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

The “People of the Book” were, in fact, a people with many books, and these served as cornerstones of Jewish life through the ages. The Bible contains the Written Law, but an Oral Law, handed down from generation to generation, existed alongside it, most noticeably in the set of books known collectively as the “Talmud.” This huge compendium of Jewish law and lore was written in a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic. Although it probably received its final written form in the middle of the fifth century C.E., the Talmud has generated a flow of commentaries and super-commentaries that continues to this day. It is no coincidence that the first Hebrew book printed in the United States was a commentary to one of the Talmudic treatises, or that survivors of the Holocaust, only just released from the Nazi concentration camps, found it important to print a complete Talmud for their ravaged community—a feat which they accomplished through the active help of the United States Army. Over the millennia, a great variety of literary genres grew up alongside the Talmud and its commentaries. These include legal responsa written by prominent rabbis on questions of law and religious practice, calculations of new moons and Jewish holidays, Jewish marriage documents, and commentaries on the Bible. All of these works have helped Jews the world over to found their communities on the cornerstones of Jewish law and tradition..

Collection of Responsa

Considered by some to be the first Hebrew book ever printed, this collection of responsa belongs to a group of Hebrew books printed in Rome between 1469 and 1472, some fifteen years after Guttenberg’s invention of moveable type. Responsa are replies to questions addressed to Jewish authorities on matters of Jewish law; the earliest examples still extant date back to the mid-eighth century. The responsa displayed here were written by Solomon ibn Adret, a renowned Jewish authority from thirteenth–century Barcelona who influenced Jewish communities from Spain to Asia Minor.

On the page open here, the rabbi is asked about someone who lives in one city but owns property in another – according to which community’s laws should the property be taxed? The answer affirms the right of every community to regulate itself in such matters and upholds the binding nature of local custom as a legal principle in Jewish law.

תובושת תולאש א״בשרל (The Responsa of Rabbi Solomon ben Abraham ibn Adret). Rome: Obadiah, Manasseh and Benjamin of Rome, ca. 1469–1472. Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (009.00.01)

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Babylonian Talmud

The chief cornerstone of mainstream Judaism, the Babylonian Talmud [translated “the study” or “the learning”] is a huge compendium of legal traditions going back to Jewish antiquity. It was transmitted orally from generation to generation until around 500 A.D. when Jewish sages in Babylonia—then the chief center of world Jewry—committed it to writing. The tractate displayed here comes from the famous first edition of the entire Talmud, printed by Daniel Bomberg in Venice, 1520–1523. Bomberg, a Christian Hebraist originally from Antwerp, operated his press under special Papal license. The Jewish scholars whom he employed in his shop as editors and compositors set standards of typography and textual authenticity that command admiration to this day. Today, copies of this first Bomberg edition are exceedingly prized and exceedingly rare; the Library of Congress holds nearly one-half of the original forty-four tractates.

דומלת ילבב. תכסמ תודימ (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Midot). Page 2. Venice: Daniel Bomberg, 1520. Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (010.00.00)

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The Zohar

The Zohar [translated “the splendor” ] is the preeminent work of Jewish mysticism. It was “discovered” by Moses de Leon, a scholar from thirteenth-century Spain who attributed the work to Simeon bar Yohai, a famous Jewish sage from second-century Israel who reportedly hid from the Roman authorities in a cave for thirteen years, studying the Torah and the more esoteric traditions of Jewish learning. However, many scholars believe that the Zohar was in fact written by Moses de Leon himself. The Zohar first appeared in print in Mantua in 1558–1560. The Library of Congress owns a particularly fine copy of this first edition; the second volume, displayed here, is printed on blue paper—a rarity in sixteenth-century Italy. The entire set was once owned by Abraham Joseph Graziano, a rabbi in seventeenth-century Modena whose learned notes fill the margins of the first volume.

