The Mystery of The Bodleian Bowl: New insights into a 320 year old mystery

Friday, 21 August, 2015 - 5:48 am

IMG_0163.JPGOne of the enigmatic items in the Department of Antiquities at the Ashmolean Museum is a medieval copper bowl with Hebrew inscription discovered in the 17th century in a moat in East Anglia. The bowl is commonly known as the ‘Bodleian Bowl’ - a simple, indistinctive name. Although there is Hebrew inscription indicating an origin and narrative of the bowl, its actual meaning and purpose has continued to perplex scholars up to the present day. In this essay I will discuss how the bowl was discovered and the history of the debate as to its purpose. I will then postulate through a new analysis of the inscription an alternative narrative. I will do this by offering a broader context and narrative regarding the name of the person mentioned on the bowl and what his family represented - and is in fact still associated with - in the medieval period in terms of their critical contribution to Jewish scholarship.


The Finding of the Bowl


The bowl was found in an old moat in Norfolk, England, in or before 1696. Shortly after it was found it was acquired by the Master of Christ Church College, Cambridge University, Dr. John Covell, and then sold to the first Earl of Oxford, Robert Harley. According to Dr. Covell, as related to a German traveller Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach in summer 1710, the person who found the bowl suddenly became rich. It was then sold in March 1742 for £1.5s.0d. to the benefactor of the Bodleian Library, Dr. Richard Rawlinson, who bequeathed it to the University of Oxford when he died in 1755. Its shelf mark therefore became MS Rawl. D. 1513, even though it was not technically a manuscript. As it was donated to the Bodleian Library, it acquired the simple name ‘Bodleian Bowl’ - although it is now held in the Ashmolean Museum.


The Bowl


The bowl, made out of bronze, is 9¾ inches high and 30 inches round at its widest circumference. It weighs eleven pounds and has two handles and three hoof-shaped feet. Over each foot is a bird, a stag and a circle containing a flowing pattern. Under each handle is a fleur-de-lis, indicating its origin as France.


Theories of its use


The first to offer a theory for the possible use of the bowl is Hebraist Marquess of Northampton who wrote to Dr. John Covell on 26 August 1696 that it is a great mystery and called it a rabbinical porridge pot. He suggested that it was carried about in synagogues in imitation of the pot of manna[1].  Subsequently, seven theories have been put forward as to what the bowl may have been used for. Isaac Abendana (d. 1699), who taught Hebrew at Cambridge and Magdalen College, Oxford, between 1689-99, proposed it was for the collection of alms. Other theories include the washing of the hands of priests in the synagogue; for the collecting of ashes of a martyr; for holding ballots, voting or lottery in a synagogue; for the purpose of holding of contracts; for pouring water over a dead body; for collection of donations for the Holy Land. According to the Marquess of Northampton, Joseph, the donor of the bowl, bought it back himself from his pilgrimage to Israel and donated it to his synagogue in England.




Screen Shot 2015-08-21 at 15.40.29.pngFurther complicating the mystery of the use of the bowl is the Hebrew inscription running round its circumference. The inscription is cryptic, written in an abbreviated script with missing letters, and some whole words have no clear meaning, thus making the inscription largely incomprehensible without creative imagination – or broader scholarship to form a better educated theory. This is clear from the multiple theories that have been put forward as to what the inscription may mean.


The first to suggest a reading of the inscription is Dr. Israel Abrahams (1858-1925) in his article 'A Note on the Bodleian Bowl' [2]:


This is the gift of Joseph, the son of the Holy Rabbi Yechiel, may the memory of the righteous holy be for a blessing, who answered and asked (i.e. directed) the congregation as he desired (or thought fit – [through Respona?]) in order to hehold the face of Ariel [Jerusalem: Isaiah 29:1, ‘the city where david dwelt’]) as it is written in the Law of Jekuthiel (i.e. Moses), “And righteousness delivers from death” (Proverbs 11:4).


Dr. Heinrich Feuchtwanger (1898-1963)[3] suggests a different and more poetic reading. He places the words ‘answered and asked’ in the context of the historic disputation between Rabbi Yechiel of Paris and the Jewish convert to Christianity, former disciple of Rabbi Yechiel, Nicholas Donin of La Rochelle. The disputation was held before Louis IX in Paris in 1240, whereby Rabbi Yechiel was required to first answer all the accusations of blasphemy against Christianity that were allegedly found in the work of the Talmud before putting forward his own questions in response.


