THE HARRISON BIBLE COLLECTION that was acquired in 1963 by Bridwell Library, Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas, includes an old Torah scroll (Hebrew: Sefer Torah; pl., Sifrei Torah) whose general appearance and calligraphic styles are strikingly different from those of the Pentateuchal rolls that are ordinarily seen in western synagogues. Until the middle of 1972 the provenance of this scroll remained unknown, and although a number of suggestions concerning its origins were offered prior to that time, none of these was found to be acceptable.
My own interest in the scroll was aroused one morning in 1970 by Mr. Decherd Turner, Jr., then director of Bridwell, who drew my attention to it as it lay on a table in one of the library's offices. This Sefer Torah, Mr. Turner informed me, was part of an out- standing collection of biblical texts that had been amassed by Mr. Thomas J. Harrison of Pryor, Oklahoma, and was in the course of time transferred to the custody of Bridwell pursuant to the terms of Mr. Harrison's will. Recognizing that there was something unusual about the scroll's calligraphy and scribal stylisms, Mr. Turner and his staff made a point of showing it to a succession of rabbis and lay biblical scholars who in the next few years had occasion to use the facilities of Bridwell, but were unable to obtain a consensus as to its provenance. One rabbi, for example, asserted that it was written during the eighteenth or nineteenth century, either in Iran or Iraq; another, picking the same time frame, called it the work of a Moroccan scribe (Hebrew: sofer; pl., soferim); while a third saw fit to attribute it to a Polish scribe of the nineteenth century.
Having let me know all this, Mr. Turner posed the same ques- tion to me that he had previously posed to the rabbis: what could I tell him about the provenance of his Torah?
Although the question surprised me, I had no reason to believe that it was meant to be taken seriously, I having never suggested to him or to anyone else that I possessed any expertise in Torah scribal lore. The fact was, as Mr. Turner was well aware, that my interests lay in the technological and economic aspects of early printing and, as I was sure he also knew, that the sum total of my knowledge of Torah scribal practices could have been written out in four or five short sentences. Still, ordinary courtesy demanded that I make at least a show of interest in the question by glancing at the three or four columns of text that lay open between the two rolled-up portions of the scroll. This I did, for perhaps ten or fifteen seconds; but because I was not wearing my reading glasses I immediately and, as it ultimately turned out, altogether erroneously jumped to the conclusion that the script was a variant of the semi-cursive Hebrew printing style known as Ktav Rashi (Rashi Script), Rashi being the acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Itzhaki (1040-1105), whose uniquely lucid commentaries are pored over to this day by Jewish scriptural and talmudic students of all levels of competence.
At that point, having made it clear to Mr. Turner that I hadn't the faintest clue as to the provenance of his Torah, the two of us walked on.
That afternoon it suddenly crossed my mind that I had somehow forgotten that a Sefer Torah intended for use in synagogal worship services must be written only in the square-shaped Ktav Ashuri hand (Assyrian Script; also known as Ktav Arami, or Aramaic Script) that had supplanted the Canaanitic alphabetical forms in which Heb- rew was commonly written prior to the time of Ezra the Scribe and continue even now to be employed in the writing of Samaritan scriptural scrolls. Why then, I had to ask myself, would any sofer want to write a scroll in Ktav Rashi?
A word of explanation is in order here. The earliest Hebrew printers, attempting to reproduce in type the calligraphy traditionally employed by soferim for the writing of sacred texts, created two distinctive Hebrew fonts for that purpose, Ktav Meruba (a square- shaped character based on Ktav Ashuri) and Ktav Rashi. Although they used both styles for works of all descriptions, whether secular or religious, they customarily printed biblical and talmudic texts in Meruba Script, while reserving the Rashi style for the adjoining commentary texts.
I had long known that Judaic tradition requires every male Jew to write at least one Torah scroll in the course of his life. Could it be, I therefore asked myself, that some pious Jew, having decided to fulfill that obligation, chose to do so by writing his scroll in Rashi Script? Perhaps, I surmised, this man was more adept at writing in the Rashi style, which is fairly close to the cursive, than in the square Assyrian, which is anything but cursive; or perhaps the Rashi style appealed to his sense of the esthetic more than the Assyrian. Whatever the case, it followed thatthe Torah scroll this devout individual would have had in mind could have been intended only for personal use, and not for reading at public worship ser- vices. He would thus be left free to write his scroll in any soferic style that he cared to.
But all this, of course, was mere speculation; and, intrigued by the challenge posed by the unconventional stylistic inclinations of our anonymous scribe, I now began to seek out people who were far more knowledgeable than I in the field of soferic lore and ask them if they had ever seen a Sefer Torah that was written in Ktav Rashi. No one, however, could give me an affirmative answer.
