The renowned Moskowitz Mahzor is a manuscript inscribed on parchment in the 15th century by Joel ben Simeon, considered by many to be the most important Jewish artist of the Middle Ages. Ben Simeon was a scribe and illuminator active in Germany and Northern Italy. The manuscript is considered exceptional due to the stunning illustrations and illuminations found throughout, including images of rabbits, bears, fish, squirrels, and birds, as well as imaginary creations such as a unicorn, and a diverse range of mythological, religious and astrological symbols.
The restoration work on the Moskowitz Mahzor has now been completed and the exquisite manuscript is available online for the first time.
It includes prayers according to the Jewish Roman rite for the entire year, including weekdays, the Sabbath, holidays, Torah readings, the Passover Haggadah, Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) with Maimonides’ commentary, various blessings, and rulings related to Jewish law. It is also exceptionally full of piyyutim (Jewish liturgical poetry), slichot (Jewish penitential prayers), as well as rare formulas of other prayers.
The months long restoration work on the 376 page treasure was extremely complicated, primarily because poor attempts over the centuries to fix its binding had made it difficult to open without causing damage. A number of Latin texts found inside the binding, attest to some attempts to strengthen the cover. Many of the manuscript’s illustrations had also faded over time.
The Mahzor was donated to the National Library of Israel in 1970 by Henry and Rose Moskowitz of New York in memory of Henry’s parents, first wife, daughter and other relatives murdered in the Holocaust.
According to Dr. Yoel Finkelman, Head of Collections and Haim and Hanna Salomon Judaica Collection curator at the National Library of Israel, “For a long time we unfortunately could not offer physical access to one of the most important and beautiful manuscripts in our collection due to its fragile condition. Now, as a result of the wonderful work done by the team in our Conservation and Restoration Laboratory, the manuscript has been restored and digitized, opening access to the world for the first time.”
On Gershom Scholem, Conspiracy Theories and Rabbinical Court Controversies
Marvin Antelman, an American rabbi and conspiracy theorist, was one of the many strange figures who wrote letters to Gershom Scholem, the distinguished scholar of Jewish mysticism. Scholem, however, was not impressed...
Gershom Scholem loved to write in his books. He wrote many types of comments; bibliographical, content, cross references, etc. Occasionally he also took swipes at other authors by pointing out flaws in their research. These comments usually appeared on or across from the title page. On one book he wrote “a waste of nice paper”, on another “woe is to the teacher that this [author] is called his student.”
In his work Antelman (who also held a PhD in chemistry) painted a detailed conspiracy theory incorporating the Jewish Enlightenment, Reform Judaism and Communism, tracing their origins back to the false messianic movement of Shabbtai Zvi, his Polish successor Jacob Frank, the Illuminati movement and Jacobin Society.
Here is where Scholem, the preeminent scholar of the Sabbatean movement enters our story. Antelman references him regarding the possible influence of the Sabbatean movement on the development of the Jewish Enlightenment and Reform movements but goes well beyond Scholem’s noting of a possible cultural influence – Antelman lunges into a full-fledged conspiracy theory, so complex as to be beyond the scope of this article.
Interestingly, Antelman’s book got him into hot water with the rabbinic establishment in his home town of Boston, where he was summoned by the local rabbinic court to defend the book. It wasn’t Antelman’s outlandish claims concerning the Reform movement and the Sabbatean roots of Communism that raised the ire of the Boston rabbis, however. What really got them upset was Antelman’s decision to take sides in a fierce 18th century controversy, by claiming that the famous sage Rabbi Yonatan Eibeschutz was a Sabbatean (a position also shared by Scholem). Antelman wrote back at length defending his position based upon prior rabbinical authority (Rabbi Yaacov Emden and others) and refused to submit to the authority of the Bet Din of the Massachusetts Council of Rabbis unless they met various conditions, including being able to call scholarly witnesses (Gershom Scholem?) to testify on his behalf. He also mentions that he had at one time served as the New England Coordinator for the JDL [Rabbi Meir Kahane’s Jewish Defense League]. It is also telling that whereas Antelman titles the subject of his letter “Reply to your summons…to answer heresy charges”, the word “heresy” appears nowhere on the actual summons that he received from the rabbinic court. . He later turned to a rabbinic court in Los Angeles which vindicated him of the charges.
Antelman sent the rabbinic court correspondence to Scholem, along with a personal letter. Scholem kept these letters together with the book in his collection.