Both Abraham’s and Feuchtwanger’s interpretations suggest the bowl was for collecting donations, possibly for the Yeshiva of Rabbi Yechiel in Akko. If this were the case then a Jewish community in England would have possibly used the bowl for collection, and as it was found near Norfolk, it would likely have belonged to the medieval Jewish community of Norwich.


Vivian D. Lipman in his book The Jews of Medieval Norwich quotes a theory that the bowl was made in France and taken to Akko where Rabbi Yechiel had a Yeshiva. It was then brought back to England by the Crusades as plunder[4].


According to 18th century Emanuel Mendes Da Costa, a Jewish librarian to the Royal Society, the community associated with the gift was Hull in Yorkshire. He came to this conclusion after consultation with a certain Mr. Lazarus who interpreted the Hebrew words that others translated ‘as he desired’ to be read literally and thus referring to the Jewish congregation of Hull that existed in the medieval period.


In an 1851 work on Anglo-Jewish history by Anglo-Polish-Jewish convert to Christianity Moses Margoliouth, he discusses the bowl and postulates that it belonged to the synagogue at Bury St Edmunds. It was fished out of a brook in Suffolk, probably the Lark, and sold to Covel, who had been at Grammar School in the town and regularly returned to visit. This is based on D'Blossiers Tovey's account in his Anglia Judaica of 1738 that it 'was found about forty years ago, by a fisherman as he was dragging a small brook in Suffolk'.


In 1908, Dr. Charles Singer proposed, based on Dr. Israel Abraham’s interpretation of the inscription, that the bowl was used as a receptacle to collect alms for the Jews in the Holy Land. He suggests that the connection between the use of the bowl and its inscription is that Rabbi Yechiel had many disciples in England, some of whom immigrated to Israel with him in 1257. It was with this immigration in mind that funds were being collected either for the trip itself or to be distributed to the poor and the needy when they arrived.


The most recent theory has been put forward by Professor David S. Katz (Tel Aviv University) in an essay ‘The Conundrum of the Bodleian Bowl: An Anglo-Jewish mystery story’ (1990) which is similar to Singer and Abraham. He agrees that the use of the bowl was indeed for the collection of alms for the Holy Land in relation to the immigration of Joseph son of Rabbi Yechiel of Paris. However, he claims the bowl was a gift by Rabbi Joseph, son of Rabbi Yechiel, to the congregation of Colchester.


He supports this by the fact that in connection with the Anglo-Jewish Historical Exhibition in 1887 at the Royal Albert Hall, a collection of Hebrew deeds ('shetaroth') of English Jews was published by M. D. Davis ‘Shetaroth or Hebrew Deeds of English Jews’ (London 1888), among which is a deed of 1258 relating to an act by the sons of Rabbi Yechiel, Rabbis Isaac, Joseph and Benjamin, who transferred their part of the ownership of a house on Stockwell Street, Colchester, to their brother Rabbi Samuel. This would connect with certainty the proximity of Joseph, son of Rabbi Yechiel of Paris, to East Anglia, suggesting that the bowl was not brought back to England from another place but rather given to the local Jewish community as a gift and its location would have likely been Colchester.


While the above discussion and series of views sheds light on the possible use of the bowl and its location, it does not give much insight into the background of Joseph and adequate interpretation of the enigmatic text round its circumference. To understand the purpose and proposed meaning of the inscription of the bowl I suggest that one must look at the broader context of the history of the Jews of 13th century England and France and in particular the life of Rabbi Yechiel and his son Joseph. I would like to first present an outline of the life of Rabbi Yechiel and his son Joseph and thereby propose a more in-depth understanding of the meaning of the inscription of the Bodleian Bowl and the significance and purpose of the bowl itself[5].


Rabbi Yechiel of Paris


Rabbi Yechiel of Paris was one of the greatest Talmudic scholars of 13th century France. He was a disciple of Rabbi Judah ben Isaac, known as Sir Leon, and succeeded him as the head of the Yeshivah (Talmudic academy) of Paris in 1235. His Yeshiva had 300 disciples[6], among whom were leading Talmudists, including Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (c. 1220-1293) and his son-in-law Rabbi Isaac ben Joseph of Corbeil (d. 1280[7]), author of the influential Ashkenazic legal code Sefer Mitzvot Katan (Small Book of Mitzvot) in 1277, known by its acronym Semak. Many of Rabbi Yechiel’s rulings can be found in the legal work The Mordechai by Rabbi Mordecai ben Hillel (c. 1250-1298). This includes his lenient view about eating legumes on Passover[8], as opposed to the view of his son in law Rabbi Isaac ben Joseph of Corbeil, and his stringent view forbidding the use of the same glass cups on Passover that were used during the year, as opposed to the opinion of Tosafist Rabbi Eliezer ben Yoel HaLevi of Bonn, known by his acronym Ra'avyah (1140–1225), who maintained that one may, since glass does not absorb[9]. According to some opinions, Rabbi Yechiel of Paris is the anonymous author of the Tosafist commentary on no less than 11 tractates of the Talmud[10].


