A Precious Hebrew Manuscript

By :  The Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary Posted On Feb 23, 2018 | Speaking of Text: The Jewish Bookshelf

Knowing almost nothing about this beautiful manuscript, what would you guess it is? Finely decorated with gold leaf, Hebrew, small for easy carrying (these qualities are all obvious from the photo)—all of these characteristics suggest that it is a dear personal item, one that a wealthy Jew commissioned because of the importance of what it records. Knowing that it is a fifteenth-century manuscript, produced in Spain—before the age of printed books—would only highlight for us how rare it was. So a siddur—a prayer-book—perhaps? In a period when most pious Jews had to rely on their memories, perhaps this well-off devout Jew wanted to display his piety through the expenditure of his resources on so important a work!

But then we discover that this is a Hebrew translation of the medical writings of Hippocrates, and we are reminded that medieval Jews, in Spain and elsewhere, did not live in ghettos, cut off from the world. The educations of educated Jews, like educated others, included the study of the wisdom of the ancients—works by Jews, to be sure, but also by Greeks. Besides, Hippocrates was the foundation of medieval medicine, and any person, Jew or not, would want to know how to maintain their health and sustain their life. So this was indeed a very important manuscript, truly dear to the person who commissioned it. It just wasn’t the stereotypical Hebrew work we might expect.