ДАТА ПУБЛИКАЦИИ: 14 сентября 2018
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by Svetlana GURKINA, researcher, MS Restoration Department, State Research Institute of Restoration

Our Research Institute of Restoration is just a bit over forty years old. But its staff has done a job of work in bringing back to life many of the precious relics of Russian and world art. Our record takes in the famous Dionisiy frescoes of the Ferapont Monastery, old icons, paintings of European masters of the 15th to 18th centuries as well as canvases of Russian artists since the 18th century. And lots of other things, including works of decorative and applied art. Here I am going to tell you about our work in restoring old manuscripts, such as the Evangelium Aprakos (Savva's Book, 11th century). Service Menologion (12th century), Byzantine Gospel, among other things. One precious manuscript that owes its second birth to us is a Bible in Hebrew.

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Books - first in the form of manuscripts, then in print-are a very important part of human culture. Just as important as all the various tools, machines and other material values.

For many centuries hand-scripted books were a wellspring of knowledge and learning and, as such, they were of sacral meaning. The Hebrews, for instance, commissioned the copying of Holy Writ scrolls to the Sopherim, or select scribes - which was a job of the utmost honor and holiness. Before turning to it, they would pray the Lord to bless their labor.

Throughout the early Middle Ages learned rabbis perused the text of the Bible to collate it with what was considered a model, holy version, the authentic text so to speak. The scribes copied every letter with absolute precision. This applied to the layout of the text, line arrangement, even to accidental blots, marks and corrections. All that was copied meticulously, with great care, in an act of sacral meaning. That's how the so-called Masorete* Bible came to be, one used by the Jews even today.

The Jews did not permit destruction of manuscripts, for any of them had the name of God in it, and it was a grievous sin to lift a hand against this name. Therefore manuscripts not fit for use, be it because of their decrepit state, copying errors or "heretic" content, were kept in repositories set up for the purpose at large synagogues, the genizahs so-called. When all too many old manuscripts piled up, they were committed to the earth with "full honors". Such "burials" were arranged every now and then on a regular basis. As a result, a great number of MS were gone for good. Also consider the constant wanderings of Jews in the wide world, religious persecutions, wars, natural calamities and all that. In short, time took a heavy toll. What remains- medieval scrolls, all the various scraps, bits and snatches-is worthy of the closest attention and study.


Our department undertook the job of restoring some of the fragments of a Hebrew Bible which is

* Related to the term "Masorah" (verbally, "tradition") denotes canon rules for the pronunciation of the biblical text decreed by Jewish scholars (Masoretes) in the 7th-10th centuries A. D. - Ed.

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in the custody of the Russian National Library of St. Petersburg. It has one of the world's richest collections of Jewish manuscripts, which numbers over 15 thousand entries. Here we owe a great deal to the Karaite* merchant Abraham Firkowitz who, fending for himself single-handedly, gathered an immense collection of manuscripts in Hebrew, Samaritan, Aramaic and other Semitic languages.

Acting on the last will of Abraham Firkowitz, his family asked His Majesty's Public Library in St. Petersburg to purchase the MS heritage collected by the late Firkowitz.

Accordingly, in March 1861 His Majesty's Academy of Sciences set up a commission which, on His Majesty's orders, was to take stock of the MS collection and assess it. On March 7, 1862, came the verdict signed by a panel of experts-Academicians Mariy Brosse, Arist Kunik, Anton Schiffner and Vladimir Velyaminov-Zernov; the report, forwarded to the Academy's Department of History and Philsophy, read this in part: "There is no doubt that the Firkowitzes' collection is desirable to be purchased for Russia. It would considerably augment and grace our stock of oriental manuscripts. Barring the small number of Hebrew manuscripts purchased recently from Mr. Tischendorf, neither the Public Library nor the Asian Museum of the Academy of Sciences has any Hebrew manuscripts at all." The Firkowitz collection was assessed at 25 thousand rubles, a princely sum for the time. But it happened to be only a part of the unique collection.

In the summer of 1874, the Russian Public Education Ministry sent two scholars - Abraham Garkawi, Doctor of History at St. Petersburg University, and Doctor Hermann Strack of Leipzig University, to the community of Chufut-Kale in the Crimea, the domicile of the Firkowitzes. They were to take a close look at the remaining manuscripts and assess their scientific and commercial value. What the two scholars saw surpassed every expectation. Here's what Dr. Strack recalled: "The floor of the synagogue where fragments of the texts were kept was strewn with scrolls, each containing separate sheets and excerpts from 5 to 10 manuscripts. Only a small number of large-format parchment codes were listed and put in order somehow."

