Adolfo Roitman’s glimpse into the Silent Years began with a casual conversation with a visiting scholar five years ago.
Roitman, curator of the Shrine of the Book at the Israel Museum, noted that the shrine was home to two of the oldest and most stunning biblical texts – the Isaiah Scroll dating from the second century BCE, the most intact of the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the Aleppo Codex dating from the 10th century CE, the oldest Hebrew Bible extant. “But in between, nothing,” mused Roitman.The visitor, Prof. James Charlesworth of the Princeton Theological Seminary, was well aware of the virtual absence of Hebrew manuscripts for almost a millennium between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Aleppo Codex. It was he, in fact, who had coined the phrase “The Period of Great Silence” to describe the era.
It was a millennium vibrant with Jewish intellectual activity. The Mishna and the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds were put together during this period – great compilations of Jewish law that involved the work of hundreds of scholars over centuries. It was also the time of the Masoretes – scribes and scholars in Babylonia and Palestine who developed the system of grammar, punctuation, paragraphs and cantillation of the Hebrew Bible as we know it today. But we do not have the rough drafts and discarded versions that would enable us to follow these processes. (The Aleppo Codex is the earliest Bible we have and its Masoretic text came down to us fully developed.) There are Bibles in Greek, Latin and other languages from the period but not in Hebrew.
The pebble that Roitman threw into that puzzling pool of silence with his random remark to Charlesworth drew an astonishing response from Charlesworth himself. “He looked at me,” recalls Roitman, “and said ‘Adolfo, I know of a manuscript from that period that people don’t know about.’”
In the late 1970s, while teaching at Duke University in North Carolina, the scholar related, he was contacted by a physician from Florida who had seen him on television discussing ancient Hebrew texts. The caller, Dr. Fuad Ashkar, a native of Lebanon, said that years before in Beirut he had acquired a collection of old Hebrew manuscripts. He did not read Hebrew and wondered whether Charlesworth, an authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls, would look at the material and tell him what it was.
With the scholar’s consent, Ashkar sent him photographs of the manuscripts. One of them caught Charlesworth’s eye. Although dark and difficult to read, some of its Hebrew letters reminded him of material from Qumran. Other paleographers who saw the fragment thought it was indeed from a Dead Sea Scroll, but Charlesworth maintained that some of the fragment’s letter forms had not appeared until about 700 CE. In the end, he dated the document to the sixth-eighth centuries CE., the heart of the era he would dub “The Period of Great Silence.” Carbon-14 tests at Oxford and Arizona University confirmed his analysis – the first time, Charlesworth would say, that carbon dating “proved that paleography was a science.” With Ashkar’s permission, the fragment was placed in the Rare Book Room of Duke.
The fragment was from Shirat Hayam (Song of the Sea, Exodus 15), one of the most distinctive portions of the Bible. It tells of the Red Sea’s parting before the Israelites, the drowning of the Egyptian pursuers and the anticipated conquest of Canaan. It is one of only two passages in the Bible that has its own fixed layout, the lines resembling brickwork with a space under each phrase and a phrase under each space. Its importance is also emphasized by the special chant employed when it is read in the synagogue. The poem is part of the daily morning service and is read on the seventh day of Pessah, which is identified by tradition as the day the Red Sea parted. “Then sang Moses and the people of Israel this song to the Lord and spoke saying, I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider has he thrown into the sea...”
Intrigued by Charlesworth’s revelation, Roitman contacted Duke to ask whether the fragment could be loaned for a special exhibition at the Israel Museum. The affirmative answer came while Roitman was visiting in the US and was about to return to Israel. A courier from Duke met him at Newark Airport and handed over a case with the Ashkar fragment.
The fragment turned out to be so blackened as to be virtually illegible to the naked eye. The Israel Museum’s head of paper conservation, Michael Maggen, deduced that the fragment had been damaged in antiquity by exposure to heat, apparently fire, and then suffered water damage – the latter, perhaps, from an attempt to douse the fire. After receiving permission from Duke, the laboratory spent the better part of a year cleaning and stabilizing the deteriorating fragment. Infrared photos permitted clear reading of the text despite the discoloration. The fragment, it transpired, was not parchment but gevil, also part of an animal’s hide but prepared differently than parchment and darker.
The fragment was put on exhibit in May 2007. “I displayed it together with the Aleppo Codex,” said Roitman. “For the first time I had the opportunity to show development of the biblical tradition from ancient times [the Dead Sea Scrolls] through the eighth century to the 10th century.”
BUT THERE was more to come. Shortly after the exhibit opened, Roitman was contacted by Dr. Mordecai Mishor of the Hebrew Language Academy. He had seen a photograph of the Ashkar fragment in the newspaper and said he had something to discuss with Roitman that might be of importance. The two men hailed from the same neighborhood in Buenos Aires but had never met. When Mishor arrived at Roitman’s office adjacent to the Shrine of the Book, he was accompanied by Dr. Edna Engel, a paleographer from the National Library. Mishor said he had recalled seeing a text fragment very similar to the Ashkar in the 1968 edition of the Encyclopedia Biblica. That fragment, referred to as the London Manuscript, had been in the possession of Jews’ College (now known as the London School of Jewish Studies) in the 1950s. The late scholar, S.A. Birnbaum, described it then as being from an eighth-century synagogue scroll.
