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66th IFLA Council and General

Jerusalem, Israel, 13-18 August


Code Number: 082-141-E
Division Number: V
Professional Group: Rare Books and Manuscripts
Joint Meeting with: Art Libraries
Meeting Number: 141
Simultaneous Interpretation: No

United States: Hebrew manuscripts and incunabula

William Baker
Founder's Memorial Library
Northern Illinois University


I shall start my paper with an account of what is excluded from it. With what I am not going to talk about. The next thirty minutes are not going to be taken up with a general quantitative account of the locations of (a) manuscripts written in Hebrew characters, or (b) the location of books printed in Hebrew characters and published in the 15th century and early years of the 16th century, i.e., Incunables. There are well known listings of Incunabula in American libraries. Frederick R. Goff's Incunabula in American Libraries: A Sunplement to the Third Census of Fifteenth Century Books Recorded in North American Collections, was published in 1973. Entries with substantial additions and corrections are incorporated into the ISTC (Incunable Short Title Catalogue) at the British Library. There is a separate section for "Hebraica" (Incunabula in Hebrew types only) in Goff, which also has a register of new owners and changes of ownership, "institutional" and "private", and has listings geographically.

Recent work by A.K. Offenberg supplements Goff. Offenberg's Hebrew Incunabula in Public Collections A First International Census (1990) is compiled in collaboration with M.C. Moed Van Walraven. Offenberg's: A Choice of Corals: Facets of Fifteenth Century Hebrew Printing (1992) is a veritable gold mine of information to which I shall later return. In the 1990 study Offenberg records the international locations of 139 examples of Hebrew incunabula. He writes "There are 139 editions of Hebrew works that can be assumed with almost 100% certainty to have been printed before 1 January 1500.. . . There are now some 2000 copies extant in 155 public collections all over the world: over 1200 in European collections, over 500 in the United States and Canada, and over 200 in Israel (and there are four in Australia)" (xxiii). In his 1992 monograph, Offenberg added one more to the Australian holdings (p.52). It is not the task of this paper to describe the specific geographical location of the "over 500" examples in the United States and Canada.

Nor is it my intention to describe the locations of manuscripts written in Hebrew character now located in the U.S.A. Malachi Beit-Arié, the distinguished paleographer and codicologicist, and his colleagues at the Israeli Institute for the Photography of Hebrew Manuscripts, founded in 1950, have been systematically, thoroughly and patiently microfilming manuscripts from all over the world. They have been creating a computerized database which reveals amongst other data the geographic placement of the Hebrew Manuscripts. The Jewish Theological Seminary Library, New York, has the Louis Ginsberg Microfilm Collection, which on a selective basis microfilms important Hebrew manuscripts.

Goff and Offenberg's census', Beit-Ariés projects, draw upon books and manuscripts held internally in institutional and private collections. The location of Hebrew books and manuscripts is intrinsically an interesting subject. Hebrew manuscripts and books survived less than other cultural artifacts, less, for instance, than Latin artifacts. The loss of codices, may be attributed to wanderings, to persecutions, to overuse. The manuscripts were not kept in monasteries and they were privately owned and used. The codex was used by Jews long after Gutenberg and the spread of printing in Western Europe. However, the loss of codices, of manuscript books written in Hebrew, is still large. Surviving evidence of codices and incunabula still emerges. Offenberg's 1990 international census appeared as the Soviet Union was breaking up, disintegrating. The subsequent opening up, or accessibility of Hebrew manuscripts in St. Petersburg, or what was Leningrad, has still not been fully examined, quantified, and described.

Tribute should be paid here to S.M. Jakerson's pioneering descriptive work. His 1988 revised catalogue of the Hebrew Incunabula in the library of the St. Petersburg branch of the Oriental Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, is a revision of a work first published in Leningrad in 1985. The subsequent revision "enlarged with descriptions of copies from the Lenin State Library at Moscow and the M.E. Saltykov-Shchedrin State Public Library at St. Petersburg" reveals "forty-one additions in one hundred and eleven copies" (Offenberg, A Choice of Corals p. 21).

Jakerson is concerned with incunabula. The access to the hitherto inaccessible Hebrew manuscripts in St. Petersburg and elsewhere is not the only sole consequence upon the study of Hebrew manuscripts and incunabula of the collapse of the Soviet Union. Hebrew manuscripts were largely the product of private rather than public enterprise: they were not produced collectively in monasteries. Colophons reveal self-financing copyists. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has been private enterprise which as gone into the formerly Soviet terrain and its surrounding areas. Hard cash has led to the transfer of many books and manuscripts to new locations. Some of these codices and incunabula have found their way to the United States and to other countries.