As mentioned earlier, Rabbi Yechiel is associated with the famed Disputation of the Talmud in Paris that took place at the court of King Louis IX in 1240. In the 1230s, Nicholas Donin, a former disciple of Rabbi Yechiel converted to Christianity and pressed thirty five charges to Pope Gregory IX against the Talmud by quoting seemingly blasphemous passages about Christianity. In 1240 four leading French rabbis were selected, headed by Rabbi Yechiel as their spokesperson (rosh hamedabrim)[11], in which he had to defend the work of the Talmud. Though he answered all the questions put before him, this led to the tragic public burning of twenty four carriage loads of priceless manuscripts of the Talmud in 1242, many with marginal scholarly notes by the leading Talmudic scholars of the times.


Joseph son of Rabbi Yechiel


The father of Rabbi Yechiel was Joseph and Rabbi Yechiel’s eldest son was named after him. Joseph was imprisoned at some point, and according to a disciple, upon being released from prison he made a public vow that he would immigrate to Israel[12]. He was however released from his vow by his father or a fellow rabbi, due to respect for his father[13]. I woud like to argue that it is this vow and its subsequent release that is crucial to understanding the inscription on the bowl. I will now proceed to analyse this matter in some depth.


The Rationale for the Release of Joseph’s Vow


The rationale for the release of Joseph from his vow is based on Jewish law that a vow may be annulled through a reasoning of unforeseen circumstance or regret. This is found in the Mishneh Torah of Maimonides (Laws of Vows 4:5):


When a person took a vow and then changed his mind and regretted his vow, he may approach a sage and ask for its release. A vow can be released only by a distinguished sage or by three ordinary men in a place where there are no sages.


Similarly, in Laws of Oaths (6:1) it states:


The following rules apply when a person took a sh'vuat bitui (oath) and then regretted having taken the oath. If he sees that he will suffer if he upholds this oath and his intent changes or a factor occurred that was not in his intent originally when he took the oath and he changed his mind because of this, he may appeal to be released from his oath from one sage - or from three ordinary people in a place where there are no sages. His oath is repealed and he is permitted to perform the matter that he took the oath not to do, or, not to do the matter that he took an oath to do. This is called the release of an oath.


The Problem of Releasing a Public Vow


In the case of Joseph, releasing his vow may have been more problematic, since we are told that he made his vow in public. There is a dispute whether a public vow can be released. Rabbi Judah opines in the Talmud that it may not be released, similar to the Biblical vow of security made to the Givonites in Joshua (9:18)[14]. The law however is that public vows may in fact be released[15].


The Problem of Releasing a Vow Made on the Understanding of Others


However, it may not be so simple. In Jewish law there are two categories of public vows: a. a vow simply made before the public – a minum of three people. b. a public vow expressly stating that is it being made ‘based on the understanding of others’. Regarding the latter, Jewish law stipulates that the vow may never be annulled without the public’s consent[16], as it is no longer dependent on the understanding of the person who made the vow for which his regret might be taken into consideration. This is also codified in Maimonides[17] ‘If however one took an oath or a vow based on the understanding of many others, it may not be released.’


It is unclear whether Joseph merely made his oath in public or whether he made it ‘based on the understanding of others’. If the latter was the case with Joseph’s oath, there would have been no simple recourse for his vow to immigrate to Israel.


Exception to the Law


There is however one exception to this rule, which may have been the basis for the release. The Talmud stipulates that if the vow is associated with a Divine Commandment - a mitzvah, it may be released[18]. An example of such a scenario is codified by Maimonides (Laws of Oaths 6:9):


If one took an oath and made his oath dependent on the understanding of others that he would not benefit from so-and-so at all and the people of that city needed someone to teach them the Torah, to circumcise their sons, or to perform ritual slaughter on their behalf and they only found this person, he may ask a sage or three ordinary persons to release him from his oath. We release his oath. He may perform these mitzvot on their behalf and he may receive his wage from the people concerning whom he had taken an oath that he would not benefit from them.


