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

The Jewish people have long been known as the “People of the Book.” The book in question being the Bible, and the term a deceptively simple—but ultimately profound—acknowledgment of the centrality of the Bible in the Jewish religion. The Hebrew Bible is the object of the highest veneration in Judaism and is subject to the strictest rules for everything involving its textual transmission. In synagogue worship, the Five Books of Moses and some select special books from other parts of the Bible are chanted aloud from scrolls. Printed Bibles, on the other hand, are used for study, a practice emphasized by the rabbinic commentaries and translations that frequently appear alongside the biblical text. The Library of Congress holds many fine examples of the Hebrew Bible, ranging from handwritten scrolls from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and fragments of medieval manuscripts to rare and valuable copies of the earliest printed editions of the Bible, either in part or in whole. Not all of the Library’s biblical treasures are old or antique. The living, organic nature of the Bible is well represented in the beautiful, and beautifully illustrated, editions of various biblical books being produced today in Israel and elsewhere—editions eagerly collected by scholars and connoisseurs alike..

Seventeenth-Century Torah Scroll

A Torah scroll contains the Five Books of Moses, also known as the Pentateuch. The text is handwritten on vellum by a sofer, or specially trained scribe. The parchment sections are sewn together and attached to two wooden rollers, which are unwound when passages from the Torah are chanted in the synagogue. When not in use, the Torah scroll is rolled up, covered with decorative ornamentation, and stored in an ark in the sanctuary. On display are narrative passages from the Book of Exodus. The column on the far right displays the “Crossing of the Red Sea,” as the Israelites flee slavery in Egypt; the column fourth from the right side displays the Ten Commandments (Exodus 15:1–21 and Exodus 20:1–17).

Torah scroll. Amsterdam? Seventeenth century. Moldovan Family Collection, Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (003.00.00)

Bookmark this item: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/words-like-sapphires/people-of-the-book.html#obj0

Embroidered Torah Mantle

Torah scrolls among Ashkenazi Jews are covered in ceremonial textile wrappings when they are not being used. Among Sephardi Jews, the Torah scroll is both housed in and read from a container of silver or wood. This Torah mantle, now frayed from use, is made of crimson velvet, fringed on the top. Both sides of the mantle are embroidered in a raised pattern created with silver gilt thread. One side is decorated with a flower–filled vase flanked by two lions and several birds within a large frame. The other side is decorated with an embroidered frame containing a large flower-filled vase.

Torah mantle. Amsterdam? Seventeenth century. Moldovan Family Collection, Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (003.00.01)

Bookmark this item: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/words-like-sapphires/people-of-the-book.html#obj1

Censored Text Revealed

Shown here is one of the earliest printed Hebrew books and the first with any portion of the Hebrew Bible. Like many Hebrew books from Italy, this copy shows the censorship instituted by the Catholic Church in 1553 following the public burning of the Talmud and other Hebrew books in cities across Italy. The historical and cultural processes over the centuries clearly play themselves out on the page displayed. A censor marked out the lines deemed offensive to the Church, which were re-written by the owner of the book into the margins. However, over time the black gall–ink of the censor’s pen has faded and, thanks to the work of the Library’s expert conservators, the original text is once again revealed.

David Kimhi. פרוש לתהלים (Psalms with Commentary) [Bologna, ca. 1477]. Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (001.00.00)

Bookmark this item: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/words-like-sapphires/people-of-the-book.html#obj2

"Pocket-book" Bible

The pocket-book is not a modern invention. Pocket-books, as well as miniature books, have been popular almost since the beginning of printing itself, as the collections of the Library of Congress will attest. The books displayed here are among the smallest Hebrew books in the Library’s collections and they offer the full text of the Hebrew Bible, complete with elegant initial words at the beginning of every book. Here, the Bible is open to the first chapter from the Book of Exodus.

