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Collection Hebraic Manuscripts

About this Collection

A Digital Project Funded through the Generosity of the David Berg Foundation

The Hebraic Section of the Library of Congress houses some 230 manuscripts written in Hebrew and in cognate languages such as Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Persian, and Yiddish.  It is a highly diverse collection with materials ranging from rabbinic responsa and commentary to poetry, Jewish magic, and folk medicine, and together they offer a rich, often intimate glimpse into Jewish life over the centuries.
Most of the manuscripts entered the library through the collections of Ephraim Deinard, a noted bookdealer from Russia who traveled the world in search of Hebraica. The first two Deinard Collections were acquired through a major gift by Jacob H. Schiff (1847-1920), the renowned financier whose generosity founded the Hebraic Section in 1912. Two additional Deinard Collections, purchased by the library, entered the Hebraic Section over the next few years, adding numerous manuscripts to its collections. Other manuscripts have been added over the course of the years, with two of the most important manuscripts joining the collection only in 2014 (MS 227) and 2018 (MS 229), respectively.

One of the latest additions to the collection is also its oldest. This is a fragment from a Torah Scroll dating to the late 10th or 11th century, written probably in Egypt and containing the oldest known text of the biblical Song of the Sea laid out according to ancient scribal tradition. It is currently undergoing conservation treatment and is therefore not yet digitized. The most recent manuscripts take us into the twentieth century, with two unpublished works, for example, by the Russian-born rabbi Menachem Mendel Risikoff (1866-1960), who immigrated to the United States in 1906 (MSS 224 and 225). Between these two end dates – the 11th and 20th centuries - are manuscripts from every century of the millennium and just about every corner of the Jewish world. Seventeenth and eighteenth-century Italy is particularly well represented in the collection, with numerous manuscripts on a variety of subjects including wedding poetry in Judeo-Italian and a considerable corpus on Kabbalah. 

Perhaps the best-known piece in the collection is the spectacular Passover Haggadah known today as the Washington Haggadah (MS 181), which probably entered the Library of Congress as part of the third Deinard Collection and has since been restored to much of its original beauty through the work of the Library’s conservators. The Haggadah was created in 1478 by Joel ben Simeon, a Hebrew scribe who worked both in Italy and in Germany, and today is considered one of the finest Jewish artists of the period. Another exceptional piece is the 18th-century Order of Prayers before Retiring at Night, a Hebrew miniature created in Mainz, Germany, in or around 1745 (MS 227). Acquired by the Library of Congress in 2014, this is a work of exceptional beauty and charm, and certainly one of the pearls of the collection as a whole. Yet these two illuminated treasures should not overshadow the vast majority of other manuscripts in the collection, for these often preserve material of considerable scholarly interest. Among the manuscripts especially worthy of note:

  • MS 154: a fragment containing unpublished poems by Solomon Da Piera (1342-c.1418), one of the last of the great Hebrew poets of Spain (MS 154);
  • MS 18: a collection of responsa dealing with a betrothal case that became something of a cause célèbre in sixteenth-century Crete and that includes a signed responsum by Rabbi Elijah Capsali;
  • MS 147: a large fragment of an autographed manuscript by Moses b. Abraham Provençal, from 1552;
  • MS 43: a chapter from Hayyim Vital’s unpublished redaction of Shemoneh She’arim;
  • MS 77: an unpublished novel in Hebrew based upon the then-recently concluded first Zionist Congress in 1896;
  • MS 157: a 14th-century collection of responsa by Solomon ibn Adret of Barcelona, one of the most prominent medieval authorities on Jewish law. Interestingly, Sylvia Albro, Senior Conservator at the Library of Congress, has discovered that the watermark on its paper makes this document the oldest example of Fabriano paper in the library.

In addition to these gems, there are also a number of manuscripts dealing with Jewish folk medicine and magic (MSS 21, 35, 57, and 182) and two manuscripts on the subject of Jewish music in the Ottoman Empire (MSS 24 and 144). And the list could go on and on.

The digital website before you now is new in terms of technology, but it represents more than a century of research and the work of many different scholars. Two former heads of the Library’s Hebraic Section made significant contributions to the detailed descriptions accompanying each item in this collection: Lawrence C. Marwick (1909-1981) and Myron M. Weinstein (1927-1998). To this day, their handwritten notes fall to the floor like autumn leaves whenever a manuscript is removed from its box, and these scraps of paper are fast becoming treasured manuscripts in their own right. The work of identifying and describing the manuscripts culminated in the summer of 2006 when Benjamin Richler, Director of the Institute of Microfilmed Manuscripts at the National Library of Israel, came to the Library of Congress in order to create a descriptive catalogue for the Library’s Hebraic manuscripts. The resulting document provided the basis for the subsequent microfilming of the collection, now completed.