The Mahzor of Worms is among the oldest known prayer books written for the Ashkenazic rite and an excellent testimony to Jewish book illumination in the Middle Ages. A Mahzor (Hebrew for cycle) contains the prayers ever recurring at high festivals and thus constitutes a collection of festival prayers for liturgical use. The Mahzor of Worms was produced in 1272 on the Rhine and used by the cantors of Worms for more than 650 years as their "official" festival prayer book.
Gloriously illustrated mahzorim, especially in the Ashkenazic tradition, have come down to the present from the thirteenth century and the Mahzor of Worms is an impressive example. While the early manuscripts of this type were only sparsely illustrated, the Mahzor of Worms develops a very special decoration pattern.
Virtually all festivals are illustrated to accompany the relevant text. These illuminated scenes reflect the life of the Ashkenazic community of this period and their world of thought.
The Decorative Apparatus
The illustrations contained in the Mahzor of Worms go back either to earlier sources or constitute original creations of the master who painted this prayer book. His style suggests a clear influence of contemporary painting schools in the Rhineland.
One of the most fascinating particularities of the Mahzor of Worms are the human figures, depicted with birds beaks, shown in profile, and wearing a Jewish headgear typical of this period. Another interesting trait is the expression in the faces of some figures despite the lack of characteristic features.
These particularities appear to have been common in German Jewish manuscripts of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The Mahzor of Worms also contains numerous representations of animals, including elephants, unique to this period of Jewish book illumination.
An Invaluable Source for Linguists
The illustrations in the Mahzor of Worms are set in a clear context with the text which is written on a large-format parchment in a square, calligraphic Ashkenazic hand, including vowels. According to the colophon, the copyist Simchah bar Judah whose father, Yehuda of Nuremberg, was also a professional scribe, wrote this work on behalf of his uncle Rabbi Baruk ben Yizhaq.
Vocalisation was performed in accordance with the pronunciation used for the prayers and piyyutim (hymns of the Jewish liturgy) at that time in this environment and the text constitutes today an important source for the research on vocalisation and pronunciation of the Hebrew language in medieval Germany.
Some verses couplets on folio 54r are of great significance since they represent the oldest known example of a text in the Yiddish language so far dated. They have helped researchers to cast light on the beginnings of German Jewish literature. The contents of the verse couplets is a blessing which does not belong to the original text but is used as an ornament in a small hand and inserted in a reduced space provided in the Hebrew text.
The Preservation of a Precious Codex
As the Mahzor of the Jewish community in Worms had been regularly used over the centuries, it was subject to considerable wear and tear. It was therefore renovated by the Library in Jerusalem where it is kept today. Ten leaves, however, had to be transferred to Vienna for a special restoration procedure.