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Adapted from a lecture presented by Michal Sternthal, Expedition Head, at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, December 13, 1999.

Two years ago the Austrian National Library in Vienna (Vienna, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek) and the Center for Jewish Art embarked on a mutual project to catalogue the Hebrew illuminated manuscripts in the Vienna collection. The library's significant collection includes forty-one Hebrew illuminated manuscripts made up of Bibles and prayer books, books of halakhah (Jewish law) and Talmud, science, philosophy and history books as well as two marriage contracts (ketubbot).

In 1998 the Center sent a graduate student researcher, Alissa Fried, to survey and begin documentation of the Hebrew illuminated manuscripts in the library. Last summer a second team, including Michal Sternthal and Yaffa Levy traveled to Vienna to continue this important work. They documented six manuscripts, some of which consisted of several pages of elaborately decorated panels. The researchers were warmly received and greatly assisted in their work by Dr. Andreas Fingernagel, researcher of medieval manuscripts in the Austrian National Library, Prof. Dr. Gamillscheg, Director of the Department of Manuscripts and Dr. Eva Irblich, Deputy Director.

One of the most important Jewish manuscripts in the Vienna library is the Krems Ketubbah, the earliest known illuminated Ashkenazi marriage contract, and also the earliest known ketubbah depicting a human figure. This 1391/2 marriage contract was found cut into four pieces, inside the bindings of two Gospel Books. The details, such as the day and month of the marriage and the amount of the dowry, were cut from the center of the contract. The location of the wedding is partially missing as well. All that remains of the city's name is the ending "REMS," in the second line on the left. This led researchers to conclude that the contract was written in Krems, "KREMS" in Hebrew, which had a prominent and flourishing Jewish community during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

Krems Ketubbah (Vienna, ONB, Cod. Hebr. 218)

Flanking the text at the top of the Krems Ketubbah (Vienna, ÖNB, Cod. Hebr. 218) are two elongated figures representing the bride and groom. The bride reaches towards the groom who holds a large ring in his hand. He is wearing a luxurious cloak lined in ermine fur, and a pointed Jewish hat on his head. The bride holds a blue flower in her left hand, which may be an illustration of her name, Zemah, meaning plant.
The large ring held by the groom is embedded with a precious stone. The tradition to sanctify the marriage with a ring was known since the period of the Geonim, around the eighth century. This tradition replaced the custom of sanctifying the marriage with a coin during the Mishnaic and Talmudic periods.

The Ashkenazi marriage contract of Krems is a rare example of illuminated Ashkenazi marriage contracts. Most of the medieval marriage contracts from Ashkenaz up to the twentieth century were written on paper or a small piece of parchment on which only the formal text appeared without any illuminations or verses.

David Davidovitch suggests that the ketubbah of Krems is proof of a custom of illuminating marriage contracts in Ashkenaz of which, unfortunately, only one example has survived. 1 On the other hand, Dr. Shalom Sabar claims that Ashkenazi Jews did not place great value on the ketubbah and therefore, it was not commonly decorated. The original function of the ketubbah as a safeguard against facile divorce was reduced by the ordinance of Ashkenazi Rabbi Gershom ben Judah Me'or ha-Golah (960-1028), which prohibited divorce against the will of the wife. In addition, the Ashkenazi ruling for stating a fixed amount on the marriage contract decreased the public interest in hearing the contract read aloud. 2

Among the earliest manuscripts which the researchers documented in the Vienna library, are those of an important school of illuminations in the Upper Rhine from the end of the thirteenth and the first half of the fourteenth century. One of these manuscripts is the Vienna "SeMag." The "SeMag," the Sefer Mitzvot Gadol (The Great Book of Precepts), is a book of halakhah written by Moses ben Jacob of Coucy in two separate volumes; the first includes 365 precepts of what one should not do and the second lists 248 precepts of what one should do. Use of the "SeMag" spread quickly. We know of more than eighty of these manuscripts, some of which are decorated, indicating the book's wide distribution.

In the initial page (at right) of the introduction to the second volume of the Vienna "SeMag," the initial word Keshebara (When he created) (Vienna, ÖNB, Cod. Hebr. 34 II, fol. 13), is written in black ink on a background of triangles filled with filigree in red and purple ink. The panel is decorated with medallions surrounding hybrids, dogs and various floral motifs. The page is framed on both sides and in the center with red fleuronné pen-work.

