See also : Manuscript Books Incunabula 16th century books Religious texts Ancient Germany Ancient England
Chronology : 1-1000 14th century 1530-1539
3rd century BCE to 1st century CE - first discovery 1946
Dead Sea Scrolls
Israel Museum in Jerusalem and Jordan Museum in Amman
66 The Shekels of Israel Year 1
2012 SOLD for $ 1.1M by Heritage
For about one hundred and thirty years, the Romans occupied Judea. By negligence, or more likely by provocation, the Greeks made some sacrifices of animals in front of the synagogues. The Romans let them do it, exacerbating the tensions between communities.
The Jewish revolt was massive. The Zealots seized the Temple of Jerusalem, with a revolutionary enthusiasm similar to the storming of the Bastille 1723 years later. The Jews believed having won their independence again, and used the silver reserves of the Temple to create a mint.
Dated Year 1 of Israel, two coins were sold on March 8, 2012 by Heritage. They are illustrated in chalices and pomegranates, with inscriptions in ancient Hebrew. The bigger, worth 1 shekel, is measuring 24 mm in diameter. The other, a quarter of a shekel, 16 mm.
These coins are of the utmost rarity. For each of the two, only one other example is known. They are poorly centered, as many antique coins, which reflects here an undeniable rush mixed with improvisation. They were possibly a first prototype pattern that was never circulated.
The revolution did not last long. Aware of the risk, Nero sent one of his ablest generals, the future emperor Vespasian. The war lasted four years and was atrocious.
The one shekel was sold for $ 1.1M, lot 20195.
2012 SOLD for $ 900K by Heritage
It is also exceptional for its monetary value : for reasons of productivity, very few coins of a quarter of a shekel will be produced throughout the duration of the revolution.
900 CE Hebrew Bible with Masorah
2023 SOLD for $ 38M by Sotheby's
One of the earliest surviving Bibles remains nearly complete in all its three parts : Pentateuch, Prophets, and Writings. Its Hebrew text is as the Jews are still using it in current days.
Already exceptional in its time, it was written around 900 CE by a single scribe on 400 30 x 36 cm parchment leaves that had required about 200 sheepskins. This manuscript includes punctuations and vowels for a better readability.
It was assembled as a codex, an antique technique recently forwarded to the Jews through the Muslims, much easier to use than a scroll, by which sheets inscribed with text in both sides were folded and sewn together.
Precise instructions on how to recite and understand it, known as the Masorah, were added in the margins. The Masoretic Bibles were used as references and not for liturgy and are extremely rare. Due to Rabbinic rules no similar system applied in the scrolls. The Masoretes were scholars-scribes who were also entrusted to maintain the text of the Bible unchanged throughout the generations.
Used for private worship in its first centuries, it was donated in the 13th century CE to a synagogue in Makisin, a town in Syria that was soon destroyed during the Mongol or Timurid invasions. Out of view after that event, the codex resurfaced as a time capsule in 1929, acquired in Frankfurt through a librarian by the scholar David Sassoon who was assembling the largest and most important private collection of Hebrew manuscripts in the world.
Remaining in private hands, it was sold for $ 38M from a lower estimate of $ 30M by Sotheby's on May 17, 2023, lot 1. This historical document weighs 11.8 Kg. It had been rebound by Sassoon. Only about 12 folios are missing.
A similar example is the Aleppo Codex prepared ca 930 CE, of which nearly 40 % of the pages were lost in the 1950s.
Buddy, can you spare $50 million??— Jennifer Schuessler (@jennyschuessler) February 15, 2023
I got an exclusive peak at the Codex Sassoon, the oldest near-complete Hebrew Bible, to be auctioned at Sotheby's in May.
Created c 900 AD, lost until 1929, since then in private hands. (Yes, I touched it! Magical) https://t.co/jieAMx6JX0
Coming to auction this May is one of the most impressive artifacts of human history and culture: The Codex Sassoon Hebrew Bible.— Sotheby's (@Sothebys) February 15, 2023
Over 1,000 years old, the bible puts an end to the great “silent period,” during which virtually no Hebrew literature survives. pic.twitter.com/DoKWEi2cXo
2015 SOLD for $ 3.6M by Sotheby's
The first sale of the Valmadonna Trust Library by Sotheby's on December 22, 2015 listed three European manuscripts among the oldest that survived the persecutions. They have the usual original textual additions : the major commentaries or Masorah magna in the header and footer and the minor commentaries or Masorah parva in the intervals between the columns.
