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University of Toronto Gets Rare, Mystical Manuscript

January 14, 1998
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

A rare Jewish mystical manuscript that dates from the early 1400s has been obtained by the University of Toronto library.

The manuscript from the Zohar, the central book of Jewish mysticism, is the “crowning jewel” in a large collection of outstanding Hebrew manuscripts and printed books recently obtained by the university, according to Barry Walfish, a Judaica specialist for the library.

The collection was a gift from Albert Friedberg, an Orthodox Jew in Toronto who has been collecting rare Hebrew manuscripts and books for at least half of his 50 years.

Modern scholarship has assigned authorship of the Zohar to Moses de Leon, who apparently wrote it in the late 13th century. Only two known Zohar manuscripts predate the newly acquired Zohar, but both are fragmentary, while Friedberg’s contains the full text. Its first page bears an inscription that indicates the manuscript was acquired for Amira, an epithet denoting the 17th-century messianic pretender Shabbetai Tzvi.

“The Zohar manuscript is the most valuable item” in the Friedberg collection “and the one of greatest scholarly interest,” said Walfish. “It’s the best manuscript of the Zohar in existence, to our knowledge. It’s a very important work for the study of Judaism.”

In all, Friedberg donated 35 manuscripts, about 100 printed books of exceptional quality, and three dozen fragments from the Cairo Genizah, ancient texts that were discovered in the Egyptian capital in the late 19th century.

The collection also includes two rare manuscripts by the biblical commentator Rashi — a commentary on the Torah and a commentary on the Prophets. Both are of German provenance, date from the 13th century and are considered of great scholarly importance since Rashi manuscripts from that period are very rare.

According to Walfish, the National Library in Jerusalem was seeking microfilmed copies of the collection in the early 1990s. However, after receiving numerous requests from scholars to study the Zohar manuscript and other items, Friedberg “decided these things were too important to be in a private library,” said Walfish. “That’s when he arranged to donate them to us.”

The collection has not been microfilmed, although an Israeli company has been negotiating for the right to publish a facsimile edition of the Zohar manuscript.

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