Libraries of the Jews

Hayim-Haykl Lunski, Chief Librarian of the Strashun Library in Vilna (Vilnius, Lithuania). From the Archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.
Hayim-Haykl Lunski, Chief Librarian of the Strashun Library in Vilna (Vilnius, Lithuania). From the Archives of the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research.

Known since the advent of Islam as “People of the Book” (“Ahl al-Kitab”) and sometimes self-defined for good reason as “People of the Commentaries on the Book”, Jews have also proven themselves “People of the Book Collection”. Personal libraries of eminent sages, scholars, courtiers, and philanthropists over the centuries were assiduously amassed and achieved renown within and beyond their Jewish milieus. Several private libraries became public in time, housed in stately edifices or showcased in academic institutions. These collections were often vast and wide-ranging, featuring parchment fragments, scrolls, codices, print books, and unpublished manuscripts, including rare works and priceless artifacts. Here is a glance at some of the last millennium’s most notable Jewish collections of scriptural, religious, mystical, legal, ethical, philosophical, historical, literary, mathematical, and scientific works, and at the fascinating and forward-looking bibliophiles who exerted themselves and expended substantial resources to acquire, curate, preserve, and bequeath these collections, thereby enriching human civilization’s collective knowledge, heritage, and culture.

Sephardic sage and courtier Isaac Albalia (1035–1094 CE), a native of Córdoba, Spain, mastered the subjects of Talmud, mathematics, and astronomy. He soon came to the attention and earned the patronage of Samuel ibn Nagdela and his son Joseph ibn Nagdela. Tragically, his patron Joseph was murdered in Granada in 1066; in 1069, Isaac moved to neighboring Seville, where he served as court astrologer to the Moorish ruler Caliph Muhammad al-Mu’tamid, who also appointed him chief rabbi and nasi of the Jews within his realm. His collection of Jewish books recovered at great expense from the scattered family library of his late patrons Samuel ibn Nagdela and Joseph ibn Nagdela helped establish Seville as a center of Jewish learning under Isaac’s patronage.

Judah ben Barzillai al-Bargeloni (HaNasi) (c. 1070–1140 CE) was a disciple of Isaac ben Reuven al-Bargeloni. A native of Barcelona, Spain, he was a scion of a prominent rabbinical family. He earned a reputation for his Talmudic erudition and as a codifier. He also amassed a wealth of ancient speculative theological material, and his library included many sources later lost. Scholars today deem him an important tradent in the history of the transmission of kabbalah.

A native of Zamora (Spain), Jacob ben Solomon ibn Habib (c. 1460–1516 CE) studied and excelled at Talmud and gained familiarity with philosophy and science. He soon headed an academy in neighboring Salamanca, which grew to become one of the largest in Spain. In 1492, due to the expulsion of Spanish Jewry, he migrated with his family to Portugal. Around 1500, to escape the religious oppression and persecution of Portuguese Jewry, he migrated to Salonika (Thessaloniki, Greece), where he befriended the brothers Judah and Samuel Benveniste and availed himself of their plentiful libraries. Jacob was among the leading Talmud scholars in Salonika, where he became a Talmud instructor first of local Jews then of Sephardic exiles. He established and headed an academy in Salonika, and in time earned a reputation among his rabbinical contemporaries and successors as the “Greatest of the Generation” (“Gdol HaDor”) and as the “Wonder of the Generation” (“Mofet HaDor”).

David ben Solomon ibn Abi Zimra (Radbaz) (1479–1573/1589 CE) was a disciple of Isaac HaKohen Sholal and Joseph Saragossi. A native of Spain, he immigrated as a youth to the Land of Israel, where he settled first in Tzfat then in Jerusalem. Around 1514, he moved to Egypt, where he settled first in Alexandria then in Cairo. There he served as a religious judge (dayan) on the rabbinical court (beit din) headed by the prince (nagid) Isaac Sholal, whom David succeeded as leader of Egyptian Jewry, a position in which he served for 40 years. David inherited affluence and developed it further as a successful businessman and moneylender. He headed an academy and maintained a library famous for its rare manuscripts.

