Visu­al Arts

Jew­ish Trea­sures from Oxford Libraries

Edit­ed by Rebec­ca Abrams and Cesar Merchan-Hamann

  • Review
By – October 12, 2020

Even Jews who joy­ous­ly cel­e­brate Passover each year might be hes­i­tant to observe the hol­i­day twice in one year. And yet, in 1117 CE, Rayy­isa, the daugh­ter of Saadya, mar­ried Yahya, the son of Abra­ham, in a mixed mar­riage. By that I mean one was a rab­binic Jew and one a Karaite. In their ketubah (mar­riage doc­u­ment) it was stip­u­lat­ed that they would not pro­fane each oth­er’s hol­i­days,” despite Karaites and rab­binic Jews in some years observ­ing Passover a month apart due to their dis­parate cal­en­dars. This fas­ci­nat­ing his­tor­i­cal doc­u­ment tak­en from the Cairo Geniza is just one of the count­less trea­sures depict­ed, and ana­lyzed, in Jew­ish Trea­sures from Oxford Libraries, edit­ed by Rebec­ca Abrams and Cesar Mer­chan-Hamann. Abrams, the Roy­al Lit­er­ary Fund Fel­low at Brasenose Col­lege, Oxford, and Mer­chan-Hamann, Hebrew and Judaica Cura­tor in Oxford’s Bodleian library, have assem­bled a beau­ti­ful­ly ren­dered show­case of the Bodleian’s Hebrew and Jew­ish man­u­script and ear­ly print­ed book col­lec­tion. Along with Cam­bridge Uni­ver­si­ty (which, as the book details, recent­ly put aside its rival­ry with Oxford as the two agreed to share a col­lec­tion of Geniza frag­ments), Oxford hous­es a Judaica col­lec­tion whose impor­tance, as the book con­vinc­ing­ly argues, can­not be overstressed.”

Sir Thomas Bod­ley (15451613), a Protes­tant and pas­sion­ate bib­li­cist who him­self com­posed let­ters and poems in Hebrew, restored what had been, in his time, a decrepit library, and ensured that Hebrew print­ed books and man­u­scripts were some of its ear­li­est acqui­si­tions. Fol­low­ing an intro­duc­tion to both Bod­ley and the col­lec­tion as a whole, Jew­ish Trea­sures’ chap­ters con­sist of con­tem­po­rary schol­ars’ acces­si­ble sur­veys, com­plete with beau­ti­ful accom­pa­ny­ing images, of the library’s major col­lec­tions. Besides the afore­men­tioned Geniza sec­tion, chap­ters cov­er the Laud, Pococke, Hunt­ing­ton, Ken­ni­cott, Canon­i­ci, Oppen­heim, and Michael col­lec­tions. The chap­ter on Oppen­heim, writ­ten by Joshua Teplit­sky, the author of the recent full-length treat­ment of its sub­ject, The Prince of the Press, details how the Chief Rab­bi of Prague, David Oppen­heim (16641736), a life­long bib­lio­phile, end­ed up assem­bling a library that, may be called, with­out exag­ger­a­tion, the crown jew­el of the Judaica hold­ings at Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty.” His 4,500 print­ed items and 1,000 man­u­scripts were a result of his mis­sion to acquire a copy of every Jew­ish book in his day, from maps to Mai­monides, wed­ding songs to Passover hag­gadahs, rab­binic com­men­taries on the Bible to wom­en’s tkhines (Yid­dish prayer books). Not all col­lec­tors were Jews, of course. Mat­teo Lui­gi Canon­i­ci (17271805) was a Jesuit priest and book and art deal­er, whose con­tri­bu­tions to the Bodleian include litur­gi­cal texts (Sephar­di, Ital­ian, and West­ern Ashke­nazi), Tal­mu­dic trac­tates, Hebrew trans­la­tions of Aris­totle’s work, and illus­trat­ed kab­bal­is­tic texts.

As the edi­tors demon­strate, Oxford’s col­lec­tions of man­u­scripts and books from the Mid­dle East, Europe, and North Africa, depict count­less aspects of Jew­ish his­to­ry, law, lit­er­a­ture, and prac­tice. From cen­sored works demon­strat­ing ide­o­log­i­cal and soci­etal pres­sures, to anno­ta­tions from read­ers whose names are lost to the sands of time, to wild­ly cre­ative illu­mi­na­tions that demon­strate com­mon­al­i­ties and dif­fer­ences with Chris­t­ian and Mus­lim artists, these lit­er­ary trea­sures con­tin­ue to be mined by his­to­ri­ans and laypeo­ple alike for insights into the time­less trea­sure that is Judaism itself.

Dr. Stu Halpern is Senior Advi­sor to the Provost of Yeshi­va Uni­ver­si­ty. He has edit­ed or coedit­ed 17 books, includ­ing Torah and West­ern Thought: Intel­lec­tu­al Por­traits of Ortho­doxy and Moder­ni­ty and Books of the Peo­ple: Revis­it­ing Clas­sic Works of Jew­ish Thought, and has lec­tured in syn­a­gogues, Hil­lels and adult Jew­ish edu­ca­tion­al set­tings across the U.S.

Discussion Questions