The Abrabanel family & the Biblical manuscripts at the Bodleian Library

Monday, 16 June, 2014 - 7:18 am

Bodleain.jpgOxford has one of the most important collections of Hebrew manuscripts and early printed books in the world ranging from the Bible to rabbinic literature, as well as grammar, poetry, liturgy, Yiddish, philosophy and other areas of Jewish scholarship. A collection that contributes very significantly to this wealth of scholarship held at the Bodleian library is that of Rabbi David Oppenheimer (1664-1736), whose collection was purchased by the Bodleian library in 1829. 


The Oppenheimer collection consists of approximately 7,000 works, including nearly 1,000 manuscripts. It was painstakingly collected by Rabbi Oppenheimer while holding the esteemed position of Chief Rabbi, first in Nikolsberg and then in Prague. He was later endowed with the distinguished title ‘Nasi of Eretz Yisrael’, Patriarch or Prince of the Land of Israel, and - euphemistically - ‘King David of Israel’, due to his distinct combination of immense rabbinical knowledge, legal rulings, family largess and, most importantly, personal concern for the state of world Jewry in the 17th century, including the impoverished community living in Israel. 


Among this collection there are approximately a hundred and sixty four Hebrew manuscripts of the Bible, including some of the oldest in the world today. The earliest Biblical manuscript in this collection appears to be an early 14th century manuscript of the Pentateuch with the Aramaic translation of 1st century convert to Judaism Onkelos (c. 35–120 CE), as well as the five Megillot and Haftarot, written by Isaac ben Abraham and dated as having been completed on Tuesday 12th of the Hebrew month of Av, 1302. These manuscripts are the subject of this essay.




In this essay, I would like to present the Oppenheimer collection of Biblical manuscripts, as recorded in the Catalogue of the Hebrew Manuscripts in the Bodleian Library and in the College Libraries of Oxford by Adolf Neubeauer (1886), and preface the collection with an introduction highlighting some important and fascinating insights into this Biblical manuscript collection.


Versions - Masoret


An important point to consider, which becomes apparent when viewing many Biblical manuscripts, is that there are two traditional versions of the text, called the Masoret - literally received tradition. These date back to the two opposing Masoretic schools in Tiberias, Israel, in the 10th century: the school of Aaron ben Moshe Ben Asher, better known as Ben Asher, and the school of Ben Naphtali. They both critically analysed the Biblical text, documenting and confirming their views of what should be the authentic correct version. Both versions are indeed very similar but with many subtle differences, mainly in cantellation, punctuation, pronunciations and format. As both schools are highly respected, the two versions are referenced in many of the medieval manuscripts with the principal version as the text and its variations around the text or somewhere else in the manuscript.


The traditional preference of the two versions has clearly been decided in favour of the Ben Asher version. This is recorded in Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah (Laws of Sefer Torah ch. 8:4):


“Since I have seen great confusion about these matters in all the scrolls I have seen, and similarly, the masters of the tradition who have written down and composed texts to make it known which passages are p'tuchot and which are s'tumot are divided with regard to the scrolls on which to rely, I saw fit to write down the entire list of all the passages in the Torah that are s'tumot and p'tuchot, and also the form of the songs. In this manner, all the scrolls can be corrected and checked against these principles. The scroll on which I relied on for clarification of these matters was a scroll renowned in Egypt, which includes all the 24 books of the Bible. It was kept in Jerusalem for many years so that scrolls could be checked from it. Everyone relies upon it because it was corrected by Ben Asher, who spent many years writing it precisely, and afterward checked it many times. I relied on this scroll when I wrote a Torah scroll according to law.”


The nature of the contribution of the Tiberias schools is however a subject of historic and theological debate. Fundamental questions are raised: Did the schools of Asher and Naphtali only establish the Masoret in regard to the exact wording of the Torah? Did they invent aspects of the Biblical text? This question is a dispute between the great grammarian Elias Levita (1469-1549), known as Eliyahu Habochur, author of Tishbi, a 15th century dictionary of words in the Talmud and Midrash, a copy of which is found at Merton College, Oxford, and the Jerusalem born rabbinical scholar Rabbi Haim Yosef David Azulai (1724-1806), commonly known as the Chida. Levita writes in his work Masoret Hamasoret that the Tiberias scholars were the ones who composed the cantellation and notes in the Torah, whereas the Chida maintains that they are a tradition from Moses at Sinai. He quotes the Talmud in tractate Nedarim (37) to support this position, which is also the view supported by the work of the Zohar, attributed to the Mishnaic Sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai of the 1st century, as well as the later Kabbalists, including Rabbi Isaac Luria, known as the Arizal (1534-1572).




