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Taking a Bibliographical Journey Through Jewish History

Taking a Bibliographical Journey Through Jewish History

Now showing in Brooklyn: rare Hebrew manuscripts and antique books from the 16th–century and beyond.

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MAHBAROT IMMANUEL – CONSTANTINOPLE 1535 (Full photos of manuscript pages appear at the end of the article)
MAHBAROT IMMANUEL – CONSTANTINOPLE 1535 (Full photos of manuscript pages appear at the end of the article)

The third floor of 770 Eastern Parkway, the iconic headquarters of Chabad-Lubavitch in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., is now home to a significant exhibition of antique Hebrew manuscripts and printed books. Included in the display are more than 20 items belonging to the rare category known as “incunabula”—printed material predating the year 1501.

Each item on display is another thread in the tapestry of Jewish history, tracing the geographical and intellectual lines that linked community to community and one generation to the next. To tour this exhibit is to embark on a series of journeys from 21st century New York to Renaissance-era Venice, early-Ottoman Constantinople, 16th-century Paris and pre-expulsion Spain.

According to Marvin J. Heller, a scholar who has published several volumes on the history of Hebrew books, the Chabad library houses one of the most underappreciated collections on the globe. “This is a world-class library,” he says, “with some very uncommon items. But very few people know about it.”

Many of the libraries rarest treasures are not complete volumes, but just a few leaves recovered from the binding of 16th century books or discovered elsewhere.

These finds include a section from a medieval Torah scroll, folios of a medieval manuscript of the Talmud, and pages from the earliest Hebrew book to be printed with a date.

The origins of some of these items are difficult to determine, but the first dated Hebrew book is the 1475 edition of Rashi’s commentary on the Torah, published in Reggio di Calabria, a city at the very tip of Italy’s boot.

Talmud, Kabbalah and the Spanish Expulsion

Italy would dominate the world of Hebrew publishing for many years to come. But the first Hebrew printing house was opened in Spain during the last decades before the expulsion. This press was established in Guadalajara by Shlomo Alkabetz, the grandfather and namesake of the renowned Kabbalist and poet who composed “Lecha Dodi,” the hymn to welcome in Shabbat, sung in synagogues the world over.

The current exhibition features several important publications from the Guadalajara press, including folios from the 1482 edition of the Talmud, which predated the earliest Soncino and Bomberg editions. In 1492, the Jews were expelled from Spain, and many Jewish manuscripts and books were publicly burned. No complete set of this edition survives.

These exhibits are not just clues to the rich past of the Jewish people; they are relics to be cherished in the present.

The expulsion was a watershed moment for world Jewry. Spain had been one of the great centers of Jewish life and learning, and now the vast talent of that community was dispersed. Spanish and Portuguese Jews set up printing presses in Morocco, Egypt, Constantinople and Poland, and many of the books printed in Italy were the result of Spanish scholarship.

Rabbi Yehudah Hayyat was a Spanish Kabbalist deeply steeped in the study of the Zohar, who came to Italy by way of North Africa and settled in Mantua. According to Professor Moshe Idel, the Italian Kabbalists generally preferred a more systematic and rationalized approach than the Zohar offers. Idel says that Rabbi Hayyat’s commentary to one such work, Ma’arekhet ha-Elohut, was designed to challenge its philosophical orientation in favor of a mystical worldview more firmly rooted in the Zohar.

A showcase dedicated to Kabbalistic works includes the first edition of Rabbi Hayyat’s work, published in 1558. Alongside it are the very first printed editions of the Zohar, both published in Italy that same year. The standard edition was printed in Mantua. The Zohar Ha-gadol, with several textual additions and a larger format, appeared in Cremona.

Maimonides, Plagiarism and the Burning of the Talmud

A large portion of the exhibits are works of Jewish law, or halachah, among them several editions of Mishneh Torah by Rabbi Moses Maimonides and Arbah Turim by Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher. Mishneh Torah comprehensively covers all aspects of Jewish law, including those dealing with the Jerusalem Temple, the coming of Messiah and prophecy. Arbah Turim, on the other hand, focuses only on laws that are contemporarily applicable, such as those covering daily prayer, life-cycle events, monetary law and religious festivals.

The multiple editions of these works and their super commentaries were in great demand, and the illustrious printing houses of Venice, which were owned by non-Jews, aggressively competed to sell Hebrew books. In 1845, Marco Antonio Giustiniani (Justinian), scion of a prominent Venetian family, entered the fray, opening a new printing house and blatantly plagiarizing his rival’s publications. Within five years, the famed Bomberg press had closed its doors; however, a new press, opened by Alvise Bragadin, continued to compete with Giustiniani.

