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Spanish Hebrew Bible

This 14th-century design illuminates the Tetragrammaton: the four-letter inscription denoting the name of God. Despite lacking all representational imagery, the abstract illuminations manage to evoke the ceiling of a temple dome, and imbue the manuscript with a divine presence.

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Spanish Hebrew Bible

Spanish Hebrew Bible, Solsona, Catalonia, Spain, 1384. Tetragrammaton
BL King's MS I, f. 2r
Copyright © The British Library Board

What is the Tetragrammaton?

From the Greek for 'four-letter word', the Tetragrammaton refers to the four-letter inscription denoting Yahweh, the Hebrew name for God. Because Hebrew does not generally write down vowel sounds, the name is denoted by four letters, usually written in English as YHWH.

In the inscription above, the four letters occur right-to-left, the direction of Hebrew writing.

Many other names are used to refer to God but Yahweh is the most commonly used in the Hebrew Bible, occurring nearly 7,000 times. It is too sacred to be spoken out loud, and in prayer is replaced by the word Adonai, 'My Lords'.

What does the rest of the page say?

The inscriptions are derived chiefly from the Hebrew Bible. The central roundel contains the Tetragrammaton, which is enclosed within a square whose borders comprise verses from Jeremiah 10: 6-7, Psalm 68: 34-36 and Psalm 105: 2.

They proclaim God's magnificence, omnipotence and universality, as do the inscriptions inside the square. One of these is the beginning of the Shema', the pivotal prayer in the Jewish liturgy, which conveys the monotheistic essence of Judaism - 'Hear, O, Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is One!' (Deuteronomy 6: 4).

The names of the four archangels (Uriel, Michael, Gabriel and Raphael) and the angelic classes, written around the circular feature, add a mystical dimension to the entire composition.

Where did the book come from?

This manuscript belongs to a group of Spanish Hebrew Bibles known as Mikdashyot (Temples of the Lord). The Hebrew Bible was regarded as a substitute for the destroyed Temple in Jerusalem, and these codices were usually prefaced with depictions of the Temple utensils.

This Bible once belonged to a synagogue in Jerusalem and was later taken to Aleppo in Syria. Known as The King's Bible, it was the only Hebrew manuscript donated to the British Museum by King George IV in 1823.

What is in 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 Torah, or the Five Books of Moses, is also known as the Pentateuch. The Torah is the most sacred part of the Hebrew Bible because, according to tradition, Moses wrote it at divine dictation. The five books making up the Torah are Be-reshit, Shemot, Va-Yikra, Be-Midbar and Devarim, which in the English Bible correspond to Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. The Hebrew titles derive from the first characteristic word appearing in each book, while the name used in the English Bible (usually of Greek origin) describe the central theme dealt with in each book.

Why are Hebrew Bibles not illustrated?

Within the Jewish tradition depictions of the human form in biblical manuscripts are relatively rare. This is based on a strict interpretation of the Second Commandment against graven images or likenesses (Exodus 20:4). However, Jewish manuscripts and books display other types of decoration and illumination, including decorative word panels, micrography (drawings whose 'lines' are in fact minute pieces of text), carpet pages (ornate patterns resembling those found on rugs, such as occur in the Lindisfarne Gospels) and margin pericope (or section) markers.