רפס רהוזה (The Zohar). Mantua: Meir ben Ephraim of Padua and Jabob ben Naphtali ha-Kohen of Gazzuolo, 1558–1560. Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (011.00.00)

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Integrating Jews into French Civil Society

In 1806, Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France, convened an “Assembly of Jewish Notables” in order to lay the groundwork for integrating the Jews into French civil society. He called this assembly “le Grande Sanhedrin,” taking his cue from the Sanhedrin known from classical sources as the main governing body of the Jewish people in antiquity. Like the ancient model, the French Sanhedrin was composed of seventy-one members, two-thirds of them rabbis and one-third of them laymen from across France and Italy. The members of Napoleon’s Grande Sanhedrin met in Paris in surroundings of great magnificence; this pamphlet contains the prayers they recited at their last session on February 9, 1807. Notably, it was printed at Napoleon’s own “Imperial Press” in Paris.

תלפת םירשי יאירק הדעה ישנא םש ןירדהנס / Prière des membres du Sanhédrin, récitée dans leur assemblée convoquée à Paris. Hebrew prayers with facing translation in French. Paris: Imperial Press, 1807. Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (060.00.00)

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Reading the Zohar by Candlelight

This manuscript is part of the Zohar, the central text of Jewish mysticism. It tells the story of Simeon bar Yohai, the second-century author to whom the Zohar is traditionally attributed, who met in a sacred idra, or “threshing floor,” with nine other sages to “thresh” the secrets of the universe. This manuscript would be fairly unremarkable were it not for its interesting preface, which reads that having reached the age of seventy, Jesse Hayyim Montecorboli copied the text for himself “in large letters, so that I could study it by candlelight, as my eyes have grown heavy with age.” Interestingly, the scribe appends the term ha-tsair [the young] to himself—clearly an act of modesty on his part, lest anyone think he is making a claim to wisdom by virtue of his seventy years.

ארדיא אבר (The Great Holy Assembly). Italian square script. 1834. Hebrew Manuscript 17, Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (014.00.00)

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Comprehensive Code of Jewish Law

Moses ben Maimon (1135–1204), better known as Maimonides, twelfth-century Jewish philosopher, theologian, and physician was a towering figure in Judaism. Born in Cordoba, Spain, he moved with his family to Fez, Morocco, to escape persecution. After settling in Cairo, he became the personal physician to the sultan and his family. His widely influential works, written mostly in Arabic, were translated into Hebrew, Latin, and other languages. This edition of Maimonides’s Mishnah Torah, the first comprehensive code of Jewish Law, is opened to the colophon. It is dedicated to the memory of Abraham Athias, father and grandfather of the publishers Joseph and Immanuel Athias, who was burned at the stake in the city of Cordoba—the birthplace of Maimonides—“for the sanctification of God’s name,” only thirty-five years before the date of publication of this volume.

Moses Maimonides. הנשמ הרות (Mishneh Torah). Amsterdam, 1702. First Deinard Collection, Gift of Jacob H. Schiff, Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (013.00.00)

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Ibbronot are treatises for calculating the Hebrew calendar and Jewish holidays. In antiquity the Jewish calendar was determined by direct observation of the moon, and the calculations a closely guarded secret by the Sanhedrin, the Jewish governing body. But by the sixth century C.E., with Roman rule threatening Jewish institutions in the Land of Israel, the patriarch Hillel II released the information so that Jews the world over could celebrate the holidays at the same time. This example of ibbronot was probably written in Eastern Europe in the seventeenth century. The dense calculations common to the genre are augmented here by the use of collage-like tables or volvelles made of circles revolving around an axis attached to both sides of the page.

תונורבע (Ibbronot). A treatise on calculating the Hebrew calendar in Ashkenazic semi-cursive script. Seventeenth century. Hebrew Manuscript 162, Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (012.00.00)

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First Hebrew Book Written and Published in America

This first Hebrew book published in the United States, aside from the Bible or prayer books, is a commentary on the Pirkei Avot [Ethics of the Fathers]. It was written by Joshua ben Mordecai ha-Cohen Falk, an itinerant preacher who immigrated to the United States from Poland in 1858. As noted on the title page, the book was printed at the offices of the Jewish Messenger, a weekly published in New York City. The typesetter, Naphtali ben Katriel Shmuel of Thorn, added a colophon to the end of the book, giving thanks for his good fortune in setting the type for the first Hebrew book written and published in America.

