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Chief library and museum of the United Kingdom. It contains many books and objects of Jewish interest.

The Hebrew MSS.:

The Hebrew manuscripts in the British Museum already fully catalogued or briefly described number about 1,200. This total includes fifty recently assigned to fragments belonging to the collection brought from Cairo. Between eighty and a hundred additional ones are likely to be obtained from the remainder of the same interesting collection. There are also thirty Hebrew charters (business deeds of the Anglo-Norman period) in the Museum; and if the seventy-one Samaritan manuscripts and the very ancient Aramaic papyrus (marked cvi.*, 2d century B.C.) be treated as part of the Hebrew collection, the entire library may be estimated to contain close upon 1,400 numbers.

Classification of MSS.

Of these over 1,050 are briefly described in the "Descriptive List of Hebrew and Samaritan MSS. in the British Museum," which appeared in 1893. A rough classification into subjects shows that in the total just mentioned Biblical texts are represented by 165 numbers; Biblical commentaries by 175; Midrashim and Midrashic discourses by 45; Talmud and Halakah by 190; liturgies by 115; cabalistic manuscripts by 130; ethics, philosophy, and poetry by an aggregate of 84; philology, mathematics, and astronomy by 75; medicine by 20; miscellaneous manuscripts by 73; charters by 30; and Samaritan literature by 64. The later acquisitions may be assumed to show a similar proportion of subjects, with the very notable additions, however, of a large number of letters and other historical documents forming part of the collection brought from the Cairo Genizah.

Sources of the Collection.

The distribution of Hebrew manuscripts among the earlier Museum collections is as follows: The Sloane and Harley collections, which formed the nucleus of the British Museum at its opening in 1753, respectively contained twelve and ninety-five Hebrew manuscript volumes. The Old Royal Library, presented to the Museum by King George II. in 1757, included seven Hebrew numbers. A like contingent was contributed by the great library collected by Thomas Howard, earl of Arundel, Surrey, and Norfolk. Three Hebrew manuscripts were presented (together with a much larger number of printed books; see below) by Solomon da Costa in 1759, and two other numbers of the collection have been filled up with his own catalogue of the printed books and manuscripts thus presented. The Lansdowne collection (purchased in 1807) and the library formed by King George III. (presented to the nation by King George IV. in 1823) contained one Hebrew volume each; and the Egerton collection (bequeathed in 1829) included three Hebrew numbers.

Of the 520 Hebrew volumes embodied in what is known as the Additional Series of manuscripts, no less than 323 came from the famous collection of Joseph Almanzi; and the few Hebrew manuscripts which form part of the Rich collection (acquired in 1829) are also included in the total of 520 just mentioned. The series which followed the Additional, and into which fresh acquisitions are now constantly being incorporated, is the Oriental. The latter now contains about 550 Hebrew numbers. A large proportion of these (not less than 260 volumes) was purchased from M. W. Shapiro between the years 1877 and 1883. The rest came to the Museum in smaller consignments through the agency of the late Fischel Hirsch and other booksellers.

The sources from which the Museum collection became from time to time enriched also include manuscriptspurchased at the duke of Sussex's sale in 1844; the collection of ten important Biblical manuscripts which were in the possession of the families of Schultens, John van der Hagen, and Dr. Adam Clarke successively; four Megillah scrolls once the property of Sir Moses Montefiore; and several numbers formerly owned by Dr. Adolf Neubauer, Dr. C. D. Ginsburg, F. D. Mocatta, and S. J. A. Churchill (British consul at Teheran).

It will now be useful to note some of the more important features of the collection, and in doing so the classified order adopted in the "Descriptive List" published in 1893 will be followed.

  • I. Biblical Texts.—(a) Scrolls: None of these is, unfortunately, of any great antiquity, the oldest (MS. Harley, 7619) probably belonging to the fourteenth century. Mention should, however, be made of a number of Yemenite Pentateuch rolls exhibiting what are technically called "dry points," employed to mark pauses, and to distinguish some words of equal spelling but dissimilar pronunciation. As the writing of synagogue scrolls is strictly limited to the consonantal text, this device of impressing a small inkless circle was adopted (with the permission of the Yemenite rabbis?) as a help to the reader. One roll of the collection (Add. 19,250) was written (probably in the eighteenth century) for the use of the Jews at Kai-Fung-Fu in China.(b) Biblical Texts in Book Form: Special mention may be made of MS. Or. 4445, which was brought from Teheran, and probably belongs to the ninth century. It is at any rate not later than the famous codex of the Prophets preserved at St. Petersburg, which is dated 916 C.E. This Museum manuscript contains, however, only the Pentateuch. The oldest dated copy of the entire Bible in the Museum (Or. 2201) belongs to A.M. 5006 (1246 C.E.), and was written at Toledo. A very fine specimen of Spanish calligraphy and marginal illumination is the Bible in three volumes, numbered Or. 2626-28. It was written in 1483. Of very considerable interest and importance are a number of codices (mostly Yemenite) exhibiting what is known as the super-linear, or Babylonian, punctuation. The collection generally contains excellent specimens of almost all styles of writing and all Masoretic schools (Spanish, Italian, German, North African, etc.). One codex of the Pentateuch (Or. 2451) was written at Kum in Persia A. Gr. 1794 (1483 C.E.). Of the Karaite codices special attention should be directed to Or. 2540, belonging to the tenth century. The Hebrew text is there written in an archaic form of the Arabic character, the Hebrew vowel-points and accents being added in colored ink. This manuscript is also provided with ancient Oriental ornamentations.
  • II.Biblical Commentaries: In this section a great wealth of material for the study of early Karaite literature will be found. Special mention may be made of commentaries on the Pentateuch and other Biblical books by Abu Yusuf Ya'aḳub al-Ḳirḳisani, Salmon b. Jeroham, David b. Boaz, and Abu al-Faraj Furḳan ibn Asad. Japheth is most amply represented. Noteworthy is the fact that a copy of his commentaries on Ruth and the Song of Songs (Or. 2554) is dated Ramlah, A.H. 395 (1004-5 C.E.), and that the reference to Japheth in the colophon shows clearly that the manuscript was written in the author's lifetime.The collection of Rabbinite commentaries is also a very good one. The principal unique texts are: (1) the commentary on the Second Book of Samuel by Isaac b. Samuel ha-Sefardi (eleventh to twelfth century); (2) a commentary on the Pentateuch by Rabbi Meyuḥas b. Elijah (probably a