Precious Treasures - Creating a Legacy

Hamodia - December 14, 2001

By Rabbi Daniel Remer

It was on a Sunday afternoon in the late 1970s that Michael Falter, the third generation of a family that had been associated with the printing industry since the late 1800s, was strolling in the King's Library in London, thinking how he would love to be able to reproduce one of the Hebrew manuscript treasures on display. Then he could study it in its entirety and at his leisure, as opposed to just glimpsing the two pages that lay open behind glass in the museum.

This idea prompted him to make further inquiries, and he met with the curator of Hebrew manuscripts at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. There he was shown and overwhelmed by the famous Kennicott Bible. It was not long before Michael and his wife decided to reproduce copies of this manuscript, and so was born the London-based Facsimile Editions, the world's leading pioneer in the reproduction of ancient Hebrew manuscripts. This family-run company is dedicated to bringing out of obscurity some of the finest and most important Hebrew manuscripts in the world, reproducing them to a standard hitherto unknown in the history of publishing.

In 1980, when Mr. and Mrs. Falter began the Kennicott Bible facsimile project, few believed that this colossal enterprise could ever come to fruition. The Kennicott Bible, one of the most beautiful medieval Spanish Hebrew manuscripts, was copied by the scribe Moshe Ibn Zabara in 1476. It was commissioned by Yitzchak ben Shlomo di Braga of La Coruna, Spain. The Kennicott Bible is one of the few Hebrew manuscripts that contain not only the scribe's signature but also that of the artist who illuminated it. Thus we know that it is entirely the work of Jewish hands. The illustrator, Yosef ibn Chaim, wrote his name in fabulous characters, with the inscription "I, Yosef ibn Chaim, have illuminated and completed this book."

The manuscript was completed shortly before the final expulsion of the Jews from Spain. Even at times of unbelievable hardship, there were those who were dedicated to the perpetuation and beautification of our heritage. The manuscript includes the commentary of Rabbi David Kimchi, known as the Radak, and consists of 922 pages, of which 238 are illuminated with lively colors, burnished gold and silver leaf.

The Falters produced 550 copies of the Kennicott Bible. The project took five years to complete, and the Bodlian Library was moved to write that it was "perhaps the most faithful and exact copy ever to be produced."

The Rothschild Miscellany, on display at the Israel Museum, proved to be an even greater challenge, since the goal of every Facsimile Editions project is to produce a facsimile as close to the original as is humanly possible. Tremendous efforts were made to impart to each volume not only the minute details but also the feel of an original.

In order to reproduce the Rothschild Miscellany, a great deal of research and further technical development was required, because the original manuscript is lavishly decorated on almost every page.

The Rothschild Miscellany was commissioned by Moshe ben Yekusiel Hakohen of Italy in 1470. Its 948 pages contain a total of thirty-seven books, including a siddur, Tehillim, Haggada, piyutim, midrashim, and works on halacha, Kabbala and science.

To produce this volume, the Falters sought out a company in Italy that had practiced the master printer's craft for many generations, and the couple moved to Italy temporarily in order to supervise every stage of the facsimile's production. The original manuscript was hand-copied and illuminated on vellum, a type of parchment that is soft and translucent. Its pages were measured for thickness, weight and opacity, and a new type of paper, virtually indistinguishable from the manuscript's vellum, was specially milled in Italy.

The paper mill worked for over a year. The paper it produced has been widely acclaimed as the closest likeness to vellum ever achieved. The 160-gram paper is uncoated and has a neutral pH with the same natural characteristics of animal skin.

The printing of the minutely detailed, exquisite illuminations in twelve colors demanded a great deal of skill and perseverance. Color separations were made for each of the 948 pages, and every one was individually checked against the original manuscript in Jerusalem and then reproofed in Italy, until the color was exactly right. This meant that the Falters had to fly back and forth between Jerusalem and Italy fourteen times.

No printing process can adequately simulate a manuscript's gold leaf, so the couple decided that the only way to reproduce raised, burnished gold was to lay metal leaf by hand, thereby achieving the richness and feel or the original gold. The manuscript contains thousands of illustrations, decorated with powdered and flat gold, faithfully reproduced.

