The Judaic treasures of Manchester

A new digital display opens a window on one of the world's most important collections of books and manuscripts


Think of precious Judaica and manuscripts in the UK, and images of the Bodleian Library, Oxford or University Library Cambridge are likely to come to mind. Yet the city of Manchester boasts one of the most important collections of Hebraica worldwide — and it is now available for the general public to view online

Along Deansgate, Manchester’s primary thoroughfare, stands the cavernous John Rylands Library. An impressive Neo-Gothic structure, it was opened in 1900 at the behest of Enriqueta Rylands as a memorial for her husband John Rylands, prominent leader of the cottonocracy and Manchester’s first multi-millionaire, who made his fortune in developing the largest textile manufacturing business in the United Kingdom.

Today, the John Rylands Library stands as a resplendent monument reflecting the love of a devoted widow for her husband. 

Enriqueta, a deeply religious philanthropist of note, also amassed one of the richest collections of books, archives, papyri and manuscripts, spanning five millennia, in what has rightly been described as “the cornucopia of wonder and delight contained within the Special Collections of The University of Manchester Library”.

Many Hebrew and Jewish liturgical treasures were also acquired, including the Sephardi Rylands Haggadah, a priceless illuminated manuscript acquired by Enriqueta in 1901.

The Haggadah is one of the most famous and precious ever created. Inscribed 700 years ago in 1300s Catalonia, Spain, it is a spectacular artistic masterpiece, commissioned by extremely affluent pre-expulsion Sephardi Jews. Comprising 57 lavishly decorated vellum leaves, it has exceedingly intricate painted illustrations of the Egyptian Exodus and other events, several of which are sumptuously adorned with gold leaf.

Recently, a cataloguing project spanning 30 years and involving input from scholars across the globe has drawn to a close. The project, which began in 1992, has culminated in the launch of an online catalogue and digital exhibition of the library’s manuscripts in Hebrew script.

The heterogenous holdings of Hebrew script include 15,000 fragments from the famed Cairo Geniza, Haggadot, scriptural works, Talmud, commentaries, halachic works and many other treasures. Such items include a manuscript copy of a 17th-18th century play from Southern France for the festival of Purim, written in the local Provencal language, thought to be composed by two rabbis.

Another much-cherished item is an autograph fragment of Moreh Nevuchim, “A Guide to the Perplexed,” the magnum opus of rabbi, philosopher and physician, Moses Maimonides, signed in his own handwriting.

Other languages represented in Hebrew script beyond Hebrew itself, include Aramaic, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Provencal and even Castilian. These originate from Jewish communities across the globe, including Chinese, European, Indian, Middle Eastern and North African Jewish communities.

Many manuscripts originate from the library of the Earls of Crawford. These include the earliest known Italian illuminated Megillah (1618) and the Sephardi Rylands Haggadah.

Most other manuscripts were acquired in 1954 when, with help from the Manchester Jewish community, the library bought a large collection amassed by Dr Moses Gaster, Haham of London’s Spanish and Portuguese Jewish congregation. Gaster collected ketubot of all varieties and a selection of Hebrew protective amulets. 

In the catalogue and new digital exhibition of the collection items, The Many Faces of the Rylands Jewish Manuscripts, which can be freely visited online, high-resolution images are used throughout and facilitate zooming into specific text. This is particularly helpful for viewing micography, a Jewish scribal form of art in which the outline of images is formed through tiny Hebrew script. 

Visitors will be intrigued by decorated magical incantations, amulets and medical prescriptions, including a childbirth amulet and even a formula for escaping jail.

A 1600s manuscript, mainly in Yiddish, advises its readers on diverse ways of treating eye conditions, gynaecological complications, upset stomachs and worms in the finger with ingredients such as root vegetables, wine, and herbs!

Another manuscript, The Sphere of Life and Death, chillingly guides the reader through many spells, including a divination method known as onomancy, which allegedly allows foreseeing the fate of a patient through their name, including if they will live or die.

The hands of persecutors of Jewish people have left their mark too. Thus, a papal censor, Giovanni Antonio Costanzi, saw fit in 1769 to erase and scribble upon several sections of a manuscript featuring Nachmanides’s commentary on the Chumash, produced in the 1460s, with exquisite illuminations by Florentine artist Francesco Antonio del Cherico. “Offensive” passages included a reference to Rome being considered an exile imposed by Edom.

A mid-1300s richly decorated Sefer Mitzvot Katan, or “Small Book of Commandments”, by Isaac ben Joseph of Corbeil is particularly enigmatic. Treasured documents such as these were zealously guarded by their Jewish owners. Yet, mysteriously, in the margin of the section dealing with matrimonial law appears a handwritten note citing a Latin hymn, which expresses the wish that “the unlucky Jew” should be “thoroughly ashamed” for saying that Jesus “was born of the seed of Joseph”.

Not all manuscripts are in excellent condition. Visitors to the exhibition will see a 14th-15th century High Holy Day machhzor from Rome’s Jewish community which was permanently damaged when firefighters inadvertently doused Gaster’s books with water during the Blitz. 

The online exhibition includes a focus on ketubot, Jewish marriage contracts. A particularly intricate ketubah from Tarcento near Venice, dated 1778, can now be seen. It is illustrated with the signs of the zodiac and the emblems of the two families – a rooster with a half-moon and stars for the Luzzato family and a hand pouring water from a jug for the Levis. There are many other such gems online.

The Hebrew catalogued collection can be accessed at and the digital exhibition at via the Manchester University websites.

Rabbi Sher is completing doctoral research at Oxford University

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