What does one learn when we avoid the gravitational field of a book’s content in favor of all the bits of history preserved in a book’s form? There is a rich tradition of studying books as material objects, and indeed there is much to learn from books as books, from the technology and economics of the book trade, to the ways knowledge is shaped or altered by page layout, to the ways the circulation of ideas may be subject to such apparently secondary factors as trade routes or family networks.
Upon cataloging manuscript ephemera from the Abraham J. and Deborah Karp Collection of Judaica at the Penn Libraries, one item caught my eye – something very uncommon. What I mean by this is that there is no real comparable equivalent to this manuscript that I have seen in other collections or at Judaica auctions.
In Penn’s Libraries, one can find a particular battle-scarred volume. It is a large folio, rebound in old leather, damaged by fire, with margins cut, pages torn out, others stolen but then replaced, marked by a few clever patches to the parchment. There are marginal notes in a variety of inks and handwritings representing many generations of readers and amenders. It is a late thirteenth–early fourteenth-century Mahzor, or Jewish prayer book for the high holidays, originating from the German Rhineland.
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.