- Two New Invaluable Research Tools:Catalogues of the Hebrew Manuscripts in the Vatican and Parma Libraries
A library catalogue can be like a phone book—full of intriguing characters but weak on plot. A great library catalogue, however, not only records the names of the books but also presents the plot in between the lines. The entries for each book can tell a story if the cataloguer is sufficiently adept and if the reader is suitably attentive to the catalogue's own narrative. We have before us two examples of exemplary catalogues, executed by leading experts in Jewish manuscripts, Benjamin Richler, the historian of the Jewish book, and Malachi Beit-Arié, the paleographer par excellence. Each book is chock full of very important information, going well beyond just a simple list of manuscripts and the compositions they include.
The catalogues under review describe collections of Hebrew manuscripts in two Italian libraries, the Palatine Library in Parma and the Vatican Library in Rome. Each catalogue has a historical introduction explaining how these important collections were purchased over the years, implicitly answering those who assume that non-Jewish libraries of Hebrew manuscripts must have been collected by looting Jewish communities. [End Page 459] This claim has been made, especially concerning the Vatican Library, in light of the long history of Catholic antagonism to Jewish books, as expressed among other ways by censorship, book burning, and persecution of the Jewish owners of those books. In addition, a rumor has persisted for years in traditional Jewish circles that the Vatican has Jewish treasures, going back to the Second Temple, which are hidden from the general public. 1
Although the discussions of the provenance of the collections in general and individual manuscripts in particular will probably not silence the critics who can argue that even if most of the books in the collections were purchased from their Jewish owners, some Jews might have sold their books to Christians under duress, they reflect the issue's sensitivity. They also remind the reader of the Jewish world's debt to non-Jewish libraries for providing respectable homes for Hebrew manuscripts, no matter how they were acquired. If one looks at the history of Jewish manuscript collections in the past century, the picture is not very encouraging. The Saraval manuscript collection at the Breslau Jewish Theological Seminary mostly disappeared during World War II; the Montefiore collection at Jews' College in London and the private Sassoon collection have been auctioned off. Other collections have limited access because of budgetary constraints and scholars cannot be assured that these institutions will not sell their manuscripts to cover financial shortfalls. In contrast, the great collections of Parma, the Vatican, Oxford-Bodleian, Cambridge, the British Library, Bibliothèque Nationale, and others are generally maintained effectively and open to scholars. 2 [End Page 460]
The first Parma Hebrew manuscript catalogue (1803) was composed by the owner of the vast majority of those manuscripts which now make up the Palatine Library's collection, Giovanni Bernardo De Rossi (1742- 1831). The first Vatican Hebrew manuscript catalogue was published in 1756. These pioneering works were executed before the monumental cataloguing projects of Moritz Steinschneider in the nineteenth century (e.g., Hebrew books in the Bodleian, 1852-60; Warner-Leiden collection of Hebrew manuscripts in 1858; Hamburg, 1878). Steinschneider revolutionized the writing of Judaica catalogues, mainly by including every fact and reference relevant to each entry. 3
Although Steinschneider's bibliographical work was pioneering, he, his contemporaries, and his immediate successors did not have access to modern scientific methods of checking paleography, inks, paper watermarks, and the like. Nor did they have computer databases which can help to identify the scribes in terms of location and time...