Ingathering and digitizing the Diaspora’s rare Hebrew books

Israel’s National Library and Italy’s Palatina Library cooperate to put one of the world’s largest collections of Jewish manuscripts online

Ilan Ben Zion, a reporter at the Associated Press, is a former news editor at The Times of Israel.

Illustrative: An illuminated manuscript of the Mishnah, part of the Palatina Library's De Rossi collection, dated to the 11th century. (Courtesy: National Library of Israel)
Illustrative: An illuminated manuscript of the Mishnah, part of the Palatina Library's De Rossi collection, dated to the 11th century. (Courtesy: National Library of Israel)

In a project as ambitious as the Great Library of Alexandria — which, starting in the 3rd century BCE under the Ptolemies, endeavored to copy all scrolls that entered the port — Israel’s National Library is seeking to digitize and store all of the world’s Jewish texts.

Last week, the National Library, located on the campus of the Hebrew University at Givat Ram, Jerusalem, took a major step forward in this quest by reaching an agreement to produce high-definition images of one of the world’s premier collections of Judaic manuscripts. The National Library and Italy’s Biblioteca Palatina in Parma signed a deal to convert centuries of parchment and paper Hebrew documents to high-quality digital files which will be available to Israeli scholars. A selection of those files will be uploaded to the Internet for general access.

Dr. Aviad Stollman, head of the National Library’s Judaica collection and overseer of the digitization project, said the library’s aim was to have “the heritage of the Jewish people in one room.” Speaking at the library in early October, Stollman praised the Palatina’s cooperation in the project, and said that the National Library was negotiating similar agreements with Oxford’s Bodleian Library and the Vatican Library.

Interior of Parma, Italy's Palatina Library, home of one of the world's largest collections of Hebrew manuscripts (Courtesy of Palatina Library)
Interior of Parma, Italy’s Palatina Library, home of one of the world’s largest collections of Hebrew manuscripts (Courtesy of Palatina Library)

Sabina Magrini, director of the Palatina Library, explained in a Skype conversation this week that its collection was significant not only because of the size of its Hebrew manuscript collection, but because it was “very rich and various,” with materials from both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi worlds from the 13th to 18th centuries. 

Of the Palatina’s collection of 6,600 manuscripts, just shy of a quarter are Hebrew texts, the crown jewel of which is an 11th-century codex of the Mishna, Judaism’s core legal treatise. The Mishna, a compiled redaction of Jewish oral tradition, was first set to parchment in the 7th or 8th century CE. Written around 1073 in Palestine, the Parma codex is the second-oldest known version of this compendium of Jewish legal thought.

The founder of the Hebrew manuscript collection, Giovanni Bernardo De Rossi, an 18th-century Italian Christian Hebraist, “was very interested in the Bible,” said Magrini. “Consequently his interest is reflected in his collection, so there are lots of Bibles, lots of manuscripts about biblical texts.” Five hundred or so of the 1,600 Hebrew manuscripts are biblical, but the remainder are a varied assemblage of biblical exegesis, halacha, Kabbalah, Talmudic texts, piyyutim [liturgical songs], prayerbooks, philosophy and astronomy.

It began with Ben-Gurion

The undertaking to amass centuries of Jewish literature in a single library began in 1950, when prime minister Ben-Gurion asked finance minister Eliezer Kaplan to allocate funds to photograph Hebrew manuscripts worldwide. The prime minister realized the infant Jewish state could hardly afford to purchase thousands of texts from the world’s premier institutions, but images of the texts would suffice.

Prime minister David Ben-Gurion's letter to finance minister Eliezer Kaplan from March 5, 1950.
Prime minister David Ben-Gurion’s letter to finance minister Eliezer Kaplan from March 5, 1950.

Just like the founding of Israel aimed to ingather scattered Jewish communities, Ben-Gurion envisioned an ingathering of Jewish textual exiles in a single institution.

“It is incumbent upon the State of Israel to gather in these far-flung [documents] — the far-flung spirit of Israel in the Diaspora,” Israel’s first prime minister wrote to Kaplan on March 5, 1950.

“I don’t envision the possibility of obtaining and concentrating original manuscripts in Israel,” Ben-Gurion wrote, “but sophisticated photographs by new techniques do not fall short in their practical value from the manuscripts themselves, and that is what we must do immediately, without delay, and with every effort.”

Over a half-century later, the National Library’s Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts now possesses replicas of 90 percent of the world’s known Hebrew literature manuscripts. The challenge is computerizing the now-antiquated technology. The room where 70,000 tiny black scrolls are stored and viewed, redolent of scholars and old books, will soon be replaced by computer banks with much easier access to troves of documents in high definition. (The institute, its collection of microfilms and its scholars were dramatized in the Oscar-nominated 2011 film Footnote by director Joseph Cedar.)

“What we’re trying to do is bring it into the 21st century,” Stollman said.

A library for millions

The digitization project would not only include high-definition color photographs of the manuscripts, but also special photos made using a technique called multispectral imaging. Library conservationists will scan pages of a manuscript, then pass the photos through a series of filters to produce images of the text under both visible and invisible wavelengths of light — from the infrared to ultraviolet ends of the spectrum. The composite image is then processed to reveal subtle features in the text previously invisible to plain sight.

Stollman dubbed the project the “International Digital Library of Hebrew Manuscripts,” and said its ultimate goal was twofold: to create enhanced multispectral images of documents for scholars worldwide to better understand them, and to upload the texts to the Internet and make them accessible to the general public.

He noted that the library’s efforts are aimed at aiding not just academics but laypeople as well. “I see this agreement [with the Palatina Library] as very important not only because it will enhance the conditions for scholars, but most important to me is… investing in the general public,” Stollman said. By making many of the Palatina’s documents available online, and providing visitors with an interactive platform with information about the text geared toward non-experts, Stollman hopes to generate fascination in these ancient manuscripts.

“We’re going to see millions of people accessing it,” Stollman said with confidence.

For the Palatina Library, collaborating with Israel was “really important not only for our library, but also for a vast community all over the world,” Magrini said. She explained that microfilm, a technology that saw its prime in the 1960s and ’70s, was not the ideal medium for duplicating antique manuscripts.

After receiving the request from Israel’s National Library, “I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be magnificent, marvelous if these elements were reproduced digitally. There would really be so much more material for these scholars to look at,'” Magrini said.

The Palatina suffered an electrical fire in 2012, forcing it to close its doors until it can raise the funds to repair the building; Magrini called the project to keep the collection accessible online “the answer to my prayers.” (Donations to help the Palatina reopen can be made here.)

What she hoped to achieve through working with her Israeli counterparts was the creation of “a great portal” by which international scholars could access the materials found in the Palatina Library. When asked what role she saw the library playing once the materials were uploaded to the Internet, Magrini remarked that she didn’t see it changing all that much.

“What librarians do is actually putting people together. We create relationships between tools, catalogs, instruments, databases and the books themselves,” she said. While in the past this was done with paper and parchment, “what we librarians are doing today in the Internet age is practically creating a more efficient way, certainly a more diffuse way… but our function is actually always the same: that of facilitating and creating a sort of mediation between scholars and readers and the objects.”

Norman Golb, a University of Chicago professor of Jewish Studies, wrote in 2003 of the Palatina Library’s Hebrew manuscript collection that he was “convinced that these texts… contain valuable and often still unexplored historical information that, when brought together and considered in its entirety, might well require serious revisions, reassessments and augmentations to the present understanding of Jewish history and Hebraic culture during the Middle Ages and beyond.”

Digitizing the De Rossi collection will enable the next generation of Jewish scholars to better understand generations past.

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