A disciple of his grandfather Isaac Klauber and a native of Brisk (Brest, Belarus), Solomon ben Yehiel Luria (Rashal/Maharshal) (1510–1573 CE) was orphaned in his youth and studied in Posen (Poznań, Poland) before returning to his hometown, where he became chief rabbi, established an academy, and married his wife Lipka. He was then appointed chief rabbi and head of the academy of Ostrog (Ostroh, Ukraine). In 1555, he became head of the academy of Lublin (Poland). Solomon was an independent thinker and a meticulous researcher who criticized both Joseph Karo and Jacob ben Asher, and opposed both philosophy and kabbalah. He maintained a library with an extensive collection of halakhic works. One of Lublin’s synagogues was named the “Maharshal Shul” in his honor.

Joseph Nasi (1510/1520/1524–1579 CE) was the nephew and son-in-law of Gracia Mendes Nasi (Beatrice de Luna), a wealthy Portuguese Jewess and a leader of Turkish Jewry. As a merchant, Joseph secured lucrative commercial privileges in wine and beeswax, and for a time was able to confiscate French merchandise from ships docking at the port of Alexandria, Egypt as compensation for France’s sequestration of his family’s property in that country. In 1577, he indited Ben Porat Yosef, a polemical treatise against astrology that preserved his debate with Christian dignitaries. After his death, his wife Reyna maintained his Hebrew printing press and library.

A native of Castro Daire (Portugal), Isaac Aboab (Simao) da Fonseca (1605–1693 CE) came from a family of Jewish converts to Christianity who secretly practiced Judaism (anusim) and who fled the Inquisition. He was brought as a child first to Saint-Jean-de-Luz (France) then to Amsterdam, the Netherlands, where he received a Jewish upbringing. In 1626, he became Sephardic rabbi (hakham) of the Beit Yisrael congregation. In 1641, following the Dutch conquests, he helped establish and became Sephardic rabbi of the Jewish community of Recife (Brazil), a position in which he served for 13 years. In 1646, he composed the thanksgiving hymn (pizmon) “Zeikher Asiti L’Niflaot El”, the first known Hebrew composition in the New World, commemorating the repulsed Portuguese assault on Recife and the attendant suffering of the Jews. He thus became the first American rabbi as well as the first Jewish author in America. In 1654, after the Portuguese victory in Brazil, he and fellow Jews returned to Amsterdam, where he became Sephardic rabbi, Torah instructor at the local elementary school, and head of the academy, and served as a religious judge (dayan) on the rabbinical court (beit din). In the latter capacity, he was a signatory of the ban of excommunication (herem) imposed upon Barukh (Benedict) Spinoza in 1656. In 1671, he preached from his pulpit a sermon that inspired the construction of Amsterdam’s great Sephardic synagogue; in 1675, he delivered the initial sermon in this new house of worship. He indited his masterwork Parafrasis Comentada sobre el Pentateuco, a Spanish Torah translation with an accompanying commentary; Melekhet HaDikduk, a Hebrew grammar; Nishmat Hayyim, a treatise on reward and punishment; a treatise on the Thirteen Articles of Faith; and the confessional Vidui. He is known to have maintained an extensive library, which was sold off after his decease.

Aaron Samuel ben Israel Kaidanover (Maharshak) (1614–1676 CE) was a native of Koidanov (Dzyarzhynsk, Belarus), and studied in neighboring Brisk (Brest). In the Chmielnicki pogroms of 1648–1649 and 1655–1656, he was injured and his two young daughters were murdered by Cossacks. His manuscripts and valuable library were also plundered. After the tragedies he rebuilt his life and became chief rabbi of a series of central and eastern European locales: Langenlois (Austria); Nikolsburg (Mikulov, Czech Republic); Głogów (Poland); Fürth (Germany); and Frankfurt, Germany. He later returned to Poland, where he became chief rabbi of Kraków.

