Tuesday, November 24, 2015. Today I was pleased to accept an invitation from one of Sotheby’s New York branch directors, Mr. David Wachtel. I was invited to look at two ancient Israelite Samaritan manuscripts, scheduled for auction on 22 December 2015.
First Contact with Sotheby’s
From time to time, I am consulted by auction companies and antiquities dealers in Israel and abroad. I have been able to assist institutions and private collectors to identify and catalogue manuscripts, and I have provided estimates of their value. Today was my first contact with Sotheby’s. Mr Wachtel had become aware of my expertise with Israelite Samaritan manuscripts through our friendship on Facebook.
The two manuscripts come from a collection owned by the late David Sassoon of Mumbai and London. They were bought, along with others, by Mr Jack Lunzer of Valmadonna Trust, London for his own collection.
To cut the story short, I was so excited to see the two manuscripts again, 15 years since I cataloged the entire collection with Mr Lunzer’s permission and published it in A.B. – The Samaritan News bi-weekly magazine.
The more important of the two documents is a long fragment of the Pentateuch containing all the book of Genesis and the first eight chapters of Exodus. The document is divided into columns and written on pure sheepskin. It is undoubtedly one of the oldest manuscripts in the world today. (I found another fragment of the same scroll of Deuteronomy 9-34 in the Klau library of Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, and in 2012 published its details in the catalogue of the library’s 61 Israelite Samaritan manuscripts. Incidentally, I found a further fragment containing the last chapters of Leviticus and the early chapters of Numbers in Mr David Sofer’s collection in London.)
We do not know who copied the fragment held in Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati, but thanks to the written testimony of the famous Jewish traveller Benjamin of Tudela , we can locate it to 1145 CE in the city of Gerar, north of Gaza. Benyamin visited Gerar (the ancient name for the city of Ashqelon) in 1187 CE.
At that time, 300 Israelite Samaritan families lived in Gerar. Benyamin also mentioned that this Pentateuch is one of two dedicated to the Ashqelon synagogue by the same unknown copyist, perhaps indicating the growth of the community there.
The Tragedy of the Israelite-Samaritans and Their Ancient Manuscripts
During the persecution of the Ashqelon community some of the ancient manuscripts found their way to the Shechem (Nablus) synagogue. Of the damaged items kept in the Nablus synagogue Geniza, one thousand three hundred and forty-eight were sold by Samaritan leaders to the Russian Karaite, Chacham Abraham Firkovitz, in 1864. Since then the remaining damaged fragments were sold to American and European visitors. This explains why there are fragments of the same scrolls in different collections.
Concerning the other manuscript for sale: it is a small Pentateuch codex, mostly written on sheepskin. Its precise date is unknown; it is most likely that the manuscript was written in the 14th or early 15th century. Similar small Pentateuchs are to be found in the John Ryland Library in Manchester, England, and in the Linder Museum of the Smithsonian in Washington DC. The small Pentateuchs were used by Samaritan monks, hung around the neck for convenient access.
It’s a pity that large collections of ancient manuscripts in Europe are broken up and sold in pieces in public auctions, sometimes without knowing who bought them, but at least they are probably well cared for.
Most of the 4000 manuscripts sold by the Israelite Samaritans between the 17th and 20th centuries were sold during a time of grinding poverty, when the Samaritan population fell to 141 individuals in March 1919 (cf. approximately 800 today).
Now, ancient Israelite Samaritan manuscripts are some of the most valued manuscripts in public auctions.