Sometimes you can have been staring at something completely obvious for nothing short of years without realizing it, and then all of a sudden it comes into very sharp focus. This just happened to me recently, with the copying date of a manuscript I’ve been working with since 2012 suddenly becoming apparent. To be fair, I’m not the first scholar to have worked with the manuscript, so I’m far from the first to have overlooked it. I was in very good company in not having noticed the date. But I also like being the one who noticed that it was there. This blog post, then, is sort of a preview of a ḥiddush, a new discovery, that will be published in my book early next year.
The colophon of Bodleian MS Mich. 50.3 begins with the phrase: “This was completed — praise the lord God! — by the hand of Yoav.” It then has a funny little abbreviation, the Hebrew letters aleph-yud-mem-nun.
With the help of the dictionary of acronyms, I had already identified the letters as an abbreviation for the biblical phrase: אנא יי מלטה נפשי, which comes from Psalm 116. But it kept nagging at me. Scribes will often cite biblical verses in their colophons, but this one is a little weird and a little obscure. It’s not what I would expect to find in a colophon. And so I kept coming back to it, opening up the image file and staring at the manuscript page on my computer screen. And finally, suddenly, it occurred to me that this phrase might be a chronogram, an abbreviation that indicates a date through the numerical values of the letters. I suspected that it wasn’t — that if it were, someone else would have figured that out by now — but I figured I’d do the math anyway just in case.
The letters in this abbreviation add up like this: aleph = 1, yud = 10, mem =40, nun = 50. Chronograms often omit the leading 5 in the thousands place; so for example, this year is 5777, but it might be indicated with letters that add up to 777. If we restore an extra 5,000 to the numerical value of the chronogram in this colophon, we get 5101, which is the year that runs across 1340-41 of the common era. Up until now, the manuscript has been dated to the fourteenth or fifteenth centuries on the basis of the script, so reading the abbreviation as a chronogram actually comports totally with the paleographic evidence and so it is reasonable to date the copying of the manuscript to that year.
The strangeness of the phrase chosen to yield the chronogram still leaves me with a question, one I can only speculate about at this point. Psalm 116 comes from the hallel cycle of psalms, recited as part of the liturgy at the three major pilgrimage festivals, Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. Hallel is recited at other time, too, so it’s not as secure an identification, but I wonder whether choosing a phrase from hallel indicates that the scribe, Yo’av, finished copying the manuscript just before one of these holidays, that is, sometime between Sukkot (with the 15th of Tishrei falling on 7 October, 1340) and Shavot (with 6 Sivan falling on May 23, 1341).
So, in case it is useful for anyone to know, the upshot is this: The earliest and most complete surviving copy of Judah ibn Tibbon’s ethical will was copied 150 years after the author’s death and the text’s dissemination in 1190, in the fall of 1340 or the spring of 1341. Ultimately this is a question of the reception and readership of the ethical will and what particular value it might have had for the Jews of Provence and northern France at a particular nadir of Jewish-Christian relations and the end of the Maimonidean Controversie. Being able to date the manuscript gives us some context for the reception and transmission of what is a very Andalusi text to a wider audience.