Zeichnung von Roger Harmon
Fragment eines Grabsteins

Roger Harmon, drawn by Marva Gradwohl

Gravestone fragment HMB 1939.477, Historisches Museum Basel

Kolorierte SFM-Aufnahme vom Grabstein

«Another inch, and our questions would be answered.»

Roger Harmon on Basel’s Medieval Date-Stone

Roger Har­mon, a spe­cia­list in Hebrew inscrip­ti­ons, recent­ly brought to the Jewish Museum’s atten­ti­on a frag­ment of a Basel tomb­stone with a ques­tionable date, which will be on dis­play in the Jewish Museum’s per­ma­nent exhi­bi­ti­on start­ing 3. Sep­tem­ber 2023. Muse­um direc­tor Nao­mi Lubrich spo­ke with Roger Har­mon about his re-dis­co­very of the stone, about Basel’s place in medieval Ash­ke­n­az and about the intri­ca­ci­es of Hebrew dating.

Nao­mi Lubrich: Dear Roger, a tomb­stone frag­ment recent­ly resur­faced after having been for­got­ten for a long time. Can you tell us about it?

Roger Har­mon: Glad­ly! It is a stone frag­ment with a Hebrew inscrip­ti­on. It was found in 1937 and deci­phe­red that very year. The stone was then trans­fer­red to the depot of the His­to­ri­cal Muse­um in Basel, whe­re it recei­ved the inven­to­ry num­ber 1939.774. It has slum­be­red in sto­rage ever sin­ce. I had read about this stone and its date but had never been able to see it. Recent­ly, Simon Erlan­ger (Jewish Stu­dies, Uni­ver­si­ty of Lucer­ne) sent me an old black-and-white pho­to in which the stone is in sharp focus. Having seen the image, I belie­ve the date needs to be re-assessed.

NL: How do you read the inscription?

RH: That’s a ques­ti­on of inter­pre­ta­ti­on. The stone has five let­ters: תסד לפ. Two are num­bers, (סד) and two are let­ters (לפ), the cha­rac­ter on the right – tav (ת)? – breaks off on one side. As you know, Hebrew uses let­ters for num­bers. Undis­pu­ted are סד (64) and the abbre­via­ti­on לפ[“ק] (lif[rat katan], small count). It is more com­pli­ca­ted with the tav (ת). Is it a num­ber (400) or a let­ter (t)? If it is a let­ter, it belongs to the word שנת (shenat, year). Then the year would be [50]64, or accor­ding to the Gre­go­ri­an calen­dar: 1303/4. If, on the other hand, the tav is a num­ber, the year would be ת’]ת’ס’ד’] ie [4]864, or accor­ding to the Gre­go­ri­an calen­dar: 1103/4. Or has the­re been dama­ge to the stone, and the let­ter is not a tav (ת) but a khet (ח)? In that case, you’d need to recon­sider what the date would be.

NL: So the ridd­le remains unsolved?

RH: Yes. Ano­ther inch, and our ques­ti­ons would be answered.

NL: Whe­re was the stone found, and how did it survive?

RH: The stone came from the medieval Jewish ceme­tery in Basel near Peters­platz. The com­mu­ni­ty had been expel­led, the remai­ning Jews mur­de­red, and the ceme­tery van­da­li­sed on Janu­ary 16, 1349. After the mas­sacre, the int­act stones were repur­po­sed as buil­ding mate­ri­al, while the bro­ken stones and other frag­ments were left on the ground.

NL: …so the stone was one of the frag­ments remai­ning on the ceme­tery. How was it found? 

RH: In the 1930s, the uni­ver­si­ty of Basel built a Kol­le­gi­en­haus on the grounds of the ceme­tery. During the con­s­truc­tion, 28 bro­ken gra­ves­to­nes and other frag­ments were unear­thed. In 1937, they were ent­rus­ted to the His­to­ri­cal Muse­um of Basel. On July 10, 1939, on the occa­si­on of the inau­gu­ra­ti­on of the Kol­le­gi­en­haus, the rab­bi, Dr. Arthur Weill, pre­sen­ted the Uni­ver­si­ty with a hand-writ­ten cer­ti­fi­ca­te bea­ring trans­la­ti­ons of the frag­men­ta­ry epi­taphs. Today, five of the 28 gra­ves­to­nes and frag­ments are dis­play­ed in the cour­ty­ard of the Jewish Muse­um, while the others are in sto­rage at the His­to­ri­cal Muse­um of Basel.

NL: How has the Date-Stone been read so far?

RH: Rab­bi Weill read the tav as a num­ber and dated the stone to the year 1103/4. But in 1962, the his­to­ri­an Zvi Avné­ri read the tav as a let­ter and dated the stone to the year 1303/4, which beca­me com­mu­nis opi­nio (see Gins­bur­ger 1968 and Mey­er 2005). The­re­af­ter, Rab­bi Weill’s date, 1103/4, and the Date-Stone its­elf, were forgotten.

