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Mishneh Torah

"Corrected against my own book -I, Moses, son of Rabbi Maymun of blessed memory."

[Hebrew text with signature] (Bodleian Library, MS. Hunt. 80, fol. 165r)

Bodleian Library, MS. Hunt. 80

The Bodleian Library is the proud custodian of Maimonides’ authorized copy of his major halakhic work, the Mishneh Torah, a code meant to collect disparate rulings and to present them “succinctly and clearly, so that all the Oral Torah will be easily accessible to all.” (Introduction to the Mishneh Torah, fol. 3). A later owner of the copy, a certain Eleazar, son of Perahya, stipulated in his will that this and the other volumes of the Code (now lost) should remain in the public domain for consultation:

"entirety be placed in the keeping of the Bet Din for ever, that it not be sold or redeemed, nor should any single person ever take possession of it. It should rather be kept available so that all scholars can correct their own version against it, but not read from it regularly or copy from it. Rather, anyone wishing to correct his version should borrow the volume he needs from the Bet Din, leaving a bond against its value with the Bet Din, until he corrects his own book and return it. It is a mizvah to fulfill the words of the deceased, [and let no one] alter this testament". (Facsimile, p. VII)

A number of copies of the Mishneh Torah from the 13th to the 16th centuries contain statements to the effect that they have been corrected from this by Maimonides himself authorized version. Thus David ibn Zimra, rabbi of Cairo in the early 16th century, wrote: ‘I have examined the passage in all the old manuscripts here in Cairo, which was the residence of our master, and in a corrected manuscript which is said to have been corrected from a manuscript corrected by himself and which is to the present day in Aleppo,’ (Stern, “Autographs”, p. 192).

In line with the will of Eleazar ben Perahya the Bodleian Library has always granted access to this precious document of Jewish Law. Conservation concerns and practical considerations, however, have thus far limited the possibility of consulting this authorized version of the Code. Modern technology once and for all has overcome these limitations and enables the Bodleian Library in an unexpected way to perform the religious duty (mizvah) of fulfilling the words of the deceased by giving universal access to the Mishneh Torah, authorized and approved by Maimonides.

History of the manuscript

Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah was one of the many Hebrew manuscripts acquired by the library after its founder, Sir Thomas Bodley, had disclosed his firm intention to give Hebrew together with other oriental languages a permanent place within the holdings of the library. In the first catalogue, printed in 1605, there are 58 books with titles in Hebrew script. Over the course of the seventeenth century the library was further enriched with oriental manuscripts mainly collected by two chaplains to the Levant Company at Aleppo: Edward Pococke and Robert Huntington. Pococke (1604-1691) served in this position from 1630 until 1635, during which time he studied various oriental languages and pursued one of the main goals he had in mind when accepting the position of chaplain: collecting manuscripts. In 1637 he returned to the East and continued to enhance his collection. After his death his valuable collection of 420 oriental manuscripts was bought by the university in 1693.

Robert Huntington (1637-1701) was an English churchman, orientalist and manuscript collector. In 1670 he applied for the post of chaplain to the Levant Company at Aleppo, was elected on 1 August 1670 and arrived in Aleppo in January 1671. Huntington remained in the Eastern Mediterranean for more than ten years, paying visits to Palestine, Cyprus, and Egypt, and like Pococke accumulated a large number of oriental codices. On various occasions – in 1678, 1680 and 1683- he donated manuscripts to the Bodleian library. More than 200 of the Hebrew manuscripts he had collected were bought by the University in 1692. Thanks to these two passionate collectors the Bodleian Library is the proud custodian of the most extraordinary treasures: part of Maimonides’ autograph of his commentary on the Mishnah and the copy of the Mishneh Torah, which was signed by the author attesting that the text had been corrected against the original.

Maimonides (1137/8-1204)

Maimonides, also known as Moshe ben Maimon, Musa ibn Maymun, or by the acronym the Rambam, was born in Cordova, Spain, in 1137/8 in a relatively harmonious society under the Muslim rule of the Almoravid dynasty. But events took a turn for the worse when the Almohads invaded in 1148 and offered all non-Muslims the choice of conversion, exile, or death. Maimonides' family was forced to leave Cordova and traveled through southern Spain and arrived in Fez, Morocco, in 1160. Maimonides moved on to Egypt in 1166 and eventually settled in Fustat (Old Cairo), where he worked as physician to Saladin’s vizier and served for some time as the official head of the Jewish community. It is here, in 1168, that he finished his Commentary on the Mishnah -Kitab al-Siraj- (the Book of the Lamp), written in Judeo-Arabic. Of the six original volumes the Bodleian possesses three: MS. Huntington 117, an autograph of the first part of the Commentary (on Zeraim, the first order of the Mishnah), written in 1165-68 on paper, which had belonged to the great-grandson of the author; MS. Pococke 295, an autograph of the fourth and fifth part of the Commentary (on Nezikin and Kodashim, the fourth and fifth orders of the Mishnah), written in Fustat in 1167/8. Maimonides’ glosses are interspersed throughout the manuscript. (The autograph of the second and the third part of the Commentary (on Mo’ed and Nashim) is in possession of the National Library in Jerusalem.)

His second masterpiece, which he wrote between 1170 and 1180 was the Mishneh Torah, the first comprehensive code of Jewish Law. Flouting conventional practice he omits all his sources, producing rulings on all aspects of rabbinic Law. Innovative, too, is his emphasis on theology, particularly evident in the first book, the book of knowledge. MS. Huntington 80, copied by Japhet son of Solomon, contains the first two books of the Code: Sefer Madda (the book of knowledge) and Sefer Ahavah (the book of love). The extraordinary importance of the manuscript lies in the fact that the text was authorised by Maimonides himself, where he at the end of book two (fol.165r) states: ‘It has been corrected from my own book. I am Moses son of Rabbi Maimon of blessed memory’, which statement is followed by his signature.

Autograph fragments of Maimonides’ writings survive in great quantity, to a large extent fragments from the Cairo Geniza, the storage place of Hebrew texts of the synagogue in Fustat, Maimonides’ place of residence from 1168 until the end of his life. The most important autograph fragment is MS. Heb.d. 32 of the Bodleian Genizah Collection, containing the end of the section ‘Laws of hire’ from ch. 10, § 4 onwards, and the beginning of the next section ’Laws of borrowing and deposit’ from the Mishneh Torah. (link)The fragment contains corrections and additions in the margin, providing one of the many examples of Maimonides’ method of revising his work.

Bibliography

The Authorized Version of the code of Maimonides (Mishneh Torah); The book of Knowledge and the Book of Love (Sefer Madda’, Sefer Ahabah) Facsimile edition of Oxford Manuscript Huntington 80 with addendum of facsimiles of holographs and incunabula of Maimonides’ Code, prepared with an historical and bibliographical introduction by Shlomo Zalman Havlin. Jerusalem – Cleveland, 5757 (1997)

The Mishneh Torah by Maimonides, edited according to the Bodleian (Oxford) Codex with Introduction, Biblical and Talmudical References, Notes and English Translation, by Moses Hyamson. 2 vols. (New York 1937).

The Code of Maimonides. Book two, The book of love, translated from the Hebrew by Menachem Kellner. New Haven, Yale University Press, c. 2004.

A section from the Yad ha-hazakah of Maimonides : from a holograph manuscript in the Bodleian Library, edited and annotated by Samuel H. Atlas ; with the complete manuscript in facsimile. (London, 1940).

S. M. Stern, “Autographs of Maimonides in the Bodleian Library”, Bodleian Library Record 5, (1956), pp. 180-202.

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