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Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures (CSMC)

02/2015 manuscript  of the month

King Solomon and the covenant of circumcision:

A Biedermeier mohel book

This small book is composed of parchment and paper folios and bound in a light-brown cover with black ornamentation and gilt edging. It is apparent even from the cover that the book was produced with great care. Once opened, apart from its handwritten character, the aesthetic feel of the lettering and visual elements becomes evident. Moses and Aaron feature on the title page with its square Hebrew script and are easily recognisable by their attributes: a staff in the case of Moses, whilst Aaron is shown wearing the cloak of the high priest with a breastplate and small bells (see fig. 1). Many of the parchment folios are decorated with drawings and embellished with calligraphy. More than half of the small book is made of paper, however. These sheets of paper were bound in after the parchment section and have been left blank. The question is why?

Fig. 1: fol. 1r : title page.
> Enlarge

This manuscript, written in 1819 by the scribe Mordekhai ben Yosel (Marcus Donath) and embellished with pen-and-ink drawings, is a Kabbalistic mohel book. It was written for a mohel – a member of the Jewish community trained and authorised to carry out circumcision – and it contains the text of Sod Adonai (The Secret of God) by David ben Arye Leib of Lida (c. 1650–1696). Instructions concerning Jewish religious law and prayers relating to circumcision are included in it. Mordekhai ben Yosel was active as a Torah scribe in the town of Nitra (or Nyitra), today in Slovakia, but then belonging to Austria-Hungary. One of the duties of a community scribe was the production of Torah srolls and other texts for communal use. For this reason, numerous other manuscripts in his hand are known, even though a considerable number of them were lost during the National Socialist era.

Fig. 2: fol, 7r (detail), initial word in baroque frame with
two doves. > Enlarge

Fig. 3: fol. 18v (detail), initial word decorated with animals.
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The blank paper folios of the manuscript were intended to be used for entries made by the mohel, who was asked to perform circumcisions at ceremonies preferably held on the eighth day after a boy’s birth. In the Moldovan Collection in New York, there is another manuscript, comprising eleven parchment and eighteen paper folios, produced for a mohel and executed in the same hand as our scribe’s. Listed on fifteen of the folios are handwritten entries documenting circumcisions carried out in the administrative district of Pest, Hungary between 1829 and 1852.

It is reasonable to suppose that the manuscript shown here was also employed by a mohel. However, his name, which was originally found on the title page, was so thoroughly obliterated that no traces of it remain. It seems clear that the parchment folios with their prayers and legal instructions were rebound together with the new paper folios, presumably in order to use the small book again. Nevertheless, there are no handwritten entries in a later hand, nor is there any name that would suggest the existence of a second owner. The book was probably no longer in use when Baruch Heymann Levy (1834–1904), a Hamburg lawyer and member of the Hamburg Parliament, acquired it around 1880 for his collection of manuscripts, which was bought by Hamburg City Library in 1906.

Fig. 4: fol. 4r, examples of
ornate lettering. > Enlarge

This collection is remarkable for its very large number of illuminated manuscripts (making up around a third of the collection). The manuscript shown here is a good example of this. Thanks to its artistic composition, it was a key inspiration to Levy to continue collecting in his grandfather’s wake. Ornamented frames (see fig. 2) and initial words, decorated, for instance, with drawings of animal figures (see fig. 3) or written in the shape of unfurling scrolls (see fig. 4), make this book stand out from other manuscripts. It also contains numerous pen-and-ink drawings, depicting, for instance, a lion and a unicorn (see fig. 5), a circumcision scene or King David in prayer. Doubtless, the most striking image is the micrographic representation of the biblical King Solomon as a scribe. He is seated at a table on which an inkwell and book are to be seen (see fig. 6). From the ninth century onwards, one encounters the use of sophisticated micrography in Jewish manuscripts – an advancement of the decorative elaboration of marginalia, witnessed in many cultures. Here, this miniature script is employed as a means of delineation in larger geometric and figural images. King Solomon, who was traditionally seen as the author of the biblical Song of Songs, is drawn here using the words of this text, so that the mutual relationship between the author and his work is rendered pictorially.