A native of Heidelberg (Germany), Samuel Wolf Oppenheimer (1630/1635–1703 CE) became purveyor to the elector Karl Ludwig. He later moved to Vienna, Austria, where he engaged in trade before the 1670 expulsion of Jewry from Vienna. From 1672, he was a supplier for the Austrian army and in 1676 as Imperial War Purveyor was the first Jew permitted to resettle in Vienna. He hosted synagogue services in his home for his Jewish entourage that ultimately numbered 100. Central to Samuel’s business success was his network of agents (including his niece’s husband and his future rival, Samson Wertheimer) spread across Europe’s financial and commercial centers. He borrowed money from both Jewish and Christian lenders. Samuel was a munificent benefactor who sponsored many synagogues, academies, and scholars, and ransomed numerous Jewish captives after the Turkish wars. For all such efforts, he became known as the “Judenkaiser” (“Jewish Caesar”). Prince Eugene of Savoy brought Samuel copious Hebrew manuscripts from Anatolia (Turkey) that formed the core of the David Oppenheimer Library, whose collection was incorporated into Oxford University’s Bodleian Library.

Leffman Behrends (Liepmann Cohen) (1634–1714 CE) earned his livelihood as a merchant, moneylender, and coin minter, and began supplying luxuries to the noble courts of electors Ernest Augustus and George Louis (the future King George I of Great Britain). He established a study house (beit midrash) in his own home, and from 1703 he safeguarded in his residence the renowned library of his wealthy son-in-law David Oppenheimer, chief rabbi of Prague (Czech Republic).

A nephew of the Jewish courtier Samuel Oppenheimer and a native of Worms (Germany), David ben Abraham Oppenheimer (1664–1736 CE) studied in Metz (France) and thereafter married Genendel, daughter of Leffman Behrends, the Jewish courtier in Hanover, Germany. His uncle Samuel bequeathed him an immense fortune as well as a Hebrew and Yiddish book collection that included precious manuscripts; David became a bibliophile and over the course of his lifetime expanded this trove into a renowned library featuring Talmudic, kabbalistic, theological, philosophical, medical, and mathematical works, including some rare and costly volumes, and even published lists of desiderata. In 1689, he became chief rabbi of Nikolsburg (Mikulov, Czech Republic) and Moravia (eastern Czech Republic), where he established a sizable study house (beit midrash). In 1701, he was appointed by his kinsman, the Jewish courtier Samson Wertheimer, as “Nasi Eretz Yisrael” (“Patriarch/President of the Land of Israel”), i.e., chief treasurer, a role responsible for transferring funds collected in Europe to the Jews of Jerusalem, for which service he soon had conferred upon him the honorific “Rabbi of the Holy City” by grateful beneficiaries in the Land of Israel. In 1702, he became chief rabbi of Prague (Czech Republic). From 1703, his reasonable concerns regarding censorship and confiscation necessitated the library’s transfer to his father-in-law’s home in Hanover. In 1713, he became chief rabbi of half of Bohemia (western Czech Republic), the other half being led by Benjamin Wolf Spira-Wideles, whose widowed daughter Shifrah became David’s second wife; that same year, he composed two penitential prayers (slihot) following an outbreak of plague in Prague. In 1715, after the decease of his new father-in-law, he became chief rabbi of Bohemia as a whole. He frequently provided approbations (haskhamot) for new rabbinical works. He sponsored Judaic scholarship and issued numerous publication grants to editors and publishers of Talmudic and halakhic works. He also made expensive manuscripts he had acquired available to publishers for wider dissemination. His son Joseph married Telze, daughter of his kinsman Samson, and inherited the library before it was ultimately purchased by Oxford University’s Bodleian Library in 1829. Between 1764 and 1845, David’s library collection was repeatedly cataloged, including in Isaac Metz’s Kohelet David, and estimates of its contents reached as high as 7,000 volumes including 1,000 manuscripts. Today the collection constitutes a substantial part of the Bodleian Library’s Hebraica, Judaica, and Semitics holdings.

