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Israel Museum Puts Medieval Hebrew Manuscript on Display

A rare Old Testament manuscript some 1,300 years old is finally on display for the first time, after making its way from a secret room in a Cairo synagogue to the hands of an American collector.

The manuscript, containing the "Song of the Sea" section of the Old Testament's Book of Exodus and dating to around the 7th century A.D., comes from what scholars call the "silent era" — a span of 600 years between the third and eighth centuries from which almost no Hebrew manuscripts survive.

It is now on public display for the first time, at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

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"It comes from a period of almost darkness in terms of Hebrew manuscripts," said Stephen Pfann, a textual scholar at the University of the Holy Land in Jerusalem.

Scholars have long noted the lack of original biblical manuscripts written between the time of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the latest of which come from the third century, to texts written in the ninth and 10th centuries, Pfann said.

Scholars can only piece together scraps of information on the period using translations into Greek and other languages, he said, "so to have a piece of the original text from this period is quite remarkable."

The parchment is believed to have been left in the Cairo Genizah, a vast depository of medieval Jewish manuscripts discovered in the late 1800s in a previously unknown room at Cairo's ancient Ben Ezra Synagogue.

It was in private hands until the late 1970s, when its Lebanese-born American owner turned it over to the Rare Books, Manuscripts, and Special Collections Library at Duke University.

The manuscript is now on extended loan to the Israel Museum and is on display in the museum's Shrine of the Book, which also houses the Dead Sea Scrolls.