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Malachi Beit-Arié, who ‘created’ field of Hebrew manuscript studies, 86

“The world has lost a great man and a great scholar,” wrote Richard Ovenden, head of the Bodleian Libraries at University of Oxford.

Malachi Beit-Arié. Credit: Facebook/National Library of Israel/family of Malachi Beit-Arié
Malachi Beit-Arié. Credit: Facebook/National Library of Israel/family of Malachi Beit-Arié

One of the most celebrated scholars of Hebrew manuscripts, Malachi Beit-Arié, died on Oct. 17. He was 86 years old.

Gary Rendsburg, distinguished professor of Jewish studies and chair in Jewish history at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, wrote on a listserv for scholars that Beit-Arié was the “doyen of Hebrew manuscript studies,” although “even that wonderful term ‘doyen’ does not fully describe the man, since in fact he created the field.”

Like his mentor Gershom Scholem, the great scholar of Kabbalah, Beit-Arié created the Hebrew manuscript studies field, according to Rendsburg. “So little was known about medieval Hebrew manuscripts, until Prof. Beit-Arié taught us all how to analyze these precious documents, with special attention to the colophons, the paleography, the physical properties of the codex and much, much more,” he wrote.

Beit-Arié was professor emeritus of codicology and paleography at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a former director of the National Library of Israel. (Codicology refers to the study of manuscripts as physical objects, and paleography includes dating texts and interpreting their language.)

Beit-Arié was “one of the great experts on Hebrew codicology” and an honorary fellow at the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford, wrote Richard Ovenden, Bodley’s librarian (the senior executive position at the Bodleian). “The world has lost a great man and a great scholar.”

The “distinguished scholar” and “true pioneer in the study of medieval Jewry, its history, culture and creative works” developed “innovative methodologies for the study of Hebrew books and their design during the Middle Ages,” stated the National Library of Israel.

“In doing so, he was able to reveal the richness of medieval Jewish culture through its most significant sources,” it added. “Among other things, Professor Beit-Arié emphasized that these manuscripts were not only intended for conveying content, but rather served as ‘cultural objects’ worthy of being studied as part of the sociological and cultural history of the Middle Ages.”

Scholarship, poems, children’s literature

Beit-Arié was born on May 20, 1937, in Petach Tikvah and was raised in Kiryat Borochov and Ramat Gan, according to Israel’s National Library. He earned a bachelor’s in Hebrew language and literature at Hebrew University; studied library science; and earned a Hebrew linguistics master’s from the same school.

He lectured on codicology and paleography at Hebrew University beginning in 1975, per the National Library of Israel, which he directed from 1979 until 1990. The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities elected him a member in 2003.

“He also was a gifted writer of literature and poetry. Beginning in 1957, he would often publish poems and children’s stories in literary journals and the daily Hebrew press,” the national library stated.

He was also awarded often for his scholarship and “one of his major achievements was the establishment of the Hebrew Palaeography Project,” a “codicological database containing all manuscripts written in Hebrew script with exact dates and names of copyists, as well as descriptions of their visible material characteristics,” per the library.

Haim Gottschalk, Judaica librarian at the Library of Congress, wrote that Beit-Arié was “a pioneering scholar in the world of codicology, book history and in Jewish studies.” Gottschalk added that he has learned a lot from Beit-Arié’s writings and scholarship.

The University of Pennsylvania’s Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies, the Oxford Centre for Hebrew & Jewish Studies and the Munich Research Centre for Jewish-Arabic Cultures were among the institutions that expressed condolences and appreciation.

“Malachi was more than a foundational scholar in Hebrew manuscripts. He was the kind of scholar you simply wanted to be around,” according to Herschel Hepler, associate curator of Hebrew Manuscripts at the Museum of the Bible in Washington, D.C.

Hepler first met Beit-Arié in 2015 at one of the scholar’s codicology courses, “where he was quickly cracking subtle, private jokes about my being a Museum of the Bible curator,” Hepler told JNS. “I liked him immediately. I feel blessed to know him, to have been known by him and to work together on a project that excited him.”

“We are sad to hear of Professor Malachi Beit-Arié’s passing,” wrote Museum of the Bible. “His work revolutionized the study of Hebrew manuscripts, like the museum’s Valmadonna 1, which impacts every aspect of pre-modern Jewish history. Professor, colleague and friend to many, Malachi will be sorely missed.”

Martina Mampieri, a Martin Buber fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, called Beit-Arié “an incredible teacher and pioneering scholar.”

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