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Hebraic Collections: Library of Congress, An Illustrated Guide

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The Books of the People of the Book

Sefardi Torah Scroll
Sefardi Torah Scroll (North Africa?, eighteenth century?). Torah scrolls are written without vowels or punctuation and include only the biblical text. These four columns begin with Exodus 23:6 and go through Exodus 26:25.

The twin pillars of Judaism are the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud. The Hebrew Scriptures -- the book of the "People of the Book" -- are divided into three main sections: the Torah (Pentateuch); the Nevi'im (Prophets), and the Ketuvim (Hagiographa). The Talmud is a massive collection of discussions and rulings based on the Mishnah, a compilation of laws and customs assembled in about 200 C.E. Two versions of the Talmud exist: The Jerusalem Talmud, dating from circa 400 C.E., is based on the discussions of the sages of Palestine, and the Babylonian Talmud, from circa 500 C.E., recapitulates the debates of the rabbis in the Babylonian academies.

The prevailing form of the book in antiquity was the scroll. Ancient texts were copied onto animal skins that had been prepared to be written on. The individual skins, called parchment, were then sewn together and the ends were attached to cylindrical handles or rollers. To this day, Judaism reserves the scroll for the sacred texts read in the synagogue liturgy. The most sacred Jewish text is the Torah scroll. Containing the Five Books of Moses (the Pentateuch), a Torah scroll is handwritten by a specially trained scribe who pens the text -- letter by letter and word by word -- on specially prepared parchment. Torah scrolls do not have punctuation, vowel signs, signatures, colophons, or dates, so the place, date, and scribe are almost never known -- though we can often surmise the date and location from paleographic clues. Portions of the Torah are read aloud in the synagogue on the Sabbath, on holidays, and during weekday services on Monday and Thursday mornings.

Maftir Yonah (The Book of Jonah)
Mordechai Beck and David Moss, Maftir Yonah (The Book of Jonah) (Jerusalem, 1992). An edition of the Book of Jonah meant to be recited at the afternoon service on the Day of Atonement, this volume includes original etchings by Mordechai Beck and calligraphy by David Moss. It was produced by Sidon Rosenberg at the Jerusalem Print Workshop. Copyright © 2000 Bet Alpha Editions, Berkeley, California. (Reproduced with permission of Bet Alpha Editions)

Metavel, illustrator and calligrapher, Yonah (Jerusalem, 1986). This work is part of the Israel Museum's series of matchbox books. Illustrated and written by the Israeli artist and miniaturist Metavel, it includes vignettes from the story of Jonah and the whale.

The Hebraic collections include a Torah scroll (in Hebrew, Sefer Torah) copied in North Africa, probably in the eighteenth century, and written in a Sefardi hand. The Sefardim, or Spanish Jews, are descended from Jews who were expelled from Spain and Portugal at the end of the fifteenth century. The golden-hued parchment of this Sefer Torah is prepared in a manner similar to an ancient method described in the Talmud, using a chemical process similar to tanning. The Scroll of Esther (in Hebrew, Megillat Esther), which includes the handwritten text of the biblical Book of Esther, is read aloud in the synagogue on the eve and the morning of the Purim festival.

A Scroll of Esther of unusual size and age is held in the Hebraic Section. Copied in central or southern Europe in the fourteenth or fifteenth century, this monumental scroll measures some thirty-two inches high, with each letter about three quarters of an inch in height. The parchment was prepared using a process typical of Ashkenazi manuscripts, which resulted in a whiter writing surface than the one used to prepare a typical Sefardi scroll. Ashkenaz refers to Germany, and Ashkenazi Jews are these Jews -- or their descendants -- living in Christian lands. Printing with movable type, introduced in Europe by Johann Gutenberg in the mid-fifteenth century, was quickly taken up by Jews in Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Turkey, who sought to produce and disseminate the literature of Judaism. In all, some 140 Hebrew works were printed before 1501. Of these Hebraic incunabula, the Library holds 31 titles in 39 copies.

