Collectors of Hebrew Books

Over four centuries, the Bodleian acquired major private collections of precious Hebrew books and manuscripts, building one of the world’s great repositories of Hebraica.


Catalonia?, Spain, 1391, 11 7/8 x 8 1/4 in. (30.2 x 21 cm), MS. Pococke 376, fol. 3a

The French biblical commentator, philosopher, and astronomer Gersonides (Levi ben Gershon, 1288–1344) wrote the treatise "Milhamot ha-Shem" to build upon the work of Aristotle, Maimonides, and other predecessors. The text explores the nature of human and divine knowledge. This copy is open to the beginning of the first book, a discussion of the immortality of the soul. By 1514 the manuscript was in Ottoman Turkey, as indicated by an inscription documenting its sale to a physician in the city of Adrianople (modern Edirne). The manuscript later belonged to Edward Pococke (1604–91), England's leading Orientalist in the seventeenth century, Regius Professor of Hebrew, the first Laudian Professor of Arabic at Oxford, and ex officio curator of the Bodleian. The magnificent collection of manuscripts he amassed, mostly while serving as a chalpain in Syria, was purchased by the Bodleian in 1692. It comprised more than four hundred volumes, largely in Arabic but including some one hundred Hebrew manuscripts.


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Castile, early 14th century, 12 1/2 x 9 3/4 in. (31.8 x 24.8 cm), MS. Canon. Or. 94, fol. 4b

Matteo Luigi Canonici, a member of the Jesuit order, was a tireless collector of artworks and precious objects. When the Jesuits were banned from the duchy of Parma in 1768, his medals and books were confiscated. Later, in Bologna, he was forced to part with his paintings as well. Eventually he retired to Venice, where he continued to amass books, coins, and sculpture until the end of his life. This Sephardic manuscript was in Jewish hands until at least 1763. It was acquired by Canonici soon after, and passed to the Bodleian in 1817.


Scribe: Meir ben Samuel of Provence, Pescia, Italy, 1396, 12 1/4 x 9 in. (31.1 x 22.9 cm), MS. Canon. Or. 81, fol. 1b

The acquisition in 1817 of the collection of Matteo Luigi Canonici (1727–c. 1805) represented the largest single purchase of manuscripts ever made by the Bodleian: more than 3,500 books, some 110 in Hebrew. Among these was this fine Italian manuscript, which bears the coat of arms of its commissioner, Daniel ben Samuel the physician. The adoption of a family emblem was widespread among wealthy Italian Jews, in imitation of the practices of the local nobility.


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Scribe: Moses Beth-El of Provence, Italy, 1438, 12 1/2 x 9 3/4 in. (31.8 x 24.8cm), MS. Canon. Or. 79, fol. 8b

"Even ha-Ezer" (The Stone of Help) is part of the law book "Arba’ah Turim" by the rabbinic scholar Jacob ben Asher (1270?–1340). It deals with laws affecting women: in the vignette at top, Eve is created as a help for Adam. The scene takes place in Paradise, whose four rivers emanate from the fountain of life, and is set against the Tuscan hills. Rare in a Hebrew manuscript, God is rendered in human form, no doubt the work of a Christian artist. Adam and Eve are seen a second time, flanking the Tree of Knowledge at right.


Engraving after Johann Kleinhard, 7 3/4 x 4 3/8 in. (19.5 x 11.1 cm), The Jewish Museum, New York Gift of Dr. Harry G. Friedman, F 4143

The collection of Rabbi David Oppenheimer (1664–1736) is his most significant legacy. His more than 780 manuscripts and 4,200 printed books in Hebrew, Yiddish, and Aramaic form perhaps the most important private Jewish library ever assembled. For most of his life he was unable to enjoy this treasure, keeping the works at his father-in-law’s home in Hanover to avoid the censorship imposed on Hebrew texts in Prague. After his death, the collection was inherited by a succession of relatives. It was appraised by the Jewish luminary Moses Mendelssohn and ultimately acquired by the Bodleian in 1829.


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Scribe and artist: Asher ben Isaac, Germany, 1471, 4 x 3 3/4 in. (10.2 x 9.5 cm), MS. Opp. 776, fol. 79b

This "siddur," or book of Jewish daily prayers, is from the collection of Rabbi David ben Abraham Oppenheimer. It is unique for its musical imagery, including depictions of at least ten medieval instruments. Here, a group of nine musicians illustrates the word panel "Hoshana" (Save, I pray), which begins the "Hoshanot," the hymns chanted during the week-long holiday of Sukkot. Asher ben Isaac made the book for the use of his own family, for whom music may have had a special significance.


Germany, late 15th century, 2 5/8 x 2 in. (6.7 x 5.1 cm), MS. Opp. 777, fols. 9b–10a

Created for private use, this book of Jewish daily prayers is one of the smallest volumes in the Bodleian. It comes from the Oppenheimer Collection, acquired in 1829. It is open to the Thirteen Principles of Rabbi Ishmael (90–135 CE), a guide to interpreting the Bible. The text is inserted within the daily morning prayers. Although the Principles are still found in traditional "siddurim," the reading of them has become less common. The word panel at lower left, "Baruch" (Blessed), marks the beginning of the next section.


Germany, early 14th century, 14 1/4 x 9 1/2 in. (36.2 x 24.1 cm), MS. Mich. 619, one of three volumes, fol. 5b, Photography by Ardon Bar Hama,

In 1848 the Bodleian purchased the library of the Hamburg Jewish bibliophile Heimann Joseph Michael (1792–1846). Among its 862 Hebrew manuscripts was this superb volume from a three-part "mahzor," or festival prayer book, containing prayers for the High Holidays. It is open to “King girded with might,” a hymn for the first day of Rosh Hashanah. The word panel features a ram caught in a thicket, alluding to the Sacrifice of Isaac, commemorated in the Jewish New Year and evoked in the sounding of the shofar, a ritual trumpet made from a ram’s horn.


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Scribe: Judah ben Samuel, called Zaltman, Germany, 1257–58, 16 1/4 x 11 in. (41.3 x 27.9 cm), MS. Mich. 617, one of two volumes, fol. 4b

The Michael Mahzor is the earliest known dated and illustrated "mahzor," a prayer book for Jewish festivals. It is so-named after the nineteenth-century bibliophile Heimann Joseph Michael who once owned it. Its Hebrew square script and the veiling of human faces are typical of medieval Ashkenaz. The upside-down hunting scene may have been a mistake by a Christian artist unfamiliar with Hebrew. Or it may be a reference to the story that in ancient Persia the Jews were saved from destruction—their fate was reversed—in the month of Adar, when this hymn is recited.


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Polyglot Bibles, presenting the text in more than one language, became popular in the sixteenth century. This edition of the Psalms was compiled by the Dominican scholar Agostino Giustiniani. It was in the collection of Ingram Bywater (1840–1914), the Bodleian’s Sub-Librarian and Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford. Here, Psalm 1 appears in columns from left to right: first is the Hebrew text, followed by Giustiniani’s Latin translation, then the Latin Vulgate, the Greek Septuagint text, an Arabic version, and the Aramaic "targum" (a translation with commentary from the Hebrew) with its Latin translation, and finally Giustiniani’s own commentary, in Latin, at far right.