Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Va-Ethanan 5769/ August 1, 2009

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



“You shall not make for yourself… any likeness” (Deut. 5:8)


Dr. Yosi Peretz

Hadar-Ganim, Petah-Tikvah


One of the characteristics of medieval manuscripts of the Bible which distinguishes them from printed editions is the illustrations that illuminate the text. [1]   Many of the manuscripts which have survived to our day contain magnificent pictures and illustrations, clearly attesting to the investment of great effort and money. [2]   These works of art were sometimes made by the scribe of the text himself, sometimes by a professional artist, and generally take one of the following three forms:

  1. Pictures and illustrations:  Generally these serve only as decorative elements accompanying the biblical text, and are not directly related to a depiction of the story. [3]   Only in rare instances do they serve as an illustration accompanying the text and depicting figures in the story line.
  2.  Micrography:  a decorative technique characteristic of manuscripts both from the East and the West.  This technique involves writing long tracts of Masorah Magna (major notes regarding the text) in miniscule script following an outline, thus yielding geometric designs, pictures of animals, and the like. [4]  It is generally extremely difficult to decipher the writing in these illuminations, which for the most part are only decorative and not necessarily related to the content of the text. [5]
  3. Large initial letters or words, embellished with decoration and used in book headings.

The most ancient extant biblical manuscripts date from the ninth century C.E., and come from the Near East.  Examples include the Cairo manuscript of Prophets, [6] illuminated with a wealth of floral geometric motifs known as carpet pages; the Leningrad B17 manuscript, which contains a carpet page and illustration of the implements of the Tabernacle and the Temple; and the complete manuscript of the Bible, known as Leningrad B19a, containing 16 carpet pages displaying geometric figures in a variety of forms. [7]

Carpet pages are also found in Spanish medieval manuscripts, reflecting eastern influence, but these have a unique addition of new motifs such as circular formats containing calendars of the year, or decorated frames containing texts dealing with Masorah.  Due to the impact of Arab culture on Jews living in the Moslem world, which forbade depictions of the human form in holy books,  in these eastern books we find no human figures and only a few animal forms.  In Ashkenaz, however, where Christian culture dominated, we find the first instances of manuscripts illuminated with pictures of human beings and animals. 

In any event, although the Torah does not forbid artistic expression in itself, there were some rabbis in Ashkenaz who dealt with the issue of illumination and tried to restrict it, not on the grounds of the second of the Ten Commandments – “You shall not make for yourself a sculptured image” (Ex. 20:4), but for other reasons.  In the forefront of those who opposed the addition of illumination was Rabbi Judah He-Hassid (1150-1217).  He demanded that those who order manuscripts not request the scribe to illuminate them with pictures, writing as follows: [8]

Whoever hires a scribe to write masorot for the twenty-four [books of the Bible], must stipulate to the scribe that he not make depictions in the masorot of such things as birds and animals, or such as a tree, or any pictorial representation; for the masoretic notes were initially written in the twenty-four books since the early authorities were well-versed in the masorah and therefore wrote in books; and if he were to make illustrations, how would it [the masorah] be seen?

The Maharam of Rothenburg (Rabbi Meir ben Barukh), leader of the community in Ashkenaz in the late 13th century and the greatest rabbinic authority of his times, also addressed himself to the question of whether illustrations should be permitted in mahzorim (prayerbooks).  His response was as follows: [9]

 I have been asked regarding those who illustrate mahzorim with pictures of animals and birds whether what they do is proper, and my response is that it seems to me surely inappropriate, for looking at these pictures deflects their attention from their Father in Heaven; albeit, there is no issue here of proscription on the grounds of not making a sculpted image, etc.

From the texts cited above we see that the opposition of these two rabbis was not based on the law of transgressing the prohibition of idolatry, rather it was pragmatic.   Rabbi Judah He-Hassid was opposed to illustration because of the difficulty in deciphering the masorah comments when written as micrographic illustration, and the Maharam of Rothenburg was opposed to pictures in prayer books because of the likelihood that they would distract people from their prayers.  In the 14th century, Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, known as Ba'al ha-Turim, [10] ruled that it is permissible to have depictions of the human form provided it is not fully depicted, i.e., one could depict a person's head without the body, or the reverse. [11]

To what extent did the rabbis of Ashkenaz succeed in influencing local copyists and in preventing them from illuminating manuscripts?  This we can only know from an examination of the manuscripts themselves.  Reality indicates that many Ashkenazi manuscripts of the Bible are illuminated with a variety of decorations, and that the arguments given by halakhic authorities did not suffice to persuade scribes and those commissioning books not to illuminate their manuscripts.  Judging by the quantity of illuminations found in manuscripts, covering all three types listed above, it appears that those ordering the manuscripts held opinions contrary to those expressed by the authorities. They viewed illumination as a highly valued form of artistic expression and were willing to pay artisans for it. 

