From Medieval Spain to the Ottoman Empire, a Hebrew Bible

Hebrew Bible, 1300–50, Castile, Spain, ink, tempera, and gold, 23.7 × 20.1 cm, 2018.59 (The Cloisters, The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:04] We’re in The Cloisters, and we’re looking at a Hebrew Bible from the 14th century.

Dr. Ariel Fein: [0:10] This Hebrew Bible is especially unique in that it’s one of three Bibles that survive from the region of Castile in the 14th century.

[0:19] From the 8th century, the majority of the Iberian Peninsula was controlled by Muslims. Beginning in the 11th and 12th centuries, we start to see Christian kingdoms waging war on some of these Muslim territories for economic and political purposes. Over time, their motives change and take on a religious connotation. The Christian kingdoms believed that these wars were divinely sanctioned so that they could reconquer the territories that, in their view, belonged to them.

Dr. Harris: [0:49] And so what we have is shifting boundaries, where the Christian kingdoms are increasing their territory.

Dr. Fein: [0:55] Throughout this time, Jews have been living alongside their Muslim and Christian neighbors. Jews assumed the broader culture around them. They spoke Arabic, they read Arabic, they adopted local customs, and they appropriated and adapted the broader visual culture.

Dr. Harris: [1:15] That’s the reason why we look at this and we notice something that may strike us as looking rather Islamic.

Dr. Fein: [1:21] We’re looking at one of the closing pages of the manuscript, and we’re seeing a calligraphic border in Hebrew text surrounding a central field. We notice that the imagery in the center includes two keyhole arches, forms that we see commonly in Islamic Spain.

[1:41] We see it, for example, in the Great Mosque of Córdoba, and we also see it in Jewish architecture in the region. Surrounding those keyhole arches are beautiful mesmerizing interlace patterns. But if we look really closely, we notice that these are composed of minuscule letters.

Dr. Harris: [1:58] This is a specifically Jewish art form called micrography.

Dr. Fein: [2:03] Micrography is a unique Jewish scribal art that forms designs and patterns using tiny letters. What’s so exciting here is how Jewish scribes are adapting an Islamic visual language to their own uniquely Jewish art form.

Dr. Harris: [2:20] Since we’re looking at a Hebrew Bible, we might expect to be looking at one of the five books of Moses or the Psalms or the writing of the prophets. In fact, what we have is a different kind of text called the Masorah.

Dr. Fein: [2:33] These texts are a critical apparatus for reading the Torah, for reading the Bible. Now, interestingly, we have these Masoretic texts at the opening of the manuscript and the end of the manuscript, but we also have them throughout the manuscript as well.

[2:48] On every page, we see lines of the Masoretic text that are helping the reader navigate through the manuscript. In fact, at the beginning and end of each of the books of the Bible, we see intricate designs made of Masoretic text. These complex designs help the reader see where each section begins and ends.

Dr. Harris: [3:10] So making a book like this was incredibly time-consuming. Scribes were highly skilled, so this is an expensive book to produce.

Dr. Fein: [3:20] In Judaism, there’s an idea called “hidur mitzvah,” which literally means to beautify the mitzvah. By adding all of this illumination and decoration, it would have enhanced the reading and use of this manuscript for its owner.

[3:35] At the same time when this Bible was produced, Jewish communities living on the Iberian Peninsula began to call their Bibles by an honorific title “mikdashyah,” the Sanctuary of the Lord.

Dr. Harris: [3:49] This is a reference back to the Temple in Jerusalem.

Dr. Fein: [3:54] The Bible then became a replacement for the destroyed ancient Temple in Jerusalem.

Dr. Harris: [3:59] And that explains also the references we see to architectural forms, thinking back to the architecture of the Temple in Jerusalem. We’ve talked about the Islamic influences that we’re seeing, but there are also broadly European Christian influences that we could identify as Gothic, which is the name art historians usually give to this period in art history.

Dr. Fein: [4:21] At the opening of this Bible, we see preparatory pages that have painted and illuminated borders in gold with vine scrolls and flowers and alternating pink and blue sections with white detail and ornament. The styles and the techniques and especially the color palette are indebted to a Gothic manuscript tradition.

Dr. Harris: [4:46] So here we are in the 14th century, less than two centuries away from the expulsion of the Jews from the Iberian Peninsula in 1492.

Dr. Fein: [4:54] We see in the 14th century that the Iberian Peninsula, like the rest of Europe, was suffering from the Black Death, and about a third of the population was wiped out. The Jewish community became an easy scapegoat to blame for this pandemic.

[5:12] At the same time, we see at the end of the 14th century a series of anti-Jewish riots. The environment in which this Bible was produced was especially fraught for the Jewish community.

Dr. Harris: [5:24] This Bible doesn’t remain in Spain.

Dr. Fein: [5:27] In 1492, when the Jews were expelled from Spain, some moved south into North Africa, some looked for opportunities in Europe, but many Jews crossed the Mediterranean Sea towards the Ottoman Empire, where they hoped to have a better life under this new Muslim dynasty. And in fact, they did.

[5:49] The contract of sale of this Bible is included in the first folio of the manuscript. It tells us that this Bible was sold by the widow of Moses Abulafia in Thessaloniki, which was part of the Ottoman Empire.

[6:03] We know that this Bible made the long and arduous journey to the Ottoman Empire, where it eventually came into the hands of a leading rabbi and scholar who led a Jewish academy in Thessaloniki. This book tells this incredible story of how the Jewish community defined their place within this complex multi-confessional landscape.

[6:30] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Ariel Fein and Dr. Beth Harris, "From Medieval Spain to the Ottoman Empire, a Hebrew Bible," in Smarthistory, April 18, 2022, accessed May 24, 2024,