NL: From your point of view, what speaks for 1103/4?

RH: Both dates are pos­si­ble. What speaks against tav as a let­ter is the miss­ing space bet­ween it and the fol­lo­wing samech (ס). The space bet­ween the dalet (ד) and lapak (לפ[“ק]), on the other hand, is clear. In the other Basel inscrip­ti­ons, the space bet­ween words as well as bet­ween words and num­bers is cle­ar­ly visi­ble. In the other Basel inscrip­ti­ons, with just one excep­ti­on, the space bet­ween words as well as bet­ween words and num­bers is cle­ar­ly visi­ble. So the miss­ing space speaks for 1103/4.

NL: And what speaks against it?

RH: What speaks against the tav as a num­ber is the fact that we have no other inscrip­ti­ons from the 12th cen­tu­ry. The frag­ment would be an out­lier. But, as the say­ing goes, a lack of evi­dence is not evi­dence of a lack.

NL: What does the stone mean for our know­ledge of Basel’s medieval Jewish community? 

RH: Assum­ing the ear­ly date, 1103/4, the stone would testi­fy to the exis­tence of a Jewish com­mu­ni­ty in Basel con­tem­po­ra­ry with the famous scho­lar Rashi, the Basel com­mu­ni­ty would be con­tem­po­ra­ry with ear­ly Jewish com­mu­ni­ties on the Rhi­ne from Stras­bourg to Colo­gne. The spi­ri­tu­al cen­ter of Ger­man-spea­king Jewry was Spey­er, Worms and Mainz. Today, their pre-emi­nence is reco­gni­zed by the UNESCO (World Heri­ta­ge site). Their spi­ri­tu­al pre-emi­nence is cele­bra­ted today as a site of world heri­ta­ge. With the ear­ly date, the Basel Jews would have been part of the for­ma­ti­ve com­mu­ni­ties of Ash­ke­n­a­zi Jewry. And the date would hark back to ano­ther refe­rence to an ear­ly Basel community:A memo­ri­al book lost in Rot­ter­dam in 1940, refer­red to a Basel yes­hi­va (school) des­troy­ed at the time of the First Cru­sa­de in 1096.

NL: So what are your next steps for rese­ar­ching the stone? 

RH: The­re is a lot of work to do on the Basel gra­ves­to­nes. It would be useful to have a typo­lo­gy of the let­te­ring of all Basel inscrip­ti­ons. Then we could see if the wri­ting of the inscrip­ti­on matches that of any other Basel stone, hop­eful­ly one bea­ring a date. Ano­ther pos­si­bi­li­ty would be to compa­re the wri­ting of the Basel epi­taphs, in par­ti­cu­lar that of the Date-Stone, with the wri­ting of the Worms epi­taphs in the hope of estab­li­shing a Basel time­line. Also, we should see whe­ther we can find any fur­ther evi­dence of the lost Rot­ter­dam memo­ri­al book and look for other refe­ren­ces to an ear­ly Basel yes­hi­va. Clues could be wide­ly scat­te­red. Bes­i­des the Basel gra­ves­to­nes, my per­so­nal focus of work is Alsace. The­re, six Jewish ceme­ter­ies have been docu­men­ted, the inscrip­ti­ons digi­ti­zed and trans­la­ted. I am pre­pa­ring for press two docu­men­ta­ti­ons, one on Dur­men­ach and the other on Thann. Two other ceme­tery pro­jects, one of them in Switz­er­land, are in pro­gress. A geni­zah in Hégen­heim, has sur­faced. So the­re is work to be done the­re as well.

NL: Dear Roger, in that case, I won’t keep you from your work. Thank you very much for the interview!


Cor­ne­lia Adler and Chris­toph Matt, Der mit­tel­al­ter­li­che Fried­hof der ers­ten jüdi­schen Gemein­de in Basel, Basel 2010, p 27.

Zvi Avné­ri, «Nou­vel­les inscrip­ti­ons tumu­lai­res du pre­mier cime­tiè­re de Bâle», in: Revue des étu­des jui­ves 121, 1962, p 181–193, here p 186–187 and 191, n 11 (with a typo, קד for rec­te סד).

Moï­se Gins­bur­ger, «Basel», in: Ger­ma­nia Judai­ca 2, edi­ted by Zvi Avné­ri, Tübin­gen 1968, pp 51–55, here p 54 note 12.

Wer­ner Mey­er, «Benö­tigt, gedul­det, ver­ach­tet und ver­folgt. Zur Geschich­te der Juden in Basel zwi­schen 1200 und 1800», in: Acht Jahr­hun­der­te Juden in Basel, edi­ted by Hei­ko Hau­mann, Basel 2005, p 13–56, here: p 17 note 7.

verfasst am 14.08.2023