13th-century prayerbook goes on display for first time in 30 years

The Worms Mahzor, written in two volumes, was actually produced in Nuremberg, but taken by Jews of the city to Worms in the Rhine Valley following persecution in their home town.

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September 2, 2018 17:32
2 minute read.
13th Century Jewish prayerbook goes on display for first time in 30 years

13th Century Jewish prayerbook goes on display for first time in 30 years. (photo credit: COURTESY NATIONAL LIBRARY)

 
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A temporary exhibition of some of the oldest and most beautiful medieval Hebrew manuscripts of Jewish prayer books has gone on display at the National Library of Israel ahead of the High Holy Days, including the earliest known Yiddish text.

The exhibition, “Our hearts responded in ancient prayer…”, features the famous Worms Mahzor, an illustrated 13th-century High Holy Day prayer book containing a blessing in Yiddish for the person who carried the hefty volume to the city’s synagogue. The text is written in the empty spaces of the large stylized Hebrew letters that begin the page.

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Dr. Aviad Stollman, head of collections at the National Library, said the text is an early variant of Yiddish, mostly consisting of German written in Hebrew letters and including Hebrew words and phrases such as synagogue and prayer book.

The Worms Mahzor, written in two volumes, was actually produced in Nuremberg, but taken by Jews of the city to Worms in the Rhine Valley following persecution in their home town.

Not exhibited to the general public since 1985, the prayerbook was used for nearly 700 years by the Jewish community of Worms prior to the synagogue’s destruction on Kristallnacht in 1938.

The Mahzor was saved from destruction by Worms city archivist Freidisch Maria Illert who stored it in the city’s cathedral on the assumption that the Allies would not bomb the site. The priceless manuscript was transferred to the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem in 1957 following high-level legal proceedings and negotiations between West Germany and Israel.

Scholars believe that the Worms Mahzor also contains the oldest known examples of the famous bird’s head figures found in many medieval Jewish manuscripts.

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“The Worms Mahzor is one of the most important artifacts in the world for understanding the origins and development of Ashkenazi Jewish culture,” said Stollman.

“It is remarkable to think that this book was used for centuries by the same German Jewish community and is now here, being displayed at the National Library of Israel and the Jewish people in Jerusalem. While much of the liturgy is almost identical to that found in prayer books today, the Worms Mahzor also shows how incrementally small variations occurred over hundreds of years.”

The exhibition also includes the 13th century Catalan Mahzor, considered to be one of the most exquisite examples of medieval micrographic art. It survived both the Spanish Inquisition and the Holocaust, and was acquired for the National Library in Jerusalem in 1986 by Ludwig and Erica Jesselson of New York.

Other items in the exhibition include a prayer book handwritten by Shalom Shabazi, a 17th-century Yemenite rabbi and mystic, which will be displayed for the first time ever; a 900-year-old Cairo Geniza fragment containing some of the oldest High Holy Day prayer texts; a selection of historic Israeli Rosh Hashana greeting cards from the National Library’s world-leading collection; an original draft of Naomi Shemer’s song “B’Rosh Hashana”; a handwritten copy of German composer Max Bruch’s “Kol Nidre”; gorgeous illuminated Islamic prayer texts and more.

The exhibition is free, and open to the public through November 4.

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