Micrography: the Art of Drawing with Letters

Stories, symbols and the nature of God concealed among Hebrew letters

Writing in tiny script is known from as early as the second millennium BCE where it is found on small Sumerian clay tablets, little more than an inch long, and from descriptions by first century CE Roman historian Pliny the Younger, but the word micrography is most commonly applied to a unique Jewish art form that uses miniature script to fashion decorative outlines.

Hebrew manuscripts of the Bible are often adorned with micrography, a unique Jewish scribal art that creates the contours of decorative forms using tiny script. The texts used to create the micrography were usually taken from the Masoretic text, a lexical text that served mainly to stabilize and preserve the accuracy of the Hebrew Biblical text.

Preparation of the Masoretic text began apparently somewhere between the seventh and beginning of the eighth centuries CE. The earliest examples of micrography decoration are found in Hebrew manuscripts from the Middle East which feature geometric designs that include architectonic structures, mainly arches.

First Gaster Bible, Egypt, c. 10–11th century, the British Library

Decorative shapes created from text appeared also in ancient and Classical manuscripts, generally with poetic verses, hence the name “Carmina figurata” to describe these figural poems.

The use of text to create forms led scholars to suggest that “carmina figurata” served as the visual inspiration for micrography, which is often referred to as “Masorah figurata” in academic literature. Nevertheless, some major differences challenge the validity of this claim. The most significant being that whereas in micrography the text is written along the outline of the desired form, in carmina figurata, a form is created by writing lines of text of differing length one below another, while remaining within the confines of the outlines.

In addition, the carmina figurata is a visual embodiment of the content of the poem forming a direct relation between text and image. Though there are a number of examples of micrography that are created in similar fashion, there is no direct link between the decorative image and the text used in its making.

An example of carmina figurata forming the image of a centaur, France, from a manuscript kept at the British Library

On the other hand, some aspects of Islamic art attest to it being the main and most influential visual source for the decorations appearing in Hebrew manuscripts, including micrography. Dan Pagis suggested that the aesthetic emphasis and formal sophistication of Jewish calligraphy, combined with the Masoretic tradition, provided a ready platform for the absorption of Islamic calligraphy and this can easily be compared in early Hebrew and Islamic manuscripts.

In manuscript Bibles with Masoretic text two sizes of script are used on the same page: the Biblical text is written in two or three columns in large, quadratic script and the Masoretic text is inserted in semi-square micrographic script in between the columns and on the upper and lower margins of the page. In Sephardic Masoretic manuscripts, the micrography is generally not larger than a millimeter, which sometimes makes it difficult to see that the decoration is made from script. In Ashkenazi Bibles, on the other hand, the micrography is much larger and easier to read.

Sussex Pentateuch, Spain, 13th century, the British Library


The Yonah Pentateuch, Germany, second half of the 13th century, the British Library

In the past, the prevailing view among researchers was that since there was no direct connection between the micrographic decoration and the text that it decorated (an exception being certain manuscripts from the late middle ages, and even these were rare), it was not essential to read the micrographic text in its entirety.

More recent research suggests that reading the text of the micrography is a methodological requirement as it can deepen understanding of the scribe’s writing style as well as characteristics of the writing flow in which the scribe created the decorative forms, which in turn, might reveal the correlation between the image and the text used to create it.


The Sana’a Pentateuch, Yemen, 1469, the British Library

This elaborate manuscript from Yemen, dated to 1469, known as the Sana’a Pentateuch, included a carpet page decoration inspired by the Islamic artistic tradition.

The opening carpet pages are similarly adorned, but feature slight variations in the decorative layout of the central micrographic element. Every carpet page includes a micrography decoration in the form of a rose in the center surrounded by concentric circles with five pairs of fish swimming in a circular motion between them. The entire circle is anchored, top and bottom, by triangular shapes that evoke mountains. The background is filled with a black and red filigree design. The decoration itself reflects cosmological and Islamic concepts that describe the sun in the center, followed by the sea, and finally, the earth.

The micrographic text here is taken from Psalm 119 which speaks of the relationship between man and the Torah. Given that the Torah is perceived as a diagram of the universe, these decorative forms might point to the symbolic connection between word and image. Symbolic connections are indeed found in the micrography decorations of older Middle Eastern manuscripts as well, as researcher Rachel Millstein has shown.

There are three instances where micrography appears in manuscripts other than bibles: the Rylands Haggadah, the Mocatta Haggadah and the Catalan Mahzor (High Holiday prayer book), which is kept in the National Library of Israel.

