Hebrew Manuscripts exhibition features handwritten Maimonides letter

British Library show had been delayed by the coronavirus lockdown


The British Library is reopening with its delayed Hebrew Manuscripts exhibition, which includes a handwritten letter by the 12th-century Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides.

Opening on September 1 the collection draws from more than 3000 manuscripts owned by the library – including the letter from Maimonides to a teacher who had contacted him for help in Egypt.

Also going on display is the earliest dated copy of Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed, from 1380.

The 40 manuscripts on display, many of which have never been shown to the public before,  date as far back as the 10th century and span science, religion, law, music, philosophy, alchemy and Kabbalah.

“It was an extremely demanding and challenging initiative, but we are so proud to have accomplished it,”  the curator Ilana Tahan told The Guardian.  “We wanted to celebrate that by exhibiting a selection of manuscripts, some of which have never been on public display before.”

As the greatest Jewish polymath leader of the middle ages, Maimonides became the spiritual leader of the Jewish community in Egypt.

The teacher who wrote to him had been teaching  two young girls in a remote community in Egypt.

“For some reason, which is not quite clear from the documents – maybe somebody said something derogatory about him – he took an oath to stop teaching the two girls. In those times, when you took an oath, you stuck to it,” said Ms Tahan.

Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, the museum had completed a six year process of digitalising the manuscripts.

There is also a 16th-century spell book on display  containing 125 recipes on show including one recipe “to increase love between bridegroom and bride”, which involves writing their names in honey on to two sage leaves and giving them each other to eat.

Another, on how to catch a thief, suggests simply writing the names “Kematin kanit kukairi ve-hikani yazaf on kosher parchment and then  hanging it from the neck of a black rooster. The rooster will then jump on the head of the thief.

The show was originally scheduled to open in March, but will now be part of the British Library’s gradual reopening after lockdown.


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