Page 70 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 46

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BENJAMIN RICHLER
Hebrew Manuscript Collections
T
h e
f a t e
o f
H eb rew book collections was d e te rm in e d by m any
o f th e same factors th a t tem p e re d Jew ish history . T h e in ten se
in te llec tua l activity an d h igh ra te o f literacy th a t so f req u en t ly
ch a rac te r ized Jew ish society en co u rag ed the p ro d u c t io n a n d ac­
cum u la tion o f large n um b e rs o f m anu sc r ip ts (and la te r p r in te d
books) b u t also led to th e ir steady d e te r io ra t io n th ro u g h con ­
s tan t use. Persecu tions , pog rom s , exiles an d mass book b u rn in g s
ove r the c en tu r ie s f u r th e r d ep le ted the n um b e r o f H eb rew
books, so th a t today th e re a re p robab ly no m o re th a n th ir ty
o r fo r ty th o u san d m edieval an d post-m ed ieva l m anu sc r ip ts ex ­
tan t. W ith th e excep tion o f th e Dead Sea Scrolls a n d a few
sca tte red fragm en ts no H eb rew m an u sc r ip t d a t in g e a r l ie r th an
the 9 th c en tu ry exists an d th e n um b e r o f MSS w r itten b e fo re
the th i r te e n th c en tu ry th a t have su rv ived do no t exceed a few
h u n d re d .
T h e Jew ish scho lar was by necessity if no t by n a tu r e a co llec to r
o f books. Many la rge p r iva te collections o f H eb rew m anu sc r ip ts
in the M iddle Ages a re re c o rd e d in various d o cum en ts , b u t
few o f these lib raries have su rv ived en bloc. Most w ere d is­
pe rsed , sold o r con fiscated . Jew ish in s titu tiona l lib ra ries capab le
o f p re se rv ing la rge collections w ere few a n d certa in ly no self-
re spec ting Jew wou ld b eq u ea th his books to a secu la r o r gov­
e rnm e n t library . T h e earliest sub stan tia l collections o f H eb rew
m anu sc r ip ts fo u n d in public o r institu tiona l lib raries today d a te
from the en d o f th e 15th c en tu ry an d were a cqu ired f rom non -
Jew ish sources.
D u r ing th e Renaissance th e r e was an in te re s t on th e p a r t o f
the H um an is ts in th e study o f H eb rew an d re la ted Jew ish sub ­
jec ts , especially th e Kabbalah . T h e Renaissance e n c o u ra g e d the
e s tab lishm en t o f la rge pub lic an d p r iva te lib raries , such as the
Vatican L ib rary a n d th a t o f th e Medici p r inces in F lo rence to ­
wards the en d o f th e 15th cen tu ry . Some o f the C h r is tian He-