How Jewish heritage was saved for posterity by a university’s devoted librarians
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Book reviewMany of the collectors were not Jewish... or even admirers

How Jewish heritage was saved for posterity by a university’s devoted librarians

‘Jewish Treasures from Oxford Libraries’ examines 10 priceless, vital collections, purchased over 4 centuries by the Bodleian Library

The cover of "Jewish Treasures from Oxford Libraries"
The cover of "Jewish Treasures from Oxford Libraries"

Although the format is that of a coffee table album, allowing for easy leafing through the numerous colorful reproductions of old Jewish manuscripts and illustrations, ”Jewish Treasures from Oxford Libraries” offers fascinating, sometimes compelling, reading.

This is the moving tale of how much of our Jewish heritage was saved for posterity by the dedicated librarians of an English university who appreciated what has been written in Hebrew.

The publication, recently celebrated at the National Library in Jerusalem, presents the stories of ten priceless collections purchased over four centuries by the Bodleian Library that constitute an indispensable primary source for the study of a millennia of Judaism.

Sponsored by the Martin G. Gross Family Foundation in New Jersey, an impressive array of top scholars were recruited under the capable guidance of Rebecca Abrams, to write the history and explain the significance of each of these unique collections.

People are silhouetted in the Old Schools Quadrangle, Old Bodleian Library, at Oxford University in Oxford, England. (AP file photo / Kirsty Wigglesworth)

One should not be focusing solely on the beauty of the rare artifacts lavishly displayed throughout this volume, since some of the brightest jewels are to be found in the texts tracing the adventurous journeys of their preservation.

Most collectors were operating against the background of tremendous vulnerability of sacred Jewish books and artifacts that were routinely destroyed over numerous generations by waves of persecution and pogroms. Ancient Talmudic manuscripts, for example, are very rare due to their regular burnings in 13th-16th centuries Europe.

As one Harvard historian once put it: ”Documents have nine lives”; medieval scrolls sometimes manage to survive.

It is especially surprising to discover that many of the most dedicated collectors, who spent lifetimes and fortunes in pursuit of this “hobby,” were not Jewish themselves or even admirers of the Hebrew teachings and legacy.

Thomas Bodley (Public domain)

Quite a few — starting with the founder of the Hebrew Library in the 16th century, Thomas Bodley himself — were Christian Puritans who, as Prof. Robert Fishman commented, rejected illustrations of holy scriptures and dismissed any kind of aestheticizing of the Word of God. They were often hostile to the importance of the items to Jewish history, interested only in establishing the pure text of the Old Testament in order to demonstrate how it was supplanted by the New Bible.

The Kennicott Bible was taken out of late 15th century Spain with the 1492 expulsion of the Jews and was reclaimed in Gibraltar after 300 years. The massive collection of David Oppenheim, Chief Rabbi of Prague, reached Oxford only in 1829, almost a century after his death. William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, donated, before his execution, some of the most valuable manuscripts.

Among other great collectors in the 17th century was John Selden, the leading legal scholar of his period. Selden mastered both Hebrew and Aramaic in order to fully enjoy the 8,000 books and manuscripts on his shelves, that included Maimonides’ Mishne Torah with his notes. Another collection was assembled by a Venetian Jesuit.

And, of course, “The Big Bang” (as it is described by co-editor Cesar Merchan-Hamann) of the 19th century saw the arrival of additional major collections such as those of Rabbi Isaac Reggio from Italy and parts of the invaluable Cairo Geniza, the ultimate source for Jewish life in the Middle Ages.

Jewish Treasures from Oxford Libraries
Hardcover: 304 pages; 136 color illustrations
Rebecca Abrams (Editor), Cesar Merchan-Hamann (Editor)

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