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Cambridge University Library

Q&A Wednesday: the definitive Hebrew Codicology, with Malachi Beit-Arié

T-S H17.1
T-S H17.1 (f.1r): an early manuscript of the liturgical work Perek Shira, which Malachi discovered as an undergraduate and which later formed the basis of his PhD thesis.
Melonie Schmierer-Lee and Malachi Beit-Arié
Wed 26 Jan 2022

Malachi, your book Hebrew Codicology is a classic of the field, and you've recently completed the most up to date version yet. Will the latest Hebrew and English versions be the final versions of the book?

Yes. The Hebrew and English versions, published by the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, are now final. They are distributed by Hamburg University with the Open Access DOIs: (Hebrew) and (English).

You are perhaps best known for your codicological and palaeographical work, so it’s possible that many readers of this blog will not be aware that you are also a published poet.

Indeed. I first began my creative endeavours by writing poetry and poetical prose, and two collections were published in 1963 and 1967, both illustrated by a known artist. However, two years after this I published a poem titled “the last poem”, and I meant it.

How did you come to be in interested in codicology?

I first began by studies by enrolling to study agriculture at the Hebrew University – I was motivated ideologically – but deserted it after a term and crossed lines to join Jewish Studies and Hebrew linguistics. The first class I attended was Midrashic and the professor mentioned at the end of the class the unique text Perek Shira, which captivated me. I immediately started to look for the text and soon discovered manuscripts which had been hitherto unknown. In 1959 I found an old copy of the text in the Cambridge Genizah collection. I dedicated my undergraduate studies to Perek Shira and prepared a critical edition based on the manuscript and wrote an introduction to it which included a study of the manuscripts. I did not submit my 2 volumes to my teachers, but, realizing that the text was mystical, I contacted Gershom Scholem and he asked to read my study. Having read it, Scholem told me that what I had written should make an excellent MA study. I ended up writing something else for my MA study, and my Perek Shira work would be eventually accepted as my doctoral thesis.

In March 1950 – I was 13 – Ben Gurion, then prime minister of Israel, was enjoying a hard-earned vacation in Tiberias. The problems facing the prime minister of a state still less than two years old were enormous: security, economy, immigration and settling the land, to name a few. Nevertheless, Ben Gurion found the time to write a long letter to his minister of finance requesting a large sum for the establishment of an Institute of Manuscripts in Jerusalem for the purpose of microfilming all the Hebrew manuscripts in the world. The letter was sent to the minister and copies to all the other members of the government on March 5, 1950. A few days later the government voted to establish the Institute of Hebrew Manuscripts under the auspices of the Ministry of Education and Culture. In 1970 I became the director of the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts and led a team that travelled the world photographing every single Hebrew manuscript we could find.

The Cairo Codex of the Prophets has (in)famous colophon ascribing it to Moses ben Asher (Aharon ben Asher’s father), written in 895. The veracity of the colophon has been questioned, because in many respects the codex does not look as though it is the product of the ben Asher stream. When you were able to get hold of the scraps and have them carbon dated, it provided more data to an ongoing debate about the Codex. Can you us about the time you saw the Cairo Codex of the Prophets in Egypt?

I first saw it on my first visit to the Karaite synagogue in which the codex was kept. This was in 1979, just after the Egyptian president Muhammad Anwar el-Sadat visited Israel. He endorsed my visit to Cairo. Sometime later, when I came to document the codex, I was given scraps from the codex. I had them carbon dated about a year later by a laboratory in Oxford.

What’s your secret to getting access to private collections?

I guess by not being aggressive.

Is there a manuscript that stands out particularly in your memory?

The Worms Maḥzor in the collection of The National Library of Israel. It was produced in 1272, most probably not in Worms where it was kept for centuries, but rather in Würzburg. I selected this manuscript for my final MA thesis and was lucky to discover in it the earliest written Yiddish, some 120 years before what we had known at that point in 1963. See ‘The Worms Mahzor: Its History and its Paleographical and Codicological characteristics’ in M. Beit-Arié. Worms Mahzor, ix–xxv. Reprinted in Beit-Arié, The Makings, pp. 152–180.