Fig. 5: fol. 20r, pen-and-ink
drawing of a lion and a
unicorn. > Enlarge

Fig. 6: fol. 16r, micrography
depicting King Solomon.
> Enlarge

The first verse of the Song of Songs, which names the title of the book and its author, is written in square script and appears beneath the vignette along with the Austrian-Hungarian double eagle. It reads: שיר השירים אשר לשלמה – shir ha-shirim asher li-shlomo (‘The Song of Songs, by Solomon’). The first and second words of the second verse, ישקני מנשיקות – yishshaqeni min-neshiqot (‘Let him kiss me with the kisses …’), form the lower and upper lips of Solomon’s mouth, the remaining words of the second verse forming part of his beard, stretching down from the left-hand corner of his mouth: פיהו כי טובים דדיך מיין – pihu ki tovim dodekha mi-yayin (‘ … of his mouth. For thy love is better than wine’). The words of the third verse, ‘Because of the savour of thy good ointments, thy name is as ointment poured forth, therefore do the virgins love thee’, delineate the king’s nose, eyelids and right sideburn. Verses 4 to 7 (‘Draw me, we will run after thee: the king hath brought me into his chambers: we will be glad and rejoice in thee, we will remember thy love more than wine: the upright love thee…’) form the remainder of his beard and crown. Verse 8, ‘If thou know not, o thou fairest among women, go thy way forth by the footsteps of the flock …’, traces the right-hand edge of the crown across to the two hovering drawn elements to the right of Solomon’s head (see fig. 7).

Fig. 7: fol. 16r, detail of the head of Solomon (Please move the cursor
over the image to view the colouration of verses 2 to 7 of the Song of
Songs). > Enlarge

The last verses of the Song of Songs (8, 11–14) appear under the king’s seat and table as a framing for an oval cartouche. The last four words of the last verse, האילים על הרי בשמים – ha-ayyalim ʿal-hare besamim (‘… [a young] hart upon the mountains of spices’) are written in large square script and correspond to the four words of the first verse above. Knowledgeable readers will be immediately aware that they have the complete text of the Song of Songs before them.

When one looks closely at the micrography, it becomes evident that Solomon’s face is not simply made up of words, but that drawn elements also play a role. The interweaving ornamental devices to the left of Solomon’s head, which are also shaped by text and are reminiscent of crowns, are additionally worth noting. It is possible that they represent a Kabbalistic motif: the link between the sixth sefira (the emanation of God) and the lowest, tenth sefira – between tifʾeret (‘beauty’) and malkhut (‘kingship’), between the male and female principles of divinity, that is, between God and Israel.

One should add that the dominant, coeval theological exegesis of the Song of Songs interpreted the text as an allegory of God’s love for Israel. The Song of Songs, conveyed here in this elaborately drawn form, the Kabbalistic symbols, decipherable only by the initiated, and the rite of circumcision to be carried out by the mohel represent the covenant that exists between God and the people of Israel in a threefold way.


DEUSEL, Antje Yael (2012): Mein Bund, den ihr bewahren sollt. Religionsgesetzliche und medizinische Aspekte der Beschneidung. Freiburg/Basel/Vienna: Herder.

GOLDSCHMIDT, Salomon (1900): Verzeichniss der Judaica aus der Bibliothek des Herrn Dr. H. B. Levy in Hamburg, Hamburg: Nissensohn.

NAMÉNYI, Ernö (1941): “Ein ungarisch-jüdischer Kupferstecher der Biedermeierzeit (Markus Donath)”. In: Alexander Schreiber (ed.): Jubilee-Volume in Honour of Prof. Bernhard Heller, Budapest, 252–257, 8 plates.

RÓTH, Ernst/STRIEDL, Hans (1984): Hebräische Handschriften. Teil 3: Die Handschriften der Sammlung H. B. Levy an der Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg. Wiesbaden: Franz Steiner Verlag, no. 113.

SCHEIBER, Alexander (1973/74): “Markus Donath’s Second Misrah plate”. In: Studies in Bibliography and Booklore 3/4, 80–82.

DERS. (1979): “Marcus Donath’s Mohel Book”. In: Studies in Bibliography and Booklore 12, 9–11.

SCHOLEM, Gershom (1957): Die jüdische Mystik in ihren Hauptströmungen, Frankfurt a. M.: Metzner.

SIRAT, Colette/AVRIN, Leila (1981): La lettre hébrai͏̈que et sa signification. Micrography as Art, Paris: CNRS.

WANDREY, Irina (ed.) (2014): Tora – Talmud – Siddur.Katalog der Ausstellung ‘Tora – Talmud – Siddur. Hebräische Handschriften der Staats- und Universitätsbibliothek Hamburg. 18.9.–26.10.2014’ (= manuscript cultures 6).


Current owner: Carl von Ossietzky State and University Library, Hamburg.
Shelf mark: Codex Levy 45.
Material: parchment and paper; gilt edging; brown ink; more recent brownish-black leather binding. 67 folios in total: 4 paper folios (unnumbered), 20 parchment folios, 43 paper folios (unnumbered and blank).
Dimensions: 16 x 12 cm; written area: 14.0 x 9.5 cm.
Provenance: Nitra (aka Nyitra), 1819, Austria-Hungary; now in Slovakia.
Script: Ashkenazi square script and semi-cursive script.

Text by Irina Wandrey