Thousand-year-old Torah fragment comes to Library of Congress

Visitors to the Library of Congress view a variety of Torahs.
Photo by Dan Schere

Visitors to the Library of Congress in Washington can now read the Exodus story from one of the oldest surviving fragments of a Torah, from around 1000 CE.

The library purchased the fragment last year from a Torah that is estimated to be from the 10th or 11th century. The vellum sheet includes the Ten Plagues, the crossing of the Red Sea and the “Song of the Sea,” which celebrates the Israelites’ successful escape from slavery in Egypt.

At a lecture last week at the library, visitors had a chance to see the sheet and hear about its history during a presentation from Gary Rendsburg, who specializes in biblical and Jewish history at Rutgers University.

Rendsburg said biblical scholars have estimated that, based on the script used and other physical properties of the text, it was written in the Middle East by Karaites — Jews who opposed rabbinic Judaism.

“Here you have it, the oldest [complete] Torah scroll [sheet] legible to the naked eye, dating to about 1000 CE,” he told the audience.

Rendsburg said little is known about the whereabouts of the fragment until 1863, when the Karaite hazzan of Crimea, Shelomo Beim, gave it to Constantine, the grand duke of Russia and brother of Czar Alexander II.

“We know that this was given in 1863 to the royal family, but we know nothing else,” he said.

Another 138 years passed before the scroll turned up in London at an auction in 2001. Jordan Penkower, a biblical scholar at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, inspected the page and determined its age and origin.

Rendsburg said one clue as to its provenance was that the columns of text were uneven, unlike many modern Torah scrolls, in which the line spacing is adjusted to be justified on both sides.

The Library of Congress in Washington recently acquired a fragment of a 1,000-year-old Torah scroll containing parts of Exodus.
Photo courtesy of Ann Brener

Modern scribes “would take certain Hebrew letters, like mem, and stretch them out a little bit,” he said. “That’s how you get that right and left justification.”

On the page, the “Song of the Sea” is easily identifiable, Rendsburg said, because it is at the end and is written in a poetic format in which the words are spaced on top of each other, similar to bricks. This differs from the traditional columns used throughout the Torah.

The fragment has been owned by several private collectors since 2001. Last year Ann Brener, a specialist in the Hebraics section of the Library of Congress, came across a description of the text in an online catalogue specializing in ancient books and manuscripts.

“I thought all the major biblical scrolls were in institutions,” she said in an interview. “So I wrote to Professor Rendsburg, who was one of my professors at Cornell, and I said, ‘This seems too good to be true. Do you know anything about this?’ And he wrote back excitedly five minutes later, saying, ‘Yes, this is the real thing. It’s been authenticated.’”

After the library purchased the document last year, staff smoothed out the creases and put it in a sealed case, where it is kept at 75 percent humidity, said Senior Rare Book Collector Yasmeen Khan. Khan told the group last week that because the ink is so old, library staff must apply an adhesive to the page to preserve the iron-based ink.

One by one, the visitors stared intently at the fragment, marveling at the fact that the document could survive for so many centuries.

“I’m awed by the amazing condition of the surviving manuscript,” said College Park resident Rocky Korr. “I’m awed by the letters themselves and the text, and I’m awed by the fact that it’s living here in Washington, D.C., in the Library of Congress.”
Seeing one of the oldest existing copies of the Exodus story up close was thrilling to McLean resident Donna Gary. “The fascination of having an ancient religious tradition …. to have actual physical proof, and to hear how much work they have to put into it is awesome,” she said.

While Rendsburg said it remains a mystery how the page survived, it was clear that the person who wrote it did so wanting to make sure it was read far into the future.

“These were sacred texts which the scribes knew would last for centuries,” he said. “They had the best ink.

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