Hebrew Voices #110 – Hebrew Manuscripts from China

Nehemia Gordon with the people of Kaifeng, ChinaIn this episode of Hebrew Voices, Hebrew Manuscripts from China, we learn how the ancient Jewish community in Kaifeng preserved Hebrew books and culture, which eventually made their way to Western libraries.

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Hebrew Voices #110 - Hebrew Manuscripts from China

You are listening to Hebrew Voices with Nehemia Gordon. Thank you for supporting Nehemia Gordon's Makor Hebrew Foundation. Learn more at NehemiasWall.com.

David: The one that I’m gonna show you now is truly unique. This is the only Chinese-Hebrew manuscript from Imperial China.

Benjamin Netanyahu: Le ma’an Zion lo ekhesheh, u’l’ma’an Yerushalayim lo eshkot. (For Zion’s sake I will not be silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest. Isaiah 62:1)

Nehemia: Oh, wow. Tell us who you are.

David: I'm David Gilner, and I'm Librarian of the Klau Library here in Cincinnati. And I'm Director of the four-campus library system of Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion libraries in New York, Los Angeles, Jerusalem, and the main scholarly library here in Cincinnati.

Nehemia: Okay, and you've agreed to meet with us here today, and show us some of these Hebrew manuscripts from China.

David: Right. Now, it's commonly accepted that Jews came to China about 1,000 years ago, or a little more. They were in trading companies with Muslims and they sailed around to get to China. And then, once they were there, they trekked back across the desert to get to Samarkand and Bukhara and...

Nehemia: Crossed the Silk Road.

David: …the Silk Road. In 1850, a group of Protestant missionaries sent a group of people to retrieve manuscripts from the Jewish community at Kaifeng. By this time, these people were not practicing Jews. They were practicing something, but their knowledge of Judaism was...

Nehemia: I went to visit the Kaifeng Jews a few years ago, and they have an awareness that they're Jewish. They're learning Hebrew from Israelis that come over, but they don't have, maybe, like a vibrant community.

David: Right, religion, of especially the western sort, has not been big in China for a while.

Nehemia: Although, for example, they don't eat pork, and...

David: They do live in a Muslim city.

Nehemia: That's true, but they're also surrounded by non-Muslims who eat pork.

David: The Muslims and the Jews can lean on each other to support their ancient tradition of not eating pork, in a pork-eating country.

Nehemia: And their main street there is called “Torah Teaching Lane,” although they told me it was only renamed that in like 1912, or something.

David: These books were eventually acquired by the London Society for Promoting Christianity Amongst the Jews.

Nehemia: Oh wow, okay.

David: And they took them to London. They were described in the London Jewish Chronicle in 1851. Some facsimile additions were published. One or two scholars had a chance to investigate them and to describe them, to publish about them. They were put on display in the London Palestine exhibit of 1906. And then they were sold to the Hebrew Union College, at least 59 of the 63 were sold to us. They said they'd lost four. A few years ago, they suddenly discovered those four and sold them. There were a few other manuscripts…

Nehemia: Did you guys buy them before?

David: No, not at all. They didn't add to what we already had. And we were collectively not happy with them, because they should have given them to us, because we were quoted $5,000 for the whole collection. And when items went missing, when they were discovered, they should have come to us.

Nehemia: I see, okay.

David: So, what we have are liturgical texts. We have Bible texts from the Five books of Moses for the weekly Parasha. What I have here is one of two haggadot.

Nehemia: Oh, wow, so this is more or less the haggadah that we know from our Jewish community?

David: More or less from other Jewish communities living in the east, which are a little bit different in wording from traditions of the West. And there were also the peculiarities of being cut off for centuries and living in a non-Hebrew speaking community, where you begin to pronounce things a little strange. But their directions are written in Judeo Persian.

Nehemia: Oh, wow, and that tells you they came from Persia.

David: That was the trading language the people used. This reads, “Dekhilu yatzanu mimi...” and then somebody noticed “Oh, you forgot the tsadi in Mitsrayim.”

Nehemia: Wow.

David: And then, “ha lakhma anya da'akhalu ava'hatana be'ar'a deMitsrayim.”

Nehemia: Judeo Persian.

David: Yes.

Nehemia: Wow, that's very interesting.

David: So, this has actually been published in the scholarly edition, and in the Diskin Haggadah facsimile series, so we can all find Chinese haggadahs. And one that I'm going to show you now is truly unique, unlike how "unique" is used in America to mean "special.” This is the only Chinese-Hebrew manuscript from Imperial China.

Nehemia: Is this a genealogy?