In the 1990s Antelman published a Hebrew book on R. Yonatan Eibeschutz (Bechor Satan) detailing his prior claims, and here as well he relied heavily on Scholem’s research. In this book he published a copy of the letter from the Los Angeles Bet Din exonerating him of the heresy charges leveled in Boston.
This letter explicitly mentions “Professor Gershom Shalom” [Scholem] as the authority upon whom Antelman based his research regarding R. Eibeschutz. The Los Angeles rabbinic court even threw its support behind Antelman’s strange theories, claiming in the letter that he was “enlightening the Jewish reader in the danger of Reform, Conservative and Jewish Communists”. It is interesting to point out that though Scholem’s work was cited as a source by both Antelman and his friends in California, Scholem himself was hardly a typical example of Jewish orthodoxy.
Antelman eventually went on to serve as “Chief Justice” of the “Supreme Rabbinical Court of America” that he founded. Among the more dramatic acts of the court was the excommunication of American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1976.
In his later years he was active in finding solutions for women who had difficulties receiving an halachic divorce. Antelman eventually made Aliyah and spent his last years in the Israeli city of Rehovot.
The author thanks Rabbis Elli Fischer and Daniel Yolkut for help with this research.
The National Library’s illustrated copy of Kehilot Moshe (Song of Songs)
There’s nothing like discovering a rare, hidden masterpiece, right under your nose…
The Kehilot Moshe publication of 1724 was a celebrated achievement in its day. These days, any remaining volumes and complete sets of this mikraot gedolot, or rabbinic bible, are considered rare treasures in the world of biblical intellectual history and Jewish printmaking. Of all the remaining copies, The Twin Sets of Kehilot Moshe represent a special category as pre-ordered special runs.
Unlike the other copies with woodblock title initials, the Twin Sets’ title registers were left blank. The folios were removed from the press, and passed along to artists for illustration. The unprinted areas in the Twin Sets were completed as a special project, probably a commission.
Select title initials include hand drawn text and decorative illustrations with figurative narrative bible scenes. Most works are delicately illustrated with ink gouache paint. Some are illuminated in gold.
These figurative miniatures depict Jews as historical characters from the bible in classical costume, as well as characters in modern eighteenth century Dutch fashion. The bible characters include nude Adam and Eve, Moses, Pharaoh’s Daughter, Miriam, King David, a collection of putti, soldiers and many other figures. While representations of Dutch Jews of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries can be found in a myriad of different artworks and styles, these bible miniatures are of the few rare examples of Jewish self-representation.
The first set of illustrated Kehilot Moshe is on long-term loan from Richard and Debra Parkoff to Yeshiva University’s Mendel Gottesman Library where it is being cared for by Shulamith Berger, Curator of Special Collections and Hebraica-Judaica at Yeshiva University Library. The second set of illustrated Kehilot Moshe was a more serendipitous finding. The special run of Kehilot Moshe was modestly hiding in an unmarked collection of three standard eighteenth century sets in the National Library of Israel’s Department of Manuscripts in Jerusalem. The National Library’s magnificent illustrated Kehilot Moshe includes seventeen miniatures of bible scenes. It is unknown who the artists were. Another unknown is who the Twin Sets’ original owners and patrons were. It was most likely a commissioned project, but there is no existing documentation.
What Can the Twin Sets of Kehilot Moshe Teach us?
The Twin Sets are eye opening in their richness of Jewish art history, in what they can tell us about the early modern publishing industry and about the city of Amsterdam during this period. There are two especially valuable lessons to be learned here:
Firstly, the Kehilot Moshe, created by Moshe Frankfurt, the Amsterdam av beit din (rabbinic court judge) and master book printer, was a project of the Ashkenazi Dutch intellectual rabbinic elite. The figural depictions in a Jewish bible teach us to reexamine the preconception that traditional Judaism disparages representational art. Like other iconoclastic faith practices, this book represents a diversity of opinions and artistic traditions.
Secondly, limited resources in book cataloguing limit our knowledge of the remaining Kehilot Moshe in libraries and private collections. Diminishing funds to the arts, and a diminishing focus on art works on paper and rare books makes it more difficult to know which of the remaining books may be illustrated. The Twin Sets remind us of the relevance of physical books, the necessity to continue to care for old books, and the vibrancy that collectors and libraries bring to cultural heritage.
Where Can You See the Twin Sets?
Since my visit in August 2019, Dr. Yoel Finkelman, Curator of the National Library of Israel’s Judaica Collection has sent the books for conservation treatment and evaluation. Meanwhile, the images will be digitally recorded thanks to his immediate recognition of this hidden treasure.
