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Medieval manuscripts from the Dropsie collection of Judaica and Semitica

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  • Samaritan in Arabic cursive, in the shape of a cup
    Title page of KItāb al-Madāris (detail). Samaritan, written in Neskhi hand.

An important part of the Penn Libraries’ medieval manuscript holdings derive from the library of the Dropsie College for Hebrew and Cognate Learning. Dropsie College, chartered in March of 1907, was the first state-accredited academic institution in the world to confer Ph.D. degrees in Judaic Studies. By the time it closed its doors in 1986, Dropsie College had awarded over 200 doctorates and about fifty master's degrees. In 1988, Dropsie reopened under a new name, "The Annenberg Research Institute," at a new address, 420 Walnut Street, located in historic Center City Philadelphia, and with a new mission as a post-graduate research center. In 1993, it merged with the University of Pennsylvania and is today called the “Herbert D. Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies.”

Penn inherited Dropsie’s internationally renowned research collection of Judaica and Semitica. It included over 100 Arabic manuscripts, many of which were gifts from the library of the famous 19th century Orientalist painter, John Frederick Lewis, over 500 fragments of medieval Hebrew, Aramaic, and Judeo-Arabic manuscripts from the Cairo Genizah, donated by various Dropsie faculty and board members, and hundreds of additional codices in twenty-four different languages and dialects. These holdings supported the College’s courses of study which emphasized a strong grounding in comparative philology and ancient languages such as Sumerian, Akkadian, Hittite, Ugaritic, Aramaic, and Ethiopic. Within a year of its opening, the College established a department of Semitic linguistics. In 1913, a department of Jewish history was founded and in 1925 a department of Egyptology; in 1941, the department of Jewish Philosophy was established, followed in 1944, by the department of Assyriology and Comparative Religion. In 1945, a professional school of Education was introduced, breaking completely with the College’s original orientation towards philological and purely academic study. In 1948, shortly after the establishment of the State of Israel, Dropsie was the first institution of higher education in the U.S. to create an Institute for Israel and Middle East Studies.

What truly set Dropsie apart from other universities during this time were the opportunities the College provided for studying medieval Judeo-Arabic. Written in Hebrew characters and incorporating some distinctive vocabularies from Hebrew, Aramaic, and other languages, Judeo-Arabic (to borrow the words of one of its specialists), Benjamin Hary, “has been spoken and written in various forms by Jews throughout the Arabic-speaking world from before the advent of Islam until today”. Jews in the Middle East and North Africa historically produced Judeo-Arabic texts in a variety of genres: poetry, liturgy, Biblical commentary, even folk tales and romances. At Dropsie, students were trained to read Arabic written in Hebrew characters in order to explore the cultural interchanges among Muslims, Christians, Karaites and Rabbinites. Their meticulous studies of Jewish legal texts, philosophy, and poetry written in Judeo-Arabic in the Islamic settings of Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, Kairouan, Fez, Grenada and Cordova resulted in numerous original scholarly contributions. The Lithuanian-born Ben Zion Halper headed Dropsie’s Arabic language program from 1913 until 1924 and during his tenure supervised the College’s medieval manuscript holdings. Halper is widely known for his catalogue of the Cairo Genizah fragments held in Philadelphia special collections, as well as for his ground-breaking study and critical edition of the medieval halakhic work Sefer ha-mitsvot, written by the late 10th century Babylonian Jewish scholar Hefets ben Yatsliah. His edition was based on and edited from an Arabic manuscript in the library of Dropsie College.

Following Halper’s sudden death in 1924, at the age of 40, he was succeeded improbably by Solomon Skoss. Born in Siberia in 1884, Skoss later moved to mandate Palestine where, as an aspiring bee-keeper, he penned a study of “Bee-keeping in the Holy Land in the Time of Jesus.” He came to the United States to continue his studies and wound up studying Judeo-Arabic at Dropsie, where he complete his Ph.D., “The Arabic Commentary of Ali ibn Suleiman the Karaite on the Book of Genesis” in 1928. Skoss’ career in Judeo-Arabic had practical benefits for the development of the College Library’s manuscript collections. Following the completion of his dissertation, Skoss received a grant from Cyrus Adler to study in Cairo. There he met the banker and Judaica collector Jack Mosseri, who in turn introduced him to the famous Anglo-Indian Jewish merchant family named Sassoon. Both Mosseri and Salomon David Sasson allowed Skoss to make photostats of their rare Judeo-Arabic manuscripts, which Skoss brought back to Philadelphia and donated to the Dropsie library collection. In 1932, Skoss would travel to Leningrad where he discovered fragments of Saadia Gaon’s grammar as well as additions to the tenth-century Karaite lexicographer, David ben Abraham Alfasi’s Kitāb Jāmi‘ al-Alfāz, which he later would publish as The Hebrew-Arabic Dictionary of the Bible in two volumes in 1936–45.

Among the more unusual manuscript holdings is a specimen of Yemenite Judeo-Arabic written in the hand of Hayim Habshush, one of the three most important leaders of the Jewish community of South Arabia in the mid-19th century. Also held among the Dropsie Judeo-Arabic manuscripts is a unique witness to the Judeo-Arabic dialect of Cairo, which is to be published in a critical edition by Prof. Benjamin Hawry of Emory University. Other noteworthy holdings, include CAJS Rare Ms. 255, a “Judeo-Arabic translation of the Pentateuch”; CAJS Rare Ms 270, “Judeo-Arabic commentary on the Ten Commandments, with some possible Sufi elements”; and CAJS Rare Ms. 324, “Piyut (liturgical poetry) in Judeo-Arabic”.

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