The sellers, retired teachers from Grange-over-Sands, Cumbria, watched the auction in Staffordshire online as three phone bidders battled against the internet to own the diminutive manuscript.
The palm-sized prayer book in its original leather binding and slipcase is thought to have been in the family for around 50 years, owned by a relative who lived in central Amsterdam for most of his life.
Martin Wilson said: “We were selling a Harry Potter book with Hansons and, as an afterthought, took the prayer book to show their books expert Jim Spencer. We were aware it was old, exquisitely made and of some historical significance. However, we were not aware of just how much significance.”
Spencer was aided in his research by Ilana Tahan, curator of the Hebrew and Christian Orient collections at the British Library.
The manuscript, illuminated in a naïve style on many of its 85 leaves, contains Sabbath hymns, the prayer for the New Moon, and Perek Shirah, an ancient hymn of praise in which every created thing – from the animate to the celestial – thanks God for its existence. Part of the text is written in Rashi unvocalised script, a semi-cursive script based on a 15th century Sephardic handwriting.
The book states it belonged to Abraham ben [son of] Meir Emden, and the date given is Thursday, 13 of the Hebrew month of Shevat, 5517 which corresponds to February 3, 1757. A connection to German rabbi Jacob Emden (1697-1776), champion of Orthodox Judaism, was uncovered.
Advance bids reached £11,500, above the top estimate of £10,000, soon after the auction catalogue went live. The final result at Hansons with buyer’s premium added was £71,250.