The Mahzor, a singular example of a manuscript prayer book decorated in micrography, includes twenty-three full-page decorations. The text making up the micrographic decorations in this manuscript is mostly from Psalms. The lucidly written text and the many commentaries make it easier to identify the link between text and image. A clear example of this is folio 5a depicting a dog catching a rabbit by its heel composed from the words of Psalm 22. The psalm describes a tortured and suffering figure, whose enemies are compared to a dog and lion chasing the narrator awaiting his death. In Jewish art the persecuted Jewish people are often compared to a hunted deer or rabbit.

מחזור קטלוניה, ספרד, שנת 1280 בערך. כתב היד שמור בספרייה הלאומית
From the Catalan Mahzor, Spain, circa 1280. The manuscript is kept at the National Library of Israel

Folio 3a contains a mandorla surrounding a fleur-de-lis. Four long-necked birds surround the mandorla. The image evokes the Maiestas Domini, the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.

In Christian art, this image is based on descriptions of the throne of God in the books of Samuel, Ezekiel and the Apocalypse of John. In this iconography, Jesus is portrayed seated on a royal throne within a mandorla which is supported by four angels or the four evangelists seen in the corners of the image. The mandorla, a familiar symbol in antiquity, is formed from two partially overlapping circles that symbolize the interaction and reciprocity between the heavenly and corporeal worlds: the divine and the human. In Christian art, this almond shape (mandorla means almond in Italian) was used as a means to describe the divine figure in all its glory,  and can be found in depictions of Jesus at the Last Judgment and of Mary. This central image was widespread in Christian art from the sixth century onward.


Jesus framed by a mandorla

The image of Christ in Majesty was prevalent on church facades and in manuscripts of the time of the Mahzor‘s production. We can presume that the Catalonian scribe, who was also the artist of the Mahzor, would have worked in a prominent Christian manuscript workshop in Barcelona and had access to the familiar workshop models. The artist would have used these Christian templates and by emptying them of their Christian content, he turned them into a polemic tool against Christianity itself. To understand the image it is important to identify the changes the scribe made to the Christian prototype and the text out of which he created the image.

In the image of the fleur-de-lis, the scribe used Psalm 145, which comprises the main part of the verses Ashrei yoshvei veitekha (Happy are they who dwell in Your house), the most important psalm in the Psukei dezimra (Verses of Praise, that may be recited during the morning prayer). To form the mandorla, the scribe doubled verses 15 and 16 on the left side. This graphic effort enabled the abbreviated Name of God appearing at the beginning of verse 17 to be inserted in order for it to form the gemstone at the center of the upper crown. It is interesting to consider this upper crown in relation to Kabbalistic notions of Ein Sof.

In this sense, what then is the significance of the small downward-pointing crown, at the bottom, opposite the large crown? This crown can be viewed as the atarah, a term used by Nachmanides and his students for the shekhina (the dwelling place of God, representing the feminine attributes of the presence of God). Reading the image in this way, we can suppose that it reflects a manipulation of the text, a kind of theological/theosophical sermon, responding to one of the central questions in the polemical discourse of the period, that is, the nature of God. While the sefira hokhma is the emanation of the highest crown and in its essence is the first to be revealed, malkhut, the shekhinah, after its descent to the bottom of the ladder of the sefirot, is the first of the created universe to be separated from the divine. The shekhinah is then a mirror reflecting the heavenly light in this world that draws its strength from the heavens and is thus the gateway to divine abundance in the world.

To understand the six-petaled fleur-de-lis pictured above, one could infer that along with the atarah, the seven sefirot in this image are the emanation of the created world, and thus, it reveals the Jewish concept of divine order that is expressed in the construction of the sefirot. Moreover, understanding the image in this way indicates that the image was given a structure which would have been clear to the reader.

The transposing of the evangelists or angels surrounding the mandorla in the Christian version with cranes or storks is also significant. Both these birds carry similar iconographic meanings of righteousness and religious devotion. The sages used the image of the stork to symbolize pious individuals (hasids). Therefore, it is possible that the choice of these birds is representative of the pious individual who chooses the right path—follows the commandments—and engages in deeds that preserve the balance and harmony between the powers of creation. In introducing these changes to the Christian model, the scribe has created a visual polemic that argues against Christian theology in the matter of the essence of the Divine, in a depiction that represents the true essence of God through the expression of the sefirot in the world.

These complex visual forms raise the question of why the Masoretic text, which is supposed to preserve the accuracy of the Biblical text, was inserted into a decoration that is so difficult to read?