Miniature Hebrew Bible. 5 vols. Seventeenth or eighteenth century. First Deinard Collection, Gift of Jacob H. Schiff, Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (002.00.00)

Bookmark this item: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/words-like-sapphires/people-of-the-book.html#obj3

Hebrew Bible with Judeo-Tartar Translation

One of the most unusual Bibles in the Hebraic Section is this splendid edition commissioned by the leaders of the Karaite community in Ortakoi, a city near Constantinople (today’s Istanbul). The Karaites are a Jewish sect with roots going back to the eighth century, and though smaller in number today, they represented a considerable challenge to traditional rabbinic Judaism in the High Middle Ages during the heyday of their power in cities such as Cairo and Baghdad. In Czarist Russia during the nineteenth century, the Karaites sought to emphasize their differences with the followers of traditional Judaism in order to avoid the anti-Jewish laws and improve their socio-economic status. This Bible, with the Judeo-Tartar translation clearly aimed at the Karaite community, was thus a cultural statement as well as a political tool for achieving a separate—but more than equal—status under imperial Russian law. Each of the five biblical books has an introductory poem written by the translators and editors of this edition; here we see part of the poem introducing the Book of Leviticus and the opening verses from the first chapter.

השמח ישמוח הרות (The Five Books of Torah). Hebrew with Judeo–Tartar translation. Ortakoi, Turkey: Arav Oglo and Sons, 1832–1835. First Deinard Collection, Gift of Jacob H. Schiff, Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (006.00.00)

Bookmark this item: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/words-like-sapphires/people-of-the-book.html#obj4

The First Complete Hebrew Bible Printed in the United States

In 1814, the first complete Hebrew Bible was printed in the United States in a two-volume edition. It was based on the second edition of an Amsterdam Bible that had been printed by Joseph Athias. The American version, however, does not contain the vowel points that help in reading the text properly. The publication was supported by both Jewish leaders and Christian clergymen who wanted to study the Bible in its original language. This reflected the intellectual side of the country’s religious revival underway at the time. This Bible has been used by several Jewish members of Congress for their Congressional swearing-in ceremonies. Displayed here is the opening page of Bereshit, Genesis.

Biblia Hebraica. Vol. 1 of 2 vols. Philadelphia, 1814. Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (004.00.00)

Bookmark this item: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/words-like-sapphires/people-of-the-book.html#obj5

Back to Top

Song of Songs

The biblical Song of Songs, or Songs of Solomon, has inspired poets, writers, and artists through the ages. This edition of the sacred text is illustrated by Ze’ev Raban (1890–1970), one of the leading Jewish artists in the early twentieth century and perhaps the foremost representative of the Bezalel style of art, which took its name from the first art academy in the Land of Israel. This institution, which remains an important influence in contemporary Israel, was founded in Jerusalem in 1906 by Boris Schatz and became known for a distinctive style melding Art Nouveau with motifs from ancient Near Eastern art and archaeology. Ze’ev Raban went on to create a significant opus of paintings and decorative elements in a variety of styles, but his Song of Songs remains beyond question one of his best-known and beloved works.

ריש םירישה (Song of Songs). Illustrations by Ze’ev Raban. Jerusalem: Shulamit Press, 1923. Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (005.00.00)

Bookmark this item: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/words-like-sapphires/people-of-the-book.html#obj6

Hebrew Bible Printed in 1933

In 1924, a group of Jewish bibliophiles in Berlin founded the Soncino Gesellschaft der Freunde des jüdischen Buches, a society dedicated to publishing Jewish and Hebrew books of exemplary quality. Its greatest triumph was the printing of a Humash, a Hebrew Bible, in 1933. With its specially designed font based on the sixteenth–century Prague Haggadah, this book has often been called the most beautiful Bible ever printed. Its publication coincided with another triumphal moment—the consolidation of Nazi power in Germany, and it is against this dark background that the first and last verses of the Blessing of Moses, so boldly printed in red, take on a special significance: “Your enemies shall dwindle away before you. You shall tread upon their high places” (Deuteronomy 33:29).

חמשה חומשי תורה (The Five Books of the Torah), Berlin, 1933. Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (007.00.00)

Bookmark this item: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/words-like-sapphires/people-of-the-book.html#obj7

Incantation Bowl

Magic bowls such as this one were buried in foundations of buildings throughout the ancient Middle East to protect houses and their inhabitants from evil spirits. Opinions differ as to the actual ritual associated with these objects, but it is generally believed that the bowls could entrap and expel evil powers. Written in Aramaic, the partially deciphered script painted concentrically on the inside of the bowl contains a plea that the threshold of Yaqob, son of Imirabu, be guarded and that in his home there will be sons and daughters and oxen.

Incantation bowl. Mesopotamia, ca. seventh century. Kirkor Minassian Collection, Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (064.00.00)

Bookmark this item: http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/words-like-sapphires/people-of-the-book.html#obj8

Back to top