David: Close. It's a yizkor book, and it goes back as many as 13 generations in the case of the I-clan. When they knew the name in Hebrew, they put it in Hebrew. If they only knew the Chinese, it went in in Chinese.

Nehemia: This is very interesting; so explain what a yizkor book is for the audience.

David: It's a memorial book, remembering one's ancestors, which is certainly important for both Jews and Chinese.

Nehemia: So, this is a Jewish tradition where you say a prayer for, I guess, the dead person, and this goes back you said, 13 generations for one family?

David: From 1666 back 13 generations, and here's the yizkor prayer, “That they should be gathered up with the righteous and holy, with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Elijah and Elisha, underneath the Tree of Life,” which they've spelled defectively, “in the Garden of Eden. And also, the women.”

Nehemia: And the women's names aren't listed.

David: And now, what we have is an interesting phrase, “Nur ki bat adam, Pnina ki bat adam, Miryam ki bat adam.” And "bat adam” means they were Chinese women.

Nehemia: Oh, and they're called the “daughters of Adam.”

David: Right.

Nehemia: So, they married Chinese women, interesting.

David: Right, and sometimes instead of saying the name of the woman, it just reads “jinsha,” a woman.

Nehemia: Oh wow, you mean in Chinese?

David: And in Hebrew.

Nehemia: It says “jinsha” in Hebrew?

David: Yes, jinsha bat Avram.

Nehemia: Oh, wow. Jinsha bat Avram. That is cool. All right, that is very interesting. Oh, that's so interesting.

David: Or “Leah ki bat Ephraim, Jinshe bat so and so. Not necessarily a “bat adam,” and, “ki bat adam.” And, of course, there has to be a yizkor prayer for the women. They too, are in the Garden of Eden, I guess on the other side of a separate barrier, a mekhitsa. And here, the tsadikim and khasidim are Sarah, Rivka, Rakhel ve'Leah. And then, Moses's three women relatives, Yokheved, Miryam and Zipora. And here they managed to spell khayim with the mem in Gan Eden. And then there is, of course, the pasuk that you have to tie the whole thing, just like Melekh Shlomo said. And here, someone writes, “hodu l’Adonay ki tov ki le'olam…” and then someone says, “You forgot “khasdo”, and put it in the margin.”

Nehemia: That's very cool.

David:Kulkhem brukhim, Barukh Adonay le'olam amen ve'amen, hazak…” end of the book.

Nehemia: Wow, that is cool. So, is this open to the public, this facility?

David: This facility is open to the public. And if you are a resident of the tri-state area, you can borrow any of the 300-odd thousand books in the public stacks. But you're always welcome from wherever, Timbuktu, to come and look at the material in the library.

Nehemia: And if there are people in, for example, Los Angeles or New York or even Jerusalem, who want to have some interaction with the Hebrew Union College libraries, are those open to the public?

David: They can go and ask to use the library.

Nehemia: All right, thank you very much.

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  • Rocky Jackson says:

    Who would have thought…..

  • brenda johnson says:

    Our Creator never ceases to amaze me. He hides His truth in plain sight, we just have to be willing to search for it, just as the parable that Y’shuah presented about the woman who lost one of her dowry coins and searched without ceasing until it was recovered.
    Thank you Nehemiah for being on the forefront of all of this and for your willingness of heart to stay the course and be the vessel that He created you to be.
    May we all be as dedicated and willing to not only support you, but help “keep your arms lifted” when you are tired.

    Shalom beloved!

  • Walter Schwenk says:

    Isn’t that our hope, that israel (not only the jews!) will be sifted and gathered from every nation?

  • Bruce MacLearnsberry says:

    When I was a teenager (back in the 1970’s), I and a friend were perusing some old National Geographic magazines. His parents had the entire collection. I still remember opening one from 1907 and being spellbound by the article on Chinese Jews. Some of my recollections have become somewhat hazy, but I seem to recall the author noting his intention to return to Keifeng to collect more information, interviews, etc. However, as it happened, political turmoil precluded that, and it was several decades before westerners made it back.

    Ever since I first laid eyes on that article, then learned the area was closed to foreigners, I wondered what had happened to that community. It’s been fascinating to observe in subsequent decades the new contacts and the awakening arising of such things coming to light.

  • Daniel says:

    Wow I got chills when I saw the documents on the main Picture. Thanks for what you do, Nehemia . I recon you’re worth 3x N.Geographic…. Nehemia Geographic. As for the rest of what I’d like to say, Brenda puts it best, so, what Brenda says..

  • Sheila Price says:

    Wow! I’m only a couple of hours away from there! I see a road trip in my future!
    Thank you again for your teachings!

  • ScottinTexas says:

    What about The Name amongst these writings? How did this Hebrew community in China pronounce it?