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May 5, 2015 / 16 Iyar, 5775
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A Jewish Palimpsest In Maastricht, Netherlands

Circa 1300. Leaf from a manuscript excerpt from Joshua and Isaiah from the Haftorah. (Membrum disjectum.) Photo by Menachem Wecker.

Circa 1300. Leaf from a manuscript excerpt from Joshua and Isaiah from the Haftorah. (Membrum disjectum.) Photo by Menachem Wecker.

14th century manuscript. First page from a Babylonian Talmud, tractate Pesahim. Probably from Northern France or the Rijnland. (Membra disjecta.) Photo by Menachem Wecker.

It’s impossible to know the scribe’s motivations, but the typographical decisions certainly raise a lot of questions. The same is not true of the second manuscript I saw. The two pages from a Babylonian Talmud, tractate Pesachim, are laid out more strategically, and even have occasional paragraph breaks (though those don’t necessarily seem to follow the flow of the Mishnaic texts). One can also see marginal notes in a different scribal hand, which are commentaries (perhaps of Rashi or Tosafot).

But by far the most compelling manuscript was the palimpsest, which dates to around 1300. A century after the Hebrew text was written, another hand (writing in brown ink) added the insignia of the tax registry, written at a 90-degree angle to the Hebrew text. And about two centuries later (this time in black ink), another hand added names and amounts of money those people owed in taxes. “Pure vandalism,” Walle explained.

One can see that the text was used to read Haftorot from (in image four, eight lines down in small text, a note directs the reader to the Haftorah for Rosh Chodesh that falls on Shabbat). But it was reinvented as a tax registry, and rather than scraping off the original text, the tax officials simply added their own notes in the margins of the text.

Walle is right about the vandalism, but in many ways the documents—insofar as their story betrays the different people who owned them and used them in a variety of ways—are more exciting for their complexity and multiple identities.

 

Full disclosure: This writer’s trip to Maastricht was funded, in large part, by the Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions, which, however, had no role whatsoever in or oversight over this article.

Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blog.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.


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