Books within Books General Assembly June 21-22, 2021 – Conference report

The Books within Books General Assembly took place virtually on June 21st and 22nd, 2021. The Books within Books– Hebrew Fragments in European Libraries research group, coordinated by the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris, consists of an international network of scholars who deal with the finding, cataloguing, and dissemination of knowledge on the re-use of medieval Hebrew manuscripts recovered from book bindings and notarial files found in libraries and archives around the world.

Over 40 researchers and scholars from European and non-European countries attended this conference dedicated to the Books within Books project founded in 2009 by Judith Olszowy-Schlanger (EPHE-Oxford University), in the framework of the research lab Savoirs et Pratiques du Moyen Âge au XIXe siècle (SAPRAT) of the École Pratique des Hautes Études in Paris – headed by Brigitte Mondrain, who was the spokesperson at the opening of the Books within Books General Assembly. The research programme gathered momentum in 2011 with the creation of a valuable shared digital database for the systematic collection of data relating to the located Hebrew manuscript fragments.

The project, which has been active for over ten years, has established numerous collaborations and partnerships with both European and international institutions, receiving the support and recognition from prestigious academies and foundations all over the world. It was developed thanks to the efforts of scholars who wished to safeguard these manuscripts which were otherwise destined for dispersion and oblivion. The research group has grown considerably over the years by welcoming numerous collaborators and researchers at both European and international levels. 

In the last century, only a few experts carried out systematic research, which was limited to a specific territory. Mauro Perani, emeritus professor of Hebrew at the University of Bologna since the 1980s, has enriched the “Italian Genizah” with the findings of thousands upon thousands of Hebrew disiecta membra scattered in Italian archives and libraries. Andreas Lehnardt, professor of Jewish Studies at Johannes Gutenberg-Universität of Mainz, was among the first to join the research group, with the sub-project Genizat Germania. At present, the project’s network includes dozens of partners in more than twenty countries around the world.

After the addresses by Judith Schlanger and Brigitte Mondrain, the new webmaster, Wissem Gueddich (EPHE-SAPRAT) opened the conference with a presentation of the state of the art of BwB. The number of manuscript fragments identified in each country and uploaded to the official website database, ranges from one in Canada or Australia to several thousand in Italy. To date, current estimates show that about 50 academic and heritage institutions from 25 countries have carried out research in 500 libraries and archives, identifying, describing, and registering over 16,000 new Hebrew manuscript fragments. Of these, about 8,000 fragments are already available and freely accessible in the database ( 

The scientific coordinator, Emma Abate (IRHT-University of Bologna), presented several new developments, future projects and collaborations. These include the recent launch of the online journal Books within Books Magazine which proposes updated BwB research news, as well as short articles on recent discoveries. This new publication joins the series “European Genizah” Texts and Studies published by Brill. Among new BwB projects, Emma Abate highlighted the new project headed by project founder, Judith Olszowy-Schlanger on the theme Culture scribale fragmentée. Vestiges des manuscrits hébreux en Italie – paléographie et histoire du livre which will be carried out in collaboration with the prestigious École française de Rome, as well as a new collaboration with the programme Ludovico Media Librarydeveloped by Matteo Al Kalak and the Interdepartmental Research Center on Digital Humanities at Modena University. We are also excited about new projects across the Ocean: many Hebrew European fragments have been discovered in the bindings in the collections in the USA, and welcomed Michelle Chesner (Columbia University), Gary Rendsburg (Rutgers University) and David Stern (Harvard University).

During the first day of the conference, we were privileged to listen to three conferences; Menachem Katz (Hemdat Hadaron College) and Hillel Gershuni (Hebrew University of Jerusalem) lectured on the Talmudic fragments in the European Genizah, with the intent to illustrate how the study of Talmud manuscript fragments – coming both from the Cairo Genizah or from European bookbindings – may increase our knowledge of this fundamental text of rabbinic literature. Talmud manuscript fragments are of great importance as, having been the most persecuted work by the Church, very few complete copies of entire sections of the Talmud have survived. Building upon Yaaqov Sussman’s catalogue entitled Thesaurus of Talmudic Manuscripts published in 2012, these scholars have updated the research thanks to new computerized catalogue and digital repository of images Hachi Garsinan (Friedberg Project), which includes more than 600 disiecta membra containing portions of the Talmud Bavli.

Mauro Perani (University of Bologna) presented the results of his latest research conducted at the State Archives of Camerino, which led to the discovery of 23 previously unknown medieval Hebrew fragments. Among them, 13 belong to three different codices of ancient Bibles copied in the 11th-12th century, which include a particular non-standard type of vocalization, the so-called extended-Tiberian type, frequent in early Italian Bibles. Two other fragments from Camerino come from a copy of the digest of the Babylonian Talmud, the Sefer ha-Halakhot (or Hilkhot ha-Ri’f); seven are fragments of Rashi’s commentary on the Talmud. Another fragments features a biblical commentary. Finally, one fragment contains a part of a halakhic work entitled Tashbetz by Shimshon ben Tzadoq.