It took both scholars two months to draft a report titled "On the Collection of Oriental Manuscripts of A.S. Firkowitz kept at Chufut-Kale". In their opinion,

* Karaites, members of the Jewish sect who reject the Talmud. In fact, this is an ethnoconfessional community living in the Crimea, in the Baltic area and in Israel. In the 8th century A.D. this tribe split from the bulk of the orthodox Jews preaching Judaism. Following theosophic dogmas of their own, the Karaites - unlike the Christians - did not break with the worshippers of Jahweh altogether; quite the contrary, they, the Karaites, insisted on their genuine orthodoxy whose roots, they claimed, dated back to the age of the wise king Solomon. - Auth.

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this collection was far larger than the first installment considered to be the world's largest. Manuscripts of the Old and New Testaments found by Abraham Firkowitz in the native land of the Holy Scriptures enabled scholars to continue their work on the scientific identification of the texts. Of particular value were passages from the Bible recorded in the Babylonian script. A grammar code in Arabic, listing the names of fourteen scholars, the compilers of the Masorete text of the Torah (Hebrew name for the Pentateuch), was a remarkable event in biblical studies. Some of the writings dealt with grammar and lexicography (10th century A.D., a time when, influenced by the Arabs, the Jewish people came to be conscious of the grammar of their language too); others were regular dictionaries. Treatises written by Judaic and Karaite scholars in Arabic (their contribution to exegetics, or interpretation of the Holy Scriptures) as well as their commentaries on the Book of Books are a thesaurus in their own right. This huge collection of manuscripts likewise concerned itself with various disciplines, such as medicine, astronomy, zoology and so forth - even with the Cabala, an occult religious philosophy based on a mystical interpretation of the Scriptures. Besides, there happened to be poetry and prose pieces on the language of Iberian Jews, Ladino. The collection also contained something like 500 documents on parchment and paper issued to the Karaites and Jews of the Crimea, Turkey and Egypt.

In 1876 His Majesty's Public Library purchased the Chufut-Kale collection. Even a cursory look at the inventory cannot but amaze you: nearly all of the manuscripts were collected by a man not young in years, Abraham Firkowitz. A collection comparable to the handwritten treasures of the Cairo genizah.


Today his full name - Abraham Samuelovich Firkowitz - rings no bell to the broad public. Once he came to be known as Aben Reshef (from the initial letters of his first and family name in the Hebrew script - Abraham Ben Rabbi Samuel Firkowitz). The man was born on September 2, 1787, into a peasant family at Lutsk, a town in the Volhynia gubernia (province) of the Ukraine. He married at a rather young age. As father of a large family, Firkowitz had to work for a living in the sweat of his brow. But his robust health and vigor - and, also important, his wife's dowry in the shape of a flour mill (a real fortune for the local populace) - helped him over the hump. The family was moderately well off... Yet the young miller looked elsewhere. He developed an avid interest in old books, scrolls and manuscripts in the custody of the local synagogue. The paper, letters,

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color of ink - all that had a magic appeal to him and promised a glimpse into the mystery of being. At a mature age of thirty, Abraham felt a violent urge to broaden his mind. And he started taking lessons from the local rabbi.

Then came a passion for collecting old manuscripts. Firkowitz left his family and directed his steps to distant lands, ravaged by wars and epidemics, in search of manuscripts. He began with the Crimea, a region that became Russian territory but shortly before; then he crossed into a war-torn Caucasia, and the Middle East, still under the Ottoman rule - a land of the "abomination of desolation". His odyssey took him to Egypt, a country that had just gained independence from the Turkish sultan.

A shrewd man of acumen, Abraham Firkowitz made the grade in spite of his inadequate education. His discoveries and findings brought him fame still in his lifetime. His work won recognition from eminent scholars of the day - historians, philologists and orientalists. That time, the mid-19th century, saw a revival of interest in the textual studies of the Bible and Talmud, in Hebrew letters and history, particularly, in the history of the "biblical lands". However, the evidentiary material needed for such studies was scanty, there were all too few Hebrew manuscripts. Abraham Firkowitz was the man who turned the tables. Thanks to his efforts, Russia became a center of Hebrew studies.


The interest in this singular collection is not slackening in our time and age either. As I have said above, our team was approached by the Russian National Library - we were asked to bring MS fragments of the Bible into proper trim. Those were two compact lumps of parchment, and badly soiled to boot. It looked like a hopeless case. And yet we made a try, hoping against hope. Mend or end! The first thing to do was to undo the MS without tearing it into shreds. We used what we call the method of remote moistening to make the parchment more pliant. Thus me managed to turn the two lumps into two double sheets. Such sheets were pieced together into note-books - something like regular copy-books used by schoolchildren, though their size might vary depending on the clime and tradition.