A descendant of Hayyim ben Moses Attar (Or HaHayyim), Judah Aryeh Leon Bibas (c. 1781/1789–1852 CE) hailed from a Sephardic rabbinical family that had migrated southward following the expulsion of Spanish Jewry in 1492. He studied in his native Gibraltar and in Leghorn (Livorno, Italy), where he became a physician. He also studied languages and became fluent in Hebrew, Spanish, Italian, and English. Thereafter he returned to Gibraltar and became head of its academy, which attracted students from England, Italy, and North Africa. In 1831/1832, he became chief rabbi of Corfu (Greece), where he reformed the local educational system. Judah became a proponent of the penitence (tishuvah) movement, which advocated spiritual repentance combined with physical repatriation to the Land of Israel. He maintained that world Jewry’s right to self-determination was premised upon both religious precepts and national aspirations. From 1839–1840, he embarked upon a tour of European Jewish communities, urging his coreligionists to abjure the Diaspora and repatriate to the Land of Israel. In 1852, he immigrated to the Land of Israel, where he arrived in Jaffa and settled in Hebron. In Hebron he established a rabbinical seminary and amassed an extensive library of rare works (which might have included some of the Dead Sea Scrolls). He died in Hebron, where he was buried in the old Jewish cemetery. His library collection was posthumously donated to academies in Hebron, and for some time the Jewish community of Hebron conducted an annual memorial ceremony for him on the eve of Yom Kippur. In 1929, during the Arab pogrom in Hebron, his library was looted and partly burned, and some scholars believed that certain of its rare works were concealed for decades in local caves before being produced as new finds. He is remembered today as a proto-Zionist, and as the first forerunner of practical Zionism.

As a boy, Hasidic ritual slaughterer (shohet) Samuel Heller (c. 1803–1884 CE) had immigrated from eastern Europe to the Land of Israel, where he and his family had settled in Tzfat. In 1837, while standing under the lintel of the Beit Midrash Ari, he was severely injured during a devastating earthquake that killed thousands and was discovered buried up to his neck in rubble; his wounds left him bedridden for half a year and cost him the use of one arm for the rest of his life, which precluded the practice of his trade. While Samuel had also lost his entire library in the disaster, he used the dowry money from his second marriage to acquire a new collection, conveyed by camel convoy to Tzfat. In 1841, he became chief rabbi and chief justice on the rabbinical court (beit din) of Tzfat. In addition, he became a renowned bibliophile and amassed a voluminous library comprising scriptural and halakhic works as well as medical and scientific books. He also initiated publication of manuscripts in his possession and supported the book publishing endeavors of others, for which he earned a reputation among eastern European sages as a procurer of precious manuscripts. He intended to convert his private library into a public library in Tzfat, to be named Midrash Shmuel, although this aim remained unrealized and his collection was scattered variously. Certain of his epistles and many testimonies about his life and work were preserved in the Beit HaMeiri historical museum in Tzfat, and in Jerusalem in the National Library of Israel, in the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, and in the Ben-Zvi Institute. He figures repeatedly as a character in the stories of famed Israeli novelist and short story writer Shmuel Yosef Agnon. 

