Donnolo the doctor: asserting rights in early personal authorship

A mid-tenth-century Jewish scholar, Shabbetai bar Abraham, called Donnolo the doctor, labored long and hard to produce a book describing the secrets of the universe.  In the introduction to his book, Shabbetai asked for blessings on those who copied his book:

May the great peace, the blessings, and the good comfort of Almighty God come to everyone who copies out this book of my studies.[1]

This distribution imperative is like that commonly found in Buddhist scriptures.  Copying books was a central practice in the book-filled ancient Islamic world.  Today, copying works tends to be associated with piracy, and governments take aggressive actions to punish persons who copy works.  However, at least some authors, like Shabbetai, do not consider preventing copying to be in their interest.

Shabbetai did not favor unrestricted copying.  He wanted correct attribution and fidelity in copying:

May God bring him salvation if he copies it out in the name of Shabbetai, if he only writes my name unchanged and erases it not from my book of secrets.  For then he will certainly be reckoned to have payed me my due, by recognizing how I toiled and moiled with all my might, unsparing of what was dearest to me, and so gained the skill to record and to learn from what I recorded.  Is it not meet, therefore, that he who feeds on the nourishment I provide preserves what I have said, and records it as I have written it?  Let him act righteously and not despise to learn from the name by which my fathers called me.  Let him put away jealously from his heart and not return evil for my good, if he desires to gain blessings from the Lord and righteousness from the God of my salvation.  Let him take heed to write this my rhyme and rubric at the beginning, and at the end be sure that he has written exactly the words of this book with its wisdom, for I bear witness that thus do I wish my thoughts to be set down.[2]

False claims of authorship, as well as making changes in a text in the course of transmitting it, were common in the ancient world.  Correct attribution and fidelity in copying, in conjunction with urging copying, indicates Shabbetai’s interest in having his personal work become well-known.[3]  Those interests tend to be associated with what scholars call “romantic authorship.” Later romantic authors, however, were more commercially interested than was Shabbetai.

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[1] Trans. in Sharf (1976) p. 7.

[2] Id. pp. 7-8.  Shabbetai goes on to invoke God’s vengeance on anyone who does not correctly copy and attribute his work.  The plural “fathers” in “the name by which my fathers called me” suggests an expansive view of fatherhood in Shabbetai’s Jewish culture.

[3]  Without fidelity in copying, attribution is an acknowledgement of a source, but not necessarily an accurate transmission of that source.


Sharf, Andrew. 1976. The universe of Shabbetai Donnolo. New York: Ktav Pub. House.

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