Towards a History of Hebrew Book Collecting: A Review of this Year’s Manfred R. Lehmann Workshop in the History of the Hebrew Book

by contributing editor Yitzchak Schwartz

Last month I once again attended the Manfred R. Lehmann Memorial Master Workshop in the History of the Hebrew Book at the University of Pennsylvania. This is my fifth year attending the workshop and my second writing about it for the blog. As I wrote about last year, the workshop’s goal is to bring together scholars and professionals working in fields related to the Hebrew book to learn from senior scholars about their methodology and research. This year’s presenter was Joseph Hacker, Professor Emeritus of Jewish History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Dr. Hacker’s research centers on the history of Jews in the Ottoman Empire and the intellectual history of Sephardic and Eastern Jews.  At the Workshop, he discussed a newer project, on which he has published several articles, on the history of Hebrew book collecting. While there have been several important studies written on specific collections in the modern and early modern periods there is no history of the subject. Dr. Hacker’s project ties up many loose ends, synthesizes the extant scholarship and paves the way for scholars to begin drawing much broader conclusions about Hebrew book collecting and its evolution over time.

Dr Hacker’s workshop traced the history of Hebrew book collecting from the early middle ages to the two decades after World War II using an extremely diverse array of source material. He argued that while the Talmud speaks of batei midrash, houses of study, there is no explicit record of these having been places where books were kept for public use. The first recorded public collections of Hebrew books are in the medieval Islamic world, contemporary with the emergence of the madrassa as a center or textual learning among Muslim elites. For example, in his twelfth century historical work Sefer HaQabbalah Abraham ibn Daoud states that the powerful Jewish vizier of Granada Samuel Hanagid (993-1056) maintained a room of books where others could come to read and copy.  Paralleling the term madrassa, such collections are referred to in medieval and some early modern texts by the term midrash, meaning a place of learning. References to midrash are scattered throughout the medieval period in historical works, rabbinic texts and various other kinds of sources that Professor Hacker has collected material from in the course for this and other projects. He argues that the existence of such centers for study and copying calls into question a popular argument, popularized by the codicologist and book historian Malachi Beit-Arie’ that Jews never had a parallel institution to the Christian scriptoria. Dr. Hacker argues that for all intents and purposes these centers were effectively the same thing even as there are fewer examples, especially during the early medieval period.

Collections of Hebrew books began to take on larger proportions during the early modern period, when they began to include printed books. Dr. Hacker demonstrated the existence of communal collections in many major Spanish and Italian Jewish communities based largely on censorial and inquisitorial records. They consisted of volumes of Jewish sacred texts (liturgy, Talmud, Bible and commentaries on all three) as well as works on philosophy, medicine, grammar and more esoteric subjects. At the same time, Christian hebraists began assembling much larger collections of Hebrew manuscripts. The earliest hebraists, many of whom had ties to royal courts that were already collecting Eastern texts forged relationships with Eastern Jews and bought manuscripts from them at a time when they had already begun to replace their manuscripts with printed books. Eastern Jewish communities remained very protective, however, of specific manuscripts held special communal or spiritual value. By the mid-eighteenth century, many Jewish collections of manuscripts had been purchased by hebraists and by the early nineteenth most of the great hebraist collections had been absorbed into state collections such as the bibliothèque nationale and the British and Bodleian libraries. Dr. Hacker ended the workshop by discussing Jewish attempts to form comparably large and encyclopedic institutional collections in the mid-nineteenth to early-twentieth century by institutions such as YIVO in Vilna, the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin, the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem. They all succeeded to various degrees but, when it comes to manuscripts, Dr. Hacker argues, the Hebraists had two centuries earlier succeeded in developing very accurate criteria for determining importance and authenticity and had bought out the best stock. As a result the most important manuscript collections remain those of European national rather than Jewish institutions.

