His Story/ Her Story: Two late medieval scribes

A professional scribe needs to know his or her letters, but need not be a scholar.

August 2, 2012 14:15
3 minute read.
Torah scroll

Torah scroll 521. (photo credit: PAUL WIDEN)


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Prior to the development of the printing press, copies of written material were produced manually. In one of the earliest advertisements for Xerox machines, a monk was assigned to copy a manuscript by hand. He smugly returned a few minutes later with a copy that ordinarily would have required months of work. Copying, whether by machine or by hand, does not necessarily require erudition.

A professional scribe needs to know his or her letters, but need not be a scholar. On the other hand, as pointed out by Michael Riegler and Judith R. Baski in “May the Writer Be Strong: Medieval Hebrew Manuscripts Copied by and for Women,” Nashim 16 (2008), some training is necessary.

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A steady and aesthetic handwriting was clearly an asset. In addition, the proper materials, including ink and parchment, had to be bought; the latter had to be adjusted to the appropriate size. Information concerning scribes themselves often appears in a colophon, the copyist’s personal addition to the manuscript.

This short text usually revealed the identity of the scribe and the date and locale of completion of the task. Some offered additional information of a personal nature, shedding light on family history or explaining who commissioned the manuscript.

Most, but not all, of the extant manuscripts with colophons copied by Jewish women originate in late medieval Ashkenaz and Italy. The Anavim family of Rome included copyists and rabbinic luminaries. In each manuscript that she prepared, Pola, a member of this family, identified herself as the daughter of Abraham the Scribe. A book of Bible commentaries contains a colophon revealing the name of her father, her forefathers, her first husband and the date of completion, namely Monday, 4 Adar, 1288.

The standard formula that also appears there reflects her awareness of the appropriate style adopted by scribes composing colophons. A longer statement appears at the end of a halachic work commissioned by a relative of hers in 1293.

She informs us that her cousin, R. Menahem, begged her to quickly prepare this piece for him, although the reason for such haste is unclear. The colophon is replete with biblical references that reflect her familiarity with Hebrew texts and the scribal use of quotations. In addition, Pola prepared a prayer book for her son Solomon in 1306.


The hundreds of pages which she copied that survived most likely represent a small portion of the professional work in which this scribe engaged.

When a father trains his son or daughter, the family’s reputation can help procure work for the next generation – while simultaneously placing the onus of maintaining this reputation on those very sons and daughters.

A similar situation in which a daughter was trained by an eminent paternal scribe occurred in 15th-century Yemen. Miriam was the daughter of Benaya the scribe, whose family was renowned for its superior manuscripts, dating to the 14th century. Her reputation was long-lived, for when the famous traveler Ya’acov Sapir visited Yemen in the 19th century, he was shown one of the hundreds of books she had prepared. He noted her precise and aesthetic script.

This particular book was none other than a copy of the entire Pentateuch, which is called a Taj (Crown) by the Yemenites and is used in preparation for Torah reading, a basic requirement of all males that usually begins around the the age of five.

At any rate, Miriam inserted a personal remark upon the completion of this particular book: “Do not ascribe sin to me if you find errors here, for I am a nursing mother.” My colleague Dr. Tamar Kadari identified the source upon which this quote is based, Numbers 12:11, when Aaron asked Moses not to ascribe sin to him or to Miriam.

This learned woman intentionally chose a biblical quote concerning her own namesake, hoping to be forgiven if she had indeed erred. I suspect that her fears were unfounded; her reputation as a scribe, as was Pola of Rome’s, still remains untainted.

The author is a professor of Jewish history and dean at the Schechter Institute as well as academic editor of the journal Nashim. She has published books and articles on Sephardi and Oriental Jewry and on Jewish women.

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