The Munich Manuscript

Until the invention of printing professional scribes and copyists would write the Talmud and all the other writings of the Jewish canon by hand. The work of copying was considered an earnest, laborious and meticulous craft. Often, manuscripts that came from distant places preserved variants in the text that showed different traditions in the study of the Babylonian Talmud. With the invention of printing the version of the Talmud became fixed and older versions that had been copied by hand were either lost or forgotten.


In the year 1342 Shlomo ben Shimshon completed the copying by hand the of the complete Babylonian Talmud in one volume containing 577 pages. The type of script Shlomo ben Shimshon used was not the elegant square script commonly used for writing canonical treatises, but a semi-cursive script — that enabled a denser and more massive script and with which the copyist was able to include all 37 tractates of the Talmud in addition to the Mishna in a single volume. Apparently, Shlomo ben Shimshon’s achievement is unprecedented — not only for being the only volume of the Babylonian Talmud preserved in manuscript, but primarily for being the only one created from the outset as a single volume.


Over the generations, the manuscript made its way across Europe, passing among various owners who left their signatures in the body of the manuscript. We do not know the name of its original owner since his name was erased by one of the manuscript’s later owners. Various hypotheses have been raised about its whereabouts in the intervening centuries, but what is certain is that some time during the nineteenth century this volume, along and other religious manuscripts, were collected from a German church and placed in the Munich State Library, hence its name—The Munich Manuscript.




In 1862, hundreds of years after the invention of printing, Rabbi Rafael Nathan Rabinovitch was able to see the actual Munich Manuscript of Shlomo ben Shimshon in the State Library of Munich. From that moment he decided to dedicate his life to comparing the famous manuscript with later printings of the Talmud in an attempt to increase knowledge regarding the different versions of the text of the Talmud. The overall aim of this project, to which he dedicated more than twenty years of his life and which was published under the title Dikdukei Sofrim (“דקדוקי סופרים”), was to present to the readers and scholars of the Talmud the changes, adaptations and omissions in the ancient manuscripts, the lost treasure which printing—in its propensity for textual consolidation—abandoned with the generations.