Treasures of the Jewish People
Jewish texts have always held an essential place in Jewish identity. Ancient Jewish manuscripts are the closest things we have to the original foundational Jewish texts, and they teach us a great deal about the lives of Jews in different periods. Hence, manuscripts carry immense religious, emotional, academic and artistic importance. It is no wonder that rare Jewish manuscripts have been called the “treasures of the Jewish people.”
Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion recognized the significance of these Jewish treasures and in 1950, devised a project to locate and photograph historical Hebrew manuscripts from all corners of the globe, and to deposit copies in Jerusalem. Since then, tens of thousands of Hebrew manuscripts from around the world have been identified and photographed, and their copies preserved in the National Library of Israel. Moreover, many original manuscripts have been brought to Israel, sometimes through great effort and after prolonged wanderings among various owners and countries.
Some Treasures of Note
The collections of the Cairo Genizah and the Afghan Genizah are among the most special rare manuscripts in the world. The Cairo Genizah includes letters, documents, religious texts, and even marriage and divorce contracts. The pages, written over a period spanning a thousand years, were discovered in the 19th century in a genizah (a storage space for old Hebrew language books and papers), in a synagogue in Cairo. The Afghan Genizah, discovered in 2011 in caves in Afghanistan, contains documents of great historical value from the 11th to the 13th centuries.
The Damascus Ketarim (lit. "crowns") are rare, illuminated manuscripts of the Bible from the 13th to the 15th centuries that were preserved in synagogues in Damascus, and were rescued and transferred to Israel in the 1990s. The specific Bible manuscript known as the Damascus Keter, was written and decorated in Spain in 1260. The Keter was kept in a synagogue in Damascus until it was stolen in 1940. After it was located in 1962, it was purchased by the National Library.
The Nuremberg Maḥzor and Worms Maḥzor are among the rarest and most important prayer books in the National Library's collections. The Nuremberg Maḥzor, containing prayers and piyyutim, was written in Germany in the 14th century and was owned by the community. Its large dimensions and high quality script and decoration make it a unique work. The two volumes of the elegant Worms Maḥzor were written and decorated in in the 13th century, and were used during the holidays by the cantors of the synagogue in the German city of Worms. The Maḥzor survived Kristallnacht, and was rescued from destruction thanks to the courage of the city archivist.
The story of the magnificent Rothschild Haggadah is particularly fascinating. Created in Italy in the 15th century, it was later owned by the Rothschild family. During World War II, the Haggadah was stolen by the Nazis and disappeared. It came to light again in 1980 and was returned to the Rothschild family, who donated it to the National Library.
Rare Manuscripts in the National Library
For decades, the National Library has fulfilled Ben-Gurion’s vision in maintaining the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts. In recent years, the Ktiv project was inaugurated to create an international digital library of Hebrew manuscripts. The Library’s collections number about 75,000 Hebrew manuscripts, including many rare items that are considered cultural treasures.
Among the rare, original or photographed manuscripts found in the Library are books of the Bible and the Talmud, prayer books, Maḥzors and Passover Haggadahs. Aside from the manuscripts whose stories have been mentioned above, at the National Library one can also view copies of the rare Catalunya Maḥzor, the Rome Maḥzor, the Second Nuremberg Haggadah as well as the calendar book Sefer Evronot. This extensive collection of manuscripts enables all of us to enrich our knowledge of various aspects of the history of the Jewish people.