400-year-old library houses oldest copy of Mishneh Torah

Built by conversos fleeing Spain, Amsterdam’s ancient Ets Haim library gets an update

Massive Encyclopedia of Jewish Book Cultures also underway by Dutch publisher Brill, who says 31 institutions already purchased access to the compilation to be complete in 3 years

From left to right: A page from a 1607 edition of the Shulchan Aruch printed in Krakow; a brightly colored cover page of a religious text from Venice, 1674; and a page from a 1540 edition of the Arba'ah Turim by Jacob ben Asher. (From the 'Encyclopedia of Jewish Book Cultures'/ Courtesy of Brill Publishers)
From left to right: A page from a 1607 edition of the Shulchan Aruch printed in Krakow; a brightly colored cover page of a religious text from Venice, 1674; and a page from a 1540 edition of the Arba'ah Turim by Jacob ben Asher. (From the 'Encyclopedia of Jewish Book Cultures'/ Courtesy of Brill Publishers)

Two hugely significant, little-known projects centered on the long, rich legacy of Hebrew books are now underway, with vast implications for scholars and anyone who aspires to delve into the treasures of Jewish tradition.

Both center on Emile Schrijver, a 60-year-old ruffled academic who heads the Jewish Cultural Quarter in Amsterdam, which includes the Portuguese Synagogue.

The synagogue is home to the world’s oldest continuously operating Jewish library, the Ets Haim Library, which has just kicked off a campaign to raise $1 million worldwide.

The over 400-year-old library was set up by conversos — Jews who had converted to Catholicism, often by force, and their descendants. After fleeing Catholic persecution on the Iberian Peninsula in the early 17th century, they founded the library to begin the process of familiarizing themselves with the basics of Judaism.

Raised funds will go to complete the cataloging of its many holdings and upgrade the environment and conditions in which the ancient pages are housed near central Amsterdam, close to where Rembrandt once painted and Anne Frank penned her diary.

Ets Haim has a staggering 23,000 books, only half of which have been cataloged. Those uncataloged works may not be fully on the radar of scholars worldwide eager to consider in depth how they can elucidate and advance our understanding of Jewish thought, prayer, history and culture. Also to be better understood is how the vast body of Jewish books relates to the broad body of all other books, and the relationship between the Jewish world and historically often hostile Christian and Muslim host societies.

“One hundred to 200 books are very rare — we don’t know if they exist elsewhere,” Schrijver said.

The Ets Haim Library at the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam. (Martin Rosenberg)

The holdings, spanning centuries, also offer profound insights into the nature of and evolution of church censorship of the materials, he said.

Emphasis will be placed on physically preserving the books by housing them in a climate-controlled environment utilizing state-of-the-art procedures and equipment, or as Schrijver put it, “climatization of this 17th-century building.”

Ets Haim Library curator Heide Warncke said, “I want to make people aware we are here — not just academics.”

Ets Haim Library curator Heide Warncke. (Courtesy)

Preserving rare books, however, requires some degree of access restriction. Hence the importance of developing an online catalog of all book holdings.

“People want to touch and feel the books. That is not possible,” Warncke said, adding that scholars do have access appropriate for their work and that “functional touching” is possible.

The oldest book in Ets Haim is a handwritten Mishneh Torah dated 1282, the oldest copy of the work and therefore believed to be the copy most true to Maimonides’s original language and intent. The Mishneh Torah, a code of rabbinic Jewish law, was compiled by Maimonides in Egypt between 1170 and 1180 CE.

“It is very special. It has censorship in it by the Christian church,” Warncke said. “If the book could speak, that would be wonderful. It was written in Narbonne in the south of France close to the Spanish border. It was in Italy in 1555. We know it got to the Netherlands in the 19th century but we don’t know how; it might have been earlier. It was in the library of the rabbi of the Hague who gave it to Ets Haim.”

Much is to be gleaned from the books above and beyond their awe-inspiring content, for those with the intellectual curiosity and willingness to ponder the lifespan of the books housed in Amsterdam, she said.

“Go through your bookcase and I can tell something about you,” she said. “Recently I found a feather of a peacock in a book. In another, there was a hair of a long beard used as a bookmark.”

One can only wonder if a woman of the Middle Ages placed that peacock feather in the book or a rabbi or farmer plucked a strand of his beard to mark his place in a weighty tome.

“We know what we have and we want the world to know what we have,” Warncke said.

Encyclopedia of Jewish Book Cultures

The second major book project is the compilation of the “Encyclopedia of Jewish Book Cultures” under Schrijver’s direction for the Dutch publishing house Brill, founded in 1683.

The encyclopedia is now being constructed online and will be in print when complete in several years. It is a survey of 2,000 years of Jewish book cultures from all over the globe.

Built in the 17th century by refugees from the Inquisition, Amsterdam's Portuguese Synagogue withstood the Nazi occupation to remain a center of Jewish life. (Matt Lebovic)
Built in the 17th century by refugees from the Inquisition, Amsterdam’s Portuguese Synagogue withstood the Nazi occupation to remain a center of Jewish life. (Matt Lebovic/ToI)

The latest addition to the online opus was published in March when articles totaling 100,000 words were incorporated into the ongoing project. The online encyclopedia should take three years to complete and will lead to the publication of a four-volume print set edition, Schrijver told The Times of Israel.

Schrijver, who also holds the position of professor of Jewish Book History at the University of Amsterdam, oversees a six-member board and 150 scholars contributing to the work. The most immediate impact of the comprehensive encyclopedia will be on academic scholars.

Katie Chin, senior acquisitions editor for Ancient Near East & Jewish Studies out of Brill’s Boston office, said that 31 institutions have already purchased online access to the encyclopedia. They include the University of Chicago, Tel Aviv University, University of Toronto, Yale University, Bodleian Libraries of the University of Oxford, Princeton University and the National Library of Israel.

Prof. Emile Schrijver is directing the compilation of the ‘Encyclopedia of Jewish Book Cultures’ and heads the Jewish Cultural Quarter in Amsterdam. (Courtesy)

Shrijver, in an introductory essay in the encyclopedia with scholar David Finkelstein, noted, “The list of possible research questions still to be pondered are endless.”

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