The Mahzor Luzzatto, a rare manuscript of Hebrew prayers, about to leave France

The Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot), which followed the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur celebrations from September 20 to 27, is usually synonymous with joy and coming together. The announcement of the sale by the Alliance Israelite Universelle (AIU), headquartered in France, of Mahzor Luzzatto, a collection of Hebrew prayers dated late 13th centurye-beginning of the 14the century, has yet divided the Jewish community and scandalized the world of research. Because the manuscript, which will be offered on October 19 at Sotheby’s in New York, is nothing ordinary.

With its initials populated with fantastic animals and stylized bird-headed characters, “It is one of the rare illuminated manuscripts prior to 1300”, specifies Colette Sirat, dean of Hebrew codicology in France. Written in southern Germany, it has passed through Europe and has been annotated over the years. “We know less than twenty illustrated Jewish prayer books from this period, and this is the only one known in private hands”, says one at Sotheby’s. The estimate, of 4 to 6 million dollars, is commensurate with its rarity.

Export certificate

Named after one of its former owners, Samuel Luzzatto (1800-1865), this Mahzor was presented to the public twice, in 1991 in the exhibition “With a strong hand” at the National Library of France (BNF), in Paris, then in 2018 in “Saints and believers, the Jews of Northern Europe in the Middle Ages”, at the Rouen Antiquities Museum. “It testifies both to the history of the Jews expelled from France and to the various Ashkenazi rituals. It is a magnificent manuscript, it is incomprehensible that he could leave ”, laments Sonia Fellous, researcher at the CNRS, at the Institute for Research in the History of Texts.

A online petition, signed in particular by the former Minister of Culture Jean-Jacques Aillagon and the philosopher Antoine Compagnon, calls “In search of all the solutions so that it is classified as a“ work of major heritage interest ””. This procedure would allow patrons who buy the work to give it to the French State to benefit from 90% tax deductions.

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However, it is difficult for the Ministry of Culture to backtrack when it has already granted the export certificate. “Of course, I would prefer that the manuscript remain in France, but we cannot classify everything”, pleads Isabelle Le Masne de Chermont, director of the manuscripts department of the BNF, which already has two Mahzors. After analyzing it closely, for four hours last spring, the curator concluded that the Mahzor Luzzatto was certainly beautiful, but not likely to be classified as a national treasure.

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