JERUSALEM.- The Israel Museum, Jerusalem, announced the unveiling of an extremely rare and never-before-exhibited Hebrew scroll fragment from what is known as the "silent era" the six-hundred year period from the 3rd through 8th centuries CE from which almost no Hebrew manuscripts have survived. The fragment, dating from the 7th or 8th century, is believed to have been part of the Cairo Genizah, a vast depository of medieval Jewish manuscripts discovered in Cairo's Ben Ezra Synagogue in the late 19th century.
The manuscript is a fragment of a Torah scroll from the book of Exodus (13:19-16:1), which includes the Song of the Sea, widely recognized as one of the most beautiful examples of biblical poetry. The Song celebrates the Israelites' safe crossing of the Red Sea, praises the Almighty for vanquishing their enemies, and anticipates their arrival in the Promised Land.
"The Song of the Sea manuscript is one-of-a-kind in terms of its historical and literary significance," said James S. Snyder, Anne and Jerome Fisher Director of the Israel Museum. "It bridges the gap in the period of history between the Dead Sea Scrolls [1st-2nd century CE] and the Aleppo Codex [10th century], both of which are permanently housed in the Shrine of the Book. The opportunity to display this manuscript fragment alongside the Museum's own remarkable holdings of ancient biblical texts provides a unique example of textual continuity that can only be seen here, in our Museum's Shrine of the Book, in Jerusalem."
On May 22, on the eve of the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, celebrating the anniversary of the giving of the Torah to the Israelites at Mount Sinai, the Song of the Sea manuscript began its first public display in the Shrine of the Book. It remains at the Israel Museum on extended loan from Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, with gratitude to Dr. Fuad and Mrs. Terry Ashkar, Miami, Florida and Prof. James H. Charlesworth, Princeton Theological Seminary, New Jersey.
The "Silent Era" of Hebrew Manuscripts
The Song of the Sea manuscript provides a rare historical bridge. Written centuries after the last Dead Sea Scrolls (approximately 2nd century CE), the manuscript includes some examples of delicate lettering that resemble the Scrolls, while other letters recall examples from rare 6th century manuscripts. However, the text is also strikingly similar to the Masoretic (traditional) version familiar from such later Biblical codices as the 11th century Leningrad Codex in the Russian National Library in St. Petersburg. Many stylistic elements of the Song fragment link it to manuscripts originating in Egypt, including those found in the Cairo Genizah.
"The Song of the Sea manuscript demonstrates the tremendous fidelity with which the Masoretic version of the Bible was transmitted over the centuries," said Dr. Adolfo Roitman, head of the Shrine of the Book and curator of the Dead Sea Scrolls. "It is incredible how the distinctive prosody of the Song of Sea is the same today as it was in the 7th-8th centuries."
There are several conjectures as to why very few manuscripts in Hebrew survive from the period of the 3rd 8th centuries CE, the most prevalent of these being the continuing persecution of the Jews and the related destruction of Jewish manuscripts. Biblical manuscripts do exist from this period in Greek, Latin and other languages, but it is only from the 9th century onward that Hebrew manuscripts have been found in greater abundance.
From Obscurity to the Shrine of the Book
Until the late 1970s, the Song of the Sea manuscript was part of the Hebrew manuscript collection of Lebanese-born American physician Fuad Ashkar. Dr. Ashkar was not aware of the historical significance of the Song manuscript until he contacted Professor James Charlesworth at Duke University, now the George L. Collord Professor of New Testament Language and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary. Carbon analysis proved that the manuscript dated from "the silent era" of Hebrew biblical manuscripts and was therefore one of a few of its kind ever to have surfaced worldwide. The fragment was subsequently housed in the Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Special Collections Library at Duke University.
In 2004, Prof. Charlesworth brought the manuscript to the attention of Dr. Adolfo Roitman, and it is now on extended loan to the Museum. Since its arrival in Jerusalem, the manuscript has undergone extensive conservation treatment, undertaken by Michael Maggen, head of the Israel Museum's Paper Conservation Laboratory, in consultation with Duke University.