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9th-century Gaster Bible

This very rare early Hebrew Bible shows the influence of Islamic art in its decorative elements. It is named after a previous owner, Dr Moses Gaster (1856-1939), a scholar and spiritual leader of Sephardic Jews in London.

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9th Century Gaster Bible

First Gaster Bible, perhaps Egypt, ninth or 10th century. Psalm 64
BL Or. MS 9879, f. 14v
Copyright © The British Library Board

What is the Hebrew Bible?

The Hebrew Bible, known to the Jews as Tanakh, comprises three sections: Torah (the Law), Nevi'im (the Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings). The term 'Tanakh' is an acronym made up from the initial consonants of each word.

The Torah, also known as the Five Books of Moses, is the most sacred part of the Hebrew Bible. According to Jewish tradition, it was given to Moses by divine dictation, over 3,000 years ago, on Mount Sinai. Among many other things, it contains 613 instructions from God, including the Ten Commandments. The Torah is the cornerstone of Jewish religious life. It is also an object of great affection. The Torah Scroll, handwritten on parchment without any decoration, is the most treasured possession of any Jewish community.

What are the Psalms?

The Psalms are 150 ancient songs, grouped together to form one of the books in the third part of the Hebrew Bible, Ketuvim. (In the Christian Bible they are part of the Old Testament.)

The Psalms were composed, according to tradition, by King David. In the Middle Ages (and down to the present day) they formed a fundamental part of Christian and Jewish worship, for ecclesiastics and lay-people alike; many people learnt to read by being taught the Psalms.

What is on this page?

This page shows Psalm 64 ("Hear my voice, O God, in my prayer: preserve my life from fear of the enemy"). It is a prayer for protection from hidden enemies, introduced in Bibles as being "for the music director: a psalm of David".

What makes this Bible special?

The book of Psalms in this Jewish Bible was written in a single column on each page, each line being divided in two unequal halves. Gilded stylised leaves, scrolls, spirals and foliage outlined in red mark the end of verses in the middle of the page. Combinations of the same motifs were used to separate each psalm, as can be seen in the fifth line from the top. Additionally, a band composed of similar decorative elements adorns the upper margin. This style of decoration was influenced by Islamic art, particularly designs and motifs found in illuminated Qur'ans.

What is meant by Sephardic?

Two forms of Jewish worship - those developed in Palestine and Babylonia - historically became dominant. From the Palestinian tradition came the Ashkenazi rite used in Western and Eastern Europe and Russia. From the Babylonian tradition came the Sephardi rite followed in Spain, Portugal, North Africa, and the Middle East. Both rites, as well as some others, are still practised in Orthodox Jewish communities worldwide.

In geographical or genealogical discussions, people often use the term Ashkenazi and Sephardic to describe Jews who come from the respective regions.