NLI building2.jpg

By אסף פינצ’וק – The National Library of Israel, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14181732

The relatively recently formed collections of institutions such as the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem are an exception to the rule, Dr. Hacker argues, in that they were formed without the legacies of Christian Hebraists and amassed encyclopedic collections despite the destruction of Jewish communal libraries during WWII

Another important and as-yet only partially-told  story that Dr. Hacker’s presentation touched upon was the effect of WWII and the Holocaust on European collections of Hebrew Books. It is well-known that the German efforts to destroy the Jewish intellectual legacy harmed many of Europe’s most important Hebrew book collections. I was unaware, however, of the extent to which those collections that survive only do piecemeal. For example, Dr. Hacker cited scholars who have written about the YIVO and Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums collections who conclude that much of these collections were lost. Many Hebrew books were also destroyed in fires to state libraries in Eastern Europe caused by combat and bombing such as one that gutted the Warsaw Library, which had previously held a collection that included many unique manuscripts. Importantly for intellectual historians of Judaism, Hasidic mystical texts seem to have been some of the greatest casualties of this destruction. Dr. Hacker presented original research on the fate of several important dynastic collections of Hasidic courts, most of which were completely destroyed during the war and that all contained original, unpublished texts.

One consequence of Dr. Hacker’s research that I found particularly intriguing was that it suggests just how hard it is to be certain as to the complete contents of any collections or even of all the genres a given collection might have contained. Dr. Hacker’s work is based on a twofold approach of working back from contemporary collections and mining the entire corpus of related texts to piece together historical collections. When discussing early modern Jewish collections, for example, he made particular use of censorial records but  also cited various contemporary texts in many languages. Dr. Hacker pointed out that in several Italian communities, censorial records showed complete absence of prayer books while in others complete absence of Talmudic manuscripts. He suggests that these communities may have simply decided not to turn in those genres to censors, perhaps because they used them on a day-to-day basis and concluded that their temporary absence would be too great an obstacle to the community’s functioning. Similarly, the inventories of personal collections that Hebraists and some Jewish collectors made up were often survive in only one version and may or may not reflect the final state of collections or even their entire scope. So while Dr. Hacker’s research compellingly outlines the evolution of Hebrew book collecting, the source material it uses for the early modern period at least would not give researchers a conclusive picture of the kinds of books in these libraries. Dr. hacker’s research thus seems to me to present a methodological red flag against researchers making arguments from absence in censorial or inquisitorial records.

Dr. Hacker’s work on the history of Hebrew book collecting is still in progress and the workshop left me with several important questions: One question I found myself coming back to again and again was about Dr. Hacker’s chronology: He sees the absence of records or explicit discussion of midrash-type spaces prior to the middle ages as evidence for the lack of their existence. However, parsing the evidence he cited for the development of the midrash in the medieval period I began to wonder: Dr. Hacker has found references to various important medieval figures such Samuel Hanagid and Isaac Abarbanel having maintained libraries. These references are generally made in the context of biographical (in Abarbanel’s case autobiographical) accounts of those figures. We have no similar historical texts from earlier periods that would tell us one way or another about libraries. Moreover, many scholars believe the ancient Dead Sea Scrolls  originally comprised a library for the sectarian residents of the Qumran settlement. Midrashic texts refer to a library as having existed in the Temple, demonstrating that the notion of a semi-public library was at the very least not alien to the rabbis of the Talmudic period. As a result I wondered whether the distinction between the midrash of the middle ages the beit midrash of the talmudic period really held weight.

Another question that Dr. Hacker’s work raised for me and several of my co-participants at the workshop was that since it looks only to collections of Hebrew books it awaits further research to explore the presence of non-Hebrew books in Jewish collections. What kinds of non-Hebrew books did early modern and modern Jewish collectors and institutions own? And what kinds of communities, based on the Hebrew books they had, tended to collect what kind of non-Hebrew books? How did these relations differ from location to location, between Turkey and Northern Italy for example? These are questions that could shed a great deal of light on the intellectual worlds of these Jewish communities. All of these questions make clear, to my mind, that Dr. Hacker’s work is laying the groundwork for many new and promising avenues of inquiry in Jewish intellectual history.

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