Reading the account of the vow of Joseph we are told the reason for the release was 'due to respect for his father'. The fact that we are told this suggests that the vow was made not just in public, but also on the account of the understanding of others – and thus in normal circumstances impossible to release. However, because of Joseph's requirement to fulfil the Mitzvah of ‘Honour your father’ (Exodus 20:12) this would have been suitable justification for the vow to then be released.


The release of the vow would have been conducted through the usual Jewish legal process for the annulment of vows, as codified by Maimonides[19]:


The person who took the oath must come before the distinguished sage or three ordinary people if there is no expert. He says: "I took an oath concerning this and this and I have changed my mind. If I knew that I would feel such discomfort concerning this, I would not have taken the oath. If, at the time of the oath, my understanding was as it is now, I would not have taken the oath." The wise man or the foremost among the three asks: "Have you already changed your mind?" He answers: "Yes." He then tells him: "It is permitted for you," "It is released for you," "It is absolved for you," or the like with this intent in any language.


Some manuscripts state Joseph’s father, Rabbi Yechiel himself, conducted the release of the vow, whereas others suggest another rabbi conducted it. Although the latter view is favoured, from a Jewish legal point of view they would both be valid, as codified by Maimonides[20]: ‘Relatives are acceptable to release vows and oaths…for this release is not a judgment’.


Another Vow to Immigrate to Israel in the Middle Ages


It is important to view the vow by Joseph to immigrate to Israel not as an uncommon phenomenon in the Middle Ages. A similar case is recorded by Rabbi Meir ben Jekuthiel Hakohen, who was a disciple of Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg and killed with his family in the Rindfleisch massacres of 1298. He records in his work on Maimonides, Hagahot Maimoniyot (Notes on Maimonides)[21], that a colleague, Rabbi Menachem, made a vow to immigrate to Israel. However, after the vow was made, his wife became pregnant. Rabbi Meir brings the ruling that the vow could be repealed, as the fulfilment of the vow would put the mother and child’s life in danger. He argued further that to travel without his wife would violate his marital responsibility, which constitutes a mitzvah, and furthermore he was obligated as a teacher to teach Torah to young children – another mitzvah. Thus, the danger to life and the two mitzvot combined served to justify the releasing of the vow, even though the mitigating circumstance, the pregnancy, only came into being after the vow was issued.


It is interesting that Rabbi Meir ben Jekuthiel Hakohen was a disciple of Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg, who in turn was a renowned disciple of Rabbi Yechiel, as mentioned above. It is conceivable that Rabbi Jekuthiel may have known of the similar circumstance of the annulment of Joseph’s vow by Rabbi Yechiel.


The Rationale for Rabbi Yechiel’s Release of Joseph's Vow


The rationale for the release of the Joseph's vow by his father Rabbi Yechiel allowing him to immigrate to Israel is unclear. It is possible that Rabbi Yechiel was advancing in age and may have required his son's support. In a similar circumstance the Talmud[22] relates of a sage who wanted to emigrate from Babylon to Israel and was told that he was allowed to immigrate even if he was thereby leaving an unwell mother, as long as there was someone else to support her. This implies that where alternative support has not been arranged, it would be forbidden for the son to immigrate to Israel due to the Biblical command ‘Honour your father and your mother’.


Joseph’s Later Immigration to Israel


It transpired however that later on Joseph did immigrate to Israel, where he passed away and was buried at the foot of Mount Carmel. Abraham Yaari (1899-1966) documents in his accounts of travels of immigrants to Israel from the Middle Ages the testimony of an anonymous disciple of Nachmanides (entitled Totzo’ot Eretz Yisrael) relating his travels in Israel sometime after 1270. The disciple writes how he recalls a sighting of the tomb of Joseph son of Rabbi Yechiel in the graveyard at the foot of Mount Carmel[23]:


From Akko to Haifa is about 3 miles. There is a graveyard at the foot of Mount Carmel, where there are the burial sites of the great rabbi Tosafist Shamshon son of Abraham of blessed memory; Rabbi Joseph of Bourgogne of blessed memory; Rabbi Joseph son of Rabbi Yechiel of Paris, known as Sir Delicieux of blessed memory; Rabbi Joseph of Sens; Rabbi Jacob of Segura; Rabbi Jacob Hakatan son of Tosafist Rabbi Shamshon of blessed memory; my teacher Rabbi Moshe son of Rabbi Nachman of Girona of blessed memory; a number of sages of whose names we are unaware.