Many of the manuscripts contain the Pentateuch, as well as the Prophets and Scriptures. A subject of discussion in the manuscripts includes the question of the order of the books of the Scripture. In the Oppenheimer manuscript 185, as pointed out by Adolf Neubeauer in his catalogue, the manuscript has the order of Isaiah before Jeremiah, Chronicles before Psalms and Job before Proverbs. This is different to the traditional order found in the printed versions of the Bible today. While Isaiah before Jeremiah is indeed chronologically correct, the Talmud (Bava Basra 14b) and Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, laws of Sefer Torah ch. 7:16) prefers to place Jeremiah before Isaiah. This is because thematically it makes sense that Jeremiah who talks about the destruction of the First Temple should proceed Ezekiel and Isaiah who envision the later redemption of the Jewish people.




Many of the owners of Biblical manuscripts are unknown to us. Furthermore, even when a name is offered, without surnames or context, the author still remains unfamiliar. Nevertheless, when looking at the names of some of the owners described in the colophon of several of the manuscripts one cannot ignore the inclusion of great Jewish nobility among themof some of the owners, who would have been wealthy enough to commission or purchase these handwritten Biblical works for their own scholarship or collection.


One of the family names appearing as owners of Biblical manuscripts in the Oppenheimer collection is the distinguished Portuguese Abrabanel family, who lived at the time of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in the 15th century. This includes a manuscript consisting of the Pentateuch, Haftarot and five Megillot owned by Don Samuel Abrabanel (Opp. Add. 4to. 26) and an Ecclesiastes with the philosophic commentary of Samuel ibn Tibbon owned by Don Judah Abrabanel. The latter was subsequently passed on to Isaac son of Don Samuel Abrabanel (Opp. 4to, 71).


Abrabanel family


The importance of these manuscripts is highlighted when considering the distinguished political and religious role of the Abrabanel family in the 15th and 16th century and the extensive works of Biblical exegesis by family members of the manuscripts’ illustrious owners. The most renowned member of the Abrabanel family was Isaac ben Judah Abrabanel (1437 Lisbon – 1508 Venice), who served as treasurer to Alfonso V of Portugal until Alfonso's death in 1481. In 1483, Isaac Abrabanel was suspected of conspiracy and was forced to flee Portugal to Castile. He was sentenced to death in absentia in 1485. As he attributed his misfortune to the neglect of Torah study for the service of an earthly ruler, he decided to devote the rest of his life to the study of Torah and began to write his Biblical commentaries. His writings began with a commentary on the early prophets, Joshua, Judges and Samuel, which he completed in six months. However before completing his commentary on Kings, he was called to the service in the treasury of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Castile in 1484, which lasted until the expulsion of the Jews from Spain on 31 May, 1492.


Upon the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, he moved to Naples where he completed his commentary on Kings in autumn 1493. While in Naples, he was called to serve the king of Naples, Ferrante I, and then his son Alfonso II until 1494, when the French ransacked Naples and destroyed the library that Abrabanel’s had brought with him from Spain. He removed to Corfu in 1495 where he began his commentary on Isaiah in the summer of 1495. He returned to Naples once the French withdrew, and settled in Monopoli in 1496. Whilst in Monopoli, he completed his commentary on Deuteronomy Mirkevet haMishneh, which he had begun in Lisbon. On the suggestion of his son, Joseph, he finally settled in Venice in 1503 where he finished his commentaries on Jeremiah in 1504, the Minor Prophets, Genesis and Exodus in 1505, and Leviticus and Numbers in 1579, before he passed away there and was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Padua.


The other famous figure in the Abrabanel family is Judah Abrabanel, known as Leone Ebreo or Leo Hebraeus (b. circa 1460 Lisbon – d. after 1523 Italy), the eldest son of Don Isaac Abrabanel. He was a physician, poet and one of the foremost philosophers of the Renaissance and was instructed by his father in Jewish studies and Arab philosophy. His best known work is ‘Dialoghi Di Amore’ first published in 1535 - a work that combined Jewish thought and Neoplatonism on the subject of the sublime concept of love and beauty that exists in G-d and His creatures. It is debated whether he converted to Christianity with evidence in his work that he remained Jewish, though his one year old son Isaac was forcibly seized and baptised by King John II when he was sent separately with his nurse to Portugal when the family had to flee Portugal in 1483 - a cause of great grief to his father Judah throughout his life. While Judah Abrabanel was not a Biblical exegete himself, he commeded his father’s commentariesin three short poems (circa 1520) and a further fifty two stanzas which specifically extol his father’s commentary on the Later Prophets.


