Manuscript in Printed Books

This essay was written for the Insitute for Israel and Jewish Studies’ Spring 2020 Magazine.  The full magazine can be downloaded on the IIJS website.

In presenting the rare Judaica to students and other visitors to the libraries, I have learned that sometimes basic terms can be confused.  For instance, many people think that a “manuscript” is simply a really old book, rather than a hand (manu) written (script) document.  As I often point out that Columbia’s Judaica manuscript collection is the largest of a secular research institution in the country, it is important to me that my visitors understand the definition of “manuscript.”

Trani, Teshuvot (B893.1NM T68)

However, the distinction between printed books and manuscript was quite fluid during the pre-modern centuries.  Many examples in the Norman E. Alexander Library for Jewish Studies at Columbia have a combination of print and manuscript, often in interesting and unexpected ways.

The most common example of a print/manuscript book occurs when a book is missing leaves.  A copy in Columbia’s collection of Rabbi Joseph Trani’s Teshuvot printed in Constantinople between 1641-1656 is missing leaves 100-102. Its owner was Rabbi Tsevi Hirsch ben Jacob Ashkenazi (also known as the Hakham Tsevi), a rabbi in Amsterdam whose books are part of our collection.  The Hakham Tsevi filled in the missing text with his quill and ink.  If you look closely, you can see the facing (printed) page on the left side of the picture, in the darker, black ink.

Midrash Tanhuma, Yemen, 1491 (X893 M5843)

Another example of combining print and manuscript comes from the need for paper – not just as the surface on which to write a text, but also as part of the binding.  A copy of Midrash Tanhuma, produced in Yemen in 1491, was rebound at least half a century after it was produced.  For the pastedown, i.e. the page glued to the boards as part of the binding, the binder used a leaf from an edition of Daniel Bomberg’s Rabbinic Bible, printed in Venice in 1547 (right).

Title pages became standard among printed books in the 16th century.  While manuscripts were still being created, scribes chose to mimic the style of the new technology and started creating title pages for their books.  Most manuscripts had handwritten title pages, but some included printed ones – even though the texts they described were written by hand.  A Kabbalistic work created in the 17th century used an opening page – with its Latin and Arabic (!!) text flipped upside down – for its title page (below).

Maayan ha-hokhma (X893 L97393)

A manuscript copy of a work by Hayim Vital included a more traditional title page (below, left) – with the Moses and Aaron motif common to many printed books of the period.

Derekh ‘ets Hayim (X893 L892)

There are many examples of books that combine print and manuscript throughout the early modern era. A prior post described a poem tipped in to the beginning of a mahazor, and another describes a book whose index was completed in manuscript, as well as a printed book that was interleaved with blank leaves so the author could write his own notes on every page.

Even though the advent of print in the 16th century brought significant changes to the ease and access of the book, there were many bookmakers and users of books who chose to blend the two as a kind of transition into the era of print. So perhaps the word “manuscript” has more fluidity after all!

One thought on “Manuscript in Printed Books

  1. Thank you very much for your fascinating discussion of the Hebrew book. I own 20000 hebrew books in Hebrew and English on many subjects. I have been collecting for over 40 years. I have enjoyed crawling on all four in basements all over (mainly Israel and the tri state area) I felt a good book to start with is David Amrams book The makers of Hebrew books in Italy.

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