The Most Precious Jewish Manuscripts
Jews are often nicknamed “people of the book” – and accordingly some of the most
ancient and treasured written materials in the world are Jewish. Here are some of the
rarest and most important manuscripts to Judaism.
1. The Dead Sea Scrolls
The Dead Sea Scrolls are a collection of some 981 different texts discovered between
1946 and 1956 in eleven caves (Qumran caves) in the immediate vicinity of the
Hellenistic-period Jewish settlement at Khirbet Qumran in the eastern Judaean Desert,
the modern West Bank. The so-called “Dead Sea Scrolls” are a set of ancient Jewish/Biblical documents discovered on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea between 1946 and 1956. Most are in Israel today, but this (and others) are in Jordan since borders have shifted over the years. Written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, mostly on parchment, but with some written on papyrus and even copper, these manuscripts generally date between 150 BC and 70 AD. Many scholars believe there were buried just before the Romans put down the “Jewish rebellion” that ran from about 67 to 73 AD. The scrolls are traditionally identified with the ancient Jewish sect called the Essenes, but scholars debate that. In fact, many of the scrolls were declared “state secrets” when they were found. It is sort of strange to think that something written over 2,000 years ago could still represent a national security risk today.
2. The Haggadah of Sarajevo
The Sarajevo Haggadah is an illuminated manuscript that contains the illustrated
traditional text of the Passover Haggadah which accompanies the Passover Seder. It is
one of the oldest Sephardic Haggadahs in the world, originating in Barcelona around
1350. The Haggadah is owned by the National Museum of Bosnia and Herzegovina in
Sarajevo. Its monetary value is undetermined, but a museum in Spain required that it be
insured for $7 million before it could be transported to an exhibition there in 1992.
3. Keter Aram Tzova
The Aleppo Codex (Hebrew: כּתֶרֶ ארֲָם צבוֹא Keter Aram Tzova or Crown of Aleppo) is a
medieval bound manuscript of the Hebrew Bible. The codex was written in the city of
Tiberias in northern Israel in the 10th century C.E.and was endorsed for its accuracy by
Maimonides. Together with the Leningrad Codex, it contains the Ben-Asher masoretic
tradition, but the Aleppo Codex lacks most of the Torah section and many other parts.
4. Cairo Geniza
The Cairo Genizah is a collection of some 300,000 Jewish manuscript fragments that
were found in the genizah or storeroom of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat or Old
Cairo, Egypt. These manuscripts outline a 1,000-year continuum (870 CE to 19th
century) of Jewish Middle-Eastern and North African history and comprise the largest
and most diverse collection of medieval manuscripts in the world.
5. Nash Papyrus
The Nash Papyrus is a collection of four papyrus fragments acquired in Egypt in 1898
by W. L. Nash, the secretary of the Society of Biblical Archaeology. They comprise a
single sheet and are not part of a scroll. The papyrus is of unknown provenance,
although allegedly from Fayyum. The text was first described by Stanley A. Cook in
1903. The papyrus was by far the oldest Hebrew manuscript fragment known at that
time, before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947.
6. The Mishneh Torah by Maimonides
This is an early draft of the Mishneh Torah, for which the great Jewish scholar
Maimonides is most famous today. A systematic compilation of oral law, it is complete
with corrections, additions and deletions in his own, at times, illegible hand. Maimonides
spent 10 years working on the text, while he lived in Cairo, codifying biblical and
rabbinical law, and presenting it in a systematic, logical arrangement.