From the above brief history of the Abrabanel family and the outline of the incredible amount of Biblical commentary by Isaac Abrabanel, it is evident that the Abrabanel family would have possesed their own manuscript copy of the Bible and would have likely passed it on from one member of the family to another, as can be seen in the fact that more than one Abrabanel family member is connected to a single Biblical manuscript. In addition, it is likely that the later Abrabanels who seemed to have been the proud owners of the manuscripts, including Don Samuel Abrabanel and one Isaac, son of Don Samuel Abrabanel might have received them from the exegete Isaac Abrabanel, and would have possibly been used by Isaac when he wrote his extensive commentary during a very difficult period in Jewish history. Although the library of Isaac was destroyed when the French sacked Naples in 1494 and looted his house, it is obvious that he continued to have use of a Biblical manuscript after then, as he continued to write extensive commentaries on the Pentateuch and Prophets until his death in 1509.


Furthermore, the manuscript bearing the name of Don Judah Abranel mentioned as owner of the Oppenheimer collection Opp. 4to, 71 that includes Ecclesiastes with the philosophic commentary of Samuel ibn Tibbon (c. 1150 - c. 1230) would have most likely been in use by Judah Abrabanel in his studies, as mentioned earlier, while being instructed by his father Isaac Abrabanel in Jewish studies and Arab philosophy, the focus of the works by Samuel ibn Tabbon.


Other Abrabanel works


Other works of Isaac Abrabanel held at the Bodleian library are a copy of his commentary on Daniel Mayanei Hayeshua or Fountains of Salvation published in Ferrara, 1551 (MSS 350); two copies of Ateret Zekeinim on the subject of Angels (MSS 233:4; MSS. 2422:17); commentary on Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed (MS. 2385); and extracts of the same (MSS. 911:6c).


There are also two scholarly notes commenting on Isaac Abrabanel's works in the Bodleian library, including one by German Rabbi Solomon Zalman ha-Kohen Hanau, known by the acronym Raza"h (1687–1746), an expert in Hebrew grammar and the liturgy of the Hebrew prayer book. His notes are comments on Isaac Abrabanel’s commentary on Avoth (Ethics of the Fathers), with a poem at the beginning, and is entitled Kitzur Sefer Nachalat Avoth (Neubauer. 2245:6b – Michael collection 211). Rabbi Zalman Hanau’s works includes also Binyan Shlomo on Hebrew punctuation, authored at the age of 21, and was criticised by leading German rabbi and Talmudist Rabbi Yakov Emden, also known as Ya'avetz (1697, Altona – 1776, Altona), though respectfully defended by Yakov Emden’s esteemed father, Rabbi Tzvi Ashkenazi (1656, Habsburg Moravia – 1718, Lviv), known as the Chacham Tzvi. The Nusach Ari prayer book of the founder of Chabad Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812) followed a number of Zalman Hanau’s variations.


In addition, there are scholarly notes by Spanish Jewish illuminator of texts Joseph ibn Hayyim, renowned for his artistic work on the famous Kennicott Bible (Oxford, Bodleian Lib., MS. Kenn. 1), commissioned by Isaac son of Solomon di Baraga in La Corunna, Spain in 1476 – considered to be the Bodleian library’s most beautiful Hebraic treasure. His notes on Abrabanel are indicated in the Neubauer catalogue (p. 937) and there is a possibility this is the same author of a Kabbalistic treatise on the mystical significance of some prayers and commandments by Spanish Rabbi Joseph Ben Hayyim (Neub. 696:8 - Michael collection 307).


Collection of Biblical manuscripts of the Oppenheimer collection


The following is the list of the Biblical manuscripts at the Bodleian library belonging to the Oppenheimer collection:


  1. The manuscript is a complete Torah with vowels. The order contains Isaiah before Jeremiah, Chronicles before Psalms and Job before Proverbs. At the beginning and end of the manuscript there are passages of the various readings of Genesis according to both the Masoretic versions of 1the Masoretic text and vowels according to 10th century scribes Ben Asher (accepted by Maimonides) and also Ben Naphtali of Tiberias in ornamental style (Opp. 185).


  1. Pentateuch and first prophets with vowels and points (fol. 8); and last 3 verses of Kings, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Minor Prophets, Psalms, Job, Proverbs, five Megillot, Daniel, Ezra, Nechemiah, and Chronicles (fol. 9). At the beginning and end of the Pentateuch there are Masoretic and ritual rules. At the end of each Sedra there is a mnemonic word representing the number of verses contained in it. Owner: Shlomo ben Moshe Rephael ibn Tzur (Opp. Add. Fol. 8 & 9).


  1. Pentateuch with Onkelos’ Aramaic translation and Rashi’s commentary; the five Megilot with Rashi; and the Haftarot. Copyist: Shlomo ben Eliezer Chaim Hachacham, written for R. Moshe ben Judah, and finished 3rd Adar, 5100 (1340) (Opp. 14).


