I found myself a bit unexpectedly moved by the announcement the other day that a researcher at the University of Bologna feels certain that he has discovered the world’s oldest complete Torah scroll, one carbon dating confirms was written sometime between 1155 and 1225. (The carbon dating was done twice, first by researchers from the University of Salento in Italy and then a second time to confirm the results at the Radiocarbon Dating Laboratory at the University of Illinois.) This does not exactly make it the world’s oldest copy of the complete Torah text, however, which would be the one found in the manuscript called the Leningrad codex, which was written in 1008. (The name derives solely from the fact that the book has been housed at the National Library of Russia in St. Petersburg since 1863, when it was given to the library by its former owner, the well-known Karaite bibliophile, Abraham Firkovich. Where and in whose possession the book was before it fell into Firkovich’s hands is not known.)
Older still is the Aleppo codex, brought to Syria by one of Maimonides’ descendants sometime in the late fourteenth century but originally written in 920 C.E. in Tiberias by the scribe Shlomo ben Buya’a. But the Aleppo codex is incomplete, having partially been destroyed in the rioting in Syria’s largest city that followed the proclamation of Israeli independence in 1948. And neither the Leningrad nor the Aleppo codices is a scroll of the kind from which we still read in synagogue. (The word “codex” is the fancy word for what moderns call books, i.e., signatures of leaves sewn together, then bound into portable volumes.) Earlier than either, of course, are the 220 or so biblical scrolls found at Qumran, called collectively (along with the non-biblical scrolls and fragments) the Dead Sea Scrolls. But none of those texts is complete, as are also not the other earlier fragments of the Torah text: the so-called Nash papyrus which is probably as old as the Dead Sea Scrolls, but which was probably written in Egypt (including the Ten Commandments and the Shema, named after W.L. Nash, the secretary of the Society of Biblical Archeology who presented it to Cambridge University in 1903), the biblical texts found in the Cairo Genizah (the earliest texts in the Genizah go back to the 9th century C.E.), the biblical manuscripts found on Masada which all predate the Roman siege of 73 C.E., and the manuscripts found at the Wadi Murabba’at, which runs through the Judean Desert east of Bethlehem and down to the Dead Sea and in which fighters supporting Bar Kokhba in his disastrous rebellion against the Romans in 132 C.E. hid out and left behind some biblical manuscripts, including some Torah texts.
In other words, because the oldest extant complete text is not a scroll and none of the oldest scrolls is a complete text, this new scroll located in Bologna now becomes the oldest complete Torah scroll anyone can date with precision. The use of carbon-dating techniques is key because of the rules that govern the writing of Torah scrolls. Because it is not allowed, no Torah scroll has a colophon. (A colophon is an inscription at the end of a manuscript in which the scribe, not the author, identifies himself and usually mentions where and when the manuscript was written.) Also, the very distinctive styles of handwriting that make it easy to distinguish Hebrew manuscripts written in different places don’t come into play in Torah scrolls, which are all written in square Hebrew letters with little or no variation permitted. So the use of scientific dating techniques provides information that cannot otherwise be known absent a detailed history of the scroll in question.
How the scroll came to Bologna is not known, although it probably had something to do with Napoleon’s efforts to suppress monastic and religious orders of various sorts by, among other things, confiscating religious libraries. But even the Bolognese authorities themselves seem not to know for sure how they acquired the scroll. All that can be said with certainty is that it was acquired somewhere along the way by the library and assigned a seventeenth century date by a cataloguer in 1889 who was apparently the last person to inspect the scroll knowledgably. To his credit, the cataloguer, a man named Leonello Modona, added a question mark after the date. But that seems to have ended the history of serious inquiry into the scroll.
Until last year, that is, when Mauro Perani, a professor at Bologna, undertook to recatalogue the university library’s Hebrew manuscript holdings and realized easily that his nineteenth century predecessor had been closer to right with the question mark than with the part of his evaluation that preceded it. The scroll—and this is key—is not written according to the rules Maimonides laid down in his Mishneh Torah in 1180 and which have been considered authoritative ever since. For example, there are certain letters that are routinely adorned with tiny crowns in a post-Rambam Torah scroll. The custom itself is ancient—the crowns, called tagin in Hebrew, are mentioned in the Talmud in a fabulous passage attributed to Rabbi Joshua ben Levi that features Moses walking in on God while the Latter is personally affixing the crowns to the letters in the Torah scroll before revealing it to the Israelites—but the identities of the specific letters so adorned was apparently in flux for a while before finally being fixed as a point of law. This scroll, so Perani, seems to antedate the universal acceptance of that law. So if the carbon dating sets the terminus post quem for the scroll to be written in 1155, we are left assuming this scroll to have been written, probably, in the third quarter of the twelfth century.