The Vienna "SeMag," has no colophon stating the name of the scribe or patron and other details such as date and place where the manuscript was copied. However, it does include a divorce document. On it, the year 1344 is stated as the date of the divorce and Strasbourg as the place where the document was written.

Initial page of the introduction to the second volume of the Vienna "SeMag," (Vienna, ONB, Cod. Hebr. 34 II, fol. 13)

In Strasbourg, and in the neighboring Upper Rhine towns, Basel and Freiburg, Jewish communities thrived in the first decades of the fourteenth century. Each of these communities may have had a workshop producing manuscripts such as the Vienna "SeMag." Prof. Gabrielle Sed-Rajna proposes that the Vienna "SeMag," and other manuscripts of the Upper Rhine school were written between 1344, the date of the divorce formula mentioned in the Vienna "SeMag" and 1347, mentioned in the colophon of the Cambridge Hagiographa, another manuscript of this school. 3 In any case, 1349 can be considered as the terminus ante quem of these manuscripts, since this was the year of the Black Death, which brought about the complete annihilation of the communities in these towns.

Another significant manuscript in the Vienna library is attributed to another important school of manuscripts from Lake Constance. This manuscript includes a siddur (prayers for the whole year), the Small Book of Commandments (the "SeMak"), and a calendar which is dated 1468. From the colophon appearing in the center of the manuscript, we know that the scribe is Menahem ben Eliezer, who copied this siddur and the "SeMak" for Rabbi Meir ben Rabbi Asher Halevi. Unfortunately, the colophon does not include the date and place of origin. Some scholars suggest that the scribe Menahem is the one who copied other famous manuscripts such as the Bird's Head Haggadah ca. 1300 (Jerusalem, Israel Museum 180/57) and the Leipzig Mahzor ca. 1320 (Leipzig, Universitätsbibliothek MS. 1102/I-II). Further paleographic examination is required to determine whether these manuscripts were copied by the same hand.

The "SeMak" was composed by Rabbi Isaac ben Rabbi Joseph of Corbeil, who died in 1280. The aim of this work was to instruct the common people in halakhah, as was customary in that time. He divided the commandments into seven parts or columns for the seven days of the week. This composition was widely distributed and can be found in most collections of Hebrew manuscripts. It is said that the rabbis of France coupled the "SeMak" to their siddur in order to say the commandments every day.

Siddur "SeMak"  (Vienna, ONB, Cod. Hebr. 75, fol. 1v)

The Vienna Siddur-"SeMak" contains a page with the initial word barukh (Blessed) (Vienna, ÖNB, Cod. Hebr. 75, fol. 1v), for the morning weekday prayer. The architectural frame is of pointed arches flanked by turrets with spires. A rosette window decorates the central arch while two cocks stand atop the side arches. The cocks, perhaps, illustrate the morning prayer. Below is a medallion with two combatant grotesque figures armed with swords and shields.
Another manuscript similar to the Vienna Siddur-"SeMak" is a Hebrew one, the Duke of Sussex Pentateuch, located in the British Library (London, B.L., MS Add. 15282, fol. 296v). The similarities between these manuscripts have been brought to light in research by Prof. Bezalel Narkiss who attributes the Vienna Siddur-"SeMak" and this Pentateuch to the Lake Constance school of illumination. 4

The scribe Hayyim who copied the Duke of Sussex Pentateuch stated his name in two places in the manuscript. A scribe named Hayyim is also mentioned in other manuscripts of the same school of Lake Constance, the Schocken Bible (Jerusalem, Schocken Library, MS. 14840) and the second volume of the Tripartite Mahzor, 5 both from the first quarter of the fourteenth century. However, there is some doubt whether this is the same scribe.

There is also a striking stylistic similarity between the Vienna Siddur-"SeMak" and the Pentateuch. In both manuscripts the initial word is written within an architectural facade whose upper part is composed of pointed arches flanked by turrets and decorated with a rosette window in the central arch.

Siddur-"SeMak," (Vienna, ONB, Cod. Hebr. 75, fol. 256v)

The Vienna Siddur-"SeMak," (Vienna, ÖNB, Cod. Hebr. 75, fol. 256v) (at left), shows a man within a domed structure, holding a lidded goblet in his right hand. This is similar to a depiction of David in the Duke of Sussex Pentateuch, where he  is seen in profile, with large eyes and grotesque features.

