Jewish Museum in Prague

Èesky

Collection of Rare Printed Books and Manuscripts

Curator: Olga Sixtová

The Jewish Museum in Prague’s Collection of Manuscripts and Rare Printed Books currently comprises about 1,500 collection items of various provenance and age. It is focused mainly on Hebrew, but also on Yiddish and German, manuscripts and printed books, as well as earlier Judaistic literature. For the most part, these are literary works, but there are also archival-type documents which have been included for their artistic value, as well as a large group of single sheets – mostly decorative plaques of a devotional nature, diplomas, memorial documents and calligraphic synagogue plaques with informational or liturgical content. The items in the collection stem from Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia, although there are also manuscripts and printed books from, among other places, Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. They date from the thirteenth century to the twentieth.

The core of the collection comprises manuscripts and rare printed books that were once owned by the library of the Prague Jewish Community, mainly stemming from the bequests of Jewish scholars who were active here – most notably, Solomon Judah Rapoport (1790-1857). Some of the books were also part of the holdings of the pre-war Jewish Museum, while a large amount of valuable manuscripts and printed books were shipped to the Museum during World War II from the Jewish communities in Bohemia and Moravia that were dissolved and later annihilated by the Nazis. The collection was supplemented on an ongoing, if limited, basis in the following decades. Acquisitions are currently focused on Jewish written material, either of clearly Bohemian provenance or connected with the history of the Czech lands and local Jewish figures. As a result of research into the genizot of Bohemian and Moravian synagogues carried out in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the collection gained about a hundred manuscript and printed fragments, as well as several hundred fragments of printed books; these are being kept in the Museum’s auxiliary holdings.

Manuscripts

The rarest manuscripts include medieval Hebrew codices with liturgical, exegetical and religious-legal content (fifteen codices and fragments). The oldest illuminated manuscript – festive prayers for the High Synagogue and Simhat Torah – dates from 1347. Also in the collection is an Ashkenazi manuscript of part of the Mishne Torah by Moses ben Maimon (Maimonides), which is dated 1445.

Liturgical texts constitute the largest group in the collection (more than a third of the holdings); synagogue prayer books from Bohemian and Moravian Jewish communities are the earliest examples of the traditional work of local Jewish scribes and illuminators in the Museum’s collections (dating from the late sixteenth century onwards). The collection also includes several hundred liturgical synagogue scrolls (mainly Torah and Esther scrolls). The second largest group are texts of a religious-legal nature, together with exegetical and homiletic works. There are also authograph manuscripts and copies of works and lectures given by well-known scholar-rabbis who were active in Bohemia and Moravia, such as David Oppenheim, Jonathan Eybeschütz, Ezechiel Landau, Moses Sofer and Solomon Judah Rapoport. For the most part, these are manuscripts dating from the eighteenth and nineteenth century. Far less represented in the collection are copies of works relating to the kabala, philosophy, medicine, natural sciences, history, didactic texts, fiction and poetry.
The collection contains several dozen illuminated manuscripts. Apart from the ones mentioned above, these include Esther scrolls dating from the seventeenth century to the beginning of the nineteenth, mostly of Italian origin, and wedding contracts, the earliest from Carpi, dating back to 1686. (In addition to hand-painted manuscripts, there are also fifteen printed scrolls which are variously illustrated with woodcuts and copper-engravings). The traditional work of local illuminators culminated in the eighteenth century in Moravia; the collection contains several books of ceremonies and prayers from the workshops of these scribes. Special groups of items include decorative plaques of a religious nature and content, such as shiviti and mizrah – some of which are also printed – from households and synagogues; these date from the mid-eighteenth century to the early twentieth.

The above manuscripts are detailed in a card catalogue and have recently been registered – together with the above-mentioned printed books – in the Jewish Museum’s database. A part of the manuscript collection has been published in the Judaica Bohemiae journal.

Early printed books
The group of about 450 early printed books that were incorporated into the collection from the library holdings of the Jewish Museum in Prague, constitutes a small – albeit the rarest – part of the total number of early printed books in the Museum’s collections. This included, above all, the oldest Bohemian Hebraica and Judaica, as well as the oldest printed books produced by Hebrew printing houses in Italy, Germany, Holland, Poland and Switzerland, as well as the oldest Christian Judaistic literature.

The rarest printed book in the collection is the Seder zmirot u-birkat ha-mazon (songs of the Sabbath and grace after meals), dating from 1514, which is illustrated by coloured woodcuts. This is followed by a printed book of the Pentateuch dating from 1530, a fragment of the Mahzor and Yotzrot dating from 1529-33, and rare printed books from the second half of the sixteenth to the end of the seventeenth century, such as minor sermons of the Prague Maharal (rabbi Loew), which were published during his life in the late sixteenth century, penitential prayers in accordance with the rite of the Old Schul (1605), occasional penitential prayers of Yom Tov Lipman Heller which were published at the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War.

There is a special card catalogue for the printed books included in the collection of manuscripts and early printed books. Many other early printed books remain in the library collection, but all the early printed books are gradually being catalogued in a special group of the library’s electronic catalogue. A list of the printed works of Hebrew Bohemica in the collection of the Jewish Museum in Prague has been published in the Judaica Bohemiae journal.

 

 

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