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University of Cambridge Students Read From 14th Century Torah Scroll at Morning Service

Unearthed by referencing a 1926 catalogue, the scroll is believed to have origins in Yemen. How it made its way to England, however, is a mystery.

Eylon Aslan-Levy
March 10, 2016
Image by Lee S Goldfarb
Image by Lee S Goldfarb
Image by Lee S Goldfarb
Image by Lee S Goldfarb

Students at the University of Cambridge held a historic prayer service in Trinity College’s Wren Library on Monday, using a 14th century Torah scroll from the library’s collection, which is believed to have come from Yemen. Over sixty people attended the morning shaharit service, during which a student of Yemenite origin chanted from the scroll in the musical tradition of that ancient Jewish-Yemenite community, in tribute to the scroll’s provenance.

The medieval scroll was discovered in a catalogue of Hebrew manuscripts by Cambridge’s Israeli chaplains, Rabbi Yisrael Malkiel and his wife Elisheva. It took “half a morning” for the librarians to find it in the basement, where the items in the catalogue were stored, since nobody had sought it at least since the catalogue’s completion in 1926.

Upon its discovery, Malkiel inspected the entire scroll together with Hebrew Bible scholar Theodor Dunkelgrün. They discovered that the scroll was written in a distinctive calligraphic style not employed in centuries, involving special decorations called “crowns,” or tagin. By comparing the text side-by-side with Yemenite versions of the Torah (there are minor discrepancies between versions), Dunkelgrün concluded that while the scroll was acquired in Yemen, it is not a typical Yemenite text. “For centuries, Southern Arabia had been a vital node in a network of trade, connecting Europe and the Mediterranean to India,” he said, noting the scroll could have been written elsewhere. The scroll had entered the possession of Trinity College in a bequest of Hebrew manuscripts by former vice-master William Aldis Wright in 1914, but how exactly it made its way via Yemen to England over five hundred years remains a mystery.

The Torah service inside Trinity College’s Wren Library. (Image courtesy of the author)
The Torah service inside Trinity College’s Wren Library. (Image courtesy of the author)

The service was the initiative of Jewish Society co-president Gabriel Gendler, who wanted this item gathering dust to be restored to its original function. “Cambridge and other British institutions have never really been places that cared about the artifacts they collected and history it had,” he said, observing that the scroll had been preserved as an item of historical interest rather than as a sacred object. That said, Trinity College “absolutely loved” the idea of removing the scroll for a prayer service, and even paid for weeks of careful restoration of the aging parchment.

Under the gaze of marble busts of Greek philosophers and a stained-glass window depicting Isaac Newton and King George III, third-year theology student Eliot Cohen said that “the Jewish tradition felt simultaneously timeless and alive,” noting the “peculiar and endearing fusion of cultures” on this special occasion.

The service came as Cambridge considers a campaign by students at Jesus College to repatriate to Nigeria a bronze cockerel looted from Africa in 1897. Should the Yemenite scroll, too, be restored to its original owners?

“It’s a bit upsetting that such artifacts are in the possession of collectors rather than Jewish communities,” said Gendler. “But it’s not a disaster so long as collectors are also thinking about the [original] communities.” If the scroll proves to have been plundered, he argued, it should be restored to a Jewish community; but if it entered the college’s hands by licit means, “there’s not much reason to be angry.” (By coincidence, the Cambridge synagogue contains a 200-year-old Torah scroll donated years ago by the very same Trinity College, and it’s still in use.)

The Wren Library was built in 1695 to the design of Sir Christopher Wren, the celebrated architect the magnificent St Paul’s Cathedral. Its priceless treasure trove also contains early editions of Shakespeare, books from the personal collection of Sir Isaac Newton, and even original manuscripts of Winnie the Pooh. The University of Cambridge is also the home of the largest collection of documents from the Cairo Genizah, the set of Jewish manuscripts excavated from the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo’s Fustat in 1896-97 by Conservative Judaism founder Dr Solomon Schechter.

Eylon Aslan-Levy is an Israeli news anchor and political commentator. He is a graduate of Oxford, Cambridge and the IDF.

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