Alessandra Molinari (University of Urbino) presented a collaborative project Textus invisibilis on the thousands of fragments of medieval manuscripts in various vernacular languages (German, French, Italian) found in Urbino and in the Marche region. The project aims to analyse and make them accessible through a database that includes images of digitally reconstruct the original codices. In addition to this, purely scientific and methodological aspects were examined, such as recycling techniques, in an effort to understand what a “fragment” is through an interdisciplinary approach that combines technology, manuscript studies, philology, and book history. In the course of the works of the Textus invisibilis project, dozens of Hebrew fragments have been discovered, and their study shared with BwB.

On the second day, Alina Lisitsina (Russian State Library, Moscow) presented fragments reused in a binding which is now attached to a 15th century Armenian gospel, purchased by the Russian State Library in 1950. Following the restoration of the Armenian manuscript, a collection of disparate post-medieval fragments written in Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic emerged. Among these are identifiable fragments of biblical texts (with and without vocalization), liturgical, poetic, kabbalistic, and rabbinical commentaries, the Responsa, and Mishneh Torah of Maimonides, the Haggadah of Pesach, and portions of the Targumin, i.e., Aramaic translations of the Hebrew Bible, all produced in Yemen. It is worth stressing the importance of this corpus found in one volume.

Ruzanna Poghosian, who is a Senior researcher at the Matenadaran Institute of Ancient Manuscripts at the Yerevan Central Library, and BwB Project representative for Armenia, presented several Hebrew fragments reused in Armenian manuscript bindings in the Mashtots Matenadaran collection, and a few preserved at the Manuscript Library of the Armenian Patriarchate of Jerusalem. These are mainly biblical, liturgical, and halakhic fragments reused for binding heterogeneous works, such as handwritten and printed texts produced in various areas, including Crimea and Italy. The bindings of the important Armenian texts were produced in Armenia, Crimea and one in Alikurna alias Livorno, during different periods.

Tamás Visi (Palacky University) lectured on the topic Hebrew Fragments with Medical Content from Central Europe. The speaker reviewed a series of medical literature fragments written in the Ashkenazi area. These texts, composed mainly in German in Hebrew characters or in Yiddish, were based on vernacular or Latin north-European compositions, and are less familiar with the Arabic medical literature. They essentially had practical purposes: we can find compendia of prescriptions or cures in the fields of surgery, phlebotomy, uroscopy, and the like. Tamás Visi suggests that some of the fragments may not stem from independent medical volumes but that they may have been parts of liturgical books, as in the 13th century Machazor (Bodleian in Oxford, Ms Mich. 569), which includes a medical text appended to the prayers.

A final presentation by Javier del Barco (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Madrid) provided an overview of the research he carried out between 2012 and 2020 in Spain with the support of the Spanish National Agency of Research, in collaboration with BwB. Above all, interesting material emerged from the inquisitorial section of the National Historical Archives of Madrid where several fragments of Hebrew manuscripts, ranging from biblical, rabbinic, halakhic, to medical treatises, were repurposed to bind archival files. Other disiecta membra were found in the Tomás Navarro Tomás Library and in the Montserrat and Catalunya Libraries in Barcelona.

The conference ended with an interactive round table discussion attended by various project members, such as Katharina Koch (EPHE-SAPRAT), who for several years has been engaged in a campaign in primary schools and secondary schools in Italy with the aim of familiarising the young students with Jewish history through the materiality of the Hebrew fragments and through the visits in the archives. Elena Lolli (Oxford University), Project representative for the United Kingdom and responsible for updating the online database, presented the methods and progress of research in several British collections, Roberta Tonnarelli (EPHE-SAPRAT), who works on Italian fragments, in particular from Bologna, reported inter alia on her current collaboration with Emma Abate on an exhibition of Hebrew fragments from the time of Dante Alighieri which will be a part of the Modena Philosophy Festival in 2022. Sofia Locatelli (EPHE-SAPRAT) reported on her activities in the training field at the Archival, Paleography and Diplomatic Schools of the State Archives in Italy, and Chiara Benini (EPHE-SAPRAT), collaborator of the Ludovico Media Library project, discussed her work on the Hebrew fragments in the ecclesiastical archives of the city of Ferrara.

BwB has received generous support from many institutions and foundations for which we are deeply grateful. First, various libraries and in addition to the respective universities and research clusters of the project members in several countries, BwB network and database have been supported by the Saprat-EPHE, PSL, University of Bologna, Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe, Biblissima-Investissements d’avenir, projet Emergence of the Town of Paris, the Gerda Henkel Foundation.

(Photo credits: Jesi [Ancona], Biblioteca Comunale Planettiana)
Content: Moses ben Maimon (Rambam) (1138-1204), Mishneh  Torah. Sefer Zemanim,  Laws of Chametz and Matzah 2,  5-19 with marginal glosses of Meir ha-Kohen of Rothenburg (c. 1260-1298), Hagahot  Maimuniyyot.


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