Goff and Offenberg's census's reveal rich deposits of Hebrew manuscripts and incunabula within the United States in institutional and private collections. The institutional collections are by no means confined to Jewish institutions such as the Jewish Theological Seminary Library in New York, or to take but one other example, the Hebrew Union College Library in Cincinnati, Ohio. In a useful table listing the number of copies of Hebrew incunabula held in "public collections of importance", Offenberg's A Choice of Corals drastically revises the listing given in the 1971 Jerusalem Encyclopedia Judaica (VII, col. 1322). Offenberg lists seven important American public collections holding Hebrew incunabula: Harvard College Library (33 copies); the Hebrew Union College Library, Cincinnati (77); Columbia University, New York (28); the Jewish Theological Seminary Library, New York (152); the New York Public Library (36); Yeshiva University, New York (38); and the Library of Congress, Washington (38 copies) [Offenberg, pp. 52-53]. What I want to do for the remainder of my paper is to illustrate the richness of American collections of Hebrew manuscripts and incunabula by focusing upon one specific geographic area and within that geographic area to focus upon two collections in particular. One of these is public and the other is private. They are not collections noted for the quantity of their Hebrew manuscript or incunabula holdings.

Offenberg records in his 1990 census three examples of incunabula at the Newberry Library in Chicago. These are Offenberg (1990) 57, 83, and 97. The first is a copy of Solomon Ibn Gabirol's Choice of Pearls [Mivhar hapeninim], translated by Judah ibn Tibon, published in northern Italy by Soncino, 1484 [Goff; Hebr. 98]: at least forty other known copies are known to have survived today. The second is a Mahzor (Festival Prayers). Again published by Soncino, begun in September 1485 and finished 21 August 1486 [Goff, Hebr. 73]. Today forty-six copies are known; since 1939 five known copies have disappeared. Thirdly, the jewel of the Newberry watermarkings examined through beta radiographs reveal similarities and differences to the glove illustrated in Offenberg's A Choice of Corals. p. 83, 20, 21 a. Three different kinds of watermarkings seem to be present in the Newberry copy. Those present in the manuscript section are the same as those in the printed section. To repeat, there is much to be learnt from the Newberry Perush ha Torah Nachmanides, Lisbon, 1489.

There is much to be learnt, too, from the Hebrew incunabula and manuscript treasures currently at the Scriptorium, the Center for Christian Antiquities, Grand Haven, Michigan (there is a branch at Hampton Court, Hertfordshire in England.) The Scriptorium is a fine illustration of a private collection. In 1994 "two American foundations were established. The first, the Van Kampen Foundation, exists as an entity to maintain and develop the growing collection of rare bibles belonging to Robert and Judith Van Kampen of western Michigan. The second, takes the form of an institution. The Scriptorium: Center for Christian Antiquities, the home of the Van Kampen Collection is equipped to initiate and stimulate research within the fields which apply to the items within the collection and the period it represents. Both foundations are active in the U.S.A. and Britain" (Kimberly Van Kampen, "Foreword", The Bible as Book: The Manuscript Tradition [1998], xi). I am informed that early in 2000 the decision was made to relocate the Van Kampen Collection to Orlando, Florida, where it will annex a biblical attraction. This will be a theme park called "The Holy Land Experience". When the collection was first formed, the idea was that it would be used for ministry purposes and this idea is now being returned to. In Florida the collection will have a greater exposure than in western Michigan. The Van Kampen family feel that as stewards of the collection, the relocation is the best way to fulfil the original aims of Robert and Judith Van Kampen.

Briefly, the late Robert D. Van Kampen, who died late in 1999, was an investment banker who built up not only a vast financial empire. He obsessively collected ancient bibles and manuscripts. The foundation which he founded is still actively acquiring materials. Clearly these are not recorded in Goff or in Offenberg. Just one of the Scriptorium's jewels will be discussed today. This [Slide Seven] [1468] is a 1468 Seville manuscript of Torah, Ketubim, and Haftorah with the Masora illustrated throughout in micrographic designs. In dark brown ink in a neat square Spanish Hebrew 15th century script with nikud (fully vocalized and punctuated); chapter number in the same hand written in the outer margins. Ruled by stylus 2+25+3 horizontal and 2+3 +2 vertical with no noticeable pricking - Beit-Arié no doubt would have something significant to say about that. The Masora throughout is in a minute script in semi-Rabbinic cursive in a wide range of elaborate micrographic designs and pictures. There are fifteen ornamental head pieces and twelve illuminated text pages and so on.