One of them is dated exactly of 15 Tammuz 4949, corresponding to July 2, 1189 of our calendar. This manuscript of 482 pages 28 x 31 cm is made of the Pentateuch, the Haftarot (books of the Prophets) and the Five Songs. Scholars locate it in England through paleographic considerations and by the presence of Anglo-Norman words in some marginal notes.
1189 was a terrible year for the English Jews who were victims of riots at the coronation of Richard I. Their manuscripts were considered as a wealth and were looted. Very few Jewish belongings escaped this event followed a century later by the expulsion of the Jews from England. This highly rare medieval English Pentateuch in beautiful condition was sold for $ 3.6M from a lower estimate of $ 2M, lot 7.
The other two were unsold.
In the manuscript at lot 6, the Pentateuch and Haftarot with both types of Masorah are accompanied by the Targum which is the Aramaic translation of the Pentateuch. Undated, it may be contemporary to the English manuscript discussed above. Its writing is Ashkenazic and a Franco-German origin is assumed.
Lot 5 was considered as the oldest manuscript from the Valmadonna Trust Library although it does not anticipate the other two by more than a few decades. This manuscript in Sephardic writing was done in Spain. It is limited to the Pentateuch and its two Masorah.
around 1300 Western Ashkenazic Mahzor
2021 SOLD for $ 8.3M by Sotheby's
This thick book of 451 equalized folios 31 x 24 cm was prepared in parchment in current day Bavaria by a scribe artist who identified himself as 'Abraham' in several places. It is highly rare that such a manuscript was illustrated by a Jew at a time when the best pigments were not provided to them by the Christian illuminators.
No date is inscribed. Its terminus post quem is determined as 1264 CE after a paleographic comparison with Ashkenazic codices. The terminus ante quem is slightly after 1300 CE by the use of a lead point, a precursor to the graphite pencil.
It is illustrated with multiple small figures in bright colors featuring praying Jews. A few of them have animal heads for complying with an Ashkenazic prohibition of portrait images.
It was later cleanly annotated in margins with additional prayers by its owners, providing a unique view of the rituals subsequently in Franconia, Alsace, Constance, Northern Italy and France. As an example it includes from Constance a prayer against the anti-Jewish violence during the Black Death.
The Luzzatto Mahzor is in an exceptionally fine condition. It was sold for $ 8.3M from a lower estimate of $ 4M by Sotheby's on October 19, 2021, lot 1. The Alliance Israélite Universelle is selling it to fund its educational mission. Please watch the video shared by the auction house.
1482 Printed Mishneh Torah
2014 SOLD for € 2.8M by Christie's
The Mishneh Torah is not for ritual use. This is a repetition of the Torah. One of them handwritten in Italy around 1460 in a book format had been withdrawn before a Sotheby's sale on April 29, 2013. Beautifully illuminated, it was made at a time when printing in Hebrew characters was not yet available.
Jews quickly feel the need of the printed book to share their learning. It is not a coincidence that their earliest printed book is not a Torah but a comment by Rashi. It was edited in Reggio di Calabria in 1475.
The most important Jewish book printed at that time is also not ritual. Made in Bologna in 1482, it was the first one to gather the five books of the Pentateuch, on 438 pages. The center of the page displays the sacred text which is surrounded by Rashi's comments. This book also includes some Hebrew words illuminated in gold on a dark blue background.
A copy on vellum was sold for € 2.8M from a lower estimate of € 1M by Christie's on April 30, 2014, lot 36.
2012 SOLD for € 1.85M by Christie's
The Mahzor has all the characteristics of an illuminated book of hours, except that it deals with the Jewish liturgy and is written in Hebrew. Style comparisons show that the specimen for sale was made by a workshop specializing in Christian manuscripts.
This little book of 442 leaves 168 x 125mm was sold for € 1.85M from a lower estimate of € 400K, lot 62.
On one side, the printed incunabula already dominate the whole culture of the Renaissance. The workshops of the illuminators are beginning to be outdated. On the other hand, the movable type prints use Latin and Greek letters, and printed books in Hebrew are still a novelty.
