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Hebrew University Gets Valuable Incunabula Collection

ONE OF THE WORLD’S LARGEST AND FINEST PRIVATE COLLECTIONS OF HEBREW INCUNABULA–BOOKS PUBLISHED BEFORE 1500, IN THE EARLIEST YEARS OF PRINTING–HAS COME INTO THE POSSESSION OF THE HEBREW UNIVERSITY LIBRARY, THE JEWISH TELEGRAPHIC AGENCY LEARNED.

THE COLLECTION OF 64 ITEMS IS THE GIFT OF SALMANN SCHOCKEN, ONE OF THE LEADERS OF GERMAN JEWRY, WHO EMIGRATED TO PALESTINE IN 1933, AND IS NOW CHAIRMAN OF THE UNIVERSITY’S EXECUTIVE COUNCIL. WITH THE TWENTY HEBREW INCUNABULA PREVIOUSLY OWNED BY THE UNIVERSITY, THE LIBRARY NOW HAS ONE OF THE MOST COMPLETE COLLECTIONS OF THIS TYPE OF LITERARY TREASURE IN THE WORLD.

THERE ARE ONLY ABOUT 150 HEBREW INCUNABULA KNOWN TO EXIST. THE FIRST BOOK PRINTED IN HEBREW WAS PUBLISHED IN 1475. HEBREW INCUNABULA ARE THEREFORE CONFINED TO PUBLICATIONS OVER A PERIOD OF 25 YEARS, DURING WHICH TIME THERE WERE PRINTINGS IN ITALY, SPAIN, PORTUGAL AND CONSTANTINOPLE.

THE SCHOCKEN COLLECTION INCLUDES 42 ITALIAN WORKS, 21 FROM SPAIN AND PORTUGAL AND ONE FROM CONSTANTINOPLE. AMONG THEM ARE SIX BOOKS PRINTED IN ROME BEFORE 1480, AND THEREFORE AMONG THE FIRST HEBREW PUBLICATIONS. THERE ARE ALSO SIX UNICA (WORKS OF WHICH NO OTHER COPY IS KNOWN TO EXIST). THREE OF THESE ARE VALUED AT $2,000 EACH–THE “HAGGADAH SCHEL PESSACH,” (PRAYER BOOK FOR THE PASSOVER FESTIVAL) THE FIRST EVER PRINTED, “CALENDAR RULES,” AND “MEGILATH ANTIOCHOS,” IN THE ARAMAIC AND HEBREW LANGUAGES, ALL PRINTED IN GUADALAJARA, SPAIN, ABOUT 1492.

ALL THESE ARE VALUABLE NOT ONLY BECAUSE THEY ARE UNIQUE, BUT BECAUSE THEY ARE FIRST EDITIONS, IN COMPLETE AND EXCELLENT CONDITION.

THE EARLY BOOKS FROM ROME CONTAIN FIRST PRINTINGS OF IMPORTANT HEBREW TEXTS: MAIMONIDES’ “MISHNEH TORAH” AND “MORE NEBUCHIM” THE “RESPONSA” OF RABBI SOLOMON BEN ADRATH, AND OTHERS, VALUABLE FOR RESEARCH PURPOSES. ONE OF THEM, THE “SEFER MIZWOTH GADOL” OF RABBI MOSES OF COUNCI, IS PRINTED ON PARCHMENT, ONE OF THE TWO KNOWN COPIES.

THE 500-YEAR-OLD BOOKS ARE IN EXTRAORDINARILY GOOD CONDITION. MOST OF THE VOLUMES ARE COMPLETE; THE PRINT IS CLEAR, WITH WIDE MARGINS; THE PAPER, OF FINE QUALITY, UNSPOILED BY TIME. GENERALLY THEY APPEAR ALMOST AS IF THEY HAD JUST COME OFF THE PRESS. IN MAKING HIS COLLECTION, MR. SCHOCKEN LOOKED NOT ONLY FOR RARITY, BUT FOR EXCEPTIONALLY BEAUTIFUL COPIES. HE HAD THE BOOKS BOUND IN THE STYLE OF THE PERIOD WHEN THEY WERE PRINTED.

UNIVERSITY OFFICIALS SAID IT WOULD BE IMPOSSIBLE TO PLACE A VALUATION ON THE COLLECTION, AS IT WAS PRICELESS, BUT THAT IT REPRESENTED AN INVESTMENT OF THOUSANDS OF POUNDS.

ANOTHER LITERARY RARITY JUST ACQUIRED BY THE UNIVERSITY LIBRARY IS A LETTER WRITTEN IN 1817 BY HEINRICH HEINE’S PARENTS, SAMSON AND BETTY, IN THE GERMAN LANGUAGE, BUT IN HEBREW CHARACTERS. THE LETTER, ADDRESSED TO THE FATHER OF ACHILLE FOULD, FRENCH STATESMAN, ASKED M. FOULD TO ASSIST JACOB HEINE, SAMSON’S BROTHER “WITH THE EXPENSES HE WILL INCUR ON HIS WAY AND PERHAPS HE WILL HAVE NEED OF A COAT, OR SIMILAR THINGS.”

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