Bodleian Libraries use 21st-century digital technology to fulfil 12th-century Hebrew mandate

Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah now available online

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The Bodleian Libraries have digitized and made available online part of the first comprehensive code of Jewish Law, Mishneh Torah (http://maimonides.bodleian.ox.ac.uk). Written between 1170 and 1180 by the rabbinic scholar Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, known as Maimonides or by his Hebrew acronym Rambam, the Mishneh Torah is one of the most important manuscripts of the Bodleian’s world-class Hebrew collection.

For the first time, the manuscript can now be consulted, browsed and read online. Using revolutionary technology, all the one hundred eighty-eight openings of the manuscripts are captured in high-resolution digital images allowing readers to zoom in and examine the manuscript in detail. The electronic resource offers free worldwide access.

The manuscript, which has been kept in the Bodleian Libraries since the 17th century, consists of the first two books of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah: the Sefer Madda (Book of Knowledge) and the Sefer Ahavah (Book of Love). It has unique significance in that the copy is signed by Maimonides himself, who declares in his own handwriting that this copy is the authorized version: ‘It has been corrected from my own book. I am Moses son of Rabbi Maimon of blessed memory’. The Bodleian Libraries hold the most significant collection of Maimonides’ autograph texts in the world.

The launch of the digital version of the Mishneh Torah carries a symbolic connotation as it fulfils the will of one of the manuscript’s later owners, Eleazar, son of Perahya. He stated in his will that his copy of the Mishneh Torah should always be freely available for public consultation: ‘[The manuscript should] not be sold or redeemed, nor should any single person ever take possession of it. It should rather be kept available so that all scholars can correct their own version against it, but not read from it regularly or copy from it.’ By making the manuscript available online, the Bodleian is keeping Eleazar’s legacy.

Maimonides (1137/8-1204) is known as the greatest Jewish scholar of the Middle Ages, as well as an eminent royal physician and philosopher Two works of Maimonides reflect his role as a rabbinic scholar and community leader: his commentary on the Mishnah (the codification of Jewish oral law) and his magnum opus the Mishneh Torah (which translated means Repetition of the Law). The latter, on which he laboured continually for ten years between 1170 and 1180, remains the clearest exposition of Jewish law.

Dr Sarah Thomas, Bodley’s Librarian, said, ‘The Bodleian has been at the forefront of digitization as part of the Libraries’ ongoing commitment to enhance online access to their vast and unique collections for researchers and interested members of the public. Thanks to the generosity of our donor, George Blumenthal, we are adding the Mishneh Torah to the list of literary and sacred treasures that we have made available in cyberspace for all to share.’ 

Dr. Piet van Boxel, Curator of the Hebrew holdings at the Bodleian Libraries, said, ‘In line with Eleazar’s will, the Bodleian has always granted access to this precious document of Jewish Law. However, conservation concerns and practical considerations have previously limited the possibility of consulting it. The digital revolution, once and for all, has overcome these limitations and enables the Bodleian in an unexpected way to fulfil Eleazar’s request by giving worldwide access to Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah.’ 

The project was made possible by a gift from Mr George Blumenthal, philanthropist and businessman who said, ‘I am grateful to the Bodleian for allowing me to pursue my dream of democratizing the knowledge of the world humanity for worldwide availability through the internet.’  Mr Blumenthal is also supporting the digitization of the Bodleian’s world-class collection of Genizah fragments, named after the storage place of the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Fustat, Cairo where Maimonides lived from 1168 until the end of his life. This resource will be made available online in autumn. 

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