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Illuminated Hebrew Manuscripts

Over 100 illuminations selected from the 1,156 extant pages of the Padua Ashkenazi Mahzor, a medieval Jewish festival prayer book; Hamburg Haggadah (1731); Ketubbot (1638); and Xanten Bible.

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Shushan emek uyamah, kerovah for shaharit of Yom Kippur. Digital ID: 405137 Shushan emek uyamah, kerovah for shaharit of Yom Kippur. Digital ID: 405137

Collection History

Undoubtedly commissioned by a German Jewish community for the use of its cantor, the Padua Ashkenazi Mahzor, in more recent times, was in the possession of the Jewish community ("Università Israelitica") of Padua. There it served as a paradigm of the Ashkenazi (i.e., Central European) rite for the research of Samuele Davide Luzzatto, preeminent modern Jewish theologian, founder of the field of Jewish liturgiology, and revered teacher at the Padua rabbinical seminary. His comprehensive autograph collation appears at the end of the manuscript and is dated 1848. A century later, the codex was presented to The New York Public Library, together with the Padua Italian Mahzor (another exquisitely executed manuscript festival prayer book, also in two volumes and on vellum, but this time dating from the Renaissance and following the Italian rite), one of many munificent gestures to the Jewish Division on the part of New York corset manufacturer and bibliophile Louis Rabinowitz.

Background

This large folio festival prayer book, or Mahzor, according to the Ashkenazi rite, records the elaborate piyutim (poetic interpolations) composed throughout the Middle Ages to enhance public worship on the holidays and special sabbaths of the liturgical year. Lacking a date or a place, the manuscript seems nonetheless to reflect the codicological and ritual practices of 14th-century Germany, although many of the texts it preserves are unknown from any other source.

Although 1,156 pages of this massive vellum codex survive, the manuscript is lacking at both ends, and apparently was bound into two volumes during the 19th century. The place and date of production may once have been identified in the text, but the only explicit information that has survived is the name of the scribe and decorator. A pair of illuminated letters on folio 506a incorporate the signature "I, David bar Pesah the scribe."

David bar Pesah's iconography is straightforward. Thus, the flowery opening hymn of the additional service for the Day of Atonement, Shushan emek uyamah ("The rose in the valley is quivering": the rose is symbolic of Israel in the traditional Jewish allegorical reading of the Song of Songs), has its initial word illuminated with rosettes. Similarly, the full-page illumination for the opening of the Day of Atonement hymn, Shaare rahamim ("Gates of mercy"), takes the form of a Gothic gateway. This context of simplicity is what makes the full-page illumination of "Kol," the initial word of the Kol nidre formula for the annulment of religious vows that opens the liturgy of the Day of Atonement, seem relatively problematic. Assuming that the artwork is not arbitrary, which it may well be, it becomes necessary to explain the presence of those ubiquitous images of medieval Europe, a crusader and a Saracen in combat and a (zoomorphic) hunting scene. While alternative interpretations are encouraged, it may perhaps be surmised that warfare and field sports share with Yom Kippur a heightened sense of life and death.

Library Division(s)

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