27 October 2023
Malachi Beit-Arié (1937–2023)
All of us at the Centre for the Study of Manuscript Cultures mourn the death of Professor Malachi Beit-Arié, who passed away in Tel-Aviv on 17 October 2023.
Malachi Beit-Arié was one of the world’s foremost manuscript scholars, specialising in Hebrew manuscript culture. His areas of research included medieval Hebrew codicology, palaeography, and the transmission of Hebrew texts in the Middle Ages.
As early as 1965, while still engaged in research for his doctorate, he founded The Hebrew Palaeography Project and has presided over it ever since. In 1967, he completed his dissertation on the subject of Perek Shira (‘Chapter of Song’) with Gershom Scholem at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. In 1970, he became director of the newly founded Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts, which became the most important focal point for researchers worldwide who wanted to study Hebrew manuscripts, including those that were difficult or impossible to access, such as those located in the Soviet Union. The institute – tucked away in the basement of the National Library, always cool, dimly lit, and equipped with an array of large black microfilm readers – became a vibrant centre for manuscript research.
In 1979, he was appointed both Associate Professor of Codicology and Palaeography and Director of the Jewish National and University Library (JNUL), and in 1984 he became Ludwig Jesselson Professor of Codicology and Palaeography at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He retained his professorship at the Hebrew University throughout his life and was director of the JNUL until 1990. Since 2003, he has also been elected a member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities in Jerusalem.
From the wealth of his publications, a few outstanding ones may be mentioned here.
The series Manuscrits médiévaux en caractères hébraïques portant des indications de date jusqu'à 1540 (1972–1986) and Codices hebraicis litteris exarati quo tempore scripti fuerint exhibentes (1997–2007), edited together with Professor Colette Sirat, Paris, have become foundational works for the history and study of Hebrew palaeography. The same is true for the series Specimens of Mediaeval Hebrew Script (1987, 2002, 2017), edited together with his Israeli colleagues of the Hebrew Palaeography Project.
Equally important are the studies on the historical development of book production, on the history of Hebrew manuscripts in the Middle Ages, such as The Makings of the Medieval Hebrew Book, published in 1993, and the study Unveiled Faces of Medieval Hebrew Books: The Evolution of Manuscript Production – Progression or Regression? from 2003. In 1992, he gave one of the prestigious Panizzi Lectures at the British Library, published one year later as Hebrew Manuscripts of East and West: Towards a Comparative Codicology.
He has been a leading author of state-of-the-art catalogues of the Hebrew manuscripts of the Biblioteca Palatina in Parma in 2003, of the Biblioteca Apostolica Vaticana in 2008, and of the supplement to the Neubauer catalogue of the Bodleian Library already in 1994.
Professor Beit-Arié also established the codicological-palaeographic database for medieval Hebrew manuscripts SfarData, in which thousands of Hebrew manuscripts from all over the world are now catalogued, providing an unparalleled wealth of information. It is the result of decades of continuous work and represents the systematic and comprehensive study of the material aspects of Hebrew manuscript culture established by Malachi Beit-Arié within the framework of the Hebrew Palaeography Project and also pursued by him in his own scholarly publications. Manuscripts are no longer regarded as mere text carriers, but are comprehensively appreciated as material artefacts of cultural practices. SfarData was technically revised a few years ago, also with the participation of the CSMC, and incorporated into the system of the National Library of Israel.
SfarData can be considered Professor Beit-Arié’s life’s work, but no less important is his opus magnum, the comprehensive work on Hebrew Codicology: Historical and Comparative Typology of Hebrew Medieval Codices based on the Documentation of the Extant Dated Manuscripts Using a Quantitative Approach. It is published in Hebrew and in English translation and can be accessed via the CSMC’s website or the NLI’s SfarData page.
His research is of such paramount importance for the humanities that it can be regarded as having established a new discipline.
Malachi Beit-Arié has been closely associated with the CSMC for many years, coming regularly to Hamburg with his wife and research partner Dr Nurit Pasternak since 2014, when he attended the conference Research on Hebrew Manuscripts – Status quaestionis. Several times he joined the Centre as a Petra Kappert Fellow. In this way, the CSMC continued and intensified what had already begun in previous years through his collaboration in the Comparative Oriental Manuscript Studies project led by Professor Alessandro Bausi at the Universität Hamburg.
In May 2017, a major conference was held at the CSMC to mark his 80th birthday (Manuscripts East and West – Towards Comparative and General Codicology. A Conference in Honour of Malachi Beit-Arié), whose theme, Comparative Codicology, addressed his pioneering study he presented at the 1993 Panizzi Lectures. It was attended by numerous speakers and guests from all over the world, among many others the Director of the National Library of Israel Dr Oren Weinberg and Professor Dr Nili Cohen, Director of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities. Staff and researchers from the various projects led by Malachi Beit-Arié, his colleague Prof Dr Colette Sirat, and family members were also present.
The last two conferences he had attended at the CSMC were Fakes and Written Artefacts: From Antique Counterfeits to Modern Forgeries and ‘On Parchment, with Wooden Boards’: Hebrew and Non-Hebrew Terms Applied to Jewish Books in Historical Perspective in 2021.
Malachi Beit-Arié has also contributed to the CSMC’s scholarly activities in the area of teaching. In late summer 2017, he and Israeli colleagues held a two-week summer school on Hebrew Codicology and Palaeography at the State and University Library, which holds an important collection of Hebrew manuscripts, and at the CSMC.
In 2018, he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Universität Hamburg for his outstanding achievements. In the laudation, it was pointed out that his research, its methodology, and its results are also relevant beyond the field of Hebrew manuscriptology for comparative manuscript research, for example for the study of Latin or Islamic manuscript cultures of the Middle Ages. They are of such paramount importance for the humanities in general that they can be regarded as basis of a new discipline.
Malachi Beit-Arié was a distinguished scholar, but we all remember him especially as a gentle and generous man, a humorous and erudite conversation partner, and a friend. We miss him and our heartfelt condolences go to his wife Nurit Pasternak as well as his children and grandchildren, his entire family.