Mattityahu (Matthias) ben Samuel Strashun (1817–1885 CE), a native of Vilna (Vilnius, Lithuania), was born into an affluent family. He studied and excelled at Talmud and Hebrew grammar, and became renowned as a prodigy (ilui). He also received a secular education comprising languages, philosophy, history, astronomy, and mathematics. His wealthy father-in-law purchased a silk merchandise business for him, which his wife Sarah Hannah managed while he immersed himself in his rabbinical studies. Thereafter he was known to engage in study for up to 15 hours a day. His first business venture proved disastrous, but subsequently his commercial enterprises were highly successful. Thereafter he expended much of his considerable fortune on amassing a magnificent book collection, and his home soon became a rendezvous for scholars and students alike from across Europe. In 1857, he toured Europe to acquire rare manuscripts and declined the chief rabbinate of Berlin, Germany. In the 1860s, he joined and co-headed the international society Hevrat Mikitzei Nirdamim, which published older Hebrew manuscripts. As a man of means, he was very active in Vilna’s Jewish community: in 1865, he became head of its executive board (kahal), and served as head of the social welfare organization HaTzdakah HaGdolah and of the charity Kupat Tzdakot Aniyei Eretz Yisrael, which collected and remitted eleemosynary contributions from Jews abroad (halukah) for the collective Jewish community (yishuv) in the Land of Israel. He also became a city councilor of Vilna. He indited his masterwork Seifer Mattat Yah, a commentary on Midrash Rabbah; Rehovot Kiryah, a historical study of Vilna (published as an addendum to Samuel Joseph Fünn’s Kiryah Ne’emanah); and Likutei Shoshanim, a posthumously published catalog of the Strashun Library. He died and was buried in Vilna; he bequeathed to Vilna’s Jewish community his private book collection comprising more than 5,700 volumes, which formed the basis of the renowned Strashun Library of Vilna (1892–1941), in addition to substantial financial resources for various philanthropic purposes. The Strashun Library, which opened in his home then transferred to its own building beside the Great Synagogue in 1901, expanded by means of donations and contributions to 25,000 titles by 1928 and to 33,000 titles by 1931, but was looted and partially destroyed by the Nazis in 1941 during the Holocaust; in 1945, some 40,000 volumes were retrieved by the U.S. Army in Germany and distributed to institutions such as the YIVO Institute in New York City and the National Library of Israel.

A disciple of Joseph Saul Nathanson and a descendant of a dynasty of Habad (Lubavitch) Hasidim, Solomon (Shneur Zalman) Schechter (1847–1915 CE) was a native of Focşani (Romania). He studied for four years at the study house (beit midrash) in Vienna, Austria, then in Berlin, Germany at the Higher Institute for Jewish Studies rabbinical seminary and at University of Berlin. In 1882, he became the rabbinics tutor of Claude Montefiore in London, England. In 1890, he became lecturer of Talmud at Cambridge University, where he later became rabbinics reader in 1892. In 1893, he traveled to Italy to analyze the Hebrew manuscripts in major Italian libraries. In 1896, he traveled to Cairo, Egypt to collect from the Ben Ezra synagogue the surviving manuscripts and fragments of the Cairo Genizah archive and to bring them to the library of Cambridge University (where they became known as the Taylor-Schechter Collection). In 1899, he became professor of Hebrew at University College, London. In 1900, he became curator of the Oriental Department of Cambridge University Library. He also served as a board member of both Oriental Studies and Theological Studies at London University. In 1902, he became president of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) in Philadelphia, a position in which he served for 13 years. He populated the JTS faculty with other respected scholars including Louis Ginzberg, Alexander Marx, and Israel Friedlander. He indited his tripartite masterwork Studies in Judaism; Some Aspects of Rabbinic Theology; Documents of Jewish Sectaries; Seminary Addresses and Other Papers; The Wisdom of Ben Sira; and an edition of Avot D’Rabbi Nattan. He also coedited the Jewish Publication Society, Jewish Quarterly Review, and the Jewish Encyclopedia. Solomon is remembered today as the leading scholar of the Cairo Genizah and as the father of Conservative Judaism.