After almost two years of such inquiries a chance encounter in a New York bookstore set me on the track that was ultimately to lead to the incontrovertible identification of the provenance of the Bridwell scroll. The owner of the shop, a friend of mine, interrupted my browsing about in his shelves to introduce me to one of his most valued customers, the late Dr. Morton Rosenbaum, a psychologist turned bibliophile who dealt in Jewish manuscripts and rare books, and who also taught the history of printing at the library school of the University of Pittsburgh.
Within a few minutes after meeting Dr. Rosenbaum I posed three questions to him concerning certain problems dealing with the mechanics of early Hebrew typography; and, while I was at it, I broached the subject of the Bridwell Torah and asked whether he had ever come across a Torah written in Rashi Script.
Dr. Rosenbaum's response to the last question was emphatic. Absolutely not, he said in several decades of work with Hebrew manuscripts he had never seen or heard of a Torah that was written in anything other than the Assyrian style. As to my questions regarding the mechanics of Hebrew printing, that subject was regrettably outside his field of expertise. The person to whom I should address such questions, he suggested, was Dr. Menahem Schmelzer, the librarian of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
After some further talk, Dr. Rosenbaum placed a telephone call to the Jewish Theological Seminary and introduced me to Dr. Schmelzer. Because it was then late in the afternoon and I was flying back to Dallas early the next morning, I could not accept Dr. Schmelzer's courteous invitation to meet him at his library and discuss my questions. It was agreed instead that we would handle them by correspondence.
In Dallas, a few days later, I visited Bridwell and had my second look at its mysterious Torah scroll. This time I wore my glasses and was astonished to discover that the script I had nearly two years earlier taken to be in the semi-cursive Rashi hand was in fact composed in the conventional square-shaped Ktav Ashuri character, though in a variant with which I was not familiar. Had I been wearing my glasses the first time I saw the scroll, and had I done more than merely glance at it, I would certainly have realized that the script was a form of Ktav Ashuri and would no doubt have dismissed the entire matter from my mind and made no effort whatsoever to pursue it.
In any event, having gone this far, I went a bit further, and persuaded Mr. Turner to allow me to make photocopies of several columns of the text of the scroll. These I promptly forwarded to Dr. Schmelzer, together with a covering letter containing my three questions concerning Hebrew typographic practices and a brief explanation of Bridwell's interest in pinpointing the provenance of its enigmatic scroll.
Dr. Schmelzer's reply was dated 3 July 1972. He regretted, he wrote, that he could be of no assistance regarding the particular questions I had asked him about the mechanics of early Hebrew printing. However, as for the calligraphic style shown on the photocopies I had sent him, this, he wanted me to know, closely resembled that of a Torah owned by his own library that was written ca. 1663 for the use of a Chinese synagogue located in the former imperial capital city of Kaifeng.
This startling information was of course the key that made it possible to unlock the door. From that point onward the nature of the problem became more specific. Was the Bridwell scroll actually written in China? If so, when? By whom? How would it have gottenout of China? And, of all places, to a small town in Oklahoma? Were there still other old Chinese Torahs in existence, aside, that is, from the as yet unauthenticated copy held at Bridwell and the fully authenticated exemplar held by the Jewish Theological Seminary? Where might these be? And if there were such surviving Torahs, could anything be learned from the way they were written that might tell us more than was already known about the people who commissioned them and read them in their synagogal services?
Fortunately, Bridwell owned a copy of Bishop Charles White's Chinese Jews, in which, at home late one evening, I found a passage regarding the six Torah scrolls that were acquired in 1851 from the Jews of Kaifeng by two Chinese agents of the London Society for the Promotion of Christianity among the Jews (the Chinese Delegates, as they came to be called). Each of these Pentateuchs but one, White reported, bore a number in Hebrew characters on the reverse side of the last skin of Deuteronomy, these being bet (c, or 2), dalet (s, or 4), he (v, or 5), tet (y, or 9), and yod-bet (ch, or 12); and four of these five numbered exemplars were donated by the Society to the British Museum, Oxford University, Cambridge University, and the Bishop of Victoria (Hong Kong). The fifth and also the unnumbered sixth (which was incomplete, and did not include Deuteronomy) were retained in London by the Society. White even gave the numbers of the individual scrolls that were donated to the different institutions, though not, as I learned later, without error.
The question that leapt out at me from White's pages was obvious: "Did Bridwells scroll display any of these numbers on its last skin?"
Early the next morning I telephoned Mr. Turner, told him what I had discovered in the White book, and drove to Bridwell. There I found both Mr. Turner and the late Rabbi Levi Olan, who was thenteaching a course at the University, impatiently waiting for me. The Torah, however, was rolled up fully, to the beginning of Genesis to the first of its sixty-eight skins, that is and would have to be re-rolled to the last skin of Deuteronomy, on the reverse of which we hoped to find a number. Mr. Turner, wasting no time, therefore pulled three tables together and placed the scroll at one end. We promptly took positions at each end of the impromptu platform. He began to do the rolling, I the unrolling. Rabbi Olan, rushing back and forth between us, scanned the texts of the fast-moving skins as best he could, and in the end declared that the Torah appeared to be complete (as it was).
