Professor Identifies Ancient Torah Sheet

Gary Rendsburg with the Torah scroll sheet in October | Melissa A. Rendsburg

About a thousand years ago, a scribe wrote a Torah scroll, not knowing his work would one day contain the world’s oldest complete Torah scroll sheet.

In January, the Library of Congress announced the acquisition of the sheet, which has text from the Book of Exodus beginning with the Ten Plagues and ending with the Red Sea. While older fragments of the text exist in the Dead Sea Scrolls, this is the oldest legible example in which the “Song of the Sea” is written in the “half-brick over brick, brick over half-brick” layout.

Gary Rendsburg, the Blanche and Irving Laurie Chair in Jewish History at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, helped the library identify the sheet.

“This is the oldest complete Torah scroll sheet, full stop, and the oldest writing of Exodus 15 and the surrounding passages that we can read with the naked eye,” Rendsburg said.

About a year ago, Ann Brener, Hebraic area specialist in the African and Middle Eastern Division of the Library of Congress and a former student of Rendsburg’s, reached out to ask if he could confirm the sheet’s legitimacy. She sent him a link to an online catalog of rare books and manuscripts that were for sale and asked him if a description of a Torah scroll sheet listed in the catalogue was real and something the Library of Congress should buy.

“I look at it, and it says, ‘1,000-year-old Torah scroll sheet from Exodus 10:10 to Exodus 16:15,’” Rendsburg said. “Now, that’s not something you come up with every day.”

He recognized it immediately from a journal article by Jordan Penkower, professor in the Zalman Shamir Bible Department of Bar-Ilan University, who had studied it while it was for sale at Christie’s, the London auction house, 16 years prior. Rendsburg wrote back to Brener and told her to buy it.

“[Penkower] described it for the scholarly world,” Rendsburg said. “I don’t think any of us even knew about it.”

Torah scroll sheet with text from the Book of Exodus (verses 10:10–16:15). Handwritten on vellum in the Middle East, 10th or 11th century. Hebraic Section, African and Middle East Division. | Library of Congress

The history of the scroll sheet is mostly shrouded in mystery, but there are a few things known, Rendsburg said. The sheet originated in the Middle East. On the back of it, there is an inscription in both Hebrew and Russian that reveals it eventually ended up in Russia where, in 1863, it was given to Grand Duke Constantine, the brother of Czar Alexander II, by Shelomo Beim, the Karaite hazzan in Chufut-Kale, Crimea.

Rendsburg said it was perhaps then taken to St. Petersburg, eventually smuggled out of Russia and wound up in London. The sheet had some creases on it, and this incident may be where they come from.

The sheet didn’t surface again until 2001, when Penkower was able to examine it. Rare books collector Stephan Loewentheil bought it when it was on sale then and offered it for sale again in 2017.

“The Hebraic Section of the Library of Congress has one of the greatest collections of Hebrew books in the world,” Brener said. “Our collections range from medieval manuscripts to the latest novels from Israel and, as you can probably imagine, rather a lot in between. So this Torah scroll sheet fits in beautifully with our collections, and indeed provides a focal point of a very special kind.”

Brener said it was easy to convince the necessary people at the Library of Congress of the sheet’s significance. The story of Exodus, Brener said, is foundational to Western culture and resonates with American history and the American narrative of freedom.

Now that it is in the hands of the Library of Congress, its staff has smoothed it out and photographed it, as before only poor photographs existed. The sheet is well preserved considering its age, Brener noted, but will undergo extensive treatment — probably for the next year — to ensure that it will continue to last well into the future.

When the treatment is done, the Library of Congress will move the Torah scroll sheet to the vaults in the Hebraic Section, where it will be available to anyone who comes to the Reading Room and asks to see it, Brener said.

In October, Brener invited Rendsburg to come to the Library of Congress to give a talk, where he had the opportunity to see the Torah scroll sheet in person for the first time.

“My parents, immigrants from Nazi Germany — they’re not alive anymore — but … they appreciated this country and the second chance it gave them to create their lives,” Rendsburg said. “Here I was, the son of Holocaust survivors, having a very small role — I just want to say it’s a very small role — but a crucial role in bringing this document to Washington, where it now belongs to the people of the United States.” 

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