David Stern has suggested interpreting this art as a visual midrash of Avot [Ethics of the Fathers] 3, 13: “Tradition [Masoret] is a safeguarding fence around the Torah.” This would explain the use of micrography to create the borders that adorn the biblical text. In other words, the decoration creates a visual border that is analogous to the aim of the Masoretic text which is to preserve the accuracy of the Biblical text. I would further suggest that the need to rotate the manuscript in order to be able to read the micrography is another visual midrash of Avot 5, 22: “Search in it and search in it since everything is in it,” a physical expression of learning inherent in the text of the Torah which is expressed in the obligation to turn the page over and over again in order to decipher the connection between text and image and discover the secrets concealed among the letters.


An entire digital library of Hebrew manuscripts is now available to you on the “Ktiv” website


Demon-Busting Magical Bowls from Babylon!

Does trouble keep coming your way? Maybe it's just bad luck, or perhaps it's those pesky demons again…In any case, it's important to act quickly! That's why the National Library keeps a collection of magical demon-exorcising bowls created by Babylonian Jews!

A magical bowl meant for trapping malicious demons.

Babylon. The middle of the first millennium CE. An individual gets up in the morning, suffering from a stomach ache or any other pain that may prevent one from leaving home and “earning one’s bread.” So, what does one do? At the time, in Babylon, there were several options: one could consult with the elders, visit the nearest doctor, pray to the heavens above or… order a magical bowl to capture the demons trapped inside oneself.

The Jews of Babylon were not the only ones who created and purchased magical exorcism bowls. Between the fifth and eighth centuries, Babylon was flooded with enchanted bowls used for capturing demons. There is reason to believe that the Jews were considered experts in the field, as over sixty percent of the magical bowls that have been found to date had their spells inscribed upon them by Jewish “wizards,” for the use of both Jews and non-Jews.

Each bowl was made by hand and no two bowls were identical, though some of the same patterns and formulas do appear on many of them. Most of the bowls were made specially by pre-order for specific owners, whose names were inscribed on the bowls themselves. Bowls were often buried under the floor of a house to protect the owners, family and property from attacks by malicious demons.

Incantations were written on the bowls in three ancient Aramaic dialects – Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, Mandaic and Syriac. The text was usually inscribed on the inside of the bowl in spiral form, from the center outwards. Sometimes drawings were added to illustrate the efficacy of the magic, such as an image of a bound demon, a wizard or some other heroic figure wrangling the evil demons. Today, we know of more than two thousand such magical bowls located in museums and private collections around the world. Most of them are preserved away from the public eye.

How, then, did the Library come into possession of several of these bowls? Recently, seven of these rare enchanted objects were donated to the National Library of Israel by collector Avigdor Klagsbald. These seven joined another single bowl that is part of the Gershom Scholem Collection, donated many years ago by the famous scholar of Jewish mysticism. The bowls are among the oldest items in the Library, and here you can have a look at them…


  1. The story of Smumit: A mother protecting her children

This bowl was donated by Gershom Scholem. The inscription tells the story of a character named Smumit, who lost her sons at the hands of a demon called Sydrus. She fled and built herself a fortress, where she gave birth to another son. Unfortunately, Sydrus managed to enter the fortress and kill this newborn child as well. When Sydrus’ crime was discovered, he fled. At this point, came a heavenly intervention: Four angels – Soni, Sasoni, Sangri, and Ertico – pursued and caught the demon. When they were about to kill him, he swore not to harm the children of the bowl owner wherever the names of the four angels were mentioned. There are certain connections between this story and the story of Lilith, the first wife of the biblical Adam, an infamous demonic murderer of children, which appears in the medieval work Alpha Beta deBen Sira. The names of the first three angels can still be found today, in a slightly altered from, in amulets and talismans intended to protect pregnant women. In the center of the bowl is a drawing of an unidentified figure. The story of this bowl was originally published in 1985 by Joseph Naveh and Shaul Shaked. It was brought to light again recently in the work of James Nathan Ford.



קערה בעלת כיתוב בארמית בבלית יהודית. מתוך אוספי הספרייה הלאומית
Bowl with Jewish Babylonian Aramaic inscription. From the Gershom Scholem Collection at the National Library.


  1. The Mandaic bowl of Zadoi Ben Dadai

The inscription on this bowl is written in the Mandaic language, which is a dialect of ancient Aramaic spoken in Babylon by members of the Mandaean community. The incantation is directed against a long line of Lilith-like demons, each with a different name. On one side of the bowl we can spot the figure of a demon, perhaps one of those from which the owner of the bowl, Zadoi Ben Dadai, sought protection. These bowls are the earliest evidence of the culture of the Mandaean community, which exists to this day.


קערה בעלת כיתוב במנדעית. מתוך אוספי הספרייה הלאומית
Bowl with Mandaic inscription. From the National Library Collection.


  1. A bowl to protect a house and its residents

This bowl barely survived the arduous journey to Jerusalem. It was reassembled from several fragments, but one of the pieces is clearly still missing. The inscription on the bowl, written in Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, is an appeal to a large number of angels to protect the house and its inhabitants. A demon with long hair, bound by its hands and feet, is featured in the center of the bowl.