A Reason for Immigration to Israel in the Middle Ages


In the 13th century, many Jews immigrated to Israel from France and England, among other places. 300 Jews from England and France were invited by Saladin in 1211 to settle in Israel[24]. The reason for the influx of immigrants, many of them the leading rabbis and Talmudic scholars of the times, including Maimonides and Nachmanides, who similarly emigrated from Spain, is offered by the above disciple of Nachmanides. It appears to have been a combination of desperation due to the intense persecution of Jews by their host countries in the 13th century, particularly France and England, as well as a belief in the imminence of the arrival of the Messiah[25]. The unknown disciple writes:


One should not think that the Jewish Messiah will arrive in the Diaspora, nor that he will arrive in Israel among the nations, but rather once the sages of the Torah, the pious and righteous people from the four corners of the world – one from every city, two from a family – each person whose purity of heart inspires them with a holy love - come to the Land of Israel – to them the Messiah will be revealed. And now many are awakening and desire to come to Israel, as the time of the coming of the Messiah is close as witnessed by the heavy oppression suffered by Jews in most places.


The middle of the 13th century also saw the beginning of the 6th millennium in the Hebrew calendar in 1240. This seems to have inspired a deep sense of expectation for the arrival of the Messiah, as indicated in the Talmud[26]: ‘The Tanna d’be Eliyahu teaches: The world is to exist six thousand years. In the first two thousand there was desolation; two thousand years the Torah flourished; and the next two thousand years is the Messianic era’.


Rabbi Yechiel’s Call to Immigrate to Israel


Despite Joseph having initially been forced to forgo his initial vow to immigrate to Israel earlier in his life due to respect for his father, in 1257 it appears his father Rabbi Yechiel himself expressed a yearning to immigrate to Israel, known because of his statement in the year 1257 that one should come to Jerusalem and offer sacrifices[27][28]. This is understood to have meant the Passover offering that individuals are obliged to take part in during the Temple era[29]. With the view that sacrifices were possible following the destruction of the Temple, Rabbi Yechiel would have been in line with a similar controversial view of Maimonides[30]:


Of the three prophets who ascended with them from the exile, one testified as to the Altar's location, one to its dimensions, and one to the Law that the could bring offerings on the altar even though there was no Temple [yet].


The additional words ‘on the altar’, not found in the original Talmudic wording of this teaching[31], is the expression of Maimonides’ view that sacrifices are permitted on an altar on the Temple Mount even post-Temple period. This view was however disputed by his contemporary Rabbi Avraham ben David of Provence (c.1125-1198), known by his acronym Raavad, and hotly debated in many rabbinic works.


Did Rabbi Yechiel Arrive in Israel?


While there is no dispute about Joseph’s arrival and burial in Israel, it is not clear whether Rabbi Yechiel himself travelled to Israel or where his burial is located. The most prevalent view is Rabbi Yechiel travelled with his son Joseph around 1257 to Israel and was buried at the foot of Mount Carmel in or near Haifa. Abraham Yaari writes that Rabbi Yechiel of Paris and his disciples immigrated to Israel, settled in Akko and opened a Yeshiva there.  Similarly, Natan ben Yehudah mentions the view in Sefer Hamachkim[32] that at the end of Rabbi Yechiel’s life, he immigrated to Israel and settled in Akko. A similar description is found in Teshuvot Balei haTosfot by Dr. Abraham Eigus (1954) that after the burning of the Talmud in Paris in 1244, Rabbi Yechiel left France and settled in Israel. The same narrative is found in Knesset Yisrael (Warsaw, 1886)[33] by Samuel Joseph Pin (1818-1890), where he writes: ‘when oppression of the Jews in Paris was intolerable, Rabbi Yechiel left for Israel, settled in Akko and died in Haifa. According to the tradition of the place, that is also where he was buried’.


To complicate the matter, however, the son-in-law of Rabbi Yechiel, Rabbi Isaac ben Joseph of Corbeil, indicates that he was at his father-in-law’s bedside when he passed away. In Rabbi Isaac’s work Semak[34] he relates that he permitted a Kohen to be in the same house as Rabbi Yechiel when he passed away. This would imply Rabbi Isaac of Corbeil, who didn’t immigrate to Israel, as he is known to have died in France, was in close proximity to the house in which Rabbi Yechiel passed away. This would mean Rabbi Yechiel almost certainly died in France. In the same work it recalls how Rabbi Isaac instructed his daughters how to rend their clothes upon the passing of Rabbi Yechiel[35]. It would seem from the two testimonies that Rabbi Yechiel passed away in France surrounded by family.