Yemei Beresheet
Ariel Wardi, Yemei Beresheet (Jerusalem, 1992). This work was privately printed on a hand press by Ariel Wardi, who cut letters and cast the type especially for this edition, which he bound himself. Displayed are the words from the opening chapter of Genesis describing the first six days of creation (Genesis 1:1-31; 2:1-3). (Courtesy Ariel Wardi)

Ashkenazi Megillah
Ashkenazi Megillah (fourteenth- fifteenth centuries?). This scroll is one of the oldest extant. The shape of the letters as well as the condition of the parchment help to establish where it was created and the date of its completion.

The first dated Hebrew book -- Rashi's commentary on the Pentateuch -- appeared in Reggio di Calabria, Italy, in 1475. But scholars point to Rome as the city where Hebrew printing began. Between 1469 and 1472, nine works were printed there -- none bearing a date or place of publication -- but all bearing the unmistakable typographic influence of Sweynheym and Pannartz, two German printers who set up shop in Subiaco, near Rome, and printed Latin books. It is believed that Rome's Jewish printers learned their craft from Sweynheym and Pannartz. From these first fruits of Hebrew printing, the Library of Congress owns a copy of the responsa of Solomon ben Abraham Adret (the "Rashba") of Barcelona, a thirteenth-century rabbinic authority, called Teshuvot She'elot ha-Rashba (Rome, 1469-72). The primitive typography of this Rome incunabulum -- the left margin is ragged and only a square font is used -- has led some to speculate that this work might very well be the first Hebrew book printed.

Psalms, with commentary by David Kimhi
Psalms, with commentary by David Kimhi (Bologna?, August 29, 1477). Kimhi's commentary was often a target for censors. In the passage displayed here, an owner has handwritten in the margin all that was inked out by the censor.

The first book of the Hebrew Bible to be printed was the commentary of David Kimhi on the Psalms, which was published in 1477, probably in Bologna. The volume is one of the most beautiful of early Hebrew printed works, and its fonts do not appear to have been used for any other title. The verses are printed in square type and pointed by hand. The commentary of David Kimhi is in a cursive type. The Library's copy was heavily censored by Church authorities in Italy, with whole passages crossed out by the censor's pen. In 1489, Eliezer Toledano published the first book printed in any language in Lisbon, the capital of Portugal. Moses ben Nahman's Perush ha-Torah is a commentary on the Pentateuch. That same year, Toledano published Lisbon's second printed work, the Sefer Abudarham, a commentary on the prayers written in 1340 by David ben Yosef Abudarham. The Library's copies of these and similar works help document the rich and varied legacy of Iberian Jews before the expulsions in 1492 from Spain and in 1497 from Portugal.

In the sixteenth century, Hebrew printing spread throughout Europe and the Near East, with centers established in Venice, Constantinople, Salonika, and a variety of towns and cities in Central Europe.

Teshuvot She'elot ha-Rashba
Solomon ben Abraham Adret, Teshuvot She'elot ha-Rashba (Rome, 1469-72). This volume is opened to responsum 265, in which the Rashba responds to the question: "Which is to be preferred: A professional cantor or a volunteer?"

Perush ha- Torah (Commentary on the Pentateuch)
Moses ben Nahman, Perush ha- Torah (Commentary on the Pentateuch) (Lisbon, 1489). Nahmanides's commentary on the Pentateuch is the first book printed in any language in Lisbon. Illustrated here is the opening page of the Book of Numbers, Ba- Midbar, the fourth of the Five Books of Moses.

