Ahimaaz Ben Paltiel and the Book of Descents


Towards the end of the eighteenth century the discovery of a manuscript found in the Library of Toledo Cathedral by Adolph Neubauer, a librarian at the Bodleian Library and the Jewish rabbinical lecturer at the University of Oxford, revealed  the only existing version of the Chronicles of Ahimaaz Ben Paltiel, also called Sefer Yuḥasin or Book of Descents.
A first publication, shortly after the discovery, was followed by another more accurate edition, published by Benjamin Klar in 1944, annotated and edited systematically.

Since the first news of the discovery of this work, the scholars, who until then had ignored its existence, realized the uniqueness and the enormous value of the manuscript, in the context of the literary and cultural history of Western Judaism.

Ahimaaz Ben Paltiel was born in Italy, in Capua, in 1017, and died in Oria, in Apulia, in 1060.There is little news of his life, except for the fact that some members of his family were already known in the field of Jewish literature as scholars or poets.
According to what he wrote in the Chronicles, his family originated from the descendants of the slaves that Emperor Titus had brought to Italy after the siege and destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 A.D.

From a literary point of view, his work constitutes a unique phenomenon because it was written entirely in rhymed prose, of Arab influence – quite rare in the Jewish historiography of the period -, and its discovery made it possible to shed light on the history of Jewish settlements in Southern Italy, and particularly in cities such as Bari, Gaeta, Otranto, Amalfi, Benevento, for a period, that of the Byzantine Middle Ages in the South, which was marked by social decay and cultural impoverishment, of which otherwise we would have lost track.

The book was written in Hebrew, in Capua, in the year 1054, and constitutes one of the main historical sources about the life, folklore, culture and Jewish thought in Western Europe. The title does not do justice to the work, which is not limited to being a mere chronicle of events and stories of men from the past, as it might be expected. In addition to the events of the Jewish communities of the South, the persecution by the Byzantines, the Saracen invasion, and the lives of famous personalities of the time, fantastic and supernatural tales are told in it.

The book provides an important fresco of the traditions and beliefs of the time, presenting myths, legends and superstitions of the culture of the period and the community of which it was expression.
History and folklore come together in a work that naturally leads from chronicle to legend,telling about the demons, the elusive name of God, narrating of astrologers and resurrections, and where for the first time there are traces of the famous legend of  the Wandering Jew, and that only for a fortunate coincidence has not been buried in the darkness of centuries.

Translation by Silvia Accorrà (edited by Irene Tossi)