To reconcile these views, Professor Simcha Emanuel (Hebrew University) suggests[36] that Rabbi Yechiel in fact began his journey to Israel but only got as far as Greece, where he fell ill and returned to France. The fact that he arrived in Greece is evident from a comment by eminent Talmudist Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel, known by his acronym the Rosh (1250-1328). He writes[37] that he ‘received a Halachic ruling from Rabbi Yechiel ben Joseph of Paris from the land of Greece’. Pin suggests this could have been while he was en route to Israel. This would however suggest that Rabbi Yechiel and his son travelled to Israel later than 1257, as Rabbi Asher was only born c. 1250.


Whether their departure for Israel was in 1257 or later on in the 13th century, as indicated by the text of Rabbi Asher, the dispute between Pin and Emanuel is whether Rabbi Yechiel actually arrived in Israel after merely stopping over in Greece or returned to France, where he died, as suggested by the account of his son in law. With clear evidence that he travelled as far as Greece en route to Israel but no clear evidence of his burial site the dispute will most likely remain unsettled[38].


The Bodleian Bowl


Based on the above analysis of the life of Joseph and the saga of his vow and subsequent release of the vow, I would like to propose that the inscription on the bowl may relate to this saga. It is almost certain that the identity of Joseph in the inscription is the son of the famous Rabbi Yechiel of Paris, as indicated by his title the ‘holy’. Although there is another candidate for the name Rabbi Yechiel of Paris in the 13th century, Rabbi Yechiel ben Matisyahu, the name Joseph son of Rabbi Yechiel, as well as the title ‘holy’, suggests with almost certainly that it is referring to the famous Rabbi Yechiel of Paris. The title ‘Holy’ has been found in reference to him in the contemporaneous work Archot Chaim[39] by Rabbi Aaron ben Jacob ha-Kohen of Narbonne, France, who suffered the expulsion of the Jews from France in 1306.


Neder - Vow


The opening of the Hebrew inscription on the bowl is the word HaNeder – the vow. It would seem that this refers to the public vow that Joseph made upon release from imprisonment to immigrate to Israel. As we mentioned earlier he was released from this vow due to respect for his father. However, it is evident that not only did Joseph immigrate to Israel at a later date, his father also travelled towards Israel. His father's actions, which suggested that he didn't need Joseph's help, may have caused Joseph to review the release of his vow and consider it to have reverted to a binding vow that had to be fulfilled particularly as it was made ‘based on the understanding of the public’.


To behold the countenance of Ariel


The context of the vow to immigrate to Israel is suggested with the words ‘l’chazot pnei Ariel’ – to behold the countenance of Ariel (lioness). There are two Hebrew words used in Scripture for a lion: Aryeh and Ariel. The former translates as lion and the latter as lioness or lion of G-d. The word Ariel in Scripture refers sometimes to Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king, who destroyed Jerusalem in 586 BCE, as in Jeremiah (4:7): ‘A lion has come up from his thicket, and a destroyer of nations has travelled, has come forth from his place, to make your land into a waste, your cities will be desolate without an inhabitant’. On other occasions it refers to G-d, as in Amos (3:8): ‘A lion has roared; who will not fear? The Lord G-d has spoken; who will not prophesy?’


Ariel refers also to the city Jerusalem and the Temple, as in Isaiah (29:1): ‘Woe, Ariel, Ariel, the city wherein David encamped’. According to the interpretation of Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089-1167), Ariel refers to Jerusalem. Alternatively, it refers to the sanctuary in the Temple, as interpreted by the the 3rd century work of the Mishna[40] that compares the shape of the sanctuary of the Temple to the shape of a crouching lion, narrow at the back and wide in the front. Ariel also refers to the altar, as translated by the Aramaic translater Targum Yonasan in accordance with how Ezekiel described the altar (43:15-16). The Midrash[41] combines these references into a single teaching: An Aryeh in the Zodiac sign of the Aryeh rose up and destroyed ‘Ariel', in order that an Aryeh in the Zodiac sign of Aryeh will come and rebuild ‘Ariel’. The reference in the bowl to Ariel therefore may be understood as referring to all the above: Jerusalem and the Temple, the focal point of which is the altar.


The Hebrew word for behold, l’chazot, is referenced also in Isaiah (33:17): ‘The King in His beauty shall your eyes behold (techzena); they shall see from a distant land’. Similarly, Isaiah says (33:20): ‘See (chazeh) Zion, the city of our gathering; your eyes shall see Jerusalem, a tranquil dwelling, a tent that shall not fall, whose pegs shall never be moved, and all of whose ropes shall not be torn’.


