Hebrew fragment from Australia

Gary A. Rendsburg
Rutgers University

Hebrew books within books often are found in the most surprising places and often reveal much more than their small size may indicate.  At times, full pages are revealed, within the bindings of early printed books; at other times only a tiny fragment is visible.  

This month’s fragment is devoted to a stellar example of the latter.

While working on the collection of Hebrew manuscripts and early printed books housed in Rare Books and Special Collections at Fisher Library, University of Sydney, in April 2019, my eye was drawn to a small binding fragment visible on the spine of an early printed Hebrew book, at the upper portion of the spine where one can imagine generations of fingers pulling the book off the shelf, until that section of the spine wore away, exposing the Hebrew letters beneath.  

To be sure, Alan Crown (1932‒2010) had recognised the small Hebrew ‘book within book’ fragment, duly recorded in the catalogue of the collection that he produced (1st ed. 1973 / 2nd ed. 1984) – but all he could do was to transcribe the 19 visible letters, without being able to identify the actual text (other than to realise that the passage clearly was not biblical).

The host volume in question (bearing the shelfmark RB 5101.2) is Moshe Alshekh, Torat Moshe (Venice, 1601), the first printing of the relatively well-known commentary on the Pentateuch by a leading light of Ottoman Jewry during the 16th century.  But what lies beneath?  What is the source of the 19 visible letters?

Fortunately, we live today in the digital world, with tools such as Maʾagarim, the database of all Hebrew literature produced by the Academy of the Hebrew Language (Jerusalem).  All I needed to do was to take the only two-word phrase from the legible text in the binding fragment, namely, אני זוכר ‘I recall’, enter it into Maʾagarim, and see which “hits” matched the surrounding letters.  The result was an immediate identification with the little-known piyyuṭ entitled אלהיכם אני זוכר הברית ‘O God, I recall the covenant’, recited on the occasion of a berit milah (circumcision ceremony), preserved in full in British Library MS Or. 2772, a festival prayer-book in the Ashkenazi rite dated to 1326.

Further research revealed that the poem appears in four other manuscripts (Oxford, Erlangen, Jerusalem, New York), all Ashkenazi.  The first printed version of the poem appears in הדרת קדש Hadrat Qodeš ‘Holy Splendour’ (Venice,1599‒1600), a large two-volume maḥzor, also according to the Ashkenazi rite.

There are, of course, thousands of such piyyuṭim which were popular among medieval Jews, in all realms (Sephardic, Mizrahi, Ashkenazi, etc.), but only a select few are recited still today.  Our little poem is among those long forgotten, no longer declaimed by any Jewish community anywhere.  Reading its words at a distance of centuries, however, truly transports one back to that earlier age.

The poem is only six lines long, and given its use at the circumcision ritual, not surprisingly the words invoke Elijah – not by name, but rather, per poetic style, via epithets and allusions, such as את נסתר בנחל כרית ‘the one hidden in the Cherith Brook’ (see 1 Kings 17:1‒7).  Incidentally, as one can see in the image of the binding fragment, the first five letters of this string are legible there, but without any context, no one could realise that the reference here is to Elijah.

Obviously, even before my little discovery, any scholar anywhere could have read this poem in any of the manuscripts or first printed version indicated above.  But given the enormity of the liturgical corpus from before the age of printing, the odds of any one scholar landing upon this particular piyyuṭ for study would have been infinitesimal.

Now, however, through this minor revelation, some attention may be paid (in theory, at least) to a poem which has fallen out of Jewish collective consciousness.  All this through my brief encounter with a rare book, with a small portion of its binding worn away, in a far corner of the world.  In addition, this exemplar is the first instance of a Hebrew ‘book within book’ to be found in the southern hemisphere.  

For further details, see my article “A Hebrew ‘Book within Book’ at Fisher Library, University of Sydney,” Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Society of New South Wales 152 (2019), pp. 160‒187. 

(Photo credit:  Gary A. Rendsburg — used with kind permission of Rare Books and Special Collections, Fisher Library, University of Sydney.)
Figure 1 – bound volume of Moshe Alshekh, Torat Moshe (Venice, 1601), first printing, with the Hebrew manuscript fragment at the top of the spine. 
(Photo credit:  Gary A. Rendsburg — used with kind permission of Rare Books and Special Collections, Fisher Library, University of Sydney.)
Figure 2 – the Hebrew manuscript fragment at the top of the spine of the printed book, Moshe Alshekh, Torat Moshe (Venice, 1601), first printing.

Gary A. Rendsburg

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