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Hebrew Manuscripts at the NLI

Hebrew Manuscripts Around the World

For thousands of years Jewish people have used the written word to express their religious beliefs and scientific knowledge. Jewish prayers, customs, histories of communities and information from a range of disciplines, both religious and secular, were transcribed assiduously. Given that Hebrew was a written rather than spoken language, the extent of its use was surprisingly far-reaching. Jews gave abundant written expression to their rich intellectual world. Like the nomadic nature of the life of Jewish individuals and communities, Hebrew manuscripts and documents traveled across countries and continents. These significant texts, reflecting the knowledge and culture of a people, eventually found haven in the halls of great libraries, and in the vaults of private collectors. Today these precious Hebrew manuscripts shed light on the diverse and wide-ranging cultures of the Jewish people, their intellectual life and history.

The Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts

With extraordinary foresight and vision, David Ben-Gurion, the Prime Minister of the newly established State of Israel, recognized the need for gathering all these Hebrew manuscripts in Jerusalem. His aim was to form one unified collection which would serve academic, religious and cultural research of the history of these texts and the cultural context in which they were created.

Realizing it would not be possible to collect all these physical manuscripts from across the globe, Ben-Gurion decided to establish the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts, which would collect microfilm copies of Hebrew manuscripts from around the world. The Institute was founded in 1950 as part of the Ministry of Education.

The Institute's first director, Prof. Nehemia Alloni, an expert on Hebrew manuscripts, embarked on several voyages to European libraries, focusing in particular on Italy (including the Vatican), Germany, Austria, Hungary, France and the Low Countries. The many challenges he faced – organizational obstacles in Israel, limited financial resources, problems in locating the manuscripts in the different countries, and the unstable cooperation of the staffs of the various libraries – did not discourage Alloni. Inspired by the vision to gather the treasures of Jewish culture, and having witnessed the ruins of European Jewish life in the aftermath of WWII, Alloni succeeded in his task and obtained thousands of copies of manuscripts for the Institute.

In 1963 the Institute moved to the National Library of Israel, under the name of "The Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts", and continued to collect manuscript copies over the years. The Institute, now a vital part of the National Library of Israel, has made Ben-Gurion's early vision a reality and succeeded in collecting microfilm copies of close to 95% of all known Hebrew manuscripts worldwide.


Photo: Denis Schorr

Photo: Denis Schorr

With the rapid advances in the technological environment that significantly expand options for preservation, presentation and access to digital content, the National Library of Israel initiated the renewal of its collection of copies of Hebrew manuscripts. This enterprise, undertaken in partnership with the Friedberg Jewish Ma​nuscript Society (FJMS), is designed​ to make Jewish manuscripts widely available. The International Collection of Digitized Hebrew Manuscripts will enable global centralized digital access to the complete corpus of existing Hebrew manuscripts. The images will be preserved long-term using state of the art technology, and the collection will be accessible to international communities of researchers and users from the comfort of their own institutions and homes.

The International Digital Library of Hebrew Manuscripts is made possible through the generous support of the Friedberg Jewish Manuscript Society (FJMS) and the Landmarks Heritage Program in the Prime Minister's Office, created to preserve national heritage.

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The Pinkasim Collection

Halberstadt Community Record

Halberstadt Community Record

​From the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, most European Jewish communities and regional councils wrote their records in specially designated registers, referred to using the Hebrew term pinkas (plural, pinkasim). These handwritten volumes include detailed descriptions of the administrative functioning of the Jewish bodies that created them, documenting the ways in which Jewish society organized its social, economic, religious, cultural, and family life, as well as aspects of its relations with non-Jewish governments and bodies. Pinkasim, therefore, form an extraordinary repository of information about the Jewish past.​

Today these pinkasim are found in various collections across the globe. The National Library of Israel, together with its Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People in Jerusalem, hold​ the world’s largest collection of pinkasim. The Pinkasim Project aims to locate, catalogue, and digitize these surviving record books. Making pinkasim available to scholars and readers around the world will permit a deeper understanding of the European Jewish past.

In its first phase, the Pinkasim Project is focusing on European Jewish communities between 1500-1800, considered the “golden age” of Jewish self-government. The digitized pinkasim document executive bodies and community self-government. Other pinkasim will be added as the project develops.

The Pinkasim Project continues to sponsor workshops, summer schools, academic panels, and courses, all helping to train the next generation of scholars in the use of these unique but challenging documents. Toward that end, we have provided an annotated bibliography of pinkasim, an introduction to the use of pinkasim as historical sources, and digital copies of published pinkasim (where copyright allows). Pinkasim deserve pride of place as sources of early modern Jewish culture and history, and we hope and expect this site to further that goal.

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Hebrew Codicology

Rothschild Miscellany 131-51, page 467a

Rothschild Miscellany 131-51, page 467a

​​​​​See here for a pre-publication of Malachi Beit-Arié’s book, Hebrew Codicology: Historical and Comparative Typology of Hebrew Medieval Codices based on the Documentation of the Extant Dated Manuscripts in Quantitative Approach (in Hebrew). It is also accessible through the website of SfarD​a​​ta​, the Hebrew-English database of the Hebrew Palaeography Project of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, which is intergrated within the website of the National Library of Israel (sfardata.nli.org.il). An English version is in preparation. Meanwhile a table of contents of the chapters and the main sub-chapters and an extensive summary of major codicological practices in English are accessible.

Hebrew Codicology – English Version