For the Year 5782

The Jewish holy day of Rosh ha-Shanah (the New Year), marking the creation of the world, is a time of penitence and prayer, but with plenty of sweetness added to the celebration. While the Hebrew Bible begins with creation, a later mystical treatise called Sefer Yetsirah - of ancient or early medieval origin - focuses specifically on this subject. Christ Church Library's manuscript MS 188 includes a 16th century copy of Sefer Yetsirah (Book of Creation), transcribed and edited by Solomon Turiel probably in Safed, a town in the Galilee. The entire codex, a valuable treasure among the College’s Hebrew collection, remains an unsolved puzzle due to its uncertain composition and provenance. Various suggestions regarding the manuscript’s ownership and how it came to Oxford have been made, and there remains space for more clarity on this issue.

Around the time this Sefer Yetsirah was copied by hand in Palestine, a first printed edition of the text was prepared in Mantua, Italy, in 1562, at the press of Jacob Cohen of Gazzuolo. The title page attributes the work per tradition to the patriarch Abraham. Christ Church's copy of this book (MB* 4.28) - which was bought for £1.10 some time ago - comes with beautiful wide margins on which its later owners have left their annotations in Hebrew and Italian. An inscription on the title page says that on the 17th of August in 1590 a certain Jewish owner of the book in Italy passed it on to his sons. A number of charts and diagrams that accompany the text deal with cosmology and cosmogony, which make the book interesting reading for the Jewish High Holy Days.
In this context another kabbalistic text of the 16th century, also held in Christ Church Library, comes to mind.  The colophon to part 8 of Mordechai Jaffe’s (ca. 1535-1612) Sefer Levush, printed by Kalonymus Jaffe in Lublin in 1594 (MF.1.13), ends with the words חדש עלינו שנה טובה. This is the ultimate prayer of Jews in this season, ‘Renew us for a good year!’  According to the Talmud, on the Jewish New Year three books are opened in Heaven: one for the wicked, one for the righteous, and one for everyone else. While the righteous will be instantly inscribed in the Book of Life, and the opposite for the wicked, for most people the outcome depends on 'prayer, repentance and charity.'  This is why one wishes, during these so-called 'days of awe' to be ‘inscribed for a good year’: le-shanah tovah.

Dr Rahel Fronda
Hebrew Antiquarian Cataloguer
Christ Church Library

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