Joshua Falk. ינבא עושוהי (Joshua’s Stones). New York, 1860. First Deinard Collection, Gift of Jacob H. Schiff, Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (016.00.00)

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Hebrew Riddle

This intriguing broadside is a Hebrew “emblem-riddle,” a kind of literary riddle in poetic form that was greatly in vogue among the Jews of Amsterdam and Italy during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. With sophisticated encoding devices such as anagrams, puns, textual allusions to classic Hebrew sources, and the “emblem” itself—the kind of pictogram featured here (known in Hebrew as תרוצ הדיחה)—these emblem-riddles were especially popular at Jewish weddings, where scholars would match wits for the solution. Winners of these riddling-contests were greatly admired, as they not only had to explain all of the clues but also present their solution in proper poetic form. The solution to this riddle? As yet unknown—but one and all are invited to try.

Mazal-Tov Modena. Wedding broadside with emblem-riddle beginning: לצא בשוי לע אסכ םר (He who sits enthroned on high). Italy, seventeenth or eighteenth century. Karp Collection, Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (015.00.00)

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Jewish Marriage Contract

This ketubbah, the Jewish legal marriage contract the groom gives to his bride at their wedding, is from Tetuan, Morocco. In keeping with the surrounding culture in which they were created, ketubbot (plural for ketubbah) from Islamic lands were not decorated with human figures or biblical scenes that appear commonly in ketubbot from Europe and other Western communities. Rather, the illuminated ketubbot from the Islamic world draw their richness from bright floral motifs. In this contract, vivid red blossomed vines surround the text. The frame in which the text appears echoes the shapes of windows in the Middle East. At least from the middle of the nineteenth century into the twentieth, Jewish marriage documents from this area of Morocco are characterized by two Hebrew letters, het and yud, that form the word hai that were written larger than any other letters. The word hai means “life” in Hebrew. It emphasizes the community’s wish that the bride and groom enjoy a long and happy life together.

Ketubbah (marriage contract) that records the marriage of Simhah Abecassis, daughter of Shelomo to Shmuel Bitton, son of Abraham on Wednesday, the twelfth of Elul, 5635, which corresponds to the twelfth of September, 1875. Tetuan, Morocco, 1875. Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (017.00.00)

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A Groom's Obligations to His Wife

The ketubbah spells out the groom’s obligations to his wife and is given to her at their wedding. This is the only known Jewish marriage document from Bijar in Iranian Kurdistan, a community that had approximately 650 Jews prior to the Jews immigrating to Israel. Iran was an important center of ketubbah illustration in the lands of Islam, with a certain style for each major town and its environs. The floral adornments in pastel hues of purple, yellow, red, and green that frame the text are similar to the illuminated ketubbot from the nearby and larger town of Senandaj (Sena). The ketubbah notes that the gold coinage, toman, written in the dowry section, is the one “issued under Rezā Shāh Pahlavi (1878–1944).”

Ketubbah (marriage contract) that records the marriage of Zikher Khanom Bradarani, daughter of Ya’ir Arabbi to Musa Khalami, son of Aziz, on Thursday, the fifth of Tammuz, 5696, the fourth of the Persian month of Tir which corresponds to the twenty-fifth of June, 1936. Bijar, 1936. Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (018.00.00)

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Talmud Created for Holocaust Survivors

Shown here is the first of nineteen volumes of the Talmud published in Munich-Heidelberg in 1948. This edition of the Talmud was created for Jewish survivors of the Holocaust who were living in Displaced Persons Camps after World War II. The Rabbinic Organization in the American sector “with the aid of the American Military Command and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Germany” dedicated the volumes to the “United States Army . . . who played a major role in the rescue of the Jewish people from total annihilation. . . . ” and who facilitated the publication of the Talmud. The drawing at the bottom of the page shows a Nazi labor camp lined with barbed wire; the image at the top portrays palm trees and a panorama of the Holy Land.

דומלת ילבב. תכסמ תוכרב (Tractate Berkahot of the Babylonian Talmud). Munich-Heidelberg, Germany, 1948. Hebraic Section, African & Middle Eastern Division, Library of Congress (019.00.00)

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