One Of Our Torahs Is Missing ...

Actually it's two Torahs.

This week the Green Collection announced the discovery of the world's oldest Jewish prayer book, which will eventually be displayed in their private Bible museum in DC. More info in the press release here.

Radio carbon dates the book to around AD 840, and it is written in a Hebrew which points to Jews in Babylonia. What would be more fascinating would be to know where it came from.

Obviously I would rather the book were safe in a collection than being destroyed in the Middle East, but ... I also worry about collectors like Green buying unprovenanced religious texts on the market. Green is Christian, but he and Jewish collectors seem to be taking a 'no questions asked' approach to 'saving' manuscripts. To clarify: I have been very vocal about my views that the Iraq Jewish archive should have been returned to the heirs not Baghdad, but the US made no attempt to find the heirs. I know the situation with Judaica is rarely clear cut. I am glad the Afghan geniza ended up in Israel, as there were no heirs to it.

Green may well have bought this prayer book off a Jewish family or someone who acquired it legally, and I would have no problem with that.

I do have a problem with the various collectors of Judaica who also acquire Samaritan manuscripts that have been stolen, and which the Samaritan community would like back.

The Samaritan community is small, and has suffered thefts of manuscripts throughout the 20th century, including the theft of two Torah scrolls in March 1995 from Nablus. These old Torahs were written on skin. The thieves offered to 'ransom' - ie sell - them back to the Samaritans, but they couldn't afford to pay the price. There is a good account in the Baltimore Sun:
Discarding the printed copies, they took the two most valuable items they found: a scroll of the Samaritan Torah in an inscribed copper case, and another handwritten Torah on parchment bound in red covers, both said to be 700 years old. The thieves slipped the Torah scroll from the case and left the metal decoration on steps near the synagogue. It was a costly choice: The casing, made in 1521, is worth more than the scroll. It might have fetched several million dollars, said Mr. Tsedaka.
Nablus is in Palestinian territory, so Yasser Arafat tried to help when the scrolls turned up in Jordan. The Israel Antiquities Authority tried to help. Both would like the Samaritans on their side politically, but no-one could find the ransom which had by then dropped to $2m.

I know that a very good investigative journalist is working hard on locating them. I contacted a police friend when they seemed to pass through the hands of a dealer in London more recently. The 'usual suspects' amongst collectors of these sorts of items have denied buying the Torahs.

The problem is that the Samaritans are a small community who can't fight for them to be returned and the thefts took place before the internet took off so was not well publicised.

Photos of the specific scrolls are not available, but it seems to include this one which the Library of Congress describes as their oldest Torah scroll (photo; right click to enlarge):

Most other photos concentrate on the elaborate copper inlaid case, but I have posted a few which show the Torah below.

Obviously these two scrolls are important religious texts to the Samaritans, and they would like them back. If you're shown either of them, please report it to Interpol.

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