This codex, as its colophons reveal, is a product of individual enterprise. The obvious colophon at the end of the text of the Haftorah (f . 862) reads in English translation:

    "I, Moses bar Joseph of Trutiel (Terual-), wrote this Pentateuch and Hagiographa and Haftorot, for the lovely youth R. Abraham bar Jacob Samia in the city of Seville (Ashvilia) on the new moon of Sivan of the year 5228 to the Creation..." (22 May 1468CE).

However, on f. 750 at the conclusion of the Hagiographa noted by the Scribe of the massorah, a different patron and an earlier date are recorded:

    "Here ends the massorah of the Hagiographa... and it was completed on the eighth day of Nissan in the year 5228 to the Creation of the world [31 March 1468], here in the city of Seville ... The book was written for the dear and honourable son of the aged honorable Don Moses Santadoli. God grant him male children dealing with the Torah..."

As Professor Bezalel Narkis of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has observed when he examined the codex: "the earlier micrographic colophon of March 1468... is definitely authentic, although it does not specify the actual patron's name, but only that of his aged father Moses Santadoli.... the later colophon of May 1468 is written in darker ink and smaller letters, over an original effaced colophon."

So we have here a few of the many fascinating issues inherent in examining this fascinating codex. It appears unlikely that "one scribe would dedicate one manuscript to different patrons in Seville at almost the same time." Professor Narkiss speculates that "the original patron, the son of Moses Santadoli, could not acquire the Bible for financial or health reasons and the scribe managed to find a new patron within less' than two months, erased the original colophon on f. 862 and entered a dedicatory inscription in honor of the new owner Abraham bar Jacob Samia." There is another example of the scribes work, a non-illuminated complete Bible now in Modeva, Bibliotheca, Estense (Or. ms. 18. 1) with its colophon dated 1470. It should be added that in 1476 Jews were no longer allowed to live in Seville.

The micrographic manuscript, now at the Scriptorium, disappears from view for over four centuries until it is found recorded in David Solomon Sassoon's Descriptive Catalogue of the Hebrew and Samaritan Manuscripts In the Sassoon Library, London. With Sassoon's Library number 487 on the spine and his armorial bookplate, it was sold at the sale of his Library which took place at Sotheby's Zurich, 5 November 1975 lot 7. It was subsequently deposited at the British Library. The codex then turns up as lot 71 at Sotheby's, London, 5 December 1989 sale of Hebrew Manuscripts from the Tenth to the Fifteenth Century; The Property of the British Rail Pension Fund.

Sotheby's London Catalogue does draw attention to another interesting aspect of this particular codex. The cataloguer writes:

    "Hebrew law prevents the illustration of the Scriptures. In the present manuscript the lines of micrographic writing of the Masora Magna and Minora are formed into exceptionally elaborate linear designs and pictures throughout the book, including birds and animals. Among the patterns is the picture on [f 5] of the serpent wound around a tree and a bush in the opposite margin, illustrating (in effect) the account of the garden of Eden but side-stepping pictorial prohibition because the vignettes are technically only writing.... The full-page designs of very elaborate micrographic architectural and ornamental designs reflect the marked Moorish influences on the medieval art of southern Spain."

The Scriptorium micrographic manuscript is of a particularly high quality and obviously worthy of collection, a copy of the first book printed in any language in Lisbon, Nahmadides' Perush hatorah (1489: Goff, Hebr.87). [Slide One]: Offenberg locates at least 55 other copies, with one known copy lost.

The Newberry Library, an independent research library open to the public, is noted for its strength in Western books of the Renaissance period, for the Wing Collection relating to the history of printing, and the Ayer collection with books and other material dealing with Native Americans. Its Hebrew holdings are worthy of mention, and have been neglected. They may be divided into four categories:

  1. Hebrew manuscripts

  2. Hebrew fragments

  3. Inscriptions in Hebrew letters of pawn records, largely drawn from Italian sources

  4. Hebrew incunabula

There is not time to talk about the pawn records. The fragments are diverse in number. Briefly, the highlights are:

The fragments used as binding materials on two different leaves wrapped around what was Phillipps Ms 22254, an Anglo-Saxon Ms from the 9th century. Wrapped around this, and used for binding materials, are two leaves containing Hebrew letters. [Slide Two] One leaf contains the conclusion of the priestly benediction or blessing chanted by the Cohenim. The other contains the passage in the book of Leviticus dealing with the Priestly laws. Codicologically, the latter dates from c. 14th century. The Priestly benedictions are slightly earlier in date, and from the 13th century.

