In the Margins of a Medieval Jewish Prayer Book: The New SIMS-Katz MOOC

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.

Examples of Safrut from the Penn Libraries Manuscript Collections

A Sofer is a Jewish ritual scribe, and Safrut is the ritual writing penned by a Sofer. Ritual writing follows a strict set of rules, and very small details can disqualify the item from ritual use. A misspelled word, certain misshapen letters, disorderliness, and even beginning certain columns with the wrong word can sometimes disqualify an entire scroll. Disqualified Torah scroll fragments, for example, are permitted for study purposes only, but not for ritual contexts.