And then we saw that the sheets belonged to two different manuscripts, because both the format and the hand were different. Those were found to be fragments of the 15th- century Bible. Further perusal of the text in Hebrew showed that one fragment was from the Hagiographs, while the other reproduced the ending of the 22nd and the beginning of the 23rd chapter of the Book of the Prophet Jeremiah.

We had to cope with a formidable job-restore the fragments of the

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Bible without damaging the dilapidated texture of the manuscript. We were handling the badly deformed sheets, soiled and torn at the edges. Here and there the parchment became thin and brittle, it came apart at a mere touch. The sheets were clipped on three sides and truncated a good deal from the bottom. Such kind of procedure was quite common for bookbinders of the East, Russia and Western Europe when renovating the bindings as the tattered edges of pages had to be clipped.

Sticking to their tradition, the Jews (European Jews in particular) would continue using parchment even in the 15th century when paper was already available. The paper mills and associated production technologies made it possible to upgrade the parchment treatment techniques - by cleansing and polishing the hair side of the material (the skin of sheep, goats or other animals), one obtained good white sheets with velvety structure.

That kind of stuff we got to work on. It accumulated the dust of many centuries that ate deep into the parchment and stuck in between the hairs. We had to remove the dust without destroying the velvety surface of the material.

There is a rather limited range of parchment cleansing techniques. Moistening parchment with water or water solutions makes it non-elastic, rigid and transparent - so much so that one can even read the text on the reverse side. So water is not kosher. That's why parchment is cleansed with regular rubber erasers and cotton-wool swabs or tampons (slightly wetted and wrung dry).

Before getting down to this job, we had to fix the text on both sides since the layer of ink came off here and there. To cap it all, dun blotches covered the sheet and the text on it. One was rather large, reddish-brown and pock-marked. That was a dense layer of dirt, and we could not tell whether the text under it preserved or not. If it did, how could we remove the hardened blot and keep the manuscript intact?

Examining the spot with a microscope, we surmised it might be traces of blood, dried up. Forensic medicine experts confirmed our conjecture: the dark-brown splotches were bloodstains, and the specific color of the blur was due to the iron contained in blood. That was a nice kettle of fish! We knew of no reliable technique of obliterating ferric contaminants. The conventional methods for organic impurities - such as solutions of hydrogen peroxide, gasoline and ethanol - were no good. Something else, and quite out of the way, was needed.

And we had a streak of good luck thanks to Dr. Natalia Rebrikova who suggested chymotrypsin, an enzyme secreted by the pancreas. Medics use it for eliminating the destructive protein from lesions of the skin.

Before taking out the spots we fixated the impaired text with a special solution, and cleaned the parchment in between the lines of the text with distilled water and ethanol (1:1). Then we went over it with a soft cotton eraser. Next, taking a cotton swab doused in chymotrypsin, we treated the spot and covered it with a polyethylene film for 10 to 15 minutes - applying a compress of sorts. On its removal we treated the spot with a neutralizer. So the parchment became more elastic and pliable. The blobs of dirt were sorptioned with filter paper. This procedure was repeated many times over, from start to finish. It was a thorough, meticulous job. We had to stop every now and then to give the old parchment a "breathing space" and let it dry up, for overmoistening is a menace.

Our preparation proved especially good for the hardened spot: a layer of brown dirt came off, and we removed it with particular care by using a scalpel and cotton micro- swabs. Then came out the text, poorly preserved as it was. And we fixed it. Thereupon the conventional techniques were applied, such as remote moistening, compressing, and pasting.

There is a good substitute for parchment developed in our days and differing but little from the genuine parchment. This substitute is used for mending parchment manuscripts by applying patches of it where necessary. The glue is obtained to an ancient recipe from thinly sliced parchment pieces. And last, the parchment sheets are ironed out under low pressure to keep its velvety structure intact.

This way, step by step, we restored the two fragments of the 15th century Bible. Scholars now have another opportunity of perusing the old text. We hope we have done our bit in preserving the precious heritage left by Abraham Firkowitz, a passionate collector and tireless traveler.

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S. GURKINA, "MANUSCRIPT DO NOT BORN..." // Москва: Портал "О литературе", LITERARY.RU. Дата обновления: 14 сентября 2018. URL: http://literary.ru/literary.ru/readme.php?subaction=showfull&id=1536956066&archive= (дата обращения: 22.08.2019).

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