A new exhibit at a Jewish archive in New York City is shedding light on the dissemination of religious material in the days before the printing press.

Comprised of old manuscripts, fading marriage certificates and handwritten editions of the Talmud – once consigned to be nothing more than filler for the bindings of printed books – the display at the central Chabad-Lubavitch library in Brooklyn represents the collective discovery of staff members cataloguing the library’s vast holdings.

According to Rabbi Sholom Ber Levine, chief librarian and archivist at the Library of Agudas Chassidei Chabad, the parchment documents also reveal a practice used by early printers, who compressed old manuscripts together to make covers for newer versions of the Talmud.

“When we were cataloging the library,” says Levine, “I felt that several of the covers were very flimsy, and that the bindings were comprised of many layers.”

The rabbi’s hunch proved correct when he took the material to a lab to extract the individual pages. The resulting treasure included several pages of the Talmud dating from before the first Jewish book was printed in the last third of the 15th century.

Levine says the find has enormous value to scholars, who examine minute variations between different versions of a text.

Also known as Ohel Yosef Yitzchak-Lubavitch, the library is named after the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory. Located in the Crown Heights section of the city, it houses close to 250,000 published volumes, many of them rare, and tens of thousands of antique documents and manuscripts.

Among its collections is a prayer book used by the founder of Chasidism, the 17th-century rabbi known as the Baal Shem Tov, whose tears stained some of the book’s pages.

While many of the library’s historic items can be viewed by the public, Levine says visitors will only find photographs of the priceless prayer book.

“The Rebbe,” he says, referring to Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, “didn’t even want to touch the prayer book, due to its aura of holiness. We felt that it would not be appropriate to put it on display.”

A book on Jewish law bearing the notes of the famed 18th-century decisor Rabbi Akiva Eiger sits in front of salvaged pages from early editions of the Talmud.
A book on Jewish law bearing the notes of the famed 18th-century decisor Rabbi Akiva Eiger sits in front of salvaged pages from early editions of the Talmud.

From the Archive to Exhibit

At once known only to the small world of rare book scholars and Jewish historians, the library was thrust into the spotlight in 1987 when a federal judge ruled that the Sixth Rebbe’s collections did not represent the holdings of a private individual. Because a Rebbe is a communal figure, determined the judge, the library was meant to serve the community at large.

Following the ruling, the Sixth Rebbe’s library and that of his successor were merged, setting off a massive cataloguing effort.

“The Rebbe gave us a mandate following the ruling,” says Levine, “that the library should not be a private library with no access, but should rather be available to the public for research.”

In 1989, Levine oversaw the construction of new space for the library and the opening of a reading room for the use of researchers. An exhibition hall opened to the public in 1994.

The current exhibit includes a manuscript penned by Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, a 16th century Kabbalist known as the Ramak. Entitled Or Yakar, the manuscript is Cordovero’s lengthiest work.

Another item on display is a book of Jewish law that belonged to Rabbi Akiva Eiger, one of the most prominent Jewish legal decisors of the early 19th century whose notes on the Talmud are part of today’s standard editions. Eiger’s notes in the text can be clearly delineated from the rabbi’s simple signature of “Akiva.”

The exhibit also includes notes from the First Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, on the responsa of the 15th century sage, Rabbi Yosef Kolon, known as the Maharik.

“There is something for everyone’s interest,” says Levine. “Individuals from all segments of society will appreciate what we have on display.”

The exhibit can be seen Sunday to Thursday from 12 to 5 p.m. by entering from the left side of 766 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, N.Y.