It was a long time ago. And it was a tumultuous time, that third quarter of that particular century. The Holy Roman Empire was at war, more or less, with the Pope. (The Treaty of Venice in 1177 put an end finally to the fighting. But neither side was especially satisfied with the compromise.) The lands of Christian Europe under the leadership—some things really don’t change—of Henry II of England, Philip II of France, and the German emperor of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa were at war with a united Egypt and Syria under the leadership of Saladin in the series of battles and skirmishes historians now call the Third Crusade. (The war finally ended with the Treaty of Ramla, signed by Saladin and Henry’s successor, Richard the Lionhearted, in 1192, but neither side was especially satisfied with that compromise either and the war started up—this part of the protracted struggle between Christian Europe and the Islamic Middle East is now called the Fourth Crusade—less than a decade into the following century.) It was a time, in fact, of protracted warfare between Christendom and Islam on any number of fronts, mostly notably in Portugal (where the siege of Lisbon in 1147 finally expelled Muslim forces from that end of the Iberian peninsula) and in the Kingdom of Georgia, where King David the Builder finally expelled the Muslims and established a Christian kingdom in 1122. The Normans and the Celts were at war over Ireland. The Muslims and the Hindus were at war in India. The names of the players are mostly unfamiliar to most of us today—who, among those as far from Eleventh Grade as I am, can remember who Eleanor of Aquitaine was exactly (you get extra points if you can dredge up a single detail not related to Katherine Hepburn’s portrayal of her in The Lion in Winter) or what King Stephen was all about (ditto, with respect to Ken Follett’s unflattering depiction of him in The Pillars of the Earth), not to mention then-famous but now truly-obscure personalities like King Valdemar of Denmark or King Roger of Sicily.
The Jewish world was in a state of remarkable creativity. Maimonides was alive in the twelfth century, working on the literary output that would eventually make him recalled as the greatest of all the medieval rabbis both in terms of political activity, literary output, spiritual grandeur, and scholarly expertise. The scholars collectively known as the Tosafot were at work composing comments to the Talmud that are even today serve as the foundation stone upon which of all serious Talmudic study rests. Judah Halevi was alive. So was Rabbenu Tam. But it was also a time of political insecurity. The Jews were expelled from Morocco in 1107. There were intense anti-Jewish riots in the Ukraine, notably in Kiev in 1113. The Jews of the Rhineland suffered during the Second and Third Crusades so horrifically that even today the experience of reading Ephraim of Bonn’s Book of Remembrance is beyond shocking…even for students of Shoah literature. The twelfth century also saw the first recorded instance of a false blood libel claim made against Jews when the Jewish community of Norwich, England, was accused of murdering a little boy named William in 1144. Forced conversions to Islam (the alternative was death) became the rule in Spain after the Almohadin seized control of the county in 1148.
And then, in 1171, the Jews were expelled from Bologna. There had been Jews in Bologna for almost a millennium at that point. (The exact date the community was founded is not known but there was already a Jewish cemetery in Bologna in 302 C.E.) Nor is it known precisely what led to the expulsion. It’s a footnote to European Jewish history, really, one of countless examples of meanspirited, pointless vengeance against a community of “others” obliged by circumstance to live under the rule of people only occasionally inclined towards inclusivity and respect for minority groups in their midst. And, of course, it is also true that the Torah scroll now carbon-dated to the years surrounding the expulsion from Bologna isn’t actually from Bologna. Judging from the physical evidence of the way its parchment leaves were ruled, the way they were sewn together, the kind of pen the scribe used, and the way the columns are laid out, the scroll was written somewhere in the Middle East, not in Italy. And yet…there is something remarkable about the fact that this scroll was found in Bologna. It was, after all, in that very place that the Torah was first printed in movable type in 1482. (If you can, click here to see a picture of the book and the very thorough description of it that was published when a single copy was auctioned off for a mere $566,495 at Christie’s in 1998.)
And so things change and don’t change. Most Jews today would find the Bologna scroll eminently readable and usable. It looks not dramatically unlike the scrolls in the aron kodesh of my own, or any, congregation. The world today is different from the world in which that scroll was written in a million ways. But the same world that endlessly morphs forward into ever-increasingly-sophisticated versions of itself also contains some immutable features that simply do not change. And that aspect of things is, for me and I suspect for many, represented the most meaningfully by the Torah scroll itself. The world may be in an endless state of flux…but the scroll in the ark looks much as it always has and, I hope, as it always will, its unchanging nature symbolic both of the immutable nature of God and the eternal nature of the people who bound in covenant to obey its laws and statutes. The Bologna scroll is merely the oldest Torah scroll formally to have its age established through carbon-dating techniques, after all. Still, there is a certain satisfaction that comes from the scroll coming to light in that specific city, of all places. In 1546, a Jewish charitable foundation was founded in Bologna in the charter of which the text of Isaiah was creatively altered to note that, a mere sixty-two years earlier, it had been from Bologna that had gone forth the Torah when its first printed edition appeared in that city. And now, unexpectedly, it turns out to be in that very place that the oldest dated Torah scroll is housed. Perhaps the medieval were right to pronounce the name of the city as though it were Hebrew, not Italian, and to call it bo-lan-yah, meaning “In this place dwells God.”