Images from the two editions that make up the Twin Sets will be featured together in Yeshiva University’s upcoming exhibition on Kehilot Moshe at Amsterdam Printing on Amsterdam Avenue in winter 2021 as part of a discussion on Jewish artistic traditions.
Underfunding in book cataloguing limits our knowledge of the quantity and quality of the remaining Kehilot Moshe in libraries and private collections. It is probable other illustrated sets of Kehilot Moshe are hidden in library stacks and private collections where they are waiting to be found. Perhaps there are even triple or quadruple sets waiting to be reunited.
They are considered “the surgeons” of the National Library, true masters of their craft. Every day, the workers of our Department of Conservation and Restoration literally put the past back together again, piece by piece. The rare items you see in the National Library’s various exhibits and archival displays are impressive and beautiful, but we do not usually receive them in that condition. Most of these items sustain severe damage over the centuries, often reaching our archives in poor condition; torn, broken, rumpled, their pieces stuck to one another, and dirty.
Recently, the department received a Yemeni manuscript, written in the year 1595, of a work known as Al-Wajiz al-Mughni(The Brief and the Sufficient”). The manuscript, written in Hebrew and Judeo-Arabic, contains a comprehensive midrash on the Torah portions as well as a series of beautiful illustrations, including an impressive menorah, a family tree displaying the sons of Jacob and even a sketch of the ephod and the choshen (the ceremonial breastplate worn by the High Priest). The manuscript arrived in a fragile state: Its cover and pages were torn. Its seam had been poorly sewn, resulting in damage to the pages, with holes and cracks appearing in the parchment. The ink had begun to decay and to eat away at the paper.
Marcela Szekely, the director of the Conservation and Restoration Department, described the challenges the staff was faced with: “The manuscript was very dirty when it reached the department. The seam was sewn very close to the text, the proximity causing some of the pages to tear over time. We had to take the seam apart to understand that we weren’t dealing with double-page leaves but rather with a pile of single pages sewn together, page-to-page.”
And so, the staff set to work: Haim Shushan, a book conservator at the department, documented the state of the item before it was treated, as is common practice with all the items that are handled. First, he disassembled the book’s cover from its body. Then he cleaned the pages and removed the layers of dirt which had accumulated over the centuries, composed mostly of dust, various materials that had stuck to the pages over time, hair and wax stains, along with different types of leaves and grains. We asked Haim what the worst kind of dirt he encountered in his work was; he immediately answered, “Human DNA – beard hair”.
Haim then began to restore the pages. He decided to get rid of the old seam which had damaged the item, and employed a technique for creating new leaves (double-page sheets) using Japanese paper (washi): The single pages were rearranged as leaves, with two pages for each leaf. A thick layer of Japanese paper was glued between the pages, fastening them firmly together while allowing flexibility when viewing the manuscript. Haim placed the leaves on top of each other until he could finally sew them all together into a single mass, a whole book.
On closer inspection of the manuscript, one notices additional, irritating cases of damage. Sections of pages were torn out and replaced with patches of newspaper fragments or notebook paper, with the text being rewritten; the ink had begun to decay, with holes appearing in some of the pages, which could threaten the state of the item as a whole. Haim had to handle all these issues.
It was decided that the old patches would also be preserved, as they served to complete the text and represented evidence of historical techniques. To fix the newer holes, Haim created new patches himself. “The type of ink used in this manuscript is extremely difficult to work with,” he said, explaining the production process: “When wasps lay eggs in a tree, it causes the tree to produce a black liquid which covers the eggs. In the past, these black beads were collected and ground into ink, its chemical composition high in acid.” That is why certain parts of the book were consumed.
The holes were also covered with Japanese paper in an extremely delicate process. First, Haim sketched the outline of each hole on the back side of the page, enabling him to produce a piece of Japanese paper identical to the missing piece. After making sure the size was right, he applied special glue to the paper and flattened the two layers into one. This process prevents further decay and damage to the pages and their content.
Preparing a new patch. The ink damage (the dark spots) can be seen clearly
Fitting the new patch to the page:
Gluing the new patch to the page:
Flattening the patch onto the leaf, creating a single layer:
And there you have it. Once the book is rebound, the new cover will safeguard the item and preserve it, so that you – the general public and the many researchers who visit the National Library – can study it and familiarize yourself with the customs of the ancient Yemenite-Jewish community. The art of conserving such manuscripts is highly complex and delicate, requiring skill and expertise. The workers at the National Library’s Department of Conservation and Restoration are responsible for saving these extremely rare items – for us and for generations to come – because the future begins with the preservation of the past.