Photo Credit: Israel Mizrahi

By the 18th century, Hebrew printing was efficient and widespread, making it easily available even to the middle-class of Jews. Upwards of a hundred Hebrew titles were being printed every year in the European Jewish presses, covering all topics of Jewish life. Despite that, several fields of literature persisted well in to the 19th century in manuscript form, not being printed, and only being circulated in manuscript from one copy to another.

One subject matter was that of piyutim (liturgical poems) and Hebrew music in general. The numerous small Jewish communities in the diaspora each developed its own unique tradition that evolved with time, each community having different piyutim and different songs that were popular among its inhabitants. The limited readership of each individual rite of such material prevented widespread printing of these piyutim, as printing small runs would have been prohibitive in an era of printing with type in mechanical presses with movable type.



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I recently sold one such collection, written in the 18th century, written in several hands over many years, in the Sephardic world of Southern Europe. The liturgical songs written in this manuscript contain several songs that were eventually printed in the 20th century in songbooks in Turkey, Italy and Salonica, but several of the songs in this volume are unrecorded in any of the standard reference books on the subject. The leaves in the manuscript were written in different hands, with the handwriting often changing from one song to the next.

Perhaps, as the manuscript changed hands, songs were added by the new owners or different family members. This tome can thus serve as a study of the evolution of the Sephardic Hebrew script, so very different from those used by the Ashkenazi Jews in the nearby countries of Central Europe. Many of these piyutim contain a strong yearning for the holy land and the rebuilding the Beit HaMikdash, reflecting the strong connection the Jews felt for Eretz Yisrael even in their lands of exile, after thousands of years of separation.

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Israel Mizrahi is the owner of Mizrahi Bookstore in Brooklyn, NY, and He can be reached at [email protected].