Rare Hebrew Manuscripts From Vatican on View in Israel

Includes Copy of Mishnah Torah Written by Maimonides

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JERUSALEM, SEPT. 27, 2005 (Zenit.org).- In honor of the Israel Museum’s 40th anniversary, the Vatican Library has loaned four illuminated Hebrew manuscripts from its collection, which have never been shown to the public in Israel.

Among them is a richly illustrated 15th-century manuscript of the Mishnah Torah, the text of which was written in the 12th century by the Rambam, Maimonides.

Beginning Wednesday, and remaining on view until Jan. 27, these manuscripts are part of the Israel Museum’s “Timeless Masterpieces” series of international loans in tribute to its three curatorial wings — Art, Archaeology, and Judaica and Jewish Ethnography.

“Crowning our 40th anniversary, this special presentation of rare illuminated manuscripts has religious, as well as cultural and diplomatic, significance,” said James Snyder, director of the Israel Museum. “We are grateful to the Vatican Library for the loan of these truly unique treasures, which is emblematic of the strengthening cultural ties between the Vatican and the Israel Museum.”

The Mishnah Torah, written by Maimonides, the greatest rabbinical figure in medieval Spain, consists of 14 books that systematically organize the vast corpus of rabbinic legal rulings relating to various aspects of secular and religious life.

Text of law

Featuring the first five books of the monumental work, the 15th-century manuscript reflects the reverence of later generations for the 12th-century thinker and his codification.

A contemporaneous manuscript also on view is an illuminated copy of the Arba’ah Turim, Rabbi Jacob ben Asher’s renowned medieval text of Jewish law.

Like the Mishnah Torah, this codex of the Arba’ah Turim features notably realistic miniature illustrations depicting such scenes as wedding ceremonies or trials in Jewish courts.

Both manuscripts, produced by highly skilled non-Jewish artists of their time, are typical of the Northern Italian school of illumination.

Accompanying these monumental works are a complete Hebrew Bible codex and a book of Psalms, both produced in Rome in the 13th century and greatly prized by Jewish scholars since that time. Decorated with intricate and highly colored floral and zoomorphic motifs illuminated in gold, these are among the earliest such manuscripts in existence.

“Produced in Italy, these four treasures exemplify the two distinct and highly significant moments in the history of illuminated Hebrew manuscripts, during the late Middle Ages and then the Renaissance,” said Daisy Raccah-Djivre, chief curator of Judaica and Jewish Ethnography.

The exhibition is made possible by Merryl and James Tisch, of New York, with assistance from the Pave the Way Foundation.

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