A native of Bucharest, Romania, Moses Gaster (1856–1939 CE) was born into a prominent Austrian-Jewish family that had settled in Wallachia (southern Romania) in the early 19th century. From his earliest childhood, Moses was surrounded by books and immersed in what he recalled as “the magical atmosphere of the world of writing”. In 1876, he moved to Breslau (Wrocław, Poland), where he studied rabbinics at the Jewish Theological Seminary as well as linguistics, oriental languages, and biblical studies at University of Breslau. Thereafter he moved to Leipzig (Germany), where he earned his doctorate in linguistics from University of Leipzig in 1877/1878. In 1880, he returned to Romania and dedicated himself to linguistic and literary research. In 1881, he received rabbinical ordination (smikhah) from the Jewish Theological Seminary. That same year, he became lecturer of Romanian language and literature at University of Bucharest, a position in which he served for four years. In 1886, he became lecturer of Slavonic literature at Oxford University. In 1887, he became Sephardic rabbi (hakham) of the Spanish-Portuguese congregation in London, a position in which he served for 31 years. In 1891, he became principal of Judith Lady Montefiore College in Ramsgate, a position in which he served for five years. In 1897, he became vice-president of the First Zionist Congress in Basel (Switzerland), and he remained a significant figure at succeeding congresses. In 1901, he presided over the bicentenary of Sha’ar HaShamayim (Bevis Marks) Synagogue. In 1907, he became president of the English Zionist Federation (which he cofounded), a position in which he served for two years. In 1917, he hosted preliminary discussions between the British Foreign Office and Zionist leaders at his London residence, where the first draft of the Balfour Declaration was composed. He also welcomed guests such as Winston Churchill, Sigmund Freud, and Lenin to his home. In 1925, he was appointed to the honorary board of trustees (“curatorium”) of the Yiddish Scientific Institute (later the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research) in Vilna (Vilnius, Lithuania). In 1929, he was elected an honorary member of the Romanian Academy, to which he bequeathed his collection of Romanian medieval manuscripts. He was an avid collector of manuscripts and amassed myriad fragments from the Cairo Genizah; in 1925, the major portion of his Hebrew manuscripts (1,129 in total) was acquired by the British Museum and is today housed in the British Library, and in 1955 the remainder of his Hebrew manuscripts was acquired by the John Rylands Library (since 1972 part of University of Manchester). In 1974, his personal papers, comprising 170,000 items including a large collection of ephemera, were donated to University College London. He also developed the first typewriter with Hebrew characters. His son Theodor Herzl also became a professor of mythology, religion, and Near Eastern civilizations.

The prolific scholar Samuel Krauss (1866–1948 CE) was a disciple of Solomon Breuer, Alexander Kohut, and Wilhelm Bacher. A native of Ukk (Hungary), he studied Talmud first at the Lo Alman Yisrael academy of neighboring Jánosháza then at the academy of neighboring Pápa. In 1884, he matriculated at the rabbinical seminary (in Hungarian, Országos Rabbiképző Intézet/Orszá­gos Rabbiképző – Zsidó Egyetemen; in German, Landesrabbinerschule) in neighboring Budapest and graduated in 1889. In 1893, he earned his doctorate. In 1894, he became professor of Bible and Hebrew at the Jewish Teachers’ Seminary in Budapest, a position in which he served for 12 years. That same year, he received rabbinical ordination (smikhah). In 1906, he became professor of Bible, history, and liturgy at the Israelitisch-Theologische Lehranstalt (Israelite Theological Institute) in Vienna, Austria, a position in which he served for 32 years. In 1932, he became head of the institute; in 1937, he became rector of the institute. Samuel was communally active and founded in Vienna the local Verein für Jüdische Geschichte und Literatur (Association for Jewish History and Literature). In 1938, the Nazis set fire to the institute, destroying its library and Samuel’s personal documents, during Kristallnacht; Samuel fled to England, where he settled in Cambridge. He indited his tripartite masterwork Talmudische Archäologie, a cultural history depicting every aspect of Jewish daily life in the Talmudic age; the incomplete Kadmoniyot HaTalmud, a similar cultural history written in Hebrew; Synagogale Altertümer and Korot Battei HaTfilah B’Yisrael, studies on the ancient synagogue; Das Leben Jesu nach Jüdischen Quellen, a treatise on the life of Jesus of Nazareth according to Jewish sources; Vier Jahrtausende Jüdischen Palästinas, a popular survey of the history of the Land of Israel, demonstrating the continuous Jewish presence in the ancestral homeland; and Geschichte der Jüdischen Ärzte, a history of Jewish physicians in the Middle Ages. He also contributed hundreds of entries to the Jewish Encyclopedia (under the initials “S. Kr.”), the German Encyclopaedia Judaica, and the Jüdisches Lexikon, and coedited (with Wilhelm Bacher and József Bánóczi) Szentirás, the first complete Hungarian translation of the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible).

