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Q&A Wednesday: Remote working turns up Maimonides’ ruling board, with Ben Outhwaite

T-S NS 264.66
T-S NS 264.66 (recto)
Melonie Schmierer-Lee and Ben Outhwaite
Wed 13 Oct 2021

Ben, what have you been up to?

The most exciting recent thing is that we have now returned to the office, after more than 18 months of mostly working at home. Things aren’t quite back to normal – we still wear masks in public areas, the UL is much quieter than it usually is, and they’ve closed the tearoom!!! – but we’re getting there.

Yes, the UL isn’t the same without a place to sip mediocre coffee and discuss medieval manuscripts, is it? Speaking of manuscripts, what are you working on at the moment?

We’ve just come to the end of a project to catalogue for the Cambridge Digital Library (CUDL) a large amount of mostly documentary material in the T-S New Series, and this has produced no end of interesting things. While some has been catalogued before, it had mostly just been hand listed, rather than being catalogued to the current level of accuracy or detail.

Can you tell us about one of the recent discoveries from this project?

Well, one lovely fragment shows the value of collaboration, something that lockdown has actually been encouraging us to do more of, counter-intuitively. Our approach to difficult or obscure material has been greatly enhanced by the use of remote communication tools like Slack, which really came into its own over lockdown, while we were all isolated in our homes. T-S NS 264.66 was described in the Shivtiel-Niessen handlist as ‘Part of a draft containing a responsum’, and they noted that ‘Separate fragments have been joined to form one leaf’. When I came to catalogue this fragment, I noted that many pieces of paper had been laminated together to form a more rigid piece of material. The fragments of paper were from different sources, but the language of at least one indicated that it was seeking a halakhic decision from a rabbinic authority, probably the Nagid in Egypt, since it used honorific titles typical of the negidut.

But where does the collaboration aspect come in?

I thought it was such an unusual and impressive looking fragment, that I took a picture and dropped it into our ‘general’ chat channel on Slack, saying ‘Look at this laminated book cover’ – since I assumed that someone had laminated the pieces of old paper together to make a cover for his home-made Bible or prayerbook. However, after posting it, you noticed that the holes in it, which I had assumed were vestiges of the binding, were too close together and regularly spaced for sewing stations. You suggested it might be a masṭara, or ruling-board, where bits of string are threaded through a piece of ‘cardboard’ (laminated paper) to create regular lines. Paper can then be smoothed down over the board to leave impressions of ruled lines, allowing a scribe to write a well-ordered text.

Pulling an image of Mosseri IX.167 off CUDL and comparing the two side-by-side in Slack, it was apparent that what we had was the remnants of a ruling-board. The holes could not have denoted any other purpose, and the nature of ruling-boards in the Genizah world is that they tend to be made from laminated odd pieces of paper, but perhaps not quite so chaotically as this one appears to have been put together.

Mosseri IX.167

Mosseri IX.167 (recto): another ruling board (masṭara) from the Cairo Genizah.

What was interesting, of course, was that correspondence probably from the Nagid’s ‘office’ in Egypt had been used to make the board. I had noted that one of the texts, the end of a responsum, concluded וכתב אברהם, which indicated that it was a ruling from Abraham Maimonides – though it was not in his handwriting. However, joining us on Slack, Amir Ashur (at home in Israel) looked at the fragment and told us that he had already noted it as a responsum, and that another piece of paper laminated into this fragment did indeed contain the handwriting of the Rambam’s son. He hadn’t realised it was a masṭara, however.

So, the end result, once we’d all clustered virtually round the fragment – between several homes and across two continents – was that what we had was a ruling-board, created sometime after the middle of the 13th century, which had used in its production a number of different pieces of paper from the correspondence of Abraham Maimonides, Nagid in Egypt. The finished description was greatly improved by our ability to remotely collaborate and draw upon a range of expertise: Various pieces of paper stuck together to form a masṭara (ruling board – note the holes where string would have been inserted). Small pieces of different texts in a variety of hands and inks are preserved, and include the opening of a responsum (מא תקול הדרת) addressing someone with a Nagid’s titles. The question is continued in different directions on the page, and concerns the effect that a change of coinage should have on a loan. The end of an answer is preserved, closing with וכתב אברהם, i.e., Abraham Maimonides (though it is probably not his handwriting). There are a few words of a different text preserved in Abraham Maimonides’ handwriting too.

Might this ruling board have been constructed by Abraham, since it contains material from his office?

I don’t think we can rule it out (haha!). But I really don’t think we know enough about the way in which material was reused in the Genizah world. Certainly we see plentiful evidence of children defacing what had been lovely books, but was that after their deposit into the Genizah, and the Genizah was used as a source of scrap writing material? Or before? It’s the same case here. The fact that it’s more than one piece of Abraham’s correspondence might suggest it was produced in his ‘office’, so perhaps, on balance, it’s more likely to have come from him, than been an entirely random affair.

Abraham was the son of Moses Maimonides, and a very interesting figure in his own right. Now, we wouldn’t plan to dismantle the laminated paper to try to recover any of his writings, but would you be tempted if it had been his father’s writings?

Unfortunately, there has been a tendency among some of the less ethical practitioners of manuscript research to see the destructive dismantling of historical objects, to retrieve more ancient pieces of material which went into their manufacture, as not only justified but perhaps sometimes even obligated, by whatever motives drive them. This is a dreadful path to take, and one that goes against all our standards as librarians and custodians of the past. If there is important material trapped between the layers, then the very best thing we can do, as only its present keepers, is to keep it in as close to its current state as possible, so that future scholars and librarians can use magnets, lasers or as yet undreamed-of tools to read the text beneath.

Thanks, Ben. I hope there will be a tearoom for those future sci-fi scholar-librarians to gather in, from time to time.

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