Hebrew Codicology is, in a sense, just the tip of the iceberg, pulling together the vast mass of data stored in the SfarData database. In case anyone doesn't know about the database, can you tell us what it is, how it came to be, and how our blog readers can access it?

The systematic codicological investigation of Hebrew manuscripts commenced in 1965, when the Hebrew Palaeography Project was founded under the sponsorship of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Jerusalem (following my initiative), the Institut de la Recherche et d’Histoire des Textes [IRHT], and the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique [CNRS] in Paris (directed by Colette Sirat). The codicological study of manuscripts in Latin and Greek scripts had also begun to take place at this time. Hebrew codicology is based on the documentation of visible characteristics, nearly all measurable and capable of being converted into quantitative records, and the Hebrew Palaeography Project undertook to systematically track down explicitly dated Hebrew manuscripts in libraries and private collections around the world. We would examine and document nearly all extant dated Hebrew manuscripts in some two hundred and fifty libraries and private collections in England, Italy, Russia, France, the United States, Israel, Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Hungary, Switzerland, Denmark, Spain, Ireland, Egypt, and Belgium. Moreover, most undated manuscripts that mentioned their copyist’s name were also located and documented in situ. Now, nearly all the dated extant manuscripts worldwide have been documented: almost 2,800 codices have been thoroughly documented and another 260 or so have been partially documented, in addition to nearly 1,600 undated codices in which the name of the copyist was nonetheless stated or had been identified. Since the copying of each scribe who participated in the transcribing of multi-scribe codices was documented separately, the total number of the codicological records amounts to more than 4,300, representing some 3,850 codices, of which about 3,150 are dated.

How did this documentation become the SfarData database?

From the early 1980s we began to encode and convert codicological, palaeographical, scribal, bibliographical, and textual information that were documented in situ, including all colophons, into a computerized database, allowing retrieval of combinations of various codicological, numerical, textual and image data. This database also contains a selection of quality photographs from each manuscript. Moreover, it is equipped with an extremely complex updating and retrieval system developed specially for the needs of codicological research. Known as SfarData (, our electronic database, with its sophisticated search possibilities, is, for now, unique, and represents a methodological breakthrough in the palaeographical and codicological research of the handwritten codex in all scripts. Through this database, one can have at hand the many tens of thousands of data points collected (seeing that the codicological variables alone number more than seven hundred for each codicological unit): one can thus classify and group them, perform complex cross-searches, heuristically investigate linkages, and unveil clusters, conditionings and dependencies, establish geo-chronological statistics and view them in graphs and charts, and ultimately set up a typology and characterizations structured on quantitative and measurable foundations and on the reliable supporting frame comprising all the surviving Hebrew dated manuscripts. Moreover, the database itself and the retrieval software developed for it provide a precise tool for an identification of the time range and the area of any manuscript bearing no date and place of production: this can be done by singling out all the dated manuscripts sharing the same combination of characteristics, and by comparing their scripts.

As we proceeded with our work it became clear that the decision to document all the tangible features of material and textual production was not only entirely justified from a theoretical standpoint concerning the investigation of every facet of the codex; for it was, moreover, necessary for practical reasons as well, given the special circumstances of Jewish people during the Middle Ages, particularly in Europe. We found that most of the codicological features of Hebrew manuscripts can be grouped according to typical regional traditions, some of them exclusive, some common to more than one region, and others are significantly time-related as well. It has been possible to identify developments and transformations in production techniques and book design across various regions, which warrant further examination in the attempt to uncover their ergonometric, economic, and aesthetic determinants, or those related to text readability or transparency, or even to the scholarly needs of the educated elite.

Thanks for your time, Malachi, and congratulations on the new editions of Hebrew Codicology!

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