Once printed, each page was cut to the exact shape of the original and then aged at the edges. Each work is hand-bound, and its cover too is an exact replica of the original.

After the completion of the Barcelona Haggada copy, the facsimile was exhibited alongside the original, and no one other than the Falters were able to detect which was the original and which the facsimile. No previously published facsimile has achieved this precision.

Mr. Falter admits that the Barcelona Haggada is his most cherished work. The original is recognized as one of the finest illuminated Hebrew manuscripts in the collections of the British Library. It dates from the mid-fourteenth century.

Of all categories of Hebrew manuscripts, the Haggada tends to be the most extensively and richly decorated. From the inscriptions on the Barcelona Haggada manuscript, we learn that in 1459 a Shalom Latif of Jerusalem sold it to Rabbi Moshe ben Avraham of Bologna for fifty gold ducats, and so it left Spain before the expulsion. The manuscript also bears the signature of an ecclesiastical censor dated 1599. In 1844 it was bought by the British Museum.

The Barcelona Haggada was Facsimile Editions' third project, after which the company went on to produce the Rothschild Haggada, the original of which is owned by the Israel Museum. This Haggada was written in Italy in 1479 and is exceptional in its elegant and elaborate illustrations of the Pesach story.

Facsimile Editions' other works include the 1,043-page Alba Bible, produced between 1422 and 1430, one of the most important of Spanish manuscripts and a thirteenth-century Tehillim produced in 1280 known as the Palma Psalter, named after Palma, its town of origin, with the commentary of the Ibn Ezra. Perek Shira and Me 'ah Brachos were smaller productions but of no less quality, as was the Torah Scroll Fragments project.

Now the Falters have embarked on what may be considered their greatest challenge yet: a manuscript known as the North-French Hebrew Miscellany. This is one of the world's most important Hebrew treasures and the British Library's finest treasure.

The work was written and lavishly illustrated in northern France in about 1280. The contents of this manuscript are so varied that it would be better categorized as a library than as a book. It comprises eighty-four different groups of texts, including hundreds of poems, Tanach, siddur and machzor, many halachic works and the earliest known copy of Sefer Mitzvos Katan, which was written in 1277.

The patron must have been a Torah scholar with considerable means at his disposal. Not only does the manuscript contain the texts that he considered important; it is also a costly work of art. The illustrations richly reflect the values, memories and ideas around which Jewish life revolves, including the dangers faced by the Jewish people, their hopes for redemption and the defeat of evil.

The manuscript probably left France when its owners were banished during the wave of persecution against Jews in 1306. By 1479 it had reached Italy and a little later was in Venice. By the fifteenth century it had found its way to northeastern Italy and was rebound in Modena, near Bologna.

The magnificent calf binding, which is still intact, bears the arms of the Rovigo family, one of whose most eminent members, the mekubal Rabbi Avraham ben Michael, may have owned the manuscript.

The manuscript finally came into the possession of the Reina Library of Milan and remained there until 1839, when it was acquired by the British Museum. The manuscript contains a staggering 1,500 pages, and the Falters plan to produce only 360 copies of the North-French Hebrew Miscellany rather than 550, the number produced of their previous facsmiles.

After each edition is completed, the printing plates are destroyed (in compliance with halachic requirements) in order to preserve the significant investment value of each facsimile. Work on the Northern-French Hebrew Miscellany is well under way; the Falters are hoping to publish this work in October 2002.

Who would imagine that the seed of inspiration planted that Sunday afternoon in the King's Library would yield such fruits? Twenty years of work on Hebrew manuscripts have created a library that enables libraries and collectors worldwide to obtain these facsimiles, offering much broader access to the manuscripts. Whereas before there existed only a single copy of each work, belonging to just one library in the world, now many libraries and museums worldwide own copies of these treasured Hebrew manuscripts.

It is the Falters' hope that these facsimiles will be passed down to future generations by those individuals who have purchased copies, thus preserving the great wealth of the Jewish heritage for future generations.