• Manuscript Description

  • The Breslau / Auras Memorbuch was described in the colophon by its scribe, Binyamin Ze’ev (Wolff Jacob) ben Elyakum Getsel Kats of Kempen, as a “kuntres… of selected prayers… for use as necessary…” The manuscript includes lekha dodi, mi-sheberakh prayers, Yizkor prayers, blessings for the haftarot of Yom Kipur and Shalosh Regalim, blessings for the Purim Megilah, and the circumcision ceremony, among others. The unifying factor among these seemingly disparate prayers is that historically they were not part of the official, formal liturgy, such as shaharit or musaf.  To denote this distinction, these additional prayers were recited by the cantor from the bimah (platform in the center of the synagogue) rather than from the amud (platform in the front of the synagogue).  This collection of prayers is not unique to our manuscript.  Identical groups of prayers are found in other manuscripts, followed by a list of names of the deceased of a particular community.  The pairing of this specific selection of prayers with a list of names, forms a Memorbuch (German plural – Memorbücher, English plural – Memor books).  Memor books were used on days when Yizkor was recited, although based on the prayers they include, they were used on other occasions as well. According to the Encyclopaedia Judaica, the genre of the Memorbuch received its name either because the book was placed, for the convenience of the cantor, on the al-memar (Central European Jewish term for bimah), or from the Latin word memoria. The use of communal Memor books was common in Central European Jewish communities from the Middle Ages until the mid-nineteenth century.

    The Memorbuch from Auras (Silesia/Schlesien), Germany  (now: Uraz, Slask, Poland), a community twelve miles northwest of Breslau (now: Wroclaw, Poland) is similar to others in its content, but it is noteworthy for its illuminations rendered in the Rococo style. These pen and ink illustrations, with occasional gilding, were apparently drawn by the scribe of the manuscript, Binyamin Ze’ev (Wolff Jacob) ben Elyakum Getsel Kats of Kempen, who completed the work in Breslau in July 1765.

    We know of only one other manuscript by Binyamin Ze’ev ben Elayakum Getsel Kats of Kempen, Sefer Sharvit Ha-Zahav, an illuminated mohel book completed in Breslau, on 29 Shevat (Feb. 11), 1774. It is held by the Israel Museum in Jerusalem (manuscript no. 183/2).

    Binyamin Ze’ev flourished in the midst of a significant era in the history of the illuminated manuscript. After the advent of the printing press in the fifteenth century, manuscript production decreased. The eighteenth century witnessed the revival of the art of manuscript decoration, particularly in Central Europe, and the Auras Memorbuch is an example of this rebirth.  Memor books were generally executed in manuscript form rather than in print since they were frequently updated; additions to lists of the deceased were made periodically. This practice is evident in the Auras Memorbuch.

    The origins of our manuscript are shrouded in mystery. Manuscripts were often commissioned by patrons, but this Memorbuch was not dedicated until 1803 in Auras, thirty-eight years after it was completed in Breslau. The scribe left a blank space on the title page between the figures of Moses and Aaron for a dedication. Perhaps he wrote the manuscript with the hope of attracting a sponsor or donor. The 1803 dedicatory inscription was apparently written by someone other than Binyamin Ze’ev as it is in a different hand.

    The Memorbuch served the community of Auras for many years. The lower corners of the leaves are well worn and wine stains are evident on the pages for the circumcision service.   The manuscript probably journeyed back and forth between Breslau and Auras, together with the Jewish population.

    No longer in active use as a communal record and prayer book, the Auras Memorbuch achieved a brief period of fame in the late 1920s as a historic artifact. The manuscript was featured prominently, with illustrations, in articles on Auras in the German Encyclopaedia Judaica and its companion Hebrew version:  Eshkol: Entsiklopedyah Yisre’elit, both published in Berlin in 1929. In addition, the Jüdisches Museum Breslau featured our manuscript in its exhibit “Das Judentum in der Geschichte Schlesiens” (“Jews in the History of Silesia”) in 1929.

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