Come Healing

Prayer is central to the life of a religious Jew. Prayer books, along with the Bible, are the most common Jewish books; and yet prayer books vary immensely in size, format, content, or language. Hebrew prayer is a biblical commandment, given in the book of Deuteronomy; the earliest parts of Jewish prayer, known as the Shema, are found in the Torah. The earliest extant Hebrew manuscripts, after the Dead Sea scrolls, are liturgical fragments.

The development of Jewish liturgy is complex and can only be understood in the context of Jewish history, much of which is the history of exiled Jewish communities. Originally, prayer services were associated with the Temple in Jerusalem and only later became an essential part of synagogue worship, as we know it today. Some early attestations of written Jewish prayers, with the Babylonian vowel pointing, have come to light with the discovery of the Cairo genizah, and research in this important field has grown ever since. Today, textual study of Jewish prayers, combined with the material analysis of their early documentary proofs, yield new knowledge about the life and customs of diaspora Jewish communities in the early Middle Ages.

While the first liturgical fragments, dotted on scraps of parchment, do not come across as impressive physical objects, such as MS Heb.d.42 and MS Heb.f.32, their textual and historical value cannot be underestimated. Through the literary creation of the paytanim, that is the early liturgical poets who composed the piyyutim (Jewish liturgical poems), we learn about their contemporary events, but also come to appreciate the aesthetics of this genre of poetry in Hebrew and Aramaic (see MS Heb.c.20 and MS Heb.d.41).

In Ashkenaz too, the liturgical poetry of paytanim continued to flourish in the medieval period and surviving manuscripts are a witness of the peak of this genre. However, as far as the material aspect of the Ashkenazi codices is concerned, the story is different from what we see in the Cairo Genizah: the Hebrew prayer book reaches a new status from an inexpensive, easily produced format, to a monumental codex that is expensive and lavishly illuminated in an often non-Jewish visual language. Some of these thirteenth-century artefacts are now at the Bodleian Library (see MS Laud Or.321 and MS Michael 619), where they represent the highlights of the Hebrew collection.

Christ Church Library, too, has important holdings that relate to Jewish prayers. This is unusual for an environment that would traditionally not promote the study of Hebrew liturgy. The least, perhaps, that one would expect to find in an Oxford college library is a set of eighteenth-century Ashkenazi tefillin (phylacteries) that comprise two small black leather boxes containing scrolls of parchment, inscribed with verses from the Torah, which are worn by observant adult Jews during weekday morning prayers. This lovely set of hand- and head-phylacteries comes with an embroidered silk bag (see MS 201a).

Hebrew books at Christ Church do exemplify the various sizes, formats, contents and languages of Jewish prayer books. Siddur is a prayer book that includes a fixed order of daily prayers for the entire year. Seder ha-tefilot mi-kol ha-shanah (see MC.8.32/2) that comes in trigesimo-secundo (32º) format is interesting both as a very portable pocket-book, but also because it was printed in Frankfurt am Main by the Jewish printer Jospe Trier (or Joseph Trier Cohen) in 1696 - at a time when Jews had no official licence to carry out independent printing in that city. To be sure, Hebrew books were printed in Frankfurt am Main in the seventeenth century, but all typographical work had to be undertaken in Christian-owned shops and managed by Christian printers (who were often assisted by Jewish typesetters or proofreaders). Relating to the cultural-religious sphere of its publication, this prayer book follows the rite of Ashkenaz and Poland, as is stated on the title page.

Indeed, Jewish prayer rites vary from one region to another, as is clearly shown by another edition of 1540-1541, printed in Bologna by the threesome of Menahem, Yehiel and Aryeh. (see MC*.3.2-3) This prayer book is different, not only because of its Roman rite, but also because it is a Mahzor, a festival prayer book for the entire year. It was printed in folio (2º) format, in two volumes and the High Holiday prayers are accompanied by Maimonides’ and Obadiah Sforno’s commentaries. What is more, this mahzor is special among other Roman rite festival prayer books, as it includes Johanan ben Joseph Treves’s (ca. 1490-1557) kabbalistic commentary Kimha de-Avishuna. In his commentary that was never reprinted again, Treves provides explanations of specific words and phrases, and also expounds on the piyyutim. Typically for printed books from Italy in this period, this prayer book is amply decorated with woodcut ornaments, which add to the sweet experience of the High Holidays. We can be sure of its use over generations, as demonstrated by copious marginal annotations, and some wear and tear of the leaves. A former owner, Solomon Romelli or Romilli has left his name in Hebrew script on the title page. Furthermore, we know that in the early seventeenth century the tomes were in Venice or Mantua, where they were subject to censorship by the non-Jewish authorities. Two prominent censors of Hebrew books have left their names at the end of volume two: Domenico Hierosolymitano and Giovanni Domenico Carretto who were active both in Venice and Mantua.

These are just a few examples of Jewish prayer books that do not reflect the breadth of this literature that is now part of the Hebrew collection at Christ Church. Besides Ashkenazi and Italian rites, there are also copies of Sephardi festival prayer books that were printed in Amsterdam in 1644 (see MD.8.20 and MD.8.21). Another genre of prayers are Selihot, or Jewish penitential hymns for the days preceding the High Holidays and fast days. An edition of these prayers according to the Ashkenazi rite was printed in Amsterdam in 1650 by Judah ben Mordekhai and Samuel bar Mosheh Shlita (see ME.7.17), while Sephardi tradition can be seen in a book that was printed by Eliahu Aboab in Amsterdam in 1644 (see MD.8.19).

There is no doubt that prayer is a powerful mediation for healing and also a form of meditation. Prayers for the sick became a special category of Jewish prayers, sometimes issued separately, and other times appearing in a common prayer book. The second edition of Sefer Refuat ha-nefesh, which means The Book of Healing of the Soul, was printed in Wilhermsdorf in 1724 by Hirsch ben Hayyim of Fürth (see ME.8.27). The small book comes in sextodecimo (16º) format and includes a selection of prayers, blessings and Sabbath songs in Hebrew and Yiddish. The first edition of this prayer book was published in 1712 by the same printer in Wilhermsdorf and one can assume that the need for a new edition was prompted by its popularity.

Apart from different editions of Jewish prayers that deal with health matters, a manuscript copy of Avicenna’s Canon in Hebrew is now in Christ Church library (see MS 194). It is a beautiful, early sixteenth-century Italian codex that was probably copied by a Jewish doctor for his own use. It is interesting to consider the influence that Avicenna’s medical-philosophical encyclopaedia has had on Western knowledge and practice of medicine over the centuries. Jewish physicians too, were trained according to this medical science: and who could be a more prominent Jewish medieval figure in his multiple prestigious roles of physician, lawyer, philosopher and foremost rabbinic authority than Maimonides (1135-1204)?

There are not only several early Hebrew manuscripts of Avicenna’s Canon that survive, but the same texts in Hebrew translation also appeared in print. That is to say that the first printed edition of The Canon of Medicine was issued in Naples in the incunabular period, namely between 1491 and 1492, from the press of Azriel ben Joseph Ashkenazi Gunzenhauser. (see Opp.add.fol.III.425c) Actually, it seems that Avicenna’s medical opus enjoyed particular popularity in Italy where we know of some enlightened early modern Jews who practised the medical profession, and happened to be also keen book collectors.

Now, here is a different Jewish prayer, from our time and also timely:
Come healing of the spirit
Come healing of the limb
Behold the gates of mercy
In arbitrary space
And none of us deserving
Of cruelty or the grace
(Leonard Cohen)

Dr Rahel Fronda
Hebrew Antiquarian Cataloguer
Christ Church Library

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