Manuscript Treasures in St. Petersburg

First page of Leningrad Codex (colophon)

by Nathan Roi

If you stand at the entrance to the Manuscripts Department of the National Library in St. Petersburg, you probably do not know that it contains the largest collection of medieval Oriental Hebrew manuscripts in the world. One of the oldest books written in the Hebrew language is housed there: the “Leningrad Codex” or “The St. Petersburg Bible.”

After a month of waiting our group has finally been issued with a pass to visit the collection. The group consists of Chaim Chesler, founder of Limmud FSU, Gideon Meir, Deputy Director-General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry with his wife Amira, herself a Bible scholar and researcher, Neri Livneh, a journalist from Haaretz, Yoram Dori, strategic advisor to the President of Israel Shimon Peres and myself. We have arrived in order to view the ancient manuscripts, which were written more than one thousand years ago. Long before the fall of the Iron Curtain, I had been told by Prof. Shimon Abramsky, head of the Department of Jewish Studies at the University of London about the library, but then I could only dream of seeing the Library and its treasures. But now here I am, standing at the entrance!

Once inside, the deputy curator of Oriental Manuscripts, Boris Zaikovsky accompanied us inside the department. We had to leave our coats and cameras at the reception in accordance with rules of the library so as to prevent any attempt to photograph or purloin any object. Zaikovsky speaks fluent Hebrew, and his Slavic features are reminiscent of a monk from Jerusalem’s Russian Compound.

The Manuscripts Department is a part of the National Library of Russia, previously known as the Imperial Library of Russia. The library, consisting of five buildings dispersed around the city, was founded in May 1795, by order of Empress Catherine the Great.

The library has survived over 200 years of wars and revolutions. After the October revolution of 1917, a new National Library was built in Moscow which holds 36 million volumes which makes it the largest in the world. The St. Petersburg Library was intended to serve not only as a storehouse for manuscripts, but as a source of knowledge available to any citizen. The Empress supervised construction of the library and donated her personal books to its collection.

The official opening of the library took place on January 3, 1814 and since then the library has been open to the general public and is a national heritage site. It even remained open during the siege of Leningrad, which lasted for over 900 days, from September 8, 1941 to January 18, 1944.

Prof. Shimon Yakirson, who supervises several projects in the field of history of Jewish manuscripts explained, also in fluent Hebrew, that the Jewish manuscripts can only be viewed by a small number of local researchers, and the general public has no access to them. He explains to us that the largest collection of Mediterranean and Oriental Hebrew manuscripts, from the 10th to 12th centuries, are kept in this library.

The manuscripts are divided into several groups. The first is of Hebrew manuscripts, mostly versions of the Bible, among them: the oldest manuscript in the world – the Book of Prophets with Babylonian vocalization dating to 916 CE (the Codex Babylonicus), the oldest Torah scroll which dates to 929 CE, and a Bible written in 1008 CE – together these are known as the “Leningrad Codex,” and are considered among the most important in the world in the field of biblical research.

The second group is of manuscripts written in Judeo-Arabic: among Israeli scholars researching these manuscripts are Prof. Yosef Yahalom, Prof. Jehoshua Blau, Prof. Menachem Ben-Sasson, and Prof. Haggai Ben Shamai, scientific director of the Jewish National Library in Jerusalem.

We ask what is the difference between the manuscripts here in St. Petersburg and those in the famed Cairo Genizah collection in Cambridge?

Prof. Yakirson explains that the Cairo Genizah is a collection of over 200,000 Jewish manuscript fragments found in a loft of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo in Egypt. Some additional fragments were found in the Basatin cemetery east of Cairo, and a number of documents bought in Cairo in the late 19th century. The Genizah fragments are kept in several libraries around the world: in the Taylor-Schechter collection at Cambridge, in the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and the John Rylands University Library in Manchester. The Genizah found in the Karaite synagogue of Cairo is preserved in the National Library in St. Petersburg, as part of the “Leningrad Codex.”

What is so special about this collection?

Yakirson: “First of all, the Leningrad Codex is the oldest complete manuscript of the Bible in Hebrew. Second, it contains the most extended translation of the Torah by Rabbi Sa’adia Gaon (882-942), Thus, the translation can be dated back to the same period, that is the beginning of the 10th century CE.”

