Sunday 14 February 2021



A leaf from Seridei Bavli.


I have always been fascinated by the often incidental discovery of old important texts that are constantly being made in modern times. These include writings like those of Abulafia, for example, which Gershom Scholem happened to identify in Archives of the Bavarian State Library when he was writing his dissertation in 1919. There were also recent discoveries of the Meiri texts, as well as unpublished Rashi commentaries and other works and even the recovery of some of the more recent censored writing of Rav Kook.

In this article, we shall explore the accidental discovery of parts of the 500-year-old Spanish Talmud which was thought to have been lost forever.[1]



During the 1970s, after much detective work and scholarship, Professor Haim Zalman Dimitrovsky (1920-2011) discovered 550 pages of lost volumes of the Spanish Talmud.

Dimitrovsky was a profound scholar, having produced the highly significant two-volume magisterial work on R. Shlomo ibn Aderet, published by Mosad haRav Kook in Jerusalem entitled Teshuvot haRashba. His analysis of a responsum and glosses concerning the legality of the renewal of semikhah (ordination) by the rabbis of Safed enabled him to more accurately reconstruct the facts of that controversy.[2] [See The Sanhedrin/Smicha Story.]

Dimitrovsky had studied at the Talmud Torah Eitz Chaim in Jerusalem and then at Merkaz haRav (established by Rav Kook) and then at the Talmud Department of the Hebrew University where he later returned as a professor. He was also a member of the Hagana during the War of Independence.



The very first printing of the Talmud took place in Spain at around 1482, but because of the vicissitudes of the Spanish Inquisition in 1492, very few copies of these early printings remain. According to Adri Offenberg, much historical evidence was destroyed and our knowledge of that period is therefore limited.[3]

However, we do know that the oldest Spanish printed book, Rashi’s Commentary on the Torah, was produced in 1476, just six years before the printing of the Spanish Talmud. It originated from the press of Shlomo Alkabetz at Guadalajara in old Castile in central Spain. He was the grandfather of Shlomo Alkabetz (c. 1505- 1584) the well-known Kabbalist from Safed, who composed Lecha Dodi.

Between 1472 and 1482, at least fifteen Hebrew Books were printed in Guadalajara. The British Library has a collection of five Guadalajara editions.

The paper for these projects was imported from Palermo in southern Italy which was, at that time Spanish control.



The story goes all the way back to the beginnings of the first printing of the Talmud in 1482. The project was interrupted ten years later when the practising Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492. Many Jews sought refuge in neighbouring Portugal and the printing was continued there in the southern city of Faro – until they were expelled from Portugal in 1497.

It was at that point, after 1497, that the Spanish edition of the Talmud was lost.



For 500 years people spoke in rumours about this Talmud as it was said to have been a different version of our editions of the Talmud. An oral tradition existed purporting that it differed quite substantially from our editions.

300 years later, from around the nineteenth century, bibliographers were beginning to find and identify old fragments and leaves thought to belong to this lost Talmud but there were no groundbreaking discoveries.



Then, during the 1970s Haim Zalman Dimitrovsky stumbled upon some Talmudic fragments of old texts in a collection held in the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and he soon realized that these differed from the standard Talmudic texts he was familiar with.

His interest was piqued and he searched through other repositories of old manuscripts. His hunt took him to explore textual fragments from the Cairo Geniza which were housed at the Vatican, Cambridge and Bodleian Libraries. He also got access to private collections in Israel.

He now knew what to look for because the Spanish Talmud had a unique printing style and layout. Dimitrovsky was even able to identify which leaves were printed first in Spain and later in Portugal.

There were a certain number of lines on a page and he knew the standard width of the margins. The forming of the final letters was different and the representation of G-d’s name was also specific and unique to this style. G-ds name is represented by three and not two letters “yod,” and the letters, “gimel” are elongated. 

On one occasion, while examining an unrelated book from the sixteenth century, he noticed a tear in the cover of the book. Through it, he could see that the binding was stiffened by about 12 pages which were glued together and then covered in cloth. On further investigation, he identified the stiffening pages to be, not worthless scraps of old paper, but priceless texts of the elusive Spanish Talmud.



Dimitrovsky believed that when the printers were exiled from Portugal, they took the yet unbound pages of their Spanish Talmud with them with the intension and hope of carrying on and completing their project which was already fifteen years in the making. After attempting to re-establish their printing business in various places of exile, it seems that eventually, they despaired of ever completing the task they had begun and used the precious paper as binding material for other printing projects. It is most likely that many of the pages were, by then, already missing and they didn’t want to print an incomplete Talmud.



Acting on this assumption, Dimitrovsky decided to ask his colleagues around the world to carefully examine the bindings of Hebrew books printed during the early part of the sixteenth century. This would have been the period immediately following the Expulsions.

A veritable collection of texts from the lost Spanish Talmud began to amass. One interesting find was discovered hidden in the cover of a book of Church Music published in Prague in 1604, now housed in Fales Library at New York University.[4]

These texts have become known as the Guadalajara Talmud fragments, and Dimitrovsky believed that, based on his analysis of the various text fonts used in Guadalajara, Ketuvot was the last of the Guadalajara tractates to be published.



Joshua Bloch and Alexander Marx are of the fascinating opinion that the variances in the Spanish or Guadalajara Talmud, may not actually have been variances. This is because they believe the Spanish version to have been derived directly from old manuscripts which came to Spain from the Gaonic academies in Babylonia.[5] [See The ‘Four Captives’.]

This would place the Spanish edition in a very authentic position in the line of Talmudic transmission:

“Indeed after a careful comparison of the present leaves, one notes a different order of the text, as well as extra lines, words and letters, even elimination of text in certain cases and other variants (including orthography) – amounting to a text significantly unlike that of the Bomberg edition and the much vaunted ‘Vilna Shas’.

Some of these variants are significant enough to change the meaning of the Gemara…

[S]ince this Guadalajara edition was printed prior to the Inquisition, it is free from censorship. Thus whereas the standard editions employ the circumlocution ‘aku’m’ for gentile, here the original reading ‘goy’ is retained.”

[See Daniel Bomberg – The Story of the Tzuras haDaf.]

This astounding discovery and the scholarship surrounding it, shows once again just how rich and broad Torah literature is. These types of modern findings of our lost texts add to the richness of the vast and expanding tapestry of our ancient tradition.




The Italian Geniza

The Cairo Geniza

The Meiri texts

The Censored Writings of Rav Kook

A Recently Discovered Document Showing Rav Kook’s Position on the Authorship of the Zohar.

[1] See The Jewish Week – American Examiner, March 23 1980. p. 8.

[2] Entry on Dimitrovsky, Chaim Zalman, by Shamma Friedman.

[3] Adri K. Offenberg, Some Remarks on the Date and Original Price of a Rare Iberian Hebrew Incunable. Zutot 2001, 114-117.

[4] The Talmud Blog, A Tantalizing Tale of Temura Fragments – Guest Post by Noah Bickart. October 29 2014.

[5] See also H.Z. Dimitrovsky, Sridei Bavli (1979) Vol. I: Introduction, pp.41-43; and Vol II: 296a, 296d.

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