At the Klau library we are privileged to have several unique manuscripts for the counting of the Omer, the period of 49 days between Passover and Shavuot. These works present the reader with a page to be read every night, with each entry varying only slightly within the formulated recitation. While they often feature simple geometric or floral designs, some Omer books are more elaboratebut present the same text and design on each of the 49 entries.
HUC MS 800 is therefore unusual. While it is not overly ornate or colorful, it features a unique pen drawing on each page. The pictures and their accompanying captions tell the story of the Exodus through the Revelation at Sinai, starting with the moment Pharaoh freed the Israelites from bondage in Egypt, and ending with Moses descending from Mount Sinai, bearing the Tablets of the Covenant.
This narrative, which reflects the transition from Passover to Shavuot, is interrupted by the tragic tale of a plague which afflicted the students of Rabbi Akiva in the 2nd century CE. This plague ended on the 33rd day of the Omer, and the day was celebrated with much relief and festivity.
The Exodus-Revelation narrative appears on pages 1v-11v and resumes from 17r-26v. The tale of Lag ba-Omer interrupts it, appearing on 11r-17v. Below are several excerpts from MS 800, and you can view the manuscript in its entirety at https://mss.huc.edu/manuscripts/ms_800/
We consider this manuscript in the midst of our own affliction. Just as the plague interrupted the journey of the Israelites, COVID-19 has interrupted our lives as well. As we examine this manuscript, we can draw strength from the knowledge that we have weathered such periods before, and now await reprieve. May we soon see better days, and resume our own journeys in safety and security.
1v-2r depicts the Israelites initially leaving Egypt. The caption above the figures is Exodus 13:21 – “The LORD went before them in a pillar of cloud by day, to guide them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, that they might travel day and night.” The label in between the fourth and fifth figure cites Exodus 12:34 - “[So the people took their dough before it was leavened,] their kneading bowls [wrapped in their cloaks] upon their shoulders.”
The spread of 3v shows the chariot and soldiers of Pharaoh pursuing the Israelites, and 4r shows the sea splitting open for them to walk between the waters. From right to left the captions read:
He ordered his chariot and took his men with him; (Exodus 14:6)
But the LORD hurled the Egyptians into the sea. )Exodus 14:27)
the waters forming a wall for them on their right and on their left. (Exodus 14:29) [the walls of water are labeled “on their right” and “on their left.”]
5v-6r depicts the Israelites complaining to Moses and Aaron about their lack of food, lamenting that he brought them out to the wilderness where they expect to die of starvation (Exodus 16:3)
8v and 9r depict Exodus 16:12, “I have heard the grumbling of the Israelites. Speak to them and say: By evening you shall eat flesh, and in the morning you shall have your fill of bread; and you shall know that I the LORD am your God.” The form of God is depicted on the left-hand side, with a label stating “The presence of God appeared in a cloud” – (Exodus 16:10).
The Exodus story is then interrupted, and the tale of the plague which afflicted Rabbi Akiva’s students begin. 11v shows the perished students, and 12r shows women preparing tachrichim – traditional Jewish burial wrappings.
13v-14r shows the construction of coffins. A tree is being felled on the left, and sawed into form on the right.
16v depicts, the burial the final victim of the plague. 17r, which is by intention the entry for counting the 33rd day of the Omer, depicts the celebration held when the plague lifted. The celebrants are marching and playing a variety of musical instruments.
The pen-drawings then return to depicting the wanderings of the Israelites in the desert. 18v-19r shows Moses drawing water from the stone (Exodus 17:6)
22v shows Moses on Mount Sinai, with the mountain covered in smoke (Exodus 19:18). Opposite, on 23r, is Moses having descended from the mountain, delivering the commandments (Exodus 19:25-20:14)
23v-24r depicts Moses descending from Mount Sinai with the Tablets of the Covenant, only to see the Israelites worshipping the Golden Calf. The caption on the right reads,
Thereupon Moses turned and went down from the mountain bearing the two tablets of the Covenant in his hand… As soon as Moses came near the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, he became enraged; and he hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain. (Exodus 32:15 and 32:19)
25v-26r shows Moses’ second descent from Mount Sinai, once again bearing a new set of the tablets. His face glows with radiance as he speaks to the Israelites. The text is Exodus 34:27-32,
And the LORD said to Moses: Write down these commandments, for in accordance with these commandments I make a covenant with you and with Israel. And he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he ate no bread and drank no water; and he wrote down on the tablets the terms of the covenant, the Ten Commandments. So Moses came down from Mount Sinai. And as Moses came down from the mountain bearing the two tablets of the Covenant, [Moses was not aware that the skin of his face was radiant, since he had spoken with Him]. Aaron and all the Israelites saw that the skin of Moses’ face was radiant; and they shrank from coming near him. But Moses called to them, and Aaron and all the chieftains in the assembly returned to him, and Moses spoke to them. Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he instructed them concerning all that the LORD had imparted to him on Mount Sinai.
The final drawing, on 26v, depicts the end of the Omer – Shavuot and the bringing of First Fruit offerings. The entry reads:
On the holiday of Shavuot, all go to reap their wheat in order to perform the offering of First Fruits, to honor God and Torah.
Contributed by Jason Schapera, Digitization Specialist