Manuscript Marginalia in a Fourteenth-Century Torah Commentary and the History of Jewish Reading: Ephraim ben Shabbetai on Eleazar Ashkenazi’s Revealer of Secrets

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Abstract

This article explores marginal notations in a manuscript of a resolutely rationalist commentary on the Torah written by the barely known fourteenth-century Maimonidean, Eleazar Ashkenazi. The notations belong to Ephraim ben Shabbetai, who completed his codex in Venetian Crete in 1399. Though Ephraim’s comments are episodic and relatively few, study of them can serve as a vehicle for bringing the world of medieval Hebrew marginalia, and receptions of rationalist biblical scholarship, to life. After situating Eleazar’s work and Ephraim’s reproduction of it within a variety of late medieval eastern Mediterranean scribal and rationalist contexts, the article provides a taxonomy of Ephraim’s marginalia, which range from commendation to a note that seeks to justify Ephraim’s expurgation of a passage in Eleazar’s work that he and his teacher deemed religiously intolerable. Findings in the field of marginalia studies inform the discussion as does the notion of a “manuscript matrix,” a coinage of Stephen Nichols that aims to replace conceptions of manuscripts as inert places of inscription with one that sees them as an interactive space inviting ongoing interpretive activity. While Ephraim’s marginalia yield no fully realized portrait of their author, they provide an entry into his mindset, not to mention his status as a reader with a mind of his own. In several cases, Ephraim’s comments mark a point where a learned Jew’s informed responses and his passionate religious attachments meet. Study of marginal notations like the ones explored here illustrates how manuscripts and their creators served as instruments for transmitting and shaping Jewish knowledge.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)231-263
Number of pages33
JournalJewish History
Volume36
Issue number3-4
DOIs
StatePublished - Dec 2022

Bibliographical note

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022, The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature B.V.

Keywords

  • Biblical commentary
  • Eleazar Ashkenazi
  • Ephraim ben Shabbetai
  • Marginalia
  • Rationalism

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