For Elijah

Good books are similar to dear friends: meeting owners, authors or printers that we know and appreciate from their other works counts among the very special encounters. Such meetings convey first of all, familiarity but also a certain sense of reassurance. Meeting one’s friends, whether human or bookish, can sometimes be unexpected. In Lehayim, an article posted recently, we have been acquainted with Eliezer ben Elijah Ashkenazi (1512-1585), - a fascinating sixteenth century Jewish scholar  - , whose life journeys brought him from one great Jewish centre to another, with numerous adventures in every city. Living among some truly outstanding Jewish scholars in the Levant and Italy, as well as Central and Eastern Europe, has left a remarkable impression on Ashkenazi’s own writings, but also on the works of his contemporaries, who frequently refer to him.

Ashkenazi’s most important work is his commentary on the historical parts of the Pentateuch, called Ma’ase ha-Shem (The Works of God), which he wrote for his son Elijah. The first edition of the book was printed by Giovanni di Gara in Venice; it has four parts: the creation story, the story of the patriarchs, the story of Egypt, including the Passover haggadah, and the following events. This is outlined on the title page of the editio princeps of the book which features an impressive architectural gate (because of the common use of the symbol of a gate in Hebrew books, the Hebrew word sha’ar, ‘gate’, later in modern Hebrew came to mean also ‘title page’). The date is presented as a biblical quote from the book of Malachi 3:23 ‘I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day’, whose numerical value adds up to 343, that corresponds to the Gregorian calendar year 1583.

Ashkenazi’s exegetical approach to the passages of the Torah manifests an important balance between the rationalistic views in Judaism (following the school of Maimonides) and kabbalistic interpretations. While this paradigm was an organic part of Eliezer Ashkenazi’s Weltanschauung, for his contemporaries and later scholars Ma’ase ha-Shem became an acclaimed work for its novel methodology. His commentary on the Passover haggadah that appears in part 3 was later republished in several editions. A copy of the first edition of this book is in the Morris collection at Christ Church. Its former owner, possibly a certain Samuel, had his copy bound with Joel ibn Shuaib’s sermons, Sefer ʻOlat shabat. The latter work, too, was printed in Venice by Giovanni di Gara, between 1576 and 1577.

The text of Haggadah forms an essential part of Jewish liturgy and is recited every year at the Passover seder, or festival dinner. Remarkably, fragments of the Passover Haggadah are one of the earliest dated Hebrew manuscripts that have survived until this day. It is true though that over the course of time the text of the Haggadah has slightly changed, as also the celebration of the seder has evolved in its long history. New editions of the Haggadah continue to be published, now accommodating also the needs for vegan and LGBT seders.

However, as Passover is a holiday that is celebrated at home within the intimacy of a Jewish family, the Haggadah is not a book commonly found in non-Jewish collections. Unsurprisingly, Christ Church Library has added two different editions of this book to its collection only recently. One of them is an English translation of its Polish rite, printed in London in 1897, unusual on account of its inclusion of some well-known Passover songs with musical notation. The other one, printed in Leipzig between 1927-8, is an illustrated facsimile of the fifteenth-century Darmstadt Haggadah. The manuscript (as well as its facsimile edition) contains sermons, aphorisms and legends that relate to the Jewish exodus from Egypt and are read on Passover eve. The lavishly illuminated manuscript, thought to have been produced by a Christian workshop for Jewish use around 1430 in the Upper Rhine region, is kept at the Hessische Landesbibliothek in Darmstadt.

In addition to the narrative, derived from the book of Exodus, of Jews first being slaves under pharaoh, then leaving Egypt and thereafter tasting a new, free life with responsibilities that Passover symbolises, the biblical book of Song of Songs is read during this same holiday. It is important to bear in mind that Passover is a spring holiday and as such it marks the beginning of a new season. Now, the Song of Songs too relates to such change in seasons, as a love poem that celebrates spring in the land of Israel. Allegorically speaking, of course, the Song of Solomon stands for the love between God and the people of Israel.

The Bible, with numerous biblical commentaries, is one category of Jewish books where the library at Christ Church is exceptional. An incunable edition of the Hagiographa in Hebrew, accompanied with commentaries by Rashi, Joseph Kara, and Levi ben Gershom (ME.3.21), was bought for the college library from the fund established by its Regius Professor of Hebrew, John Morris (1594/5-1648). This very early book was printed by Joseph ben Jacob Ashkenazi Gunzenhauser in Naples in 1487. For enjoying the Song of Songs on this holiday of Passover, it is hard to think of a more delightful copy than this volume at Christ Church that has been adorned with hand-coloured and decorated woodcut initial word panels.

Well, that is enough for now, or rather, dayyenu! At the seder the door is left ajar for Elijah, and the evening ends with the traditional hope, ’Next year in Jerusalem!’ (if not in Christ Church, Oxford).

Dr Rahel Fronda
Hebrew Antiquarian Cataloguer
Christ Church Library

* For other news related to Special Collections, please go the Library Exhibitions and Research