- A Century of Hebraica at the Library of Congress
T heH ebraicS ectionof the Library of Congress in Washington comprises the youngest of the world’s great Hebrew collections. That it should rate so highly is nothing short of remarkable. After all, the old European libraries had been gathering Hebrew books for centuries before the decision in 1800 to establish a congressional library in the new American capital. When the Bibliothèque de France was still the [End Page 101]Bibliothèque du Roi, it already held Hebrew manuscripts from the libraries of Catherine de Medici and Cardinal Richelieu. The state libraries of Munich and Berlin similarly incorporated Hebrew books from royal, ducal, or patrician collections from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. University and state libraries in Hamburg, Leipzig, Leiden, and Basel held collections assembled by Christian Hebraists of earlier centuries. The Vatican and Milan’s Biblioteca Ambrosiana had much Hebraica by the early seventeenth century, the royal library in Turin and the Medici library in Florence had large collections by the mid-eighteenth, and a collection assembled before the century’s end by an abbot in Parma soon made its Palatina one of Europe’s richest repositories of Hebrew. 1
In 1829 Oxford’s Bodleian Library acquired an extraordinary collection of books and manuscripts assembled by the bibliophile rabbi David Oppenheim of Prague—an acquisition that was pivotal for the development of Hebraica libraries in the English-speaking world. 2In London, the British Museum’s Hebraica from aristocratic and royal collections was supplemented in the middle of the century by the purchase of exceptional Jewish libraries from Hamburg and Padua and a hoard of manuscripts gathered by the antiquarian Shapira in Jerusalem. 3The English [End Page 102]libraries’ acquisition of Jewish collections was imitated on the continent. Important private libraries went to state institutions in St. Petersburg, Amsterdam, and (in 1905) Budapest, and in like fashion the municipal and university library of Frankfurt grew into a major resource for Judaica. 4With the addition of the immense private Chasanowich collection from Russia, the public library founded by B’nai B’rith in Jerusalem in 1892 became the core of the Jewish National and University Library, now the National Library of Israel. 5By 1900, the Old World and Palestine were replete with national Hebrew collections.
At the outset the Library of Congress possessed not a single Hebrew book. Thomas Jefferson’s books, acquired for the nation in 1815, included Spinoza’s Opera posthumawith its Hebrew grammar (Amsterdam, 1677) and an even older Hebrew-Latin Mishnah, Baba kamma . . . de legibus ebraeorum(Leyden, 1637), and a few volumes of Judaica, but the congressional library possessed nothing remotely like the holdings of institutions across the sea. 6Nor, for that matter, did any other American institution of the day. It wasn’t until late in the century that institutional Judaica libraries were launched in America, first at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and then at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. 7In 1893 a valuable Hebrew collection built in [End Page 103]Italy went to Columbia University. 8Four years later the New York Public Library opened its Jewish Division, which served as a reading room for generations of Hebrew scholars, students, and laymen. 9Yet the Library of Congress, which by the early twentieth century had Chinese, Japanese, and Russian collections, still had no Hebrew books to speak of...