Treasure in the Library - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
Skip to main content

You are here

Treasure in the Library

Main Content
Friday, January 7, 2011

Every library contains at least a few hidden treasures- things which are not immediately noticeable, which you just chance on in the course of browsing the stacks, but which, once noticed, immediately demand attention because they are truly extraordinary. One such item in HUC’s library in LA is the Tiklal Qadmonim, an old-style Yemenite prayer book which contains the ancient and unique Yemenite Jewish liturgy. This book is remarkable not only for its academic value-which is considerable- but for its sheer beauty and for the experience it will provide you with when you sit down to look at it. It is a  manuscript (our copy is one of several facsimiles, not the original, though it preserves the character of the original very well; when you look at it you feel you are looking at an actual manuscript), in the beautiful handwriting of the scribe Shalom ben Yihya Qorah. The title page is decorated with gorgeous, bright colors, reds, yellows, greens.

The script is typical of Yemenite Hebrew manuscripts, pleasingly exotic to an American Jewish eye. To pore over this book’s pages is to connect to another world, to experience firsthand why Judaism considers the written word sacred. The world this book comes from was one where scholars did not merely study printed texts dryly and clinically, detached from their creation and origin. On the contrary, they engaged as much in the creation of the texts they studied as in reading and analyzing them; they bought paper and ink and pens, and devoted hours to copying by hand the texts they wanted to study, drawing on their sense of aesthetics to make sure that the form of the written text was as beautiful as its content. They personalized their engagements with the texts, telling us their names, the date they finished copying the text and often whom they acquired the text from, where it came from and for whom they wrote it

I mentioned before that the academic value of this book is considerable. Here is some (but by no means all) of what I meant by that: The Tiklal contains much more than the usual weekday, Sabbath and festival prayers. It was written to serve as a guide to day-to-day Jewish observance as practiced by the Yemenite Jewish community, which, as is known, has preserved many ancient customs which other communities have long since abandoned.  This means that this volume contains texts rarely found elsewhere.  It begins with an introduction, in Judeo-Arabic, to the liturgy, and includes a Judeo-Arabic translation of the Amidah. For each holiday, there is a brief overview of the day’s ritual observances and how they are carried out, in addition to the prayers specific to each day.

The Tiklal contains the text of the Passover Haggadah with an extensive Judeo-Arabic commentary, along with little-known (outside the Yemenite community) Kinot, Selihot and Hosha’not written by such figures as Saadia Gaon, R. Yehuda HaLevi, R. Avraham ibn Ezra and R. Shlomo ibn Gabirol.

The Megillat Esther, Megillat Eikha and Megillat Antiochus (a later rabbinic text outlining the Hanukkah story and studied on Hanukkah) are reproduced in full, with Rav Saadia Gaon’s Arabic translation of each.

Included also are texts even less commonly found in prayerbooks: a sample ketubah, a few types of sampleget, and a sample shtar mekhira(bill of sale for use in everyday transactions among Jews). There is even an entire section on the calendar and ‘ibbur (the calculation of leap years).

So come by the library sometime and see a text that was completed on Thursday, the 19th of Elul 5698 (September 15, 1938) by Shalom ben Yihya Qorah, and let yourself be inspired and transported to its world.
Henry Wudl