10 June 1386
Hannah bat Menahem Zion finished her copy of the Sefer Mitzwot Katan
THIS MANUSCRIPT IS a lovely copy of the SeMaK, the SeferMitzwot Katan ('Small Book of Precepts'). Composed before1280 by Isaac ben Joseph of Corbeil, it is an abridged ver- sion of the Great Book of Precepts by Moses of Coucy. The negative and positive precepts are divided into seven pillars, the seven days of the week. Isaac of Corbeil intended his book to be in every Jewish home and it was in many: we have about 120 manuscripts written during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries and about 60 during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It was well received by scholars in northern France as well as in the Rhincland and became an accepted authority. In time glosses and annotations were added. It is with Meir of Rothenburg and Rav Peretz's glosses that the SeMaK was copied by Hannah, daughter of Menahem Zion.
Hebrew medieval manuscripts were rarely written by women. We know of
fewer than ten, while more than four thousand names of male scribes are
known. This number, however, can be misleading: the scribes of most manuscripts
(about forty-five thousand) remain anonymous, and it is impossible to differentiate
between a man and a woman's hand. It may be that other manuscripts are
also by female hands, although there cannot be many. While many girls were
taught to read, it was not compulsory. Writing was exceptional; women who
actually wrote occur only in families of scholars and scribes. There is
no way of knowing whether Hannah was from a scholarly family, but her writing
is so fluent and professional that it is very probable.
Hannah's copy begins on fol. 7v and ends on fol. 272r. The text is written in semi-cursive characters but Hannah signed her work on fol. 272r in smaller letters: 'I, Hannah daughter of Menahem Zion, completed this book on the eleventh day of the month of Tammuz, in the 146th year of the sixth millennium [10 June 1386]. May God lead his people to liberty. Deliver them from distress and sorrow and make haste to help them. Amen. Soon.' From the divorce formula (fol. 122 r) she appears to have come from Cologne:'in the town of Cologne, 24 Tammuz 5I45'; the date (4 July 1385) is just one year earlier than the one given in the colophon. Perhaps she gave the place and date of the particular day she was writing this passage so that it took her almost one year to write from fol. 122 to fol. 272.
The book is written mostly on quires of four sheets of parchment. It is a small, handy, pocket size, volume with a height of I94 to 198 mm and a width of 145 to 150 mm, while the text measures only 122 to 132 mm by 90 mm. Each page has about 20 to 23 written lines. As in most Ashkenazi manuscripts, the text is enclosed by ruled lines extended at the top and bottom to give the page a more geometrical aspect. To enhance the aesthetic effect, the end of the text does not continue on the line, and whenever it was impossible to finish a word in any other way, the end of the word is found far into the margin.
The first words are written in square letters, sometimes in red ink or alternate red and brown. Sometimes, pen decorations enhance these first words or the ends of paragraphs. These first words and decorations were penned after the text had been written, for they lack form, while between fol. 175 r and the end someone else has written them very sloppily. This might have been the person who copied a table of the precepts at the beginning of the book (fols. 1r - 6 v) and a commentary on the margins signing on fol. 271 v: 'this explanation I finished on 3 Adar i, 52I7 [28 January 1457]'.
However, Hannah has left proof that it was she who did all the delightful pen decorations found at the beginning of the book and more frequently after fol. 103r: she decorated her own name with red ink on fol. 13r. These decorations reveal some of Hannah's favourite subjects: the beginning of the precept of modesty is more ornate, so is the illustration of the verification that no leavened bread is left in the house before Passover. But the most lavish decoration is found in the beginning of the precept about the ritual bath. For Hannah purity was the most important precept for women.
C. Sirat, 'Les femmes juives et I'écriture au Moyen Age', Les nouveaux cahiers 101 (1990) P. 14-23.