Whatever language the Jews spoke in their dispersion, they continued to read and write in Hebrew. Hebrew books, from the Bible to a wealth of religious, legal, philosophical-scientific, and literary texts, played a central role in the transmission of Jewish culture. The manuscripts – handwritten copies – of these texts offer important testimony to Jewish history and creativity, particularly when enriched with artistic decoration. Of the important collection of illuminated Hebrew manuscripts in the Israel Museum, some of the rarest and most accomplished examples are displayed in this gallery.
Apart from the Dead Sea Scrolls (3rd century BCE – 1st century CE) and a few later fragmentary texts, no Hebrew manuscripts dating from before the 9th century have survived. However, we do have manuscripts dating from the 10th century on, copied by scribes for Jewish communal and private use. Wealthy Jewish patrons sought to have their books embellished by skilled calligraphers and artists, as was customary among Christians and Muslims. This led to the flourishing of Hebrew illuminated manuscripts, especially in late medieval and Renaissance Europe. After the invention of printing in the 15th century, the art began to decline, although it enjoyed an important revival in Central Europe in the 18th century.
Decoration ranged from simple scribal work to illustrations and lavish illumination of words, which usually emphasized the division of the text into sections. At times the scribe himself decorated the entire manuscript, but patrons often turned to Christian artists and workshops that excelled in painting and in the use of gold and silver. The books’ decorative schemes and styles were influenced by the general artistic environment; what distinguished manuscripts written by Jewish scribes was the type of Hebrew script, which varied according to geographic location and cultural tradition.