Brad Sabin Hill was sitting in the Oriental Reading Room at the British Library. The Oriental Room served as home to the Jewish books, and when the collection moved to a new location, the last book to make the move was a small Jewish book that fell through the cracks and was discovered under a bookcase by the librarian in a search to ensure that everything was accounted for. As the dean of the library and senior research librarian at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, Hill was, of course, researching Jewish books. But the librarian who walked by and looked over his shoulder was hardly impressed. “Another boring Hebrew book with nothing but text,” she said.

Hill was one of four speakers at the Jean S. Moldovan Memorial Symposium of the Harry G. Friedman Society of the Jewish Museum on March 5. Under the title, “A Sacred Art: Hebrew Manuscripts & Imprints,” the symposium brought together four scholars who spoke about Hebrew paleography and dating, Italian women’s prayer books, Hebrew book art and first editions of classical Hebrew books.

Named for blockbuster Judaica collector Harry G. Friedman (1882-1965), the society has somehow managed to slip under the eye of the public and the press and carries a mysterious fraternity feel, not unlike the Freemasons. Once a month, the society of Judaica collectors meets at the Jewish Museum for bagels, pastries and coffee, followed by a lecture on some aspect of Jewish art. Then a show-and-tell period commences, where collectors showcase the pieces they have acquired since the previous meeting. The meetings are subversive at times, and the communicative currency is often based on machhloket, where battles ensue in dating objects and determining their origin – and perhaps more importantly, their worth. The society is an arena in which questions of Jewish art seem to carry cosmological implications.

This symposium was no different, interrogating what exactly we mean by “People of the Book.” Hill recounted the story of Rabbi Chananya, the son of Tradyon, who was brutally murdered – according to the composer of the Kinot – while wrapped in a Torah scroll and burnt at the stake. The letters of the Torah flew up to heaven, while the parchment burnt. This reversal of the image of the bush Moses encounters – “Behold the bush is erupting in flame, and yet the bush is not consumed” – points toward an interesting meditation upon Jewish books. After all, the physical scroll burns with Rabbi Chananya, and yet the text escapes, floating up to heaven.

Readers can comfortably infer that Judaism holds the text per se (that is, the theoretical “ideas” and “thoughts” to which the letters and words point) as more important than the actual physical parchment and ink. Surely, we are instructed to hold our sacred books dear. We bury Torah scrolls when they have outlived their usefulness. We all learn in kindergarten to kiss the holy book that slips our grasp and falls to the floor, just as we kiss the mezuzah when entering or exiting a room. But the holiness of the text seems to derive from the ideas of the text more than from the physicality of the text. Moses, after all, finds it necessary to smash the physical tablets when it becomes clear that the people violated the text of the tablets. Similarly, the parchment could have miraculously been saved with the words, and yet it burns with Rabbi Chananya. Just as his soul rises to meet its Creator, the soul of the text – the words – departs its bodily shell and leaves it to burn.

This all seems to suggest that Judaism values the text over the book. But does Judaism, in fact, value the physical text in its own right? When we are called the People of the Book, are we in fact a people who see its books as both physical objects and as texts?

There is a lot at stake in this question, to be sure. As our books become e-books, hypertexts and websites, the physical properties of texts disappear, and we approach a circumstance in which we are able to convey narratives purely (as in speech), without allowing ourselves to be bogged down by materials and actual codex (i.e. bound books) forms.

Online books are remarkable in their own right, and they represent one of the most revolutionary inventions in the history of books since the printing press. But as my professor, Paula Geyh, once suggested in a session of the course, “The Book: Unbound” at Yeshiva College, the codex form is one of the most amazing inventions in all of history. It can contain a tremendous array of information, and it is portable and wholly liberated from wires, plugs, or other such accessories.

Jewish books, Hill conceded, never reached the “dizzying heights” of non-Jewish printing. But he and the other speakers explored numerous examples of Jewish books that are striking in their own right.

Evelyn M. Cohen, a visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania, delivered a talk entitled, “Illuminating Their Lives: Women’s Prayer Books in Renaissance Italy.” Cohen suggested that though the overwhelming majority of Jewish books were clearly made for men, some were made for women. Cohen explored the early sections of several siddurim that contain the morning blessings. Instead of the formulation, “Blessed are you G-d, master of the universe, that You have not made me a woman”, these prayer books invoke “that You made me according to Your will”, or even the more provocative “that You made me a woman and not a man.”

Not only did these prayer books invoke the feminine recitation of the daily benedictions, but they also featured illustrations of women performing ritual acts. One image from a 15th century hagaddah shows a man holding a bitter herb in his right hand, pointing at a woman with his left hand. This pun recalls the statement from Ecclesiastes, “I have found, bitterer than death, the woman.” The man suggests that he is surrounded by two bitter objects: the woman and the herbs.

This sort of pun is hardly atypical, and the same artist depicted David asleep in an illustration to accompany Psalm 34, “To David, in his ‘changing’ of his manner before Abimelech.” David pretended to be insane in an effort to protect himself from the Philistines, but the word “b’shanoto” (in his changing) can cleverly be rendered “b’shaynato” (in his sleep), a pun the artist invoked in the illustration. Cohen hypothesized that a later owner of the manuscript did not get the pun and attempted to erase the image.

But images that cast women in a fine light also preside, and Cohen explored one illustrating “ha lachma anya” (this is the bread of affliction), in which a couple – and not just a man, as was the norm in hagaddah art – holds up a basket of matzah and the man and woman gaze into each other’s eyes.

Though Cohen found that most hagaddot did not include the names of wives in inscriptions, many did feature the names of daughters. Menachem Schmelzer, professor emeritus of medieval Jewish literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary, emphasized this aspect of the target audience for many Jewish books. Schmelzer explained that many books were declared “li u’lizari” or “lo u’lizaro” (“for me and my children” or “for him and his children”).

But even if we are taught never to judge a book by its cover, perhaps the greatest argument for a unique Jewish book form sits right on the title page. Hill identifies the idiosyncratic aspects of Hebrew books from the right-to-left orientation to Hebrew typefaces, oriental woodblock characters and the ornamental portal title (the gate image on the title page of many Gemaras and Jewish books) page design. Other Jewish icons include Levitical jugs, stylized temples, priestly hands and triple crowns on letters.

But Hill isolates a uniquely Jewish technique in what he calls “bloated text.” In a time where “hitting the highlight in yellow button” on Microsoft Word was unavailable to Jewish printers, printers often set off words, either by adding color or by enlarging the word. And yet, the words that were most enlarged on title pages of Jewish texts were the places (often where the book was originally published, while the actual publication area of the book is in smaller letters) and the word “sefer” (book). One book has the word “daz” enlarged (“this” from the formulation “this book is called”) leading librarians to erroneously list it under “daz” instead of the true title.

Hill sees the emphasis of the word “book” over the title of the book, the author, or the venue of publication to “clearly indicate an obsession with the book, unparalleled in non-Hebrew booklore.”

It would seem then, that although the librarian’s objection to Hebrew books as devoid of illustrations, does diagnose the unfortunate state of Jewish illuminated manuscripts, it is unfair in other ways. Jewish scribes paid careful attention to the surfaces upon which they wrote – to the ink, typography, composition and design elements. They created particularized title pages that carried their own unique aesthetic, from naming the censor to highlighting the word “book” and the printing location in larger type. These decisions suggest a body of Jewish book art that is certainly worthy of study and celebration.

Menachem Wecker welcomes comments at He is a painter and writer, residing in Washington, DC.


Previous articleScratch A Leftist…
Next articleVishkov
Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at, welcomes comments at