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Hebraic Collections: Library of Congress, An Illustrated Guide

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In the Beginning ...

Hamishah Humshei Torah (The five books of the Torah)
Hamishah Humshei Torah (The five books of the Torah) (Berlin: Soncino Gesellschaft, 1933). The word Beresheet, which means, "In the beginning," opens the Book of Genesis. This decorated initial word is from the Hebrew Bible published by the Society of Jewish Bibliophiles in Germany, the Soncino Gesellschaft, in 1933.

In the spring of 1815, Thomas Jefferson's collection of 6,487 volumes arrived in the nation's capital to form the nucleus for the reconstituted Library of Congress -- its first collection having been destroyed in the burning of the city by the British the year before. Among these volumes were more than a half-dozen books that could be considered Judaica, including the works of the leading Jewish historian of antiquity, Josephus, and a tractate of the Mishnah (a compilation of basic Jewish law, ca. 200 C.E.) Especially noteworthy was a folio edition of The Genuine Works of Flavius Josephus, the Jewish Historian. Josephus, who lived in the first century, was appointed military commander of Galilee during the Jewish rebellion against Rome in 66 C.E. Captured by the Romans and exiled to Rome, he wrote first, The Jewish Wars, and then, Antiquities of the Jews. The Jefferson copy of The Genuine Works is the first printing of Whiston's translation of Josephus (see page 9), and the many editions that subsequently appeared of this translation attest to its broad appeal. Jefferson's sensibility -- his view that there was no field of knowledge that might not prove useful for Congress -- informs the Library of Congress's collecting policies to this day.

The Hebraic Section of the Library of Congress, now one of the world's leading centers for Hebrew and Yiddish studies, was established in 1914 as part of the Division of Semitica and Oriental Literature. Its beginnings may be traced to Jacob H. Schiff's gifts in 1912 and 1914 of funds to purchase nearly 10,000 books and pamphlets from the private collection of Ephraim Deinard, a well-known bibliographer and bookseller.

Cuneiform tablet
Cuneiform tablet, ca. 2400 B.C.E. The Library holds a modest collection of clay tablets that were acquired as part of the Kirkor Minassian collection in the late 1920s and the 1930s. These tablets contain the earliest examples of writing held in the Library of Congress.

In the years that followed those gifts, the Library developed and expanded its Hebraic holdings to include materials of research value in Hebrew and related languages. Today, the section houses works in Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo- Persian, Judeo-Arabic, Aramaic, Syriac, Coptic, Ge'ez, Amharic, and Tigrina. The section's holdings are especially strong in the areas of the Bible and rabbinics, liturgy, Hebrew language and literature, responsa, and Jewish history. Unique to the section are its holdings of more than one thousand original Yiddish plays -- in manuscript or typescript -- written between the end of the nineteenth and the middle of the twentieth century and submitted for copyright registration to the Library of Congress. These plays were created for the American Yiddish theater. Of particular interest to genealogists is the Library's comprehensive collection of yizker-bikher (memorial volumes) documenting Jewish life in Eastern Europe before the Second World War, as well as a large collection of rabbinic bio-bibliographical works in Hebrew. Available for consultation in the section is a rich microfilm collection of Hebrew and Yiddish monographs, newspapers, and serials, as well as microfilms of Hebrew manuscript collections held by the Russian State Library (Moscow), Russian Academy of Sciences (St. Petersburg), Preussiche Staatsbibliotek (Berlin), and Hungarian Academy of Sciences (Budapest). Located in a nearby stack area, the section's more than 160,000 volumes are readily available for examination by researchers and scholars. Housed among the three thousand rarities in the section are cuneiform tablets, manuscripts, incunabula (books printed before 1501), ketuboth (marriage contracts), micrographies, miniature books, and communal documents. The more than two hundred manuscripts held in the Hebraic Section include a Hebrew translation of the Koran, an eighteenth-century Italian decorated Scroll of Esther, a selection of decorated Jewish marriage contracts, an early Ethiopian Psalter in Ge'ez, and the section's most noteworthy treasure: the Washington Haggadah, a fifteenth-century Hebrew illuminated manuscript completed by Joel ben Simeon.

Incantation bowl from Mesopotamia
Incantation bowl from Mesopotamia, ca. seventh century. Usually buried in a building's foundation, magic bowls were designed to protect a house and its inhabitants from devils and evildoers. Opinion differs as to the actual ritual associated with these incantation bowls, but it is generally believed that they were thought to entrap and reject evil powers. As is common in these bowls, the Aramaic inscription here is written on the inside in concentric circles.

Kelev Hutsot (A stray dog)
Samuel Joseph Agnon, Kelev Hutsot (A stray dog), with illustrations by Avigdor Arikha (Jerusalem, 1960). Published by award-winning and pioneer book designer Moshe Spitzer, this work marks the first appearance of the "David" typeface, which was designed by Ismar David. Spitzer was a seminal influence on modern-day book publishing and design in Israel. (Copyright © Tarshish Books, Jerusalem)

With the enactment of U.S. Public Law 480 (P.L. 480) in 1958, the Library of Congress greatly enhanced its ability to collect Israeli publications comprehensively. P.L. 480 mandated that twenty-five American research libraries -- including the Library of Congress -- be supplied with a copy of virtually every book and journal of research value published in Israel. The P.L. 480 program for Israeli imprints, coordinated by the Library of Congress, lasted nine years, from 1964 to 1973, and provided each of the participating institutions with an average of sixty- five thousand items.

Am I Now? A Saying of Kwang-tse
Am I Now? A Saying of Kwang-tse,
translated and produced by Yehuda Miklaf (Jerusalem, 1993). This miniature book, produced at the Shalom Yehuda Press in Jerusalem, contains facing-page translations into Hebrew and English of a saying by the fourth-century B.C.E. philosopher Kwang-tse. Printed and set by hand, it was produced in a limited edition of seventy.
(Courtesy Yehuda Miklaf)

Since 1973, substantial effort and many resources have been expended to maintain this high level of acquisitions from Israel -- an effort that is evident in the overall comprehensiveness of the Library's collection of Hebrew-language materials. The collection includes an extensive array of monographs; a broad selection of Hebrew periodicals that encompass the current and the retrospective, the popular as well as the scholarly; and a wide variety of Yiddish and Hebrew newspapers reflecting every shade of opinion, from the religious to the secular and from the far right to the extreme left. In addition, an extensive collection of Israeli government documents has been assembled.

In recent years, the Library has greatly augmented its collection of modern examples of fine printing in Hebrew and has begun to build a collection of Hebrew artists' books. Beginning with the work of the twentieth-century pioneer Hebrew printer and book designer Moshe Spitzer, the Library has collected works by such Israeli master printers as Yehuda Miklaf and Ariel Wardi. Represented as well are books designed and executed by such artists as Ya'akov Agam, Lynne Avadenka, Mordechai Beck, Ya'akov Boussidan, Maty Grünberg, Metavel, David Moss, and Igael Tumarkin.

  HOME  Foreword  In the Beginning...  The Books of the People of the Book  Beauty in Holiness  The Holy Land
  In the New World  A Note to Researchers  Publications on the Hebraic and Judaic Collections

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( November 15, 2010 )
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