Charity will save from death


The relevance of the reference to the purpose of beholding the countenance of Jerusalem and the Temple is clarified with the final words of the inscription quoting Proverbs (10:2) ‘Charity will save from death’. This implies with a great degree of certainty that the bowl was meant as a collection container for charity. Combined with the reference to beholding the Jerusalem Temple and the vow of Joseph, one can deduce that the collection bowl was used to raise funds for either the fulfillment of the vow of Joseph to immigrate to Israel after the passing of his father Rabbi Yechiel and behold Jerusalem or to support his Yeshiva in Akko with the aim of being prepared to behold the Temple with the arrival of the Messiah.




In a further effort at deciphering the text, I would like to highlight a section that doesn’t seem central to understanding the context of the bowl but does seem to present a challenge for those trying to understand its inscription. The text concerned is: ‘in the group (kat) and like the law (dat) of Jekuthiel’. Professor David Katz has suggested that Jekuthiel is a reference to Moses. This is drawn from I Chronicles (4:18) where it describes numerous names for Moses, including Jekuthiel, which means the one that gave the Israelites hope in G-d[42]. In support of this theory, I would like to propose that the Hebrew word in the inscription kat does not actually mean group but is rather an abridgement of the word k’katuv (as written), which would then mean ‘as written in the law of Moses’.


While this theory is credible and rhymes nicely with other words in the inscription, like Yechiel and Ariel, I would like to suggest a more relevant supposition. We are aware of three rabbis with the name Jekuthiel in the 13th century. One is Jekuthiel Hakohen, the father of Rabbi Meir the author Hagahot Maimoniyot (Notes on Maimonides). It is possible that this Jekuthiel Hakohen is the same Jekuthiel ben Yehuda Hakohen who was a renowned grammarian in the first half of the 13th century, known by his acronym YaHBI.


Grammarian Elijah Levita (1469-1549), known as Habachur, refers to YahBI as the ‘Punctuator of Prague’, suggesting he lived in Prague. However, according to the Encyclopedia Judaica, he lived in the Rhineland. This would then agree with the likelihood of him being the same Jekuthiel Hakohen, father of Rabbi Meir, who was killed at the end of the 13th century in the Rindfleich massacres in the Rhineland. Jekuthiel ben Judah published a work Ein ha-Koreh[43] that consists of a section on the vocalization and cantillation of the Pentateuch, the Haftarot, and the Books of Lamentations and Esther, and a second section which is a grammatical study with the practical purpose to give instructions to those reading the Torah. His instructions were an important source of information on the pronunciation of Hebrew in his time, in Germany, Bohemia and France, and almost certainly by extension also England. It is plausible then that the reference to the ‘law of Jekuthiel’ is a reference to the grammatical school of Jekuthiel.


A second Jekuthiel is Tosafist Rabbi Jekuthiel ben Avraham, known also as Zalman of Speyer in the Rhineland. He was considered one of the greatest rabbis of the three ancient Jewish communities of the Rhineland: Speyer, Worms and Mainz, known by their acronym ‘Shum’. Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg referred to this Jekuthiel ben Judah as King of Israel[44].


A third Jekuthiel is referenced in an Oxford Hebrew manuscript held at Christ Church College[45] consisting of a letter of Kabbalistic content from the ‘great Rabbi Jekuthiel of London to his great disciple in wisdom and number (of disciples) Rabeinu Yedidiah of Toulouse, France’. This may have been the same Rabbi Yedidiah who corresponded with the holy Rabbi Yechiel of Paris in 1254 pertaining to the burial of the 139 Jews who were massacred in a village near Dijon.


Taking into consideration that Judah son of Rabbi Yechiel and his brothers had association with a Jewish comunity in East Anglia it is possible then that Jekuthiel on the Bodleian bowl refers to the ‘great Rabbi Jekuthiel of London’, mentioned in the Oxford Hebrew manuscript. This would somewhat explain the text: in the group (kat) and like the law (dat) of Jekuthiel, suggesting an affiliation with and following a law pertaining to charity for the Holy Land issued by the great Rabbi Jekuthiel of London.





