When travelers in ancient times set out on a voyage, the only health and accident insurance they could carry was an amulet. A Jewish traveler might take along one inscribed with verses from the Hebrew Bible, like the silver amulet from the 6th or 7th century CE displayed in a new exhibition titled A Journey through Jewish Worlds, at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
“This is one of the earliest biblical texts we have” and one of just a few from the thousand-year period of near-silence between the Dead Sea Scrolls and medieval Jewish texts, said exhibition curator Rachel Sarfaty. On display are 120 highlights of the Braginsky Collection of Hebrew Manuscripts and Printed Books, shown side-by-side with items from the museum’s own collections.
According to Sarfaty, the exhibition is designed to take visitors on a temporal and geographic journey, with a focus on illuminated ketubot (marriage contracts), Scrolls of Esther, and other illuminated Hebrew manuscripts.
The story begins in Spain, the most important Jewish center in Europe until the expulsion of the Jews in 1492. A scribe who had begun a four-volume Hebrew Bible fled to Portugal in 1491. In the colophon he writes that the work was completed two years after the expulsion of the Jews of Castille.
Many of the Jews who fled or were expelled from Spain and then from Portugal settled in Italy and prospered. According to Sarfaty, ghetto life provided a certain stability, and despite the physical enclosure, Jews in Italy were open to the culture around them. They hired the finest Italian illuminators and provided them with guidelines.
Sometimes, however, the guidelines were ignored or perhaps never existed. The Harrison Miscellany, from around 1720, includes not only nude figures but, much worse, an image of God.
“It’s a myth that Jews were not allowed to represent human figures,” Sarfaty said. “There were always representations of humans. The prohibition against graven images was invoked only where there was pressure from the surrounding culture, for example, in Islamic countries. But the image of God is really forbidden.”
With the introduction of printing, Venice became the center for producing Jewish texts. The printers and illuminators were non-Jews, but the printers hired Jewish proofreaders for quality control.
When descendants of the Jews expelled from Spain migrated to the Netherlands, Amsterdam became the next center of Jewish book production, this time with Jewish printers and even Jewish illuminators. It was here that the printers developed the Amsterdam font, which became the standard for high-quality printing.
Even when printing was firmly entrenched, illuminated Hebrew manuscripts remained status symbols for the new class of wealthy Jews in western Europe. Scribe-artists from eastern Europe moved to the west to meet the need, and one of them even noted, with professional pride, that he had used the Amsterdam font… in his handwritten manuscript.
In the 19th century, the Rothschild family was avidly interested in illuminated manuscripts. They commissioned artist Victor Bouton to create a Haggadah in the Persian style, with exquisite geometric patterns copied from a Persian text.
Charlotte von Rothschild, who was born in London and married a cousin in Vienna, took lessons from the artist Moritz Daniel Oppenheim. When she decided to create an illuminated Haggadah for the 70th birthday of her uncle, “she even wrote to the Bibliotheque Nationale to ask them to send her medieval manuscripts so she could copy them,” Sarfaty said, wondering at the ease with which one could think of shipping such priceless objects.
In von Rothschild’s undertaking, she was breaking into an almost exclusively male field of endeavor; the only other exception in this exhibition is a 16th century Scroll of Esther created by Stellina (Esther) Bat Hakatzin.
For centuries ketubot (marriage contracts) have been another way for Jewish families to display their wealth and standing. When David Franco de Almeda wed Giuditta Valensin in Venice on September 30, 1649, the bride received a magnificent, colorful ketubah. At the top, medallions depict the bride and groom in various settings to show the blessings wished on the couple. “Your wife is like a fruitful vine” is the inscription under one of them.
Below the medallions are male and female musicians. Enclosed within a double arch adorned with colorful birds and flowers, the engagement contract (tna’im) appears on the left and the marital contract on the right. And the signs of the zodiac—additional blessings—surround the entire document. This is but one of 21 ketubot on display.
The exhibition continues through April 30, 2011.
For more on illuminated manuscripts see the archive for: “Kindle can’t hold a candle to it,” posted on October 29, 2010.