Spotting a Fake: The Flourishing Industry of Jewish Manuscript Forgeries

Hebrew letters jumbled together and Stars of David in every corner - The National Library is swamped with calls from “collectors” from Arab countries offering “historical manuscripts” that supposedly once belonged to Jewish communities in Islamic lands.

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About ten years ago, when Dr. Aviad Stollman was less than a week into his new job as the curator of Judaica Collections, he was inundated with a stream of emails and instant messages on his personal cellphone and Facebook account from strangers who were sending him pictures of antique manuscripts he could not identify. The photographs and messages, which were being sent from Arab countries, were meant to entice the recipient to purchase these lost historical items that had at one time belonged to various Jewish communities from Islamic lands, and had now been rediscovered many decades after the Jews, who had lived in these countries for the last two thousand years, were gone.

Looking at the growing pile of evidence, the new curator had no choice but to ask himself some tough questions:  Were these items proof of some unknown writing tradition? Was it possible these were artifacts not yet accounted for by the historical research of Jewish communities from the Islamic countries? And why were all the manuscripts inscribed on metal and not parchment or paper as is generally the case? Taking a second (and in some cases also a third) look at the messages was all Dr. Stollman needed to quell any uncertainty. He and many other experts have since discovered that it takes only little time and practice to recognize a forgery.

The first pictures he received were also the easiest to spot: manuscripts, and this is an iron-clad rule, are not engraved on metal (with the exception of inscriptions), and most definitely are not printed on metal. Another dead giveaway was the content of these “lost works”: most of the forgers, looking to get rich quick and attempting to take advantage of the naiveté of others, exposed their own lack of knowledge in the process. In most cases, the manuscripts were filled with text that, while composed of Hebrew letters, were complete gibberish. Apparently, the forgers copied Hebrew texts from the internet, but possessing not even an elementary knowledge of the language led them to many strange mistakes in the transcription.

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Forgeries from Libya

 

However, the forgers’ ignorance, not to mention greed, didn’t end there. Next to images of these “lost treasures” were also price tags. It’s hard to imagine that any of the eager sellers behind these objects had ever bothered to look at a catalogue from one of the many auction houses in Israel or the world specializing in Hebrew manuscripts. Otherwise why would they be asking for astronomical prices in the millions and sometimes even in the tens of millions of dollars?

 

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An example of a WhatsApp conversation with a potential seller: the seller is offering books and manuscripts purportedly dealing with “Kabbala, the Messiah and conversations with God himself.” The seller also notes that “the person who examined these artifacts is the director-general of Jordanian archaeology. The artifacts are 700 years old and are 100% authentic. There are three books, five manuscripts and two manuscripts that open.”

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An example of manuscripts sent from Jordan

 

Not only photographs and videos of ancient manuscripts arrive weekly at the Library. Sometimes items of a different sort come up, which are no less interesting. This sword, for example, is decorated with a Star of David and letters that resemble Hebrew script, which are actually gibberish.

 

Occasionally, the forgers seems not to know what direction Hebrew is read in — right to left or left to right, or perhaps bottom to top?

It’s important to note that not everyone who sends pictures of these “recently discovered lost items” is in on the joke (by the way, no matter how many examples have already been uncovered, every new one that surfaces succeeds in raising a chuckle). Some collectors, themselves citizens of Arab countries, often with deep pockets, have innocently purchased a rare manuscript or item whose value was worth more than its weight in gold, or so they were told. Among those who were quick to pass on information to Dr. Stollman and other Library staff about a sale were a former head of the Mossad, Israeli media and political personalities, and others in either direct or indirect contact with the Arab world. People continue to contact the Library daily about items like these.

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The text printed on these supposedly ancient documents from Belgrade appears to have been copied, poorly, from a New-Age self-help book.