What was discovered in this collection?

Yakirson: “The Hebrew manuscripts have been intensively studied for over 25 years. There are about 17,000 manuscripts in the National Library of Russia, and all of them are of a great value, especially for researchers of Bible studies, medieval poetry, rabbinic and Karaite law. Also, there are two additional collections – the collection of the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts of the Russian Academy of Science, which consists of 1,200 manuscripts, most of them Karaite manuscripts from the Crimea and the private collection of Jewish manuscripts from Baron Ginsburg, predominantly from the West. The latter collection is kept in Moscow and consists of some 2,000 dated manuscripts: Bible, Talmud, Mishna and liturgical works in a very good state of preservation. Among the treasures is a manuscript of the Garden of Metaphors, an aesthetic appreciation of biblical literature composed in Judeo-Arabic by one of the greatest of the Spanish-Jewish poets, Moshe Ibn Ezra.”

How do the researchers collaborate?

Yakirson: “Following the fall of the Iron Curtain, a cooperation agreement between the Academies of Sciences of Israel, Russia and France was signed. In the framework of scholarly exchange we hosted a group of researchers from Israel, and I served as a representative of the Russian Academy of Science and worked with the Israelis. Later on, the most important phase of the collaboration started – the transfer of copies of the manuscripts to Jerusalem. The National Library in Jerusalem received microfilms and facsimiles of all the manuscripts kept in the three collections I mentioned earlier. Today, the collaboration is maintained on microfilm level only – if a picture or facsimile of a manuscript is blurred or of poor quality our Israeli colleagues will ask us to photocopy the item in question.”

What is happening with the research of the Jewish manuscripts and books kept here in St. Petersburg?

Yakirson: “Not everything is being researched. All the items stored in the collections are available to researchers, and I am certain there are many discoveries still to be made; discoveries which will contribute to Jewish historical research.”

We were standing at the entrance hoping to view the “Leningrad Codex,” which, of course, was the main purpose of our visit. The manuscript, the oldest complete codex of the Tiberias mesorah that has survived intact to this day, is kept in a huge impregnable vault. Its former owner, the Karaite collector Abraham Firkovich, left no indication in his writings as to where and how he had acquired the codex, although popular rumor has it that the purchase was similar to the one depicted in the Indiana Jones movies. The codex is never shown to the public.

The Leningrad Codex is significant as the Hebrew text reproduced in Biblia Hebraica (1937) and Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (1977). It dates to 1008 CE according to its colophon. It also serves scholars as a primary source for the recovery of details in the missing parts of the famed Aleppo Codex.

The question as to where Firkovich purchased the codex remains unanswered, although it is known that he acquired most of the manuscripts between 1839-40 in the Crimean Peninsula. It is also known that in 1856 he turned to the management of the Imperial Public Library in St. Petersburg offering to sell most of his collection of manuscripts and items of Judaica. According to one source he received 125,000 rubles for 1,500 manuscripts written on parchment, 754 bas-reliefs taken from Jewish tombstones, and 20 manuscripts dating back to the 9th century. In 1863 more Jewish manuscripts owned by Firkovich, were transferred from Odessa to the Imperial Library of St Petersburg. This collection is known as “The First Firkovich Collection.”

Firkovich was one of the first to visit the Cairo Genizah with the intention of cataloging its contents. His visit in 1863, took place 34 years before Prof. Solomon Schechter’s more famous visit. Firkovich therefore got first pick of the documents contained in the Genizah of the “Rabbi Simcha” synagogue. This “Second Firkovich Collection” contains only 13,700 items in comparison to Schechter’s 140,000 but the Firkovich documents are generally considered more complete.

Our attempts to view the Leningrad Codex were in vain. The only thing we were allowed to see was its colophon written by the scribe Shmuel Ben Yakov:

This is the complete Bible
Written and finished with niqud (punctillation)
Beautifully proofread
In the State of Egypt
Completed in the month of Sivan
Four thousand seven hundred and seventieth year of creation

Dr. Amira Meir was standing next to the manuscript and could not believe her eyes when she was shown a book written approximately in the same period. She gently touched the cover of the book to feel the 1000 years of history since the book was composed…

The group visiting the National Library, including the writer, took part in the Limmud FSU Festival in St. Petersburg in September 2012.