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Q&A Wednesday: Decoding Shorthand Bibles, with Kim Phillips

T-S A43.6
T-S A43.6 P1 (recto): part of a shorthand Psalter.
Melonie Schmierer-Lee and Kim Phillips
Wed 25 Aug 2021

Kim, what are you working on today?

I’m working on T-S A43.6, and its associated fragments. They are a Shorthand Bible, or a Psalter, to be more precise.

A Shorthand Bible – is this the same as a Serugin manuscript?

Sort of. For the past too-long I’ve been looking at the different ways the mediaeval Jewish community in Fustat produced Bibles (or parts of Bibles) written in abbreviated form. It turns out there are three basic ways they did it: sometimes they just wrote the initial word, or few words, of a given verse, then the same for the next verse, and so on. I’ve called that the Lemma method. So, to take the famous Psalm 23 as an example, they might abbreviate the whole Psalm like this:

The L-rd: He makes: He restores: Even though: You prepare: Surely goodness.

T-S A43.6 is a Psalter written in this format. There are four fragments from it preserved at this classmark, and pieces of it are also found at several other classmarks. We have almost all of Books 2, 3 and 4 of the Psalms – i.e. Psalms 42–106 – written in this incredibly condensed form. The other two ways of abbreviating the text are generally both referred to as the Serugin method. The basic idea here is that a small fraction of each word of the verse was written. Some manuscripts would write the first part of each word, while others would write part of the accented syllable of each word.

Who are these abbreviated Bibles or Psalters for? Were all three abbreviation methods used by the same people?

On the basis of the handwriting, materials used, quality of production, and so on, it seems that these shorthand Bibles were produced and used by a wide range of the Jewish community. At the one end of the spectrum, manuscripts like T-S AS 39.186 are written in a very crude hand, and may have been used by non-specialists for private devotion. But at the other end of the spectrum, manuscripts like T-S A43.1 and T-S A43.3 are masterful productions: written in a very accomplished hand, on expensive parchment. One of the interesting discoveries from overviewing all the shorthand Bible manuscripts I could get my hands on, is that the ‘top end’ manuscripts frequently use the Serugin method of abbreviation, and do so very strictly (only one, or sometimes two, letters per word). Also, most of them focus on recording the accented syllable, rather than the beginning of the word. I’ve argued that these manuscripts were used as tools by professional scribes in their work of producing biblical codices.

Are the manuscripts at the ‘lower end of the spectrum’ less strict in their method(s) of abbreviation?

Yes, the lower quality manuscripts tend (a) to focus on recording the beginning of the word, rather than the accented syllable and (b) to be more generous in the amount of each word that is written. I’ve suggested that the reason for this is that the Lemma method, and the Serugin method focussing on the beginning of the word, are the two main ways of abbreviating a text intended to serve as an aide-memoire in recitation. I wrote about one such manuscript in the Fragment of the Month series a while back. On the other hand, the professionally produced manuscripts used as ‘masoretic tools’, are not primarily intended for recitation, but for recording in a brief way the parts of the biblical text that had to be added to the basic consonantal framework – in particular the accents.

I’ve just had a look at one of the T-S A43.6 fragments – they are long and thin strips of paper. Are they from a rotulus?

It has previously been described in another publication as a rotulus, but it isn’t. It’s a very strange codex, a long, ultra-portrait codex, and the hinge is horizontal rather than vertical.

Quire reconstruction

There are two separate quires, which I don’t think can be combined. Psalm 42 (the beginning of Book 2 of the Psalms) begins at the top of one page. You read down to the fold, flip the book up, and continue. Unexpectedly, Book 2 of the Psalms is then followed by Book 4. Book 3 is found in what seems to be a separate quire. The beginning of Book 4 of the Psalms is missing, and only half a page is available for Psalm 90 through to half of 95 to have been written. It’s feasible to assume that these Psalms were fitted into this small space, though: from what we know about the various liturgies in use at the time, Psalms 92–94 were recited at least weekly, so would have been very well known, and could have been abbreviated even further. Psalms 103 and 104, for example, even though they are quite long, are each reduced to just 3 or 4 lines each! Why does the scribe skip from Book 2 to Book 4 in this quire? That’s one mystery. The other mystery is why the book finishes at Psalm 105:36, though Book 4 finishes at Psalm 106. There’s plenty of room left for the rest of Psalm 105 and Psalm 106 to have been written, but it’s been left blank.

Is it clear that the leaves with Books 2 and 4 and the leaves with Book 3 are by the same scribe?


Perhaps the scribe had previously copied Book 3, but then wanted to do the rest, and didn’t need to copy out 3 again because he already had it to hand?

Yes, I wondered if s/he had made Book 3 first.

Are you looking at these shorthand manuscripts as part of a project? Or just for fun?

The study has been both fun, and part of a project! The wider project was to examine afresh all the Bible manuscripts in the Genizah that contain a particular kind of vowel and accent sign system called the Erets Yisraeli system. The study of the shorthand manuscripts was meant to be just a part of that larger project, but somehow it snowballed!

How many Genizah shorthand manuscripts have you been able to identify so far?

The main focus of the study I’ve been doing has been manuscripts containing continuous biblical texts. I’ve found about 80 separate fragments in the Taylor-Schechter collection. Some of these belong to the same manuscript, so there are about 40 distinct original manuscripts. This figure excludes about another 40 fragments I found containing catenae of biblical texts in shorthand.

Are all of these manuscripts biblical, or were shorthand systems also used in other genres of manuscript?

Shorthand is used in a very wide range of manuscripts from the Genizah: Targumim, piyyutim, Talmudic literature, exegetical and philosophical material, and so on. These manuscripts usually use the Lemma method of abbreviation, or the Serugin method focusing on the first letter. This seems to be because these two methods are more suitable as aides-memoire than the Serugin method that focuses on the accented syllable. The simanim that appear in many Talmud manuscripts may seem to be an exception to this, but that’s another story.

How do you know you’re looking at a shorthand manuscript? And once identified as such, how do you start decoding it?

The Davies and Outhwaite catalogue of the Genizah biblical fragments has been immensely valuable in identifying fragments as employing shorthand, and also in identifying the text involved, so I can’t take much credit there! But I’ve also had to identify a few texts without the aid of those catalogues. In these cases, knowing the biblical text pretty well has been a huge help. Often in these manuscripts, even in the most densely abbreviated, the first word (at least) of each verse is written in full. So, one just has to peruse these first words, and go from there, really: what words are likely to follow thereafter? What sort of biblical text might these words be from? And so on. It’s great fun!

Thanks Kim! 

Kim Phillips is a research associate at the Genizah Research Unit, Cambridge.

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