The Bodleian Library, Oxford, 1882. ( DEA / BIBLIOTECA AMBROSIANA via Getty)

Saved for posterity

John Bowers reviews Jewish Treasures from Oxford Libraries, by Rebecca Abrams and Cesar Merchan-Hamann

Artillery Row Books

This is the first book to reveal the extraordinary Judaic and Hebraic treasures in the Bodleian Library and they really are treasures of all civilisation. Four centuries of collecting and 100 years of Jewish history are distilled into its lavishly illustrated 308 pages. Have you, for example, ever thought: what does Maimonides’ handwriting looks like and what emendation to his text tells us about the development of his thought? Where else could you find handwritten annotations by Maimonides in Judeo Arabic but in the Bodleian, Oxford’s wonderful library.

Jewish Treasures,
by Rebecca Abrams and Cesar Merchan-Hamann, Bodleian Library, £35

The Bodleian is one of the pre-eminent holders of Hebrew and Jewish manuscripts in the world yet this is the first time a book has bought these treasures together. The 1886 catalogue of Hebrew manuscripts, which is used to this day, has 2602 entries and many more have been added since. 

The books, which derive from all corners of the Earth, tell a story of oppression but also of great joy and creativity. Many of the books bear the marks of examination and expurgation required by Italian ecclesiastical authorities. This was usually carried out by Jewish censors or revisers who converted to Christianity. Jewish owners of books had to submit them regularly to authorities several times in the Middle Ages.

The book is divided into eleven chapters each by a different author, all of whom expert in their fields. Eight are devoted to the different collections within the library. It turns out that some of the most unlikely people were collectors of Hebraica. Ironically, much of the interest to collect was to seek to settle rival arguments of the Christian interpretations of the Bible. For Pococke who assembled one of the Collections for example, the motive was to advance quest for literal meaning of biblical texts.

Another collector wanted a collection of all such books so that a systematic letter by letter comparison could be made of all manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible in British and Irish libraries. This would of course be performed more directly by an algorithm now.

The book also chronicles the intriguing stories of the collectors themselves and this has a modern feel to it including fierce rivalries between collectors; fights between different countries for the right to keep the books; and the prize of prestige for those who donated them. Huntingdon sought to trick the Samarians in Nablus to send a Pentateuch to Oxford for an entirely invented Samarian community. He also could not persuade synagogues which he visited in Damascus to part with their books. 

The book concentrates on the Bodleian collections and reminds us that Hebrew was an integral part of Thomas Bodley’s project in founding the Library

The book tells the stories of court Jews who were at the mercy of the royal patrons as outsiders to the political elite. They were often the source of support for the printing of the Jewish books. Many were from Spain or Portugal.

The book mainly concentrates on the Bodleian collections and reminds us that Hebrew was an integral part of Thomas Bodley’s own singular project in founding the Library. The Collectors were a fascinating group. Laud who had been Archbishop of Canterbury finished in the Tower of London. Pococke was the collection first Laudian Professor of Arabic. The Canonici manuscript collection was put together by a man born in Venice in 1727. That Collection alone consisted of 2000 printed books, 3000 biblical editions and 3550 manuscripts and was the first extensive acquisition.

David Oppenheim set out to collect every Jewish book. It is described by Joshua Teplitsky as “without exaggeration, the crown jewel of the Judaica holdings at Oxford University”. He was Chief Rabbi of Moravia and then of Bohemia. His penchant was for lots of small mass market books. He had 63 copies of the Passover Haggadah in 45 different editions.

Kennicott wanted to see the Jewish communities in China as he thought the torah used there may be a more authentic text closer to the Moses and the Prophets than the texts transmitted by medieval Jews in the west. His project amounted to what the author of the chapter Theodor Dunkelgrun describes as “the first big data study of the Hebrew Bible a vast fine-grained analysis of the consonantal text of most of the oldest witnesses ever known”.

Benjamin Kennicott, who was born in from Totnes, devoted his life to study of the Hebrew Bible. His wife Ann learnt Hebrew to aid her husband’s work behind husband and developed a new kind of philology. Huntingdon was chaplain to the English Levant Co.

The Genizah Collection is somewhat different. Where the word God is used in them, the books must be given the same honour as if human and buried. This was done in a Genizah chamber and one of the largest was in the Ben Ezra synagogue in Fustat (Old Cairo) had an especially large vault. This haul includes the oldest dated copy of the Babylonian Talmud; a near complete prayer book according to the Palestinian rite and a liturgical manuscript on papyrus. It includes every day legal documents and sacred writings.

Like one of Claudia Roden’s cookery books, it uses the basic proposition of the treasures themselves to weave other tales

A chapter by Rahel Fronda reviews the extensive treasures in the college libraries of Lincoln, Corpus Christi, Exeter and Magdalen. Corpus was praised by no less a figure than Erasmus for its trilingual library comprising Latin Greek Hebrew.

The overall Editors are Rebecca Abrams who also produced the lavish work on Jewish Treasurers in the Ashmoleian Gallery and Cesar Merchan-Hamann the Hbrew and Judiaica Curator at the Bodleian. 

The book has brought together major world scholars in the subject. Like one of Claudia Roden’s cookery books, it uses the basic proposition of the treasures themselves to weave other tales. The collectors each have short biographies. It is lavishly illustrated and well produced. It is also reasonably priced at £35.

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