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Documents Just Found in Spain May Shed Light on Jewish Mysticism

March 27, 2003
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It was truly a historic find.

About 15 years ago, archivists examining several yellowed volumes of notarial records in the city of Girona in northeastern Spain began suspecting that the covers were lined with precious historical documents.

They carefully picked apart the volumes and found a multitude of Hebrew manuscripts embedded in the covers, including business records and other contracts between Jews, and even a fragment from the Torah.

Researchers now suspect that another 162 books dating from the 15th and 16th centuries might also contain an unprecedented treasure of Judaica, and believe that all the manuscripts can be recovered with the latest technology. They are drawing up plans for an ambitious project to open all of the books.

The documents could shed light on a thriving medieval Jewish community that is believed to have been a center of Jewish mystical learning.

While nothing is certain until the delicate covers are disassembled, the Girona historical archives could contain the biggest trove of medieval Hebrew manuscripts ever found in Europe.

“The archives are very potent sources of information on the Jews of Girona,” said Ansumpcio Hosta of the Centro Bonastruc Borta, a museum of Jewish history in Girona. Bonastruc Borta is the name of the mystical scholar Nachmanides in the Catalan language.

“There’s a multitude of information on the daily life of the Jews, on who got married to whom, who bought what property and what kind of trades they were in,” she said.

The unopened volumes could contain manuscripts that shed light on the origins of Kabbalah itself, she added.

“It would really be a dream, because sources of that kind from that time are very rare. That would really make us feel proud,” said Hosta, who also is one of the leaders of an effort to recover the Jewish heritage of Girona and other Spanish cities.

However, she added a note of caution: “It’s also possible we might find lots of plain filler paper.”

Israeli scholar Yoel Rappel has told Israeli media that the volumes could contain hitherto unseen pages of Kabbalah or writings of Nachmanides, a finding that he said would be “tremendously significant.”

The Girona manuscripts are believed to have been left behind by the Jews of the medium-sized city, located between Barcelona and the French border.

Girona had a Jewish presence since at least the ninth century and was the birthplace of Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, also known as Nachmanides or the Ramban.

The community of at least 700 Jews began to suffer pogroms in 1331. Most chose martyrdom when anti-Jewish riots fired up by anti-Semitic preachers swept across Spain in 1391.

By 1492, when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella decreed the expulsion of Spain’s Jews, only around 100 Jews still lived in Girona. The last synagogue and the remaining property owned by Jews then were sold to the municipal notary.

Several years ago, researchers at the Provincial Historical Archive began to suspect that something of interest was lining the covers of 165 yellowed notarial tomes.

The suspicions arose because the covers looked like they contained filler paper, archivist Santi Soler said. But researchers also remembered that several times before in Spanish historical libraries, Hebrew documents had been found embedded inside book covers.

“We knew that a treasure might exist inside these covers because it was common in those days to pad book covers with papers that weren’t seen as having any use,” Soler said.

Indeed, the practice was part of the general spirit of the times, when sacred Jewish objects were desecrated without qualms. Museums today display tombstones stolen from Jewish cemeteries that were used as washing tables and road pavements.

Soler said extracting the manuscripts from the remaining 162 volumes would be “a long and painstaking process.” The fragments are extremely fragile, and are glued to the binding. Even after successful removal, a human touch is enough to make them disintegrate.

Hosta said negotiations are under way to raise money for the project, which some reports have estimated could cost millions of dollars.

She said she expects most of the money to come from the Spanish government, which has a generous budget set aside for projects that cast a glimpse on the country’s Jewish heritage.

However, she added that “the wheels of bureaucracy turn slowly.”

An exhibition of the extracted manuscripts is being planned for later this year.

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