One of the most important and well-known of early Hebrew printers was the "wandering printer," Gershom Soncino. He set up shop in the town of Soncino in Lombardy, and from there he made his way through Italy, issuing books in Casalmaggiore, Brescia, Barco, Fano, Pesaro, Rimini, Cesena, and Ortona. From Italy, he journeyed to Turkey, where he printed Hebrew books in Salonika and Constantinople. Over the course of his career, which began in 1488 and ended in 1534, some two hundred works issued from his press -- roughly half in Hebrew and half in Latin and Italian.

David ben Yosef Abudarham, Abudarham (Fez, 1516). The first book printed in Africa, this edition of the Abudarham is a reprint of the Lisbon 1489 edition. The Abudarham outlines religious customs and practices according to the Sefardic rite.

Sefer Kol Bo (The complete book)
Sefer Kol Bo (The complete book) (Rimini, 1526). The title page displays Gershom Soncino's printer's mark, a tower flanked by the biblical verse, "The name of the Lord is a strong tower: the righteous [one] runs into it and is set up on high" (Proverbs 18:10).

The first book printed on the continent of Africa was a Hebrew book, the second edition of the Sefer Abudarham, published by Samuel Nedivot and his son Isaac in 1516 in Fez. Samuel Nedivot learned the craft of printing in Portugal, probably in the shop of Eliezer Toledano, and after the expulsion from Portugal, he found haven in Morocco. His first publication there was an almost exact copy of Toledano's 1489 Lisbon edition. Clearly, the printer of the Fez edition had before him the Lisbon 1489 edition and sought to reproduce it line for line and letter for letter. The book represents an object lesson in how, after a catastrophe such as the expulsion from Portugal, a spiritual and cultural legacy is rebuilt and transmitted from one generation to the next.

In 1515, Daniel Bomberg, a Christian from Antwerp, received an exclusive privilege from the Venetian Senate to print Hebrew books in Venice. Bomberg's press became the most important Hebrew press in sixteenth-century Europe, issuing some 230 titles before its demise in 1549. Bomberg published the first edition of the Rabbinic Bible (1516-17) -- the Hebrew Scriptures accompanied by a selection of traditional rabbinic commentaries -- and the first complete edition of the Talmud (1519-23). The layout and pagination of the Bomberg Talmud became the standard for virtually all subsequent editions of the Babylonian Talmud that have appeared to this day.

Mikra'ot Gedolot (Rabbinic Bible)
Mikra'ot Gedolot (Rabbinic Bible) (Venice, 1516-17). This Hebrew Bible is opened to the end of the Book of Samuel and the first verses of the Book of Kings.

Talmud, Sanhedrin
Talmud, Sanhedrin (Venice, 1520). The form of the page of the Talmud has remained constant through the centuries: the text in the center in square script, surrounded by the commentaries in a smaller cursive script.

The first edition of the Zohar (The Book of Splendor) -- a classic of Jewish mysticism -- appeared in Mantua in 1558. The second volume of the Library's three-volume set is printed on blue paper, marking it as a deluxe limited edition prepared especially for a wealthy patron.

In the seventeenth century, Amsterdam became a center of Hebrew printing. One of its leading printers, Joseph Athias, published a noteworthy edition of the Hebrew Bible in 1667, which earned him a gold medal from the Dutch government. The edition, which was intended for both Jews and Christians, was edited by University of Leyden scholar Johannes Leusdan.

Sefer ha-Zohar (Book of splendor)
Sefer ha-Zohar (Book of splendor) (Mantua, 1558). This edition of the Zohar -- the central text of Jewish mysticism -- is printed on blue paper, thereby marking it as a deluxe edition.

Biblia Hebraica
Biblia Hebraica (Amsterdam, 1667). This edition of the Hebrew Scriptures won an award for its publisher, Joseph Athias. Note the four-letter name of God, the Tetragrammaton, surrounded by light, at the head of the title page.

  HOME  Foreword  In the Beginning...  The Books of the People of the Book  Beauty in Holiness  The Holy Land
  In the New World  A Note to Researchers  Publications on the Hebraic and Judaic Collections

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( November 15, 2010 )
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