  1. Pentateuch with Onkelos and Rashi and five Megilot. It includes a sale, marriage contract and births and deaths occurring in the years 5329-5373. Owner: Abraham ben Moshe HaKohen who bought it in the year 5128 (1368) (Opp. Add. 4to. 47).


  1. Pentateuch with Onkelos after each verse; five Megillot and Haftarot. Written by Isaac ben Abraham, finished on Tuesday, 12th Av, 5062 (1302). Owner: Meshulam ben Baruch (Opp. 13).


  1. Pentateuch, Haftarot and five Megillot. At the beginning and end of the manuscript there are some Psalms. On Fol. 4b there are rules for the sections to be read on the festivals. On Fol. 233b there is Megillat Antiochus followed by the various readings of Ben Asher and Ben Naphtali. Scribe: Moshe ben Yaakov ben Hachacham R. Moshe, finished on Tuesday, 20th Elul, 5240 (1480). Owners: Naphtali Halevi; Don Samuel Abrabanel (Opp. Add. 4to. 26).


  1. Pentateuch, five Megillot and incomplete Haftorot. Copyist: David ben Isaac Hasofer (Opp. 15).


  1. Pentateuch and Megilat Esther with remarks on how to write the Pentateuch scrolls. The manuscript includes rules for reading the Pentateuch in the synagogue; a calendar; dates of the birth of his eldest son; deaths of some women; and the names of persons who learned to write rolls from this manuscript. Copyist: Judah ben Yaakov Katz scribe of Prague. Includes a permission from Moshe ben Reuven for Meshulam ben Eliezer to write Pentateuch rolls; Tefilin and Mezuzot, dated Tuesday, the week when the Torah reading includes the words ‘He well send His angel before you’, corresponding to approximately February in the civic calendar, in the year 5345. Owners: Judah bought the Pentateuch from Judah ben Levi Hakohen (grandson of R. Nathaniel Katz) on 1st Iyar 5353 (1593) (Opp. 186). 


  1. First manuscript includes first Prophets with the Targum Yonathan after each verse; second manuscript includes Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Minor Prophets. On the first page of the first manuscript are the various readings of Ben Asher and Ben Naphtali for Joshua and on the last page for Isaiah. On the first page of second manuscript are the various readings of Ben Asher and Ben Naphtali for Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and Minor Prophets. Owners: Don Abraham, son of Don Isaac Halevi of Almkast (?), sold the first and last Prophets to Don Todros, son of Don David Ibn Shoshan of Sali, on the 7th Elul 5242 (1482). Don Todros sold it to Don Abraham, the 9th Nissan, 5251 (1491). Abraham Koronil bought it in Egypt on 18th Tishrei 5351 (1591) (Opp. Add. 4to, 75 & 76).


  1. First Prophets, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Minor Prophets, Ruth, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Lamentations, Esther, Psalms, Job, Proverbs, Daniel, Ezra, Chronicles. Written by Yosef son of Abraham (Opp. 3 & 4).


  1. Opp. Add. Fol. 15: First Prophets, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Minor Prophets. Includes the remark that the order of the Minor Prophets are according to R. Sason, and the 613 commandments according to Maimominides.  Copied by Shlomo abi Iyov the Sefardi.


  1. First Prophets, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Minor Prophets with Rashi carefully collated by the copyist. Owner: Yoel ben R. Abraham - signed 8 Elul, 5343 Worms (Opp. 2).


  1. First Prophets, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Minor Prophets. The owner inscribed the death of his father Eliezer (Zusman) ben Eliyahu B’lin who passed away on Shabbat, 25th Elul, 5311 (1551) and birth of his children from 5290 to 5311 (Opp. 1).


  1. First Prophets (Opp. Add. Fol. 28).


  1. Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Minor Prophets, with Rashi (Opp. 16).


  1. Judges 14:5 - Kings II 18:13 (Opp. Add. Fol. 21).


  1. Psalms from 18:23, Job, Lamentations, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Esther, Daniel, Ezra, Chronicles, with some Masoretic notes (Opp: 717).


  1. Psalter with both Masorahs (Opp. Add. 8vo, 10).


  1. Psalter with the prayer before and after the recitation. Written by Abraham ben Elijah Beroda (Opp. 17).


  1. Psalter, arranged for recitation on the seven days of every week (Opp: 18).


  1. Psalter beginning 18:36 to 135:20 (Opp. Add. Svo, 9).


  1. Ecclesiastes with the philosophic commentary of Samuel ibn Tibbon. Owners: Don Judah Abrabanel; Isaac son of Don Samuel Abrabanel; Shimshon Kohen of Manitoba acquired it in the year 5460 (1700) and finished the reading of it, as well as the glosses and corrections he added on the margin, on Thursday, 26th February, 5482 (1722) (Opp. 4to, 71).


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