Siddur-"SeMak," (Vienna, ONB, Cod. Hebr. 75, fol. 37)

The initial words Ha Lahma (This is the bread), (Vienna, ÖNB, Cod. Hebr. 75, fol. 37), in the Vienna Siddur-"SeMak," (at right) resemble a decorated page with the word kol (All) from the Tripartite Mahzor (Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS Mich. 619, fol. 100v) from the Lake Constance region, ca. 1320. The initial words in both panels are written in gold and surrounded by hybrids, part human and part animal.
Rabbi Meir ben R. Asher Halevi, patron of the Vienna Siddur-"SeMak," lived in the town of Überlingen, on the northern banks of Lake Constance. In the course of her research, Michal Sternthal discovered his name mentioned in a deed of sale of a vineyard in the Main County Archives of Karlsruhe, no. 3/1888, which was written in Constance in 1332. His common name, Mayer Aenseli, and his seal appear in the document as one of three Überlingen Jews who sold a vineyard to a citizen of their town.

Rabbi Meir's economic status as a land-owner points to his ability to be the patron of the sumptuous Vienna Siddur-"SeMak." Moreover, this document strengthens the assumption that the above mentioned group of manuscripts are from the banks of Lake Constance from the first half of the fourteenth century.

In the year 1431 the rich Überlingen community came to an end. It seems that sometime before this date, the owners of the manuscript left for another region and the manuscript probably reached Italy. There, the calendar bearing the date 1468 was added, as well as additional illustrations to some parts of the Siddur.

Thus, two artists illustrated the Vienna Siddur- "SeMak." The first decorated the initial panels with architectural frames and various hybrids and animals. The later artist, of the fifteenth century, decorated in the contemporary Italian style.

The Hosha'anna prayers for the Feast of Sukkot (Tabernacles), (Vienna, ÖNB, Cod. Hebr. 75, fol. 66) were decorated by a fifteenth-century Italian artist: the initial word Hosha'anna and a smaller panel in the right column. To the left of the initial word panel is a figure in a short blue coat, wrapped in a tallit holding the four species.

The Ha Lahma panel pictured at right has a small initial word panel in the left text column, added by the fifteenth century artist. A curled foliate scroll in pen-work extending from the panel surrounding the text column ends with the emerging bust of man holding a goblet.

The Hosha'anna prayers for the Feast of Sukkot (Tabernacles), (Vienna, ONB, Cod. Hebr. 75, fol. 66)
The style of the fifteenth century artist in the Vienna Siddur-"SeMak" is very similar to that of Joel ben Simeon, who copied and decorated the Siddur Meraviglia ((London, B. L. Add. 26957) in the year 1469, one year after the date of the calendar in the Vienna Siddur-"SeMak."

Joel ben Simeon was a German Jewish scribe and artist who worked in various cities in Germany and Italy in the second half of the fifteenth century. Scholars attribute between fourteen to twenty manuscripts to him, most of which were made in the Italian style. Panel decorations made in pen-work with masks in profile and figures emerging from foliate scrolls are characteristic of his work. It may be concluded that the additional illustrations in the Vienna Siddur-"SeMak" were done in the fifteenth century by an artist whose style was very close to that of Joel ben Simeon.

The manuscripts documented in the Austrian National Library in Vienna, make a substantial contribution to research in Jewish Art. The information gleaned from their documentation and study has greatly enriched the researchers' knowledge of medieval manuscripts.

Documentation of Hebrew illuminated manuscripts was carried out with the generous support of the Österreichische Nationalbank in Vienna and the Fanny and Leo Koerner Charitable Trust, Cambridge, Massachusetts.


1. David Davidovitch, "Illuminated Ketubbot," Encyclopedia Judaica, vol. 10, 1974, col. 930. back

2. Shalom Sabar, "The Beginning of Ketubbah Decoration in Italy; Venice in the late 16th to early 17th Centuries," Jewish Art 12/13, 1986/7, p.101, note 41. back

3. Gabrielle Sed-Rajna, "Filigree Ornaments in Fourteenth-Century Hebrew Manuscripts of the Upper Rhine," Jewish Art 12/13, 1986-87, pp. 45-54. back

4. Bezalel Narkiss, Ashkenazi Manuscripts in the British Isles (to be published). back

5. London, B.L., MS. Add. 22413. The other two are: Budapest, Library of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Kaufmann Collection, MS. A 384; Oxford, Bodleian Library, MS. Mich. 619. back





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