Of 218 manuscripts examined in a comprehensive study, 129 of them (some 60%) were found to contain several types of illustration: [12] human figures, animal figures, and micrographic geometric figures.  Nevertheless, we must stress that there are Jewish artists who from the outset deliberately refrained from depicting full human figures, [13] as stipulated by Rabbi Jacob ben Asher, and instead depicted hybrid forms, such as figures with a human body and an animal head. [14]

The earliest illuminated manuscripts of the Bible that have survived from the communities in Ashkenaz date back to the 13th century.  About a third of all Ashkenazic illuminated mss. (42 out of 129) are from that century, some 50% (65 manuscripts) from the 14th century, and 17% (22 manuscripts) from the fifteenth century.  With the invention of printing, illumination gradually disappeared entirely.



[1] See Y. Peretz, “Ha-Tanakh be-Khitvei Yad u-ve-Defusim u-Mah she-beineihem,” Talelei Orot 13 (2007), pp. 39-52.

[2]  Illumination also appears in other works, such as prayer books, Bible commentaries, Midrash, and books on astronomy.  Many photographs of illuminated pages can be seen in the following two books:  (a) B. Narkiss,  Hebrew Illuminated Manuscripts, Jerusalem 1969, in which the author discusses at length developments in style of ornamentation and motifs according to various areas of transmission;  (b) G. Sed-Rajna, Les manuscrits hébreux enluminés des Biblioth è ques France, 1994, in which the author sorts the illustrations by theme, according to biblical order – Adam and Eve, Noah and the ark, Abraham and the binding of Isaac, Moses and Aaron, etc.

[3] Examples include the Coburg Pentateuch, which contains a miniature at the end of Leviticus which shows a teacher waving a whip over his pupil, to spur him on in his studies.  See Narkiss, note 2 above, p. 114.

[4] A manuscript of particular interest when it comes to micrography is Vatican 14, from 1239.  This manuscript was copied in France by the scribe Eliyah ben Berakhia, who also added vocalization and cantillation signs to the text.  The colophon is 17 pages long.

[5] With calligrams, however, the letters serve to explicate the text.   For example, a poem about Jonah is written in the form of a dove (Heb. yonah).

[6] On the dating of this manuscript, see M. Beit Aryeh, C. Sirat, and M. Glazer, Otzar ha-Mitzhafim ha-Ivriyim – Kitvei Yad bi-Khtav Ivri mi-Yemei ha-Beinayim be-Tziyunei Ta’arikh, Part I (until 1020), Turnhout 1997-2006, pp. 25-39.

[7] These color illustrations are gathered at the end of the new photographed edition published in a single volume:  The Leningrad Codex: A Facsimile Edition, ed. Astrid B. Beck, David Noel Freedman, James A. Sanders, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998, Leiden 1988, pp. 958-969, 988-991.

[8] Par. 282, p. 333, Margaliyot edition 1957.

[9] Tosefot Yoma 54a-b, s.v.keruvim de-tzurata.”

[10] Tur Yoreh De’ah, par. 141.

[11] E.E. Urbach, “Methods of Codification:  The Tur (in Hebrew)” Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research Jubilee Volume 46-47 (1979-1980), pp. 1-14.

[12] See the list of manuscripts in Y. Peretz, Ha-Torah be-Khitvei Yad, be-Tikkunei Soferim u-ve-Sifrei Torah Ashkenaziyim be-Tekufat Yemei ha-Beinayim:   Nusah, Parshiyot Petuhot u-Setumot ve-Tzurot ha-Shirot (Doctoral dissertation), Ramat-Gan 2008, p. 40, note 145.

[13] As in southwestern Germany.

[14] For example, in the Ambrosian Bible 2-4 in Milan (B 30-32 inf.), dating to 1236.  See the photograph in Narkiss, note 2 above, pp. 90-91.