in the world. There, I was like a kid in a candy store. The first day there, I said I wanted to see the Leningrad Codex, because everyone wants to see that! But I was there for two weeks and its wasn’t until my second last day that they let me see the Leningrad Codex.

They had to get the measure of you first?

They wanted to see if I was serious. Yes, I had a bunch of letters of recommendation from my university, but while I was there two other people also came to see the Leningrad Codex and one was from a university in the Vatican, and the other was local. Both were turned away.

On the second to last day you must have assumed you weren’t going to see it!

I thought it was unlikely. I had also spoken to another person at the Library who had been coming for ten years, and she said she had asked to see it and wasn’t permitted. But then, out of the blue, they let me sit with it for five hours! I had spent hundreds of hours preparing questions and I was able to sit and answer many of them, and discover new things too.

Can you tell us about what you saw?

We knew that parts of it had been re-inked. Ink sticks well to the hair side of the parchment but it doesn’t stick well to the flesh side. So, at some point, someone went through and re-inked all the flesh sides in the codex. Now, this is significant because the standard Bible used by scholars all over the world is the Leningrad Codex, which has been printed as the Biblica Hebraica Stuttgartensia, and anything that deviates from that is considered a variant or an emendation. That’s due to the reputation of the scribe, Samuel ben Jacob, and also because it’s complete. But he didn’t do the re-inking. It could have been done centuries later. Maybe it was done in the 18th century – this hasn’t been determined yet. So many of the things in the BHS may not be the hand of Samuel ben Jacob. When I looked with the Dino-Lite I could see there were places where the same vowel appeared twice. The original scribe’s vowel was there but faded and you could see the outline of it in iron gall ink with infrared. Then, with infrared I could see the re-inked vowel in carbon ink next to it. It raises the question of when we are talking about the Masoretic text, what are we referring to? The text in the Aleppo Codex or that which is in the published editions of the Leningrad Codex? We have to be clear about what we are referring to.

How much do you think the re-inker could see of the original vocalisation?

I didn’t see any places where he deviated from what was there, but nevertheless, what is reproduced in BHS is – on the flesh sides – the vocalisation of the re-inker not the original ink. Did he add a vowel? I don’t know.

Or change something from his own memory?

Or was he working off a text of his own? There was one place that Ben Outhwaite asked me to check, where there were three schewas in a row, although that’s not meant to exist. Under the microscope you could clearly see that there had been a patah that was then corrected into a schewa (not by the carbon ink re-inker but by someone else who corrected it in iron gall ink). It’s so useful to be able to check things at a microscopic level.

Leningrad Codex 1 Samuel 30:29

Image: Modified vowels in the Leningrad Codex, visible at ~50x magnification in 1 Sam 30:29. The word הירחמאלי has three schewas in a row in 1 Sam 27:10, but in 1 Sam 30:29 shown here, the schewa under the resh and the patakh under the yod of the same word were apparently erased by being scratched off the parchment. The corrector then switched the order of these vowels to prevent there from being three schewas in a row. Image by Nehemia Gordon.

In 2020 I had the opportunity to examine the Aleppo Codex with my PhD supervisor Prof. Yosef Ofer. He’d been collecting questions about the manuscript for 15 years. One of the questions had come from Rabbi Mordechai Breuer, who was one of the top experts on the Codex in his day, and he’d sent this question about a particular place where he thought he saw a maqqef and his wife disagreed. Under the microscope we immediately saw there was indeed a maqqef. Ofer said he would be sure to call Breuer’s widow that night to settle the debate once and for all!

Where’s your favourite reading room?

I actually tell people that Cambridge University Library is the easiest to deal with. You write down what you want, and they bring it to you. It’s not that straightforward at a lot of other places.

Thanks for your time, Nehemia!

Dr Nehemia Gordon is a visiting scientist at the BAM Institute in Berlin, executive director of the Institute for Hebrew Bible Manuscripts Research, and host of the podcast Hebrew Voices.


Shouldn't that be ‘le-maan qedushat ha-Shem’ ?

I've been in touch with Nehemia to ask about this, and he's confirmed that le-Shem qedushat ha-Shem is correct. He discusses it in his PhD dissertation on page 223, note 48:

וכן כשמתחיל לכתוב ס"ת יאמר ס"ת זה אני כותב לשם קדושת תורת משה ותו לא צריך. אמנם בשעת כתיבת האזכרות צריך 48
שיחשוב לשם קדושת השם ; Asher ben Jehiel, Halakhot Qetanot, Hilkhot Sefer Torah 4. Similarly, אף על פי שאומר
בתחילת כתיבת הספר שכתבו לשם קדושת ס"ת בכל פעם שכותב שם צריך לחשוב שכותב לשם קדושת השם ואם לא עשה כן
פסול ; Jacob ben Asher, Ṭur, Yoreh Deʿah 276.

Sefer Ha-Mordekhai (in a section attributed to Rabbi Samson) writes: צריך בפירוש לומר לשם קדושת השם.

Thank you! This stuff is really so interesting.

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