Online, after a mere 400 years

By Jennifer Lipman, September 22, 2011
Part of the script

Part of the script

Part of one of the most important texts in the Jewish canon is to be made available online for the first time, fulfilling a request by its previous owner.

The first two books of the Mishneh Torah, the comprehensive code of Jewish law written in the 12th century by Moses Maimonides, the Rambam, were acquired by Oxford University's Bodleian Library around 400 years ago.

Signed by the Rambam himself as "Moses son of Rabbi Maimon of blessed memory", the manuscripts include the Sefer Madda (Book of Knowledge) and the Sefer Ahavah (Book of Love).

Until now, researchers who wanted to consult the original copy of the Rambam's words had to go to the library in person. Now the text is available free to a worldwide audience because it has been digitised, thanks to a donation by the US-based philanthropist George Blumenthal.

In making it accessible to a wide readership, the Bodleian has fulfilled the dying wish of the manuscript's onetime owner, Eleazar, son of Perahya.

Eleazar, who is thought to have lived in the 12th century, wrote in his will that no single person should ever take possession of the text, but that it should be "kept available so that all scholars can correct their own version against it".

The Rambam wrote the 14-chapter Mishneh Torah over a 10-year period and it has never been equalled as an explanation of Jewish law.

Dr Piet van Boxel, curator of the Hebrew holdings at the Bodleian, said the collection had always tried to adhere to Eleazar's will. "However, conservation concerns and practical considerations have limited the possibility of consulting the manuscript. The digital revolution has overcome these limitations."

Last updated: 2:06pm, September 22 2011