A descendant of Joseph Behor Shor of Orléans, Nathan Nata ben Solomon Spira/Shapira, and Pinhas of Koretz, Meir Yehudah Shapira (Lubliner Rav/Admor of Lublin) (1887–1933 CE) was a native of Shatz (Suceava, Romania). He studied in Monasterzyska (Monastyryska, Ukraine) and became renowned as a prodigy (ilui). He received rabbinical ordination (smikhah) at 15 from Isaac Shmelkes, Meir Arikh, and his grandfather, upon whose decease in 1903 he returned to his parents in Shatz. In 1910/1911, he became chief rabbi of Gliniany (Hlyniany, Ukraine), a position in which he served for 10 years. In 1912, he participated in the First World Convention of Agudat Yisrael in Kattowitz (Katowice, Poland). In 1922, he became president of Agudat Yisrael in Poland and a member of Agudat Yisrael’s supreme rabbinical body, the Mo’etzet Gdolei HaTorah (Council of Torah Sages). That same year, he conceived of a modern and expansive academy and a dormitory in neighboring Lublin, and fundraised for two years in Europe and in North America toward that end. In 1923, he participated in Agudat Yisrael’s initial Great Congress (Knessiyah HaGdolah) in Vienna, Austria, whereat he initiated the study program known as “Daf Yomi” (“Daily Folio”), proposing that every Jew on a daily basis commit to learning both sides of one identical page of the Babylonian Talmud—following the order of the tractates, beginning from Brakhot (Blessings) and ending at Nidah (Menstruant)—a diligent regimen whose completion (siyum) once every seven and a half years would be collectively celebrated with a special gathering. In 1924, he laid the foundation stone of the Hakhmei Lublin academy of Lublin amid a crowd of 20,000 spectators, including fellow sages and gathered dignitaries. In 1930, after another six years of fundraising, the Hakhmei Lublin academy finally opened its doors, and its impressive edifice went on to house hundreds of students, a vast library with at least 30,000 volumes, and a model of the Second Temple that drew Jewish and gentile visitors alike. That same year, he became head of the academy, a position in which he served for three years. In 1931, he became chief rabbi of Lublin, a position in which he served for two years. That same year, he participated in the inaugural special gathering celebrating the completion of the initial Daf Yomi cycle. In 1933, he became chief rabbi of neighboring Lodzh (Łódź), but before assuming the office, and after a premonition of imminent illness, he contracted diphtheria or typhus and passed away suddenly, his tearful pupils dancing and singing around his deathbed per his request. According to the Deutsche Jugend Zeitung, the official newspaper of Hitler Youth, on September 7, 1939, the Nazis invaded the Hakhmei Lublin academy, stripped its interior, and burned its 30,000-volume library in a bonfire in the courtyard; this account, however, appears to have been more propagandistic than factual, and in recent years volumes containing the academy’s stamp have been found in private Judaica libraries, in the holdings of state libraries, and for sale at auction houses. Meir’s disciples included Shmuel HaLevi Wosner, who reestablished the Hakhmei Lublin academy in Bnei Brak after the Holocaust. As of 2013, the Hakhmei Lublin academy’s original building in Lublin, owned by the Warsaw Jewish community, houses the 44-room, four-star Hotel Ilan. Over the course of 13 cycles and counting, the Daf Yomi program, officially a project of Agudat Yisrael, has evolved into a global phenomenon with hundreds of thousands of Jewish participants.