A responsa banning the Giustiniani edition set an early precedent for Jewish copyright law.

In 1550, Bragadin published an authoritative new edition of Mishneh Torah, complete with the commentary of Rabbi Meir ben Isaac Katzenellenbogen, the rabbi of Padua. Recognizing its appeal, Giustiniani quickly plagiarized Rabbi Meir’s work and began selling it at a cheaper rate. Faced with financial ruin, Rabbi Meir appealed to Rabbi Moshe Isserles of Krakow, who issued a responsa banning the Giustiniani edition and setting an early precedent for Jewish copyright law.

Giustiniani retaliated with an appeal to Pope Julius III, who assigned the dispute to an Inquisition of six cardinals for investigation. Bragadin and Giustiniani were both represented by apostate Jews, who were more interested in attacking their estranged brethren than defending the interests of their clients. On the recommendation of the Inquisition, the pope consequently ordered the burning of the Talmud in a papal bull issued on Aug. 12, 1553.

Near the Bragadin and Giustiniani editions of the Mishneh Torah, another showcase displays manuscripts and early print editions of the legal code of Rabbi Yitzchak Alfasi, which closely follows the Talmudic text. According to the exhibition curator, Rabbi DovBer Levine, the papal ban on the Talmud led to a surge in popularity for Rabbi Alfasi’s code, evidenced by the new edition published at Sabbioneta, west of Venice, in 1554.

Philosophy, Grammar, Prayer Books and Satire

In many ways, this exhibition is an intellectual kaleidoscope—a series of windows into the scholarly, cultural and social affairs of Jews throughout the Mediterranean and beyond.

Among the liturgical prayer texts on display is a fragment from a medieval Rosh Hashanah mahzor (prayer book) written on parchment. Among the philosophical works is the 1555 edition of Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed, which would not be republished for another 200 years.

One showcase is dedicated mainly to works of Hebrew grammar and lexicography, but also includes the first edition of Mahbarot Immanuel, a diverse collection of writings by a contemporary of Dante, Immanuel ben Solomon of Rome. Published in Constantinople in 1535, this work combines sacred, secular and satirical poetry within a rough narrative. The subject matter is sometimes sage, sometimes frivolous, but always witty.

One showcase is dedicated mainly to works of Hebrew grammar and lexicography.

An abridged version of one of the poems included in this book is “Yigdal,” sung today in many synagogues, and based on Maimonides’ 13 principles of faith. But when Rabbi Yosef Karo published his authoritative code of law, Shulchan Aruch in 1565, he admonished his readers that digesting this work would place them in the category of scoffers.

A collection of single-leaf posters dating from early 18th-century Mantua includes a list of “pragmatica,” or communal edicts; a prayer for rain; a liturgical composition in honor of a local religious society’s anniversary; and a poem of thanks composed in honor of a wedding.

These exhibits are not just clues to the rich past of the Jewish people; they are relics to be cherished in the present.

Jewish identity today is forged from what is drawn from the past and then carried into the future. Ours is an age when different Jewish groups each compete to enshrine their own monolithic version of Judaism, sometimes to the exclusion of others. But the sheer variety of genres on display at the Chabad library serves as a welcome reminder of the rich and varied texture of a common Jewish heritage.

A journey through this exhibition brings visitors full-circle, back to the here and now, where they can weave the threads of philosophy, law, mysticism and culture into the tapestry of their own lives.

Rabbi Shalom DovBer Levine, above, provides a video tour of the exhibition.

Pages from the exhibition, below.

RASHI – REGGIO DI CALABRIA – 1475
RASHI – REGGIO DI CALABRIA – 1475
LEAF FROM ANTIQUE SEFER TORAH ON PARCHMENT
LEAF FROM ANTIQUE SEFER TORAH ON PARCHMENT
MAP – AMSTERDAM, 1695
MAP – AMSTERDAM, 1695
BABYLONIAN TALMUD – GUADALAJARA 1482
BABYLONIAN TALMUD – GUADALAJARA 1482
MISHNEH TORAH, RAMBAM – VENICE 1550, BRAGADIN
MISHNEH TORAH, RAMBAM – VENICE 1550, BRAGADIN
HILKHOT RAV ALFASI – SABBIONETA 1554
HILKHOT RAV ALFASI – SABBIONETA 1554
MISHNEH TORAH, RAMBAM – VENICE 1574
MISHNEH TORAH, RAMBAM – VENICE 1574
SEFER HA-BAHIR – MANUSCRIPT ON PARCHMENT
SEFER HA-BAHIR – MANUSCRIPT ON PARCHMENT
MAHBAROT IMMANUEL – CONSTANTINOPLE 1535
MAHBAROT IMMANUEL – CONSTANTINOPLE 1535


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