In summary, we have argued that the Bodleian Bowl should be seen in the context of the vow that Joseph made to immigrate to Israel upon his release from prison in France, the release of his vow due to respect for his father, and his subsequent immigration to Israel, as well as his father’s strong desire to immigrate to Israel himself in 1257. The bowl would therefore have almost certainly served as a charity collection bowl in relation to either the Yeshiva in Akko, or indeed to fulfil Joseph’s personal vow to immigrate to Israel after the passing of his father Rabbi Yechiel, as evident by the words in the inscription ‘may the memory of the righteous holy be for a blessing’ after his father’s name. This would imply Joseph may have returned to Paris together with his father before he resumed his own immigration, thereby fulfilling his earlier vow. In addition, we have given an analysis to the possible meaning of the inscription in relation to the anonymous Jekuthiel that appears on the bowl.


While this study doesn’t explain every word of this mysterious text, nor does it give a complete picture, the research outlined in this essay is hopefully an important contribution to the narrative and context of this long standing debate of over 300 years.



[1] Historic Anglo Hebrew of East Anglia 1870, p79.


[2] Transactions - Jewish Historical Society of England (TJHSE) Vol. 5, pp. 184-192 (1902-1905); The Palgrave Dictionary Medieval Anglo-Jewish History, Joe Hillaby, Caroline Hilaby, p. 58.


[3] Monumenta Judaica, Katalog no. 432


[4] Notes on Illustrations, Lipman p. 113-115 in The Jews of Medieval Norwich by V D Lipman 1967


[5] Simcha Emanuel’s article ‘Rabbi Yechiel of Paris: his life and connection to the Land of Israel’ (Shalem, 2009) has been very helpful in providing sources for this research.


[6] Sefer Machkim, Natan ben Yehuda, p. XIII


[7] Introduction to Semak


[8] Mordechai, Pesachim 588-9


[9] Mordechai, Pesachim 574


[10] Sefer Machkim p. XIV; MS Oxford Neub. 781 fol. 67b


[11] Knesset Yisrael, Samuel Joseph Pin, Krakow 1886, p. 526


[12] Notes on the margins of Mordechai from Piskei R. Shlomo from London, Oxford MS. 781, fol. 67b;


[13] Oxford MS, Neub. 672, Mordechai fol. 33b


[14] Gittin 46a


[15] Gittin 36a


[16] Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 288:21


[17] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Oaths 6:8


[18] Gittin 36a


[19] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Oaths 6:5


[20] Mishneh Torah, Laws of Oaths 6:6


[21] Laws of Oaths 6:7


[22] Kiddushin 31b, as interpreted by Maimonides Laws of Mourning


[23] Masaot Eretz Yisrael (1946), p. 83


[24] Simon Sebag Montefiore, Jerusalem, p. 265; The Jewish settlement in Palestine, 634-1881. L. Reichert. p. 31.


[25] Ibid. p. 82


[26] Sanhedrin 97a


[27] Kaftor Voferach (Bulb and Flower), p. 81


[28] 14th century Estori Ha-Parchi (1280-1355), known also as Isaac ben Moses from Provence, a disciple of the great Talmudist Rabbi Asher be Yechiel (Rosh), immigrated to Israel following the expulsion of the Jews from France in 1306 and became Israel’s first Jewish geographer. He records this statement of Yechiel by medieval Rabbi Baruch.


[29] Responsa Chatam Sofer, Yoreh Deah 236


[30] Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Beit Habechira 2:4


[31] Zevachim 39a


[32] p. XIII


[33] p. 527


[34] p. 165, note 269


[35] p. 219


[36] R. Yehiel of Paris: His biography and affinity to Eretz-Israel (Shalem, vol. 8, p. 86-99, 2008)


[37] Yevamot 4:6


[38] According to some opinions, the author of the Tur, Rabeinu Yaakov ben Asher (c. 1269 - c.1343), also travelled to Greece, most likely enroute to Israel, with ten companions, where he became ill and died on the island of Chios, in Greece.


[39] Vol. 1, laws of Tzitzit, 15


[40] Middot 4:7


[41] Yalkut Shimoni Jeremiah 259


[42] Talmud Megila 13a


[43] Oxford MS Opp. 629, Neub. 1442


[44] Teshuvot Balei Hatosfot ch. 22, Introduction


[45] MS 198; Neub. 2456:10


Kindly edited by Mrs. Sora Feldman and Mr. Dovid Brackman

Comments on: The Mystery of The Bodleian Bowl: New insights into a 320 year old mystery

Estel wrote...

A wonderful essay, which makes me want to run to the Ashmolean to see it. A marvellous object. The essay would only be improved by 1. Give the inscription!!!
2. Note whether it is on contemporary display.

Many thanks for this and Best Wishes,