Nehamah Leibowitz (1905–1997 CE), a native of Riga, Latvia, studied at University of Berlin then at University of Marburg. In 1930, she earned her doctorate upon completing her dissertation, “Techniques of Judeo-German Bible Translation in the 15th and 16th Centuries, as Exemplified by Translations of the Book of Psalms”. That same year, she and her husband immigrated to the Land of Israel, where they settled in Jerusalem. After her husband became blind and unable to work, she embarked upon a lifelong career as a professor of Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and taught at the Mizrachi Women Teachers Seminary in Jerusalem, a position in which she served for 25 years. In 1941, she was invited to teach a six-month course in Tanakh for observant women from kibbutzim who would travel weekly to Jerusalem; in 1942, to meet the demand for ongoing instruction following the course’s conclusion, she began mailing her students stenciled study sheets (gilyonot) on the weekly Torah reading, a practice that endured for 29 years (thus comprising more than 1,500 study sheets) and that expanded to include thousands of recipients, effectively becoming a correspondence course and thereby making Nehamah a pioneer in distance education. Nehamah revised her study sheets into essays published as pamphlets in Hebrew and in English and distributed by the World Zionist Organization’s department of education and culture in the Diaspora. In 1957, she became lecturer of Tanakh at Tel Aviv University, achieving tenure as a full professor in 1968. In the mid-1960s, she compiled her pamphlets and indited her quinquepartite masterwork Iyunim Hadashim, collected essays on the weekly Torah reading. The work was translated from Hebrew into English, French, Spanish, and Dutch, and still remained in print many decades later. She accented active learning and earned a reputation for her humility (always dispensing with her own formal titles), love of storytelling, and participatory classroom. Her pupils comprised Jews from across the religious spectrum and from all walks of life. Even in her retirement she continued to instruct clusters of students at her modest, one-bedroom apartment, wherein her personal library of books in Hebrew, Yiddish, German, and English attested to her broader interests in Jewish studies, philosophy, and world literature. Nehamah was a fervent Zionist and refused to leave the Land of Israel despite being offered lucrative teaching appointments abroad. She died in Jerusalem and was buried on Har HaMenuhot; per her request, the epitaph on her tombstone summarizes her succinctly: “Teacher”.

From time immemorial, every learned Jewish household featured bookshelves—if not bookcases—teeming with tomes of Judaica and Hebraica, often complemented by secular works in various subjects. Due to the myriad vagaries of historical and political circumstances, the collections themselves have sometimes figured in momentous events and assumed adventures of their own. While the most famous literary collections in Jewish history (e.g., the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Cairo Genizah) are well known to many Jews and non-Jews alike, lesser known collections such as the Old Sana’a Genizah—a treasure-trove that contained the world’s oldest extant complete Mishnah commentary, that of Nathan ben Abraham, retrieved in 1927 by former chief rabbi (hakham-bashi) of Yemen Yihya ben Shlomoh Qafih (HaYashish) (1850–1931 CE) and published in 1955—or the Afghan Genizah found in the caves of Bamyan (Afghanistan) in 2011 are also of tremendous significance, possessing remarkable contents and dramatic histories of their own.

About the Author
Brandon Marlon is a Canadian-Israeli author whose writing has appeared in 300+ publications in 32 countries. His script The Bleeding Season won the 2007 Canadian Jewish Playwriting Competition. His poetry was awarded the Harry Hoyt Lacey Prize in Poetry (Fall 2015), and he is the author of two poetry volumes, Inspirations of Israel: Poetry for a Land and People, and Judean Dreams. His most recent publication is the historical reference Essentials of Jewish History: Jewish Leadership Across 4,000 Years.
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