The other highlight of the Newberry fragments is a single leaf from Rashi (Solomon ben Isaac) the great 11th century French Rabbinic commentator on the Talmud. This single leaf [Slide Three] Newberry Ms. 158, wraps around a Latin Ms. of the Commentaries on Obadiah, Jonah and the Gospel of Luke. On vellum, the leaf contains a variant of the text of Rashi and dates from the late 13th century.

Such use of Hebrew manuscripts demonstrates contempt. The manuscripts were cut up, used as binding materials, often they were put in upside down. They held the books together and survived. Today these fragments are probably of more interest than the books they bound together.

Of the Newberry Hebrew manuscripts two standout for different reasons. Known as" Hebrew Ms.2 Newberry", and part of the collection left to the library by the collector Henry Probasco, is a "Hebrew Calendar". [Slide Four] This is a superb illustration of micrography, the hidden imagery in non-figurative illustration and illumination. Much more research needs to be carried out on the ways in which these factors indicate origin, dating, localization and so on. This calendrical astronomical text is probably from Catalonia and belongs to the end of the 14th century. The original text was in Hebrew. It was subsequently translated into Latin, Greek and Catalan. Beautifully written on vellum with 120 leaves, there are three colors of ink used; purple, some red, and black. The astronomical tables are those of Jacob ben David Bonjorn.

An Incipit (translated) reads "Thus says Jacob ben David Yomtob… *As the prophet said, The Earth is illuminated by your glory, Lord God, redeem us; may your face shine upon us and make us whole"'.

In an article "Astronomical Tables of Jacob ben David Bonjorn", Archive for History of Exact Sciences, XLII (1991), no. 4, pp. 274-34, José Chabàs i Bergon, with the aid of a computer model, has reconstructed Bonjorn's tables. Chabàs i Bergon extends his analysis in his 1992 monograph published in Barcelona, L'Astronomia De Jacob Ben David Bonjorn. There is no time, unfortunately, to discuss the interpretive and conservation issues raised by the fascinating Bonjorn Hebrew manuscript.

There must be time, however, to briefly raise interest in what I personally find the most exciting of the Newberry's Hebrew materials. This is one rescued by the perspicacity of Dr. Paul Saenger, the George A. Poole, III, Curator of Rare Books, and found amongst items in the Ayer collection, largely devoted to native Americans. Yet Edward Everett Ayer (1841-1927), also had an eye for pretty manuscripts. He must have found what turns out to be one of the three or four known surviving Polish Megillot (Scrolls of Esther used at the Festival of Purim) to be pretty! [Slide Five] As you can see it is delightful: worthy of not being sold or thrown away. Newberry Hebrew Ms. 17 is a wonderful illustration of post-incunabula, post-Gutenberg survival. It illustrates how the Medieval tradition of manuscript illumination has survived amongst the Jews much later historically than in many other communities in Europe. It demonstrates perhaps the very isolation of the Jewish community and its non-use of the printed book.

Roughly six feet in length by 6 ins. wide, one roll of three vellum leaves, this mid-18th century illuminated manuscript, is divided into 13 sections. In addition to illustrations of animals and signs of the zodiac, there are also human figures. The text itself, written in small Hebrew letters with accompanying illustrations, tells the traditional tale of how Esther saved her people from the plots of the wicked Haman. The names of his sons are strikingly in bold in much larger characters in the tenth section. This tenth section is incredibly detailed with, for instance, depiction of the sons being hung. The thirteenth central roundel has different visages of male figures. The last section of the scroll is not part of Megillath Esther but contains a thank you prayer, a special prayer that went with the Megillah.

There is enormous scope for ethnographic, sociological interpretation in this scroll. At the top in contemporary dress are soldiers with weapons. There are the arms of Austria. There are horses, red coats, rifles, signs of the zodiac. At the foot are illustrations containing the essence of the Esther-Mordecai-Haman story or "spiel". This is a story told every year from generation to generation still read from an elongated "medieval" illuminated manuscript even in a post-Gutenberg, post-codex, electronic age.

