On Wisdom

Isaac ibn Sahula’s Meshal ha-Kadmoni, Part I ‘On Wisdom’ opens with a miniature of scholarly discourse whose caption reads in Raphael Loewe’s delightful English translation:
Cynic and Author here are seen
Discussing: their debate is keen

Isaac ibn Sahula (born in 1244) was a Jewish poet and scholar, notably part of the kabbalistic circle of both Moses of Burgos and Moses ben Shem-Tov de Leon. As an itinerant physician, ibn Sahula travelled widely and was well acquainted with Greek philosophy and sciences that circulated in Arabic, but also with non-Jewish poetry and parables that had become common literature in Christian Spain and outside. Considering the disproportionate attraction of his contemporary Jewish readers to gentile knowledge, ibn Sahula crafts his own book of moral teachings, Meshal ha-Kadmoni, in order to show a path to virtuous life in a world of moral dilemmas, with the help of Hebrew sources. This new book of fables, amply illustrated, displays its author’s linguistic and literary erudition, as it is jam-packed with countless biblical, talmudic, as well as kabbalistic or even (neo)-platonic references.

Indeed, these stories became popular as an educational means, and with the advent of printing, this work has further enjoyed its status as a best-seller of secular Jewish literature. The first printed edition of Meshal ha-Kadmoni was published in the incunabular period by Gershom Soncino in Brescia, Italy, between 1490 and 1492, with woodcut illustrations. Several new editions appeared in the early modern period, and its Yiddish translation made the fables accessible to a different audience of readers.

Christ Church Library has an illustrated copy of ibn Sahula’s Fables, printed in Frankfurt an der Oder in 1693. Interestingly, it was published with another work that precedes it, namely, 6 folios of a pseudo-Aristotelian tract, Sefer ha-Tapuah, or the ‘Aristotle’s death-bed conversation concerning Jewish religion and values’. The latter was translated from Arabic into Hebrew by Abraham bar Hasdai; and thereafter it was rendered from Hebrew into Latin, as Liber de Pomo. The copy at Christ Church is in Hebrew, while the same printing press issued in 1693 also a Yiddish translation of ibn Sahula’s work.

Now, collections of fables are illustrated Hebrew books par excellence. It is interesting to note the iconographic tradition of these stories in Ashkenaz, in the fifteenth century, exemplified by two manuscripts at the Bodleian Library. MS Can. Or. 59 reveals a striking similarity in pictorial tradition to the later, seventeenth century woodcut illustrations in the printed copy of Frankfurt an der Oder (see above). While the other manuscript copy in Oxford, MS Opp.154 follows a different model, it remains a very popular source of reference of all times! These stories have always been loved, widely read and reproduced, provoking both laughter and tears, no doubt.

Another work in this genre is the so-called Fox fables corpus, or Mishle Shu’alim, composed in Hebrew rhymed prose by the prominent 12th-13th century Hebrew exegete and grammarian, Berekhiah ben Natronai ha-Nakdan who was active in the Anglo-Norman cultural realm. It is remarkable that the Bodleian Library holds a thirteenth century copy of Berekhiah’s fables, manuscript Bodl. Or. 135, produced in France. As the title of Berekhiah’s work suggests, the fox is the main character, but also other animals feature in the stories that eventually culminate in a moral lesson. Similarly to ibn Sahula’s fables, these tales are not unparalleled and weave a wealth of traditions; and yet their scholarly authors are aware of essentially Jewish elements, in which they express the stories, spanning from biblical quotes to values of ethical life.

An early printed copy of Mishle Shu'alim at Christ Church is interesting for a number of reasons. First, its Latin translation was printed along the Hebrew original, by the Collegium Societatis Jesu at the University’s printing press in Prague in 1661. Its previous owners, who also annotated and made corrections to the text, include Paul Theodor Carpov (1714-1765), a German Orientalist and theologian, associated with the universities of Rostock and Bützow. Thereafter, this curious copy of Fox Fables changed hands, and in the early nineteenth century belonged to the impressive collection of another German Orientalist and theologian in Rostock, Anton Theodor Hartmann (1774-1838).

The numerous annotated copies of Hebrew books from the former libraries of Hartmann, Oluf Gerhard Tychsen (1734-1815) and Jacob Georg Christian Adler (1756-1834) are being catalogued at Christ Church and remind us of the heydays of German theological scholarship.

Coming back to wisdom and teaching, - two things with which the fables are often associated - , we wish our students and fellows, as well as our readers, a hilarious Hilary term 2021!
Herewith a gift: ’tis wrapped in grace
As holy offerings were brought,
To Masters from the one they taught (dedication by Ibn Sahula, translated by Raphael Loewe),

Come, friends and gentles, I invite
You, view the city, each delight
My stately home can show:
Survey my tilth, where mine own rain,
My highland dews, the seed sustain,
The poems that I sow,
My portion’s pleasance, all my care,
My passion, and the arms I bear,
Best treasure trove I know,
Its book built like a stronghold, packed
With answers, shelves all neatly stacked,
Planed timbers, row on row.

These riddles stumbling stragglers lead
To a stout refuge, as they read
Fables from long ago.
(Prologue by Ibn Sahula, translated by Raphael Loewe).

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