The fakes have improved over time. The metal has been replaced by parchment, textiles or paper made to look antique. Nevertheless, Dr. Stollman tells us, “With a trained eye—it doesn’t take more than a few seconds to figure out that it’s a fake.” Historical knowledge helps spot the new fakes that contain images (apparently printed ones) of a Star of David on the cover. Interested in selling their wares to Israeli collectors, the forgers don’t understand that the symbol that appears on the flag of the State of Israel is a modern one, so their promises that the artifact is thousands of years old don’t even hold up to the simple test of looking at the cover of the book being offered for sale.

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Cloth forgeries

Some items that do pass the cover test are Torah scrolls that have been placed inside an original Torah mantle that was likely preserved in a synagogue in one of the Arab countries. A quick look at the scroll itself is enough to determine that the scroll itself is a fake while the mantle is authentic.

It seems that not all researchers dismiss the evidence sent daily to potential buyers. In England for example, the Centre for the Study of the Jordanian Lead Books treats these items in all seriousness. On the center’s webpage, members discuss the question of authenticity: “The writing on the metal books is not babble. There is definitely code or encryption in the writing. Members of the Panel have already prepared some translations, these were presented as a preliminary report to the Board of the Centre at the Annual General Meeting on the 26th May 2016.” Our thorough search of their website did not yield any such report, but in the center’s other publications—including videos on YouTube on which the comments option has been blocked—it is claimed over and over that (apparently)  these are authentic artifacts—or at the least copies and replicas of authentic items that have been lost. We, however, have yet to be convinced.

In conclusion, Dr. Stollman, who today serves as chief curator of the National Library, admits, “from time to time, an item comes up that makes you pause, even if only for a few seconds.” The most confounding item he confronted was a Persian-Jewish forgery. What made even the experienced curator doubt whether this might actually be an original historical artifact was the text—it was a known, authentic Persian-Jewish text. In this case, the images gave the forgery away – the illustrations that did not match the text. “The forgers combined images that were not always related to the original text, and naturally they added the menorah—for authenticity.”

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Persian-Jewish forgeries

 

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Moses struck the rock and out came fake manuscripts? An example of a forgery from Egypt

The 13th Century Manuscript That Was Saved From the Nazis

How a Handwritten 12th-Century Manuscript by Maimonides Ended Up at the National Library


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




Spotted Off the Shores of the Holy Land: The Little Mermaid

Mermaids, sea monsters and all sorts of fantastic creatures were a common feature of ancient maps

בת הים על המפה

When examining ancient maps of different kinds, a recurring theme will often catch the eye.

As oceans and seas naturally occupy large, expansive areas of maps, we find that illustrators tend to fill these spaces with interesting drawings of a rather imaginative nature. Sea monsters are a popular theme, as are ships. But, another exotic sea creature of a different sort is often the subject of these oceanic map illustrations – mermaids.

Mermaids feature in a number of ancient maps preserved in the Eran Laor Cartographic Collection at the National Library of Israel. On Sebastian Münster’s 1572 map of the Asian continent, you can spot a mermaid with a sloping fin-tail splashing in the waters south of Indonesia, not far from a fairly ordinary looking sea monster.

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In this map of the Arabian Peninsula created by Ptolemy and printed in Basel in 1545, we can see a mermaid swimming in the Gulf of Aden. She is depicted with a crown-like braid, a style popular with high-born maidens of the Renaissance-era, and she has wings or fins instead of arms.

בת הים על המפה

 

Even in the famous Bünting Clover Leaf Map, which depicts Jerusalem as the center of the world, we can see a mermaid bathing in the eastern oceans as a merman gazes at her with keen interest.4

 

Indeed, here at the National Library of Israel, we need not look far to find these aquatic creatures – In 1722 Edward Wells created a map which displayed how the land of Canaan was divided up among the twelve tribes of Israel. Here as well, you can see a mermaid leaning against the frame of the title, her infant mer-child clinging on to her. This touching scene takes place right off the coast of the city of Acre (Akko).

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It seems these aquatic creatures could be found all over the world, so long as those spotting them used a little bit of imagination!