Words Like Sapphires: 100 Years of Hebraica at the Library of Congress, 1912–2012

Prayer is as central to Judaism as it is varied and multi-faceted, and through the ages the “Gates of Prayer” have opened to a tremendous surge of literary creativity. The earliest Hebrew prayers are found in the Bible, where they range from a few heart-felt words spoken by Moses (Exodus 12:13) or Hannah (Samuel 1:11) to the lyric outpourings in the Psalms. Petitions, confession, thanksgiving to God, and exaltation of His works are part of Jewish prayer and are abundantly represented in the collections of the Library of Congress. The Hebrew prayers at the heart of synagogue worship took form in late antiquity, when the rabbis ordained the wording of the fixed, obligatory prayers and their recitation at specific times. But there was also a great deal of room for individual poets to expand on the basic prayers with liturgical poems of their own. These enriched the prayer service with works of great complexity and beauty, most often written in Hebrew but also in their local languages. Local customs and rites, moreover, developed among different Jewish communities, add to the multi-faceted nature of Jewish worship..

One Hundred Blessings

These collected prayers and instructions were printed for Marrano refugees, Jews from the Iberian Peninsula who had converted or been forced to convert to Christianity. Some of their descendents moved to Amsterdam where Jews could practice their faith openly. Included in this small bilingual Hebrew and Spanish edition are blessings for the entire year according to the Sephardic rite, a perpetual liturgical calendar, a Passover haggadah, prayers for the sick, and prayers for martyrs who were burned at the stake during the Inquisition. This page includes the formula for reciting the counting of the omer, a measure of barley offered in the ancient Temple in Jerusalem from the second day of Passover for forty-nine days until the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, the Feast of Weeks.

האמ תוכרב / Orden de Bendiciones (One Hundred Blessings). Amsterdam, 1687. Text in Hebrew and Spanish. Gift of Naomi and Nehemiah Cohen Trust Fund at the Library of Congress, Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (020.00.00)

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Prayer Book Printed in Venice

Venice, the Queen of the Adriatic, had long been a center of Hebrew printing by the time this prayer book for the Jewish High Holidays was produced. It was printed by Giorgio de’ Cavalli, a Christian publisher of patrician background active in Venice from 1565–1567. The charming elephant within the decorative cartouche that graces the title-page of most of his books was also his family’s device; the Latin motto “Tarde sed tuto” means “slowly but surely.”

רוזחמ לכמ הנשה גהנמכ תולהק שדק זנכשא (High Holyday Prayer Book for the Ashkenazi Community). Venice: Giorgio de’ Cavalli, 1567. Volume 1 of 2 volumes. Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (062.00.00)

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The Sacrifice of Isaac

The title of this small manuscript, Akedat Yizhak, refers to the Sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 22: 1–9), a central theme in the liturgy of Rosh ha-Shanah, the Jewish New Year. It contains prayers, supplications, and liturgical poems in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic, the latter the local spoken language of the Jews in Baghdad, where they were recited on the eve of the second day of Rosh ha-Shanah. Similar collections for this and other Jewish holidays, with variations in the choice of texts and use of the local vernacular, were popular among Jewish communities the world over.

תדקע קחצי (The Sacrifice of Isaac). Prayer book. Nineteenth century, [Iraq]. Hebrew Manuscript 197, Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (022.00.00)

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Special Prayers for Women

This prayer book for B’not Yisrael, the “Daughters of Israel,” was published in 1840 in Germany, the birthplace of Reform Judaism. The beginning of Hannah’s prayer of thanks to God for a son (I Samuel 2:1), appears on the verso of the title page. It was meant to inspire the supplications of all women who used the prayer book. While retaining some tehinot, special prayers for women, this prayer book also incorporates the confirmation service developed by Reform Jews to give recognition to young Jewish women.

תוליפת תונב לארשי (Prayers for the Daughters of Israel). Hamburg?, 1840. Hebrew and German. Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (021.00.00)

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The Only Surviving Synagogue in the German Reich

Mahzor le-mo’ade El is a prayer book first printed in 1841 for use during High Holy Day services in the Seitensttengasse Temple (also called the Stadttempel or City-Temple) in Vienna, Austria. An image of the temple is embossed in gold on the front cover of this edition. The synagogue, built in 1825–1826 in the Biedermeier style, was designed by Viennese architect Joseph Kornhausel. Situated at Seittensttengasse 4, the building was shielded from the street in compliance with the Patent of Toleration, which permitted worship of tolerated faiths in buildings that did not have public facades. The temple was the only synagogue in the German Reich to survive World War II. It is the main house of worship today for the Viennese Jewish community.

רוזחמ ידועמל לא / Festgebete der Israeliten nach der gottesdienstlichen Ordnung im israelitischen Bethause zu Wien und in mehreren anderen Gemeinden (High Holy Day Service). Vienna, 1859, third printing. Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (024.00.00)

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The Survivors Haggadah

This haggadah, used to celebrate the first Passover after the fall of Nazi Germany, April 15–16, 1946, was issued under the auspices of the United States Third Army with the guidance of its chaplain, Rabbi Abraham J. Klausner. It was used for Jewish survivors living in Displaced Persons Camps in Germany. The text is in Hebrew and Yiddish, surrounded by illustrated borders. It was prepared by Yosef Dov Sheinson, a survivor of the Kovno Ghetto. The woodcut illustrations were made by Miklos Adler (“Ben Benjamin” ), a Hungarian survivor. While the Passover story retells the Exodus of the Israelites from oppression in ancient Egypt, this haggadah uses images that retell the parallel suffering and killing under the Nazis. For this reason, it is often called “The Survivors Haggadah.” The cover of the haggadah is imprinted in red, white, and blue, with the letter “A” inside the letter “O,” the insignia of the United States Third Army of Occupation.

ףסומ הדגהל לש חספ (Supplement to the Passover Haggadah). Munich Enclave, 1946. Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (025.00.00)

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One of the Most Curious Events in Jewish History

This small book of prayers, though rather modest in appearance, in fact testifies to one of the most curious events in Jewish history. In 1665, an Ottoman Jew by the name of Shabbetai Zvi proclaimed himself Messiah, and from Istanbul to Amsterdam Jewish communities were swept up in messianic fervor of unprecedented proportions. Just how fervent the feelings grew can be gauged from the frontispiece of this prayer book, which shows Shabbetai Zvi in all the royal panoply due a Messiah and king of Israel, down to the worshipful disciples and Lions of Judah to guard his throne. But the fervor was short-lived. On September 15, 1666, the Jewish world was stunned by the news that Shabbetai Zvi, summoned before the Ottoman Sultan, chose Islam over death. The inevitable reaction set in, with the result that momentos to Shabbatean fervor, such as this prayer-book, are today exceedingly rare.

ןוקית האירק (Penitential Prayers for Night and Day). Amsterdam, 1666. Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (061.00.00)

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