Yad Aharon: Hebrew Poetry and the Number 14

July 1, 2020
Louis Meiselman

A Rare Judaica Cataloging Librarian examines a seemingly contradictory poetry volume in the collection of the Library at the Katz Center.

"Yad Aharon" title page photograph

Yad Aharon is a fascinating little book of poems and homilies. It was printed in Thessaloniki, Greece in the Hebrew year 5599 (1838 or 1839), and the author, Aharon Tsevi Ashkenazi, is only identified as being an elderly poet in Thessaloniki.

Ashkenazi offers an explanation for the title of his poetry book when he says, “I called this compilation Y.A.D. Aharon, because in it I write 14 piyutim (liturgical poems), 14 hidushim (novellae on a Talmudic topic), and 14 meshalim (parables), and even more than this, at the time of writing, I had the strongest ailment in the eyes, and the Y.A.D. wrote it completely without the eyes…” יד, or yad, is equal to 14 in gematriah, a code of assigning numerical values to letters and words. Ashkenazi wrote each individual poetic style in the quantity of 14 by hand, a secondary reference to the word yad, which is “hand” in Hebrew. Ashkenazi called the book after “the hands of Aharon” (i.e., himself) because he used his hands in lieu of his eyes due to an ocular affliction.

The copy held at the Library at the Katz Center seemed to be a bit of a contradiction. The volume was sold at auction as a possible author’s copy with emendations believed to be in the author’s own hand. While these author’s copies are sometimes available, especially for this sort of specialized literature, I found it to be interesting that the handwritten notes were so neatly made in the margins, each one indicating where in the text the writer wanted to add, emend, or edit. If the author struggled to see, being blind or nearly blind at the time that the volume was printed, he probably wouldn’t have been able to make these careful marginal notes, let alone identify where in the text he would have wanted to write something.

page from Yad Aharon
Notes among the margins of Yad Aharon, possibly by the author. Note the careful placement of each note.
page from Yad Aharon
Marginal notes carefully wrap around the page's contents.
page from Yad Aharon
Another example of precise marginal emendations added to the volume by hand.

Now, I don’t think that it is completely impossible to suppose that these are the author’s marginal notes (say, if someone was pointing to him exactly where to write each one). It is also possible that the author dictated each idea to a scribe who wrote it for him (a more likely idea). However, the actual hand behind the emendations in this recently cataloged volume remains unclear.

This is an abridged version of a blog post that appeared on Penn's Special Collections blog. Click here to read the original version


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Louis Meiselman

Louis Meiselman

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