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.