The catalog states that "it is unsurprising that Jewish patrons called upon the services of artists who worked for the Medici". I would also say that it is not surprising that the Tuscan illuminators have solicited Jewish customers.
In Florence, Lorenzo de 'Medici was ending his "magnificent" reign. The great patron of arts and letters was also interested in Jews and protected them. Everything was to change from 1494 with the theocracy of Savonarola.
1520-1539 The Princeps Edition of the Talmud
2015 SOLD for $ 9.3M by Sotheby's
The invention of printing was not immediately applied to Hebrew types. In Italy, some Christian illuminators were able to continue their business during the last decades of the fifteenth century by adapting their expertise to the copy of Hebrew books.
The first books printed in Hebrew also appeared in Italy. The texts are cleverly arranged in blocks for an easy comparison within the page between the basic text and its commentaries. There is nothing similar in the Christian culture as far as I know.
Daniel Bomberg, a Christian printer in Venice, obtained in 1515 the permission to print in Hebrew. His princeps editions of the Talmud are a major project carried out in three phases : the Babylonian Talmud from 1520 to 1523, the Talmud of Jerusalem in 1522 and 1523 and additional tractates from 1525 to 1539 that went to complete his Babylonian Talmud.
The result is an achievement. The composition continues the tradition of confrontational blocks with such skill that they will serve for centuries as a prototype for further printed editions of the Talmud. The rabbinical sources are carefully selected and considered as indisputable. The book is printed on a beautiful heavy paper.
Westminster Abbey once owned the finest surviving copy of the Babylonian Talmud of Bomberg, complete of its 3472 leaves of great freshness, in nine volumes 39 x 27 cm in a period binding. When he was assembling his Valmadonna Trust Library, the collector Jack Lunzer managed to acquire this set by providing in exchange a valuable old charter of the abbey.
The Bomberg Talmud of the Valmadonna Trust Library was sold for $ 9.3M from a lower estimate of $ 5M by Sotheby's on December 22, 2015, lot 12.
The Valmadonna collection was exhibited at Sotheby's in February 2009. The video below, which is an introduction to the 11,000 pieces displayed in this exhibition, demonstrates convincingly why the Bomberg Talmud is the most important jewel in this stunning library.
1730 Illuminated Haggadah
2012 SOLD for $ 960K by Sotheby's
This is a Haggadah, the liturgical text of the Passover. It consists of 32 folios 29 x 21 cm and a large 50 x 29 cm map showing the tribulations of the Exodus. The whole is superbly executed on vellum, with three colors of ink for the writing, brown ink and gouache for the illustrations, along with some colored miniatures.
The artist is a Moravian scribe named Aaron Wolff Herlingen, considered as the best of his generation. Using his job as a pseudonym, he is also known as Aaron Schreiber.
1782 Torah Shields
2020 SOLD for $ 1.35M by Sotheby's
In a synagogue, the Torah ark is a tall wooden cabinet which is opened to access the book of divine teaching at the time of prayer. It is illustrated with numerous symbolic or liturgical scenes, which may include a bestiary. The hanging shield has a similar role for private devotion.
The Sassoon shields are very finely carved on chased silver. The front face centered by the Decalogue is in openwork parcel gilt. They have the rare characteristic of being also illustrated on the back. Their dimensions are similar, with a height of 24.7, 20.3 and 18 cm.
One of the pieces is inscribed in Hebrew by Elimelekh Tzoref in 1782 in Stanislav. Tzoref is a generic name for a smith. Stanislav is a village. Two pieces bear a later tax mark from Lemberg, now Lviv (Lvov) in Ukraine. The client was probably a wealthy resident of this big city.
Two of the reverses are illustrated with a detailed plan of the Temple in Jerusalem as it is traditionally interpreted by the Talmud. This scene is enlivened by processions of pilgrims and by animals led to sacrifice. By approaching the Torah, the faithful thus feel that they are entering the holy place. On the other shield, the main images on the back side illustrate the sacrifice and blessing of Isaac.
The largest shield was sold for the equivalent of $ 800K by Sotheby's in Tel Aviv on October 25, 2000. It was later donated to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
The other two were sold by Sotheby's on December 17, 2020, lot 26 for $ 1.35M from a lower estimate of $ 600K and lot 27 for $ 690K. Please watch the video shared by the auction house.