קערה בעלת כיתוב בארמית בבלית יהודית. מתוך אוספי הספרייה הלאומית
Bowl with Jewish Babylonian Aramaic inscription. From the National Library Collections.


To the Library’s collection of magic bowls


This article was written with the generous assistance of Dr. James Nathan Ford of the Department of Hebrew and Semitic Languages at Bar-Ilan University.


If you liked this article, try these!

The Black Suitcase of Magical Amulets with a Mysterious History

No Children Allowed: Introducing Lilith, the Jewish Vampire Queen

The Golem: Super Villain or Super Hero?

The 11th Commandment: Amos Oz Reveals His True Faith

In a speech given two years before his death last Friday, Israeli writer Amos Oz spoke of what was holy to him

עמוס עוז, 1972. צילום: צוות יפפ"א, ארכיון דן הדני בספרייה הלאומית

Amos Oz, 1972. IPPA, the Dan Hadani Collection at the National Library

On November 29th, 2016, two years before his death, Amoz Oz gave a speech as part of a panel discussion dedicated to “Jerusalem and the Overlappings of the Sacred” during the “Global Forum of the National Library“. In his speech (which was given in English) Oz spoke of Jerusalem, the city in which he was born. He also revealed the things which he held sacred and the moral imperative which guided him. Here are a few selections from the speech:


On holy places

To me, one place in Jerusalem has been sacred since I was a little boy: The library. I am a son of a librarian. I happen to be also the son-in-law of a librarian, the husband of an archivist, the brother-in-law of another librarian and the father of three writers. What else could I be? Which other place could be more sacred to my heart than libraries?



On religion

My late grandmother Shlomit, who died almost exactly 60 years ago, long before the Six-Day-War, long before the disputes about the holy places in Jerusalem – she might have had the answer to the problem of the future of the disputed holy places in Jerusalem. When I was a little boy, maybe four, maybe five, grandma Shlomit explained to me in simple words the difference between Jew and Christian…

“You see, my boy” she said, “the Christians, they believe that the Messiah (has) been here once and he will come again one day. We Jews, we happen to believe that the Messiah (has) not been here and he is still to come. Over this dispute,” said grandma Shlomit, “you cannot imagine, my boy, how much bloodshed, hatred, persecution, cruelty…Why?” she said, “Why can’t everybody simply wait and see? If the Messiah comes saying: ‘Hello! It’s nice to see you again!’  – The Jews will have to convert or at least to apologize to the Christians. If, on the other hand, the Messiah comes saying: ‘How do you do? Very nice meeting you!’ – The entire Christian world will have to convert or at least to apologize to the Jews.” She knew one or two things about open-ended situations and open-ended solutions.


What was sacred to him?

Human solidarity, justice, sharing, rule of law, family values, the family table, stories, a sense of humor – all these are components of Jewish heritage.

I will add to that: human life, human suffering… There is pain enough to go round. There may not be love enough to go round but there is pain enough to go round without ourselves adding pain upon pain.

Pain is a great human equalizer. Sometimes I say tongue-in-cheeck that pain is almost a socialist – it doesn’t distinguish between rich and poor, Jew and Christian and Muslim…Pain is pain. Pain is a great unifier.


Amoz Oz and Jesus

I disagree with Jesus Christ. I love him, he is close to my heart, but I disagree with him on a few things. I never agreed with Jesus Christ on the idea of universal love – everybody loving everyone else. This is very sweet but very childish. I disagree with Jesus when he says ‘Forgive them, for they know not what they are doing.’…Oh yes, we know. We are not moral idiots…When we inflict pain on others we know exactly what we are doing…We know very well. Even a little child pulling the cat’s tail – he knows or she knows that they are inflicting pain.


Oz’s faith and moral imperative, “in a nutshell”

Paraphrasing Kant of course – no one can invent anything new – I would say: Thou shalt not inflict pain, or to be more modest: Thou shalt try to inflict as little pain as you possibly can… This is not relative. This is not dependent on varying narratives and varying traditions. We know.


A cure for fanaticism:

I have never seen a fanatic with a sense of humor… especially a self-targeted sense of humor…this is a powerful immunity to fanaticism. If I could only condense the sense of humor into capsules and persuade entire populations to swallow my humor capsules, thus immuning them to fanaticism, I would qualify for the Nobel Prize, not in Literature but in Medicine…A sacred curiosity, a sacred sense of humor…And may every one of us fight as much as we can, against the internal fanatic inside each and every one of us


Amos Oz 1939-2018

May his memory be a blessing