Finally, all the skins having been gotten together in one roll, I rushed to the other end of our improvised platform, looked hurriedly at the exposed reverse of the last skin and there, plainly marked, were the Hebrew letters ch (yod-bet, or 12). There was now no question in our minds we had discovered a great rarity, a Chinese Sefer Torah! In short, the scroll lying before us was a Torah that was installed in 1663 in the ark of a synagogue located deep in the heart of China by a congregation that, as we later learned, had dedicated it to the Tribe of Benjamin. We were, to put it plainly, overwhelmed, exuberant, and, I must confess, somewhat shaken.
Nevertheless, we felt that the prudent course would be to amass substantially more evidence than we already had before announcing that our Torah was indisputably of Chinese provenance. Accordingly, I was asked to try my hand at whatever research was called for to make the identification airtight.
I agreed to undertake the project, but discovered very quickly that I had taken on a much more demanding responsibility than I could have anticipated. As the project developed, the task of assembling the relatively little reliable information that was available concerning the Jews of old China and their books made it necessary for me to call upon the facilities of two dozen or more major libraries here and abroad, to engage in correspondence with numerous individuals in various parts of the world, and, under the sponsorship of Bridwell, to visit several libraries and universities in the United States and Europe. It took about about two and a half years to get this done.
A surprisingly large number of people more than a hundred, in fact, some associated with academic or theological institutions, some not have in one way or another helped me assemble the data from which this study has evolved, and I am greatly indebted to all of them for their generosity in sharing their expertise with me.
My profoundthanks must go to Mr. Turner, as well as to the staff of Bridwell, both as it was constituted in the early 1970s and as it is constituted today. For the help I have received in the pre- paration of this revised edition, I am especially indebted to Dr. Valerie Hotchkiss, the present director of Bridwell Library, and to her associates, Messrs. Isaac Gewirtz, David Lawrence and Page Thomas. I must, in addition, acknowledge my gratitude to Dr. Donald Daniel Leslie, who in 1973 and 1974 was kind enough to tie up several loose ends for me during his visits to Hong Kong and London, and to offer numerous invaluable suggestions apropos certain matters discussed in this study. I wish also to express my deep appreciation to Dr. Schmelzer, whose recognition of the resemblance of the calligraphic style employed in the Bridwell Torah to that of his own library's Kaifeng scroll pointed the way to the authoritative identification of the former.
And, of course, to my wife Barbara, who not only encouraged me to write this study, but has surely helped roll and unroll more Chinese Torah scrolls than any other person alive.
The first edition of this book was published by Bridwell Library in the Spring of 1975. In preparing this second edition, designed for electronic distribution through the medium of the Internet, I have been afforded a most welcome opportunity to expand my original text by introducing numerous previously unavailable or overlooked items of information that have come to my attention during these past two decades, to correct occasional errors, to project several thoughts concerning the Kaifeng Torah scrolls augmenting or even altering those presented in the original edition of this work, and to improve the style and clarity of the text. The Preface to the 1975 edition has not been reproduced herein, inasmuch as it has been incorporated in revised form in the newer text presented above.
It is pertinent to note here that although diplomatic relations between the United States and the People's Republic of China had already been established when the 1975 edition of this book was being readied for press, it remained exceedingly difficult for a foreigner to obtain permission from the Chinese government to travel to such "closed" cities as Kaifeng. As a consequence, we in the West were left unable to determine whether the remnants of the city's ancient Jewish community if indeed there were some retained any memories of the ethnic background and traditions of their forebears. However, once it became possible to travel to Kaifeng it was learned that perhaps two or three hundred individuals in the city continued even at that late date to think of themselves as Jews or had at least denominated themselves as such in the two censuses of minority groups that were carried out by the Chinese government during the tenure of Mao Tse-tung. These individuals have, however, virtually no knowledge of Judaic practices, culture or history, although a number of them have recently professed an interest in learning something of that which has been forgotten. Nor have they been able to provide any new information regarding the Torah scrolls that were once the pride and joy of their ancestors. For that matter, what is presently known in Kaifeng about these Torahs has for the most part been culled, I am told by Prof. Shirley Wood (Xu Xueli) of the University of Kaifeng, from the first edition of this work, copies of which are held by the libraries of the university and the citys recently rebuilt municipal museum.
In most instances, I have retained the English spellings of Chinese names and terms as they were rendered in the 1975 edition in conformance with the rules of the then prevailing Wade-Giles transcriptional system. However, in a few scattered instances mainly in the rendering of names that do not appear in the earlier edition I have used the Pinyin transcriptional system which was introduced in 1980.