Page 15 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 39

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MEHLMAN / ANTIQUE HEBREW BOOKS
9
the last page o f a book tha t is said to be “possibly un ique .”3 T he
book refe rred to is the
Shulhan Ha-Melekh
(Orah Hayyim in
Ladino) o f 1749, which is found, however, in a num ber o f li­
braries. In the course o f time books tha t were considered ra re
were discovered in several copies. By the same token, books tha t
were never designated as ra re now appea r to be scarce. T he
surprises are many. Even recently we have become aware o f
unknown editions o f books (Venice Bible, 1511; T ractate Be-
rakhot, Salonika, 1580;
Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim
and
Yoreh
De’ah,
Salonika, 1568, and others.) We have learned also o f books
whose existence and contents were previously unknown to bib­
liographers.
As for the variations in evaluating books in d ifferen t places, one
can cite an extreme bu t instructive example: Both first printings
o f Rabbi Bahya’s T o rah commentary — the Spanish and the
Italian — are incunabula and are very rare , particularly the first.
Yet a few years ago an English bookseller discovered a num be r o f
copies o f the first Spanish edition on the isle o f Rhodes, and the
Italian edition (Naples, 1492) was discovered in many copies in
Yemen (albeit mostly in damaged and incomplete form).
As is well known, very rare books usually tu rn up as damaged
copies, and they lack the beginning and closing leaves. T he same
is true o f incunabula. For example: Only a few complete copies o f
Maimonides’
Mishneh Torah,
Soncino, 1490, have come down to
us, but many individual parts o f the work are to be found.
MAIN REASONS
How are we to account for the rarity o f books generally, and of
Hebrew books in particular? For convenience sake it will be well to
organize the reasons for the rarity o f books by category while
keeping in mind tha t sometimes a combination o f reasons is
responsible for the rarity o f a book. T h e following are the
categories: (a) time and the ravages o f time; (b) place o f printing;
(c) contents o f the book; (d) format o f the book. In short: the time
and place, plus the contents and format. We might add still
ano ther category: the special “fate” o f the book.
3 H.C. Zafren, “Printed Rarities in the Hebrew Union College Library,”
Studies in
Bibliography and Booklore,
vol. X, 1961.