Friday, February 20, 2009

Kol Nidre and the Valmadonna Exhibit

The Valmadonna Trust – for a Hebraeo-bibliophile, there are no words. Such a collection, such a variety of early printed Jewish books, manuscripts, and books printed in out-of-the-way places for Jewish printing, such as India and Palestine. All in such beautiful condition, many bound in gorgeously tooled and gilded leather (cloth bindings didn’t really come in until the 19th century). And all in private hands. There are greater institutional collections (Didan Notzach changed the Chabad library from a private to an institutional collection), but this was assembled largely by one man who truly loves the Jewish book, Jack Lunzer, and who has the resources to collect and preserve them. And it was all on display Feb 9-19, 2009, at Sotheby's in New York.

The stories have been told, of how Lunzer acquired one of only two known complete sets of the Bomberg Talmud, the first complete Babylonian Talmud ever printed, whose pagination forms the model for all other Talmud printings since.

But individual books tell their own stories, be they the choices of composition, editing and production, or the historic personages who have owned them, or the uses to which they have been put. Who has not seen wine stains on antique haggadot, just as we have on our own? Salt-water stains? Even burn marks on cookbooks, or books rescued from the flames?

My favorite book exhibited, was the 1711 Machzor Sha’ar Bat Rabbim, printed by Giovanni de Pauli for the Bragadin press, in the Ashkenazi rite. It’s a big, beautiful chazzan’s machzor, with a commentary explaining the prayers. The type is clear and large. A copy was offered (but did not sell) at Virtual Judaica last year, estimated value $6-10,000.

What made it special to me was the displayed page, Kol Nidrei. This page is marked up by an early chazzan (faded ink from a feather pen), with some marks to remind him of the proper phrasing.

Each short phrase gets a hook like a telisha,

and each concluding phrase on each line (as the tune has lines) gets a horizontal stroke over the phrase.

A different hand, perhaps later, has added little T-marks over emphasized syllables, to further refine correct performance. The hook-marks and horizontal marks seem to come from one hand, with a somewhat sloppy pen that leaves a penumbra of ink, but the T-marks are made by a cleaner pen, perhaps a feather or a metal nib instead of a reed or softer nib. Does anyone have experience of different pen types who can shed some light on this? Feather, reed, metal.

Or perhaps the penumbra is an earlier hand marking the hooks, and the black part is a later hand redrawing them. That would indicate the faint marks are pretty early, but the black marks are also not too late, because who would mark up a real antique?

The way the phrases are marked, it seems clear to me, is identical to the phrasing used by our current Kol Nidre Tune.

Professional cantors speak of certain tunes as “Missinai”. Now, this is not meant literally, but what it means is that these are tunes which are universally used throughout the Ashkenazic communities, which trace back to at least the 14th or 15th century, when the Maharil noted the modes to be used for the different prayers.

I noticed, while singing through our Missinai tune for Kol Nidrei, that the annotations on the words in the Machzor matched the phrasing of our tune. There are other ways the prayer could be broken up, but it seems to me that this is evidence that 200-300 years ago (whenever it was marked), the cantor who used this machzor (it was bought generally by communities, who paid subscriptions to acquire it as a series of pamphlets, and then the whole rebound) was probably using the same tune we do. Yes, it’s a post hoc ergo propter hoc argument, so it’s no proof (pace DFB), but it is at least circumstantial evidence.

It’s one thing to take on faith that “everyone uses the same tune.” We do have 18th- and 19th-century cantorial music which uses the same tune. Abraham Baer in c. 1765 has a somewhat different variant, while Lewandowski in 1871 has our tune pretty much. But to find physical evidence that they were using the same tune in the early 18th century? Fascinating, Captain. It gives real emphasis to the idea that these really are important and ancient tunes.

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