Friday, January 19, 2024

A Medieval "Book of Roots"

Original leaf written in Sephardic script on the right (ff. 264v) later replacement text written in Yemenite script on the left (ff. 265r)The Kimḥi family of Provence was a celebrated medieval Jewish family of biblical commentators and Hebrew grammarians. Rabbi Joseph Kimḥi and his two sons Moses and David were each renowned scholars in their own right, but Rabbi David Kimḥi (1160-1235 C.E., commonly known by his Hebrew acronym "Radak") was the most celebrated of all.

Rauner recently acquired a manuscript of Kimḥi's Hebrew lexicon, Sefer ha-Shorashim (literally translated as "book of roots.") First composed in the late 12th-early 13th century, the Radak's Sefer was one of the most influential Hebrew dictionaries in the medieval period. The entries are arranged alphabetically around the three-letter shorashim, or "roots," common to most Hebrew words, with quotes from religious texts and explorations of etymology.

Our handwritten copy of the Sefer was likely produced by a Sephardic Jewish scribe in Southern France or Northern Italy ca. 1370-1430 C.E., more than a century after Kimḥi’s death. Most of the pages are written in a consistent Sephardic semicursive script, on laid paper common in parts of France and Italy in the late 14th and early 15th centuries. It is possible that this scribe, like the Radak himself, was a descendant of Spanish Jews (Sephardim) who fled persecution and settled in the French region of Provence, which during the Kimḥis' time was a flourishing center of Torah scholarship known as Hachmei Provence.

By the 16th century, our copy had found its way from Provence to Yemen, where a Yemenite Jewish scribe painstakingly copied missing leaves and added some of his own marginal notes to the Radak’s text. Subsequent Yemenite owners of this Sefer also proudly scrawled their names and statements of ownership on the first and last leaves of the tome. After all, to own such an old copy of this famous work would have been quite the status symbol, testifying to the owner's material wealth, as well as his intellectual gravitas.

If you can read Hebrew but are still struggling to parse this 18th century inscription, there's a reason for that. It is partially written in Judeo-Arabic, a dialect of Arabic historically spoken by Jews in Arab countries, written using the Hebrew alphabet. Luckily, the dealer provided a translation of the message, which includes a fabulous book curse:

"I merited to purchase this Sefer ha-mikhlol through the labors of my hands. May the blessed Omnipresent give me the privilege to immerse myself in it—I, my descendants, and my descendants' descendants until the last generation. Amen, so may it be [His] will. He who takes it and does not return it—may his name and memory be obliterated from the world, and may he be bitten by a snake. But may the nation of God dwell in peace. [Signed] the humble Joseph, son of our teacher Shuker al-Sarem, may his Rock and Redeemer keep him and may his end be good."


Joseph ben Shuker al-Sarem's 18th century inscription wishing book thieves a snake bite.

To see our copy of the Sefer ha-Shorashim, come in and ask for Codex 003515.