It's tempting to spend all my time on this Non-Italian (the much more common extant type) Megillah. It is time to give some indication of just one other treasure held by one of my representatives of Hebrew holdings in the United States. The Newberry holds one of the at least 55 copies noted in Offenberg, and ten of these are elsewhere in the United States (with also a copy in the Lowy Collection at the National Library of Canada, in Ottawa). Goff, Hebr. 87, Perush ha Torah, [Slide Six] a commentary on the Pentateuch by Nahmanides, Moses b. Nahman of Gerona 1194-1270, is the first book in any language printed in Lisbon. It is evidence that the art of printing was introduced into Lisbon by Jews. This incunabula has been frequently described. It is included in Joshua Bloch's "Early Hebrew Printing in Spain and Portugal", Bulletin New York Public Library vol. 42 (May 1938). What is remarkable about the Newberry Inc. f 9833 is that many of the leaves are inlaid, and that there are manuscript notes with some leaves supplied in an interpretive manuscript hand. The preparation of the volume for exhibition revealed the extent of notation and that the incunable was in sore need of conservation treatment. This treatment led to a thorough inspection resulting in a lengthy conservation treatment report carried out by Susan Russick and her colleagues at the Newberry conservation laboratory. To summarize the lengthy report- it reveals:

  1. The presence of foreign substances with extensive mends, inlays, and stubs

  2. A change of appearance of paper

  3. Structural changes

  4. The disbinding process revealed significant paper differences

  5. Many of the mends and inlays when removed and examined reveal hand-written inscriptions.

The final leaves of the book are supplied in contemporary manuscript with additional commentary on either side. The volume is the product of the craftsmanship of several hands working under the direction of the wealthy scholar Eliezer Toledano in whose home the printing press was operated. The lack of final printed leaves might reveal that insufficient copies were produced.

There is much more to be discovered about the Newberry Nachmanides Perush ha Torah. The marginalia has to be examined from a codicological as well as interpretive point of view. The much fuller investigation as are the other Hebrew manuscripts and incunabula instanced.

In this paper I have attempted to present a sampling of the treasures currently found in two libraries in the Mid-West of the United States. Neither of these libraries are University Libraries, both are accessible to scholars. Both contain the accumulations of generations of collectors and bibliophiles. One, the Newberry Library, is an independent research library. The other, the Scriptorium, is a foundation created by a collector with a passion for books. Neither primarily collect Judaica or have specifically Jewish associations. The eclectic treasures found in both, and so well maintained, are representative of the country in which these treasures now reside: the United States of America, and its traditions of professional, skilled, and highly trained Librarians.

Books and Articles Referred to:

Bloch, J., "Early Hebrew Printing in Spain and Portugal". Bulletin of the New York Public Library, XLII, 371-420 (1938).

Bergeron, J. Chabàs i, "The Astronomical Tables of Jacob ben David Bonjorn". Archive for History of Exact Sciences, 42, 279-314 (1991).

Bergeron, J. Chahàs i, L'Astronomia de Jacob ben David Bonjorn. Barcelona (1992). Encyclopaedia Judaica, Vol. VII. Jerusalem, (1971).

Goff, F.R, Incunabula in American Libraries: A Supplement to the Third Census of Fifteenth - Century Books Recorded in North American Collections. New York (1973).

Jakerson, S.M., Catalogue of Hebrew Incunables in the Library of the St. Petersburg Branch of the Oriental Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences. Leningrad (1985).

Jakerson, S.M., Description of Publications Kept in Libraries of Moscow and Leningrad. Leningrad (1988).

Offenberg, A.K., & Van Walraven, Hebrew Incunabula in Public Collection: A First International Census. Nieuwkoop (1990).

Offenberg, A.K., A Choice of Corals: Facets of Fifteenth-Century Hebrew Printing. Nieuwkoop (1992).

Sassoon, D.S., Descriptive Catalogue of the Hebrew and Samaritan Manuscripts In the Sassoon Library, London. London (1932).

Sotheby's London Catalogue, 5 December 1989, Hebrew Manuscripts form the Tenth to the Fifteenth Century: The Property of the British Rail Pension Fund. London (1989).


The paper would not have been possible without the generous assistance of the following individuals: from the Newberry Library: Paul Saenger, George A. Poole, III, Curator of Rare Books; Susan Russick, Head of Conservation. At the Scriptorium and Van Kampen Foundation: Dr. Orlaith O'Sullivan, Catalogue of Manuscripts and Early Printed Books, Dr. Kimberly Van Kampen.


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