The well-known University Library at Oxford, England. The building which at present forms the reading-room of the Bodleian Library was begun in 1444 by Humfrey, duke of Gloucester, and received continual accessions of books. Its life as a library, however, lasted little more than a century; for in the troubles that followed the Reformation it suffered the same fate as other abodes of religion and learning. Its manuscripts were burned or sold as waste paper, and its fittings treated as so much timber. The history of the present collections, therefore, begins with the refoundation by Sir Thomas Bodley in 1598. Whether any Hebrew works were included among Bodley's own gifts is uncertain. The earliest recorded donation of the kind is a Hebrew lexicon presented by John Savile in 1601, which was followed by Hebrew manuscripts from Dr. John Lhuid in 1602.Early Donations and Purchases.
It was not till 1640 that the Hebrew collection began to assume any importance. In that year about forty-eight manuscripts were received from Sir Kenelm Digby and Archbishop Laud; and in 1654 John Selden bequeathed to the university such of his Talmudical and rabbinical books as were not already to be found in the library. But by far the greatest part of the present treasures of the Bodleian was acquired by purchase. Thus in 1693 Pococke's library of 420 manuscripts (including a number in Hebrew) was bought for £600, and 600 manuscripts of Huntingdon's for £700. In the eighteenth century very few acquisitions were made; but in 1817 the great Canonici collection, including 135 manuscripts on vellum, chiefly in Hebrew, was bought for £5,444, and twelve years later the still more important library of R. David Oppenheimer (of Prague) was acquired at a cost of £2,080. The importance of this addition may be estimated from the fact that it consisted of 780 manuscripts and over 4,000 printed books, embracing every department of Jewish literature and learning. The collection is still called by the name of the original owner, and subsequent acquisitions were till recently referenced as Oppenheimer additions, the whole being housed together in the "Hebrew Room," where an engraved portrait of the rabbi may be seen presiding over this monument of his learned industry.The Oppenheimer and Michael Collections.
The Bodleian thus rose at once into the front rank of Hebrew libraries. But its value was still further increased soon afterwards. In 1845 about 483 printed volumes from the library of Gesenius were purchased, as well as 320 books from a Berlin bookseller. In 1848 the manuscripts (862 volumes) belonging to H. J. Michael were bought for £1,030, but his large collection of 5,471 printed volumes went to the British Museum. Two years later considerable additions were again made by the purchase of sixty-two manuscripts and numerous printed volumes from various sources. The last two collections bought thus en bloc were seventy-two Reggio manuscripts in 1853, and a number of volumes in 1864.
During the last thirty years the Hebrew collection has steadily increased in value, chiefly through the watchfulness and discrimination of the late Oriental sub-librarian, Adolph Neubauer. Besides other manuscripts, he was the means of acquiring a number of Karaite and Yemen manuscripts, as well as a great quantity of fragments from the Cairo "genizah," which are now bound up in about 180 volumes. It is to be feared, however, that the time for startling purchases is past. The important private collections have mostly gravitated to the large libraries; the competition between buyers is keener than ever before; while lack of funds and the serious demands made by other branches of learning on the resources of the Bodleian and of the University alike threaten to hinder further development on any large scale.
In the above account only the more striking acquisitions have been noticed, and these very briefly. Further information will be found in the various catalogues. The Pococke and Huntingdon manuscripts, with others, are described in John Uri's catalogue, published in 1787. For the Oppenheimer manuscripts a catalogue was issued, in Hebrew and Latin, at Hamburg in 1826. For the Michael collection a catalogue was published by Steinschneider and Zunz, Hamburg, 1848. A conspectus of all the Hebrew manuscripts in the library is appended by Steinschneider to his great catalogue, or ratherbibliography, of the printed books. All these, however, are now superseded by Neubauer's "Catalogue of Hebrew Manuscripts," published in 1886, containing 2,602 numbers, to which a supplement is in course of preparation, dealing with subsequent additions, about 300 volumes up to the present time. For the printed books the indispensable and only guide is Steinschneider's "Catalogus Librorum Hebræorum in Bibliotheca Bodleiana," published in 1860, of which an interleaved copy in the library is kept up to date by manuscript additions.
Outside the Hebrew manuscripts and books, the chief object of Jewish interest at the Bodleian is a bronze ewer 9¾ inches high, and 30 inches at greatest circumference, found in a Suffolk brook in 1698. It bears a Hebrew inscription showing it to have been presented by "Joseph, son of the martyred Rabbi Yehiel." The precise object for which it was used is doubtful; some think as a "charity box," others as a laver for washing the dead.
- Steinschneider, Cat. Bodl. cols. xlv.-li.;
- Neubauer, Cat. Bodl. Hebr. MSS. pp. v., vi.;
- Catalogue Anglo-Jewish Historical Exhibition, No. 1;
- Macray, Annals of the Bodleian Library, 2d ed., Oxford, 1890.