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Rutgers prof. helps ‘Exodus’ sheet find home in D.C.
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Rutgers prof. helps ‘Exodus’ sheet find home in D.C.

Library of Congress buys oldest ‘perfect’ piece of Torah scroll

The oldest legible piece of a Torah scroll ever discovered has now found a permanent home at the Library of Congress (LOC) in Washington, D.C., thanks to the scholarship of a Rutgers University Jewish studies professor.

Dr. Gary Rendsburg, the director of graduate studies and the Blanche and Irving Laurie Chair in Jewish History in the university’s Department of Jewish studies, called the parchment “an incredibly valuable” piece of Judaica. 

The portion written on the parchment — Exodus 10:10 to 16:15 — details the Israelites’ flight from Egypt and includes the Ten Plagues and the “Song of the Sea.” Rendsburg pointed out this piece, believed to have been written in the 10th or 11th century, is a virtually complete scroll sheet. The Dead Sea Scrolls — which were discovered in the Qumran caves near the Dead Sea between 1946 and 1956 and are believed to have been written in the last three centuries B.C.E. and the first century C.E. — are comprised of fragments. 

“We have older Torah scroll sheets and fragments, but none of them are legible; you need special spectral imaging to read them,” Rendsburg told NJJN in a phone interview from his Highland Park home. “This is the oldest complete Torah scroll sheet that can be read with the naked eye. 

“It’s perfect.” 

Clearly visible is the “brickwork” layout — prescribed by Jewish law — of the “Song of the Sea,” detailing the Jewish people’s safe crossing through the Red Sea after their flight from Egypt and the destruction of the pursuing Egyptian forces. Rendsburg said it is one of only two sections of the Torah not written in straight, even columns, but rather in poetic style, staggered one line on top of another. 

Rendsburg said the vellum manuscript “was written somewhere in the Middle East.” The region in which it was inscribed can be determined, he said, “from the formation and writing,” allowing scholars to determine that it originated probably in the area that is “present-day Israel, as opposed to its being from Italy or Spain or some other place.”

However, its most interesting feature has no religious significance: an inscription written on the back in Russian and Hebrew.

“We know you never write on the back of a Torah scroll, but this tells us it was a gift from the Karaite community in the Middle East to the grand duke, brother of the czar of Russia, around 1863,” said Rendsburg. 

The Karaites, unlike traditional Jews, regard only the Torah as their authoritative text and don’t accept as binding the Oral Torah, as codified and written in the Talmud and Midrash.

After the late 19th century, little is known about what happened to the sheet. It stayed in Saint Petersburg for some time and somehow ended up in London. “How it got from the Crimea to England, we’ll never know,” Rendsburg said. 

The sheet surfaced in 2001 in London, where it was purchased at Christie’s auction house by an unknown private collector. While it was at the auction house, Jordan Penkower of Bar-Ilan University in Israel wrote a 20-page scholarly paper on the sheet, authenticating its history. 

Rendsburg has long used Penkower’s paper in his Hebrew manuscripts courses. He has also maintained a professional relationship with Ann Brener, a former doctoral student of his from a previous position at Cornell University. Brener is now head of the Hebraic section in the LOC’s African and Middle East Division. 

A year ago Rendsburg received an e-mail from Brener with a link to a catalogue of rare books and manuscripts offering the sheet for sale and requesting his opinion on whether the LOC should purchase it. 

Although there was only a description and no photo, Rendsburg said, he “immediately recognized” what the listing referred to and “I wrote back to Ann, saying, ‘Yes, this is real and important. Please buy it because it belongs in a public institution.’” 

When he was in Washington for a speaking engagement last October, Rendsburg was shown the sheet encased in a glass frame. 

“Although we don’t know how it was taken out of Russia, we know it was folded up and smuggled,” the most likely source of some creases that were in the parchment, said Rendsburg. “The conservators did a marvelous job smoothing it out.” 

The sheet recently was on display in the Great Hall of the Library of Congress next to one of the 49 extant copies (or incomplete copies) of the Gutenberg Bible, the first major book produced by a printing press.

“They placed an icon of European Christianity next to an icon of Judaism,” said Rendsburg, who has been invited to speak at the Library on the history of this unique piece of Jewish history.

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