Engel and Mishor said the Ashkar and London fragments appeared to be from the hand of the same scribe and suggested that they might even be from the same scroll. But the London fragment had been sold in the 1990s and its current whereabouts were unknown. Roitman asked them if they could track it down.
From a collector, Engel learned that it had been sold at auction by Christie’s to an American antiquarian, Stephen Lowentheil, a New Yorker who had a rare book shop in Baltimore. Contacted by the scholars, he agreed not only to make a facsimile of the document and send it to Jerusalem, but to do so at his own expense.
Mishor and Engel quickly established that the Ashkar fragment and the London Manuscript had indeed been part of the same Torah scroll, separated only by a column and a half of missing text. Both fragments are assumed to have come from the Cairo Geniza, a depository of ancient Jewish documents, including worn-out holy books, but that is not certain. Although most of the Geniza fragments were salvaged by Cambridge University in 1896, tens of thousands ended up in other collections and in private hands. Centuries after the original Torah scroll had been taken out of circulation, circumstance had brought these two fragments separately across the Atlantic within a few decades of each other – one from Beirut, the other from London. They were now being reunited in Jerusalem, at least in a temporary exhibit.
Roitman learned that Lowentheil had another document of interest, an 11th-century fragment of the Song of the Sea. This was not relevant to the Silent Era, but its display could enable museum visitors to see how the same biblical passage was transmitted from the time of the Dead Sea Scrolls, among which were two copies of the Song of the Sea, to the High Middle Ages. (The Aleppo Codex could not serve this didactic purpose since the Song of Sea is among the parts of the once complete biblical manuscript lost in a fire set by Syrian rioters in Aleppo on the eve of Israel’s establishment.) Lowentheil obliged again by sending a facsimile of the 11th-century Song of the Sea for the exhibit, where it was placed alongside a first-century BCE Dead Sea Scroll fragment of the Song of the Sea and the Ashkar Song of the Sea.
Lowentheil declined to elaborate on his purchase of the scrolls but expressed gratification in an e-mail exchange at his role in the story. “I am merely a small link in a long chain of individuals and institutions who have preserved these important relics of Jewish history for posterity. Their survival is a tribute to the significance of the Torah and the written word to the Jewish people.”
Comparison of the three versions of the biblical passage now on display shows the fidelity with which the Hebrew text was transmitted over the course of 12 centuries in antiquity, said Roitman. One striking discrepancy, however, is the use by the Dead Sea scribe of contemporary words to replace archaic terms in older texts that Prof. Frank Cross of Harvard and some other scholars believe may date back to the 10th century BCE, the time of Solomon and David. Instead of aimata
– “dread” – for example, they used the more supple aima
. There were many other such innovations.
However, the Masoretic scribes putting together the final version of the Bible centuries later remained faithful to the archaic version, leaving the Dead Sea version an anomaly with its “modern” anachronisms. The Qumran version nevertheless reveals its antiquity by lacking the brick-like layout adopted by the sages from the third century for the Song of the Sea.
There is no fully satisfying explanation for the near absence of Hebrew manuscripts for a millennium during which Jewish communities and their synagogues were widespread around the Mediterranean and Middle East. Roitman suggests that the persecution of Jews involved destruction of Jewish manuscripts. Charlesworth points to the upheaval following the suppression of the Bar Kochba revolt in the second century CE, the second failed revolt against Rome in a century, which he says marked the end of ancient Israel.
In an e-mail response from Shanghai where he is currently giving lectures on the Dead Sea Scrolls (“to packed houses”), Charlesworth writes: “[After the revolts] there is the struggle to survive of the only two groups that were part of mainstream Judaism before 70 CE, the followers of Hillel and the followers of Jesus. Jewish culture disappears or goes underground and focuses on the Mishna and its completion and Christianity finally triumphs through martyrdom. Then we witness the reemergence of Judaism in a medieval form and the return to the importance of Scripture. This resurgence of biblical Judaism is obvious with the Masoretes and the Aleppo Codex.”
In an essay on Hebrew manuscripts by several scholars published by the New York Public Library, the authors point to the “utmost scarcity” of ancient Talmud manuscripts. “The medieval church regarded the Talmud as the source and symbol of what it considered to be the perfidy of the Jews. As a result the Talmud became a victim of censorship, confiscation and book burning.”
The scholars point to the huge time gap between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the appearance of medieval Hebrew manuscripts. The rabbinic inclination against writing down rabbinic and liturgical texts because of their dedication to oral law may partially explain this phenomenon, say the scholars, “but it does not explain the lack of surviving copies of the Bible from this period.”
Roitman sees the interest displayed by visitors to the Shrine of the
Book in the ancient fragments, as legible to today’s Hebrew speakers as
they were in antiquity, as affirmation that biblical tradition is
alive. “I’m not dealing with a dead culture, like the Assyrian or
Babylonian. We have here the most sacred documents of the Jewish
The current exhibit ironically highlights the richness of the Hebrew
manuscript tradition by focusing on a blank page of history that sets
off what had come before at Qumran and what would come again to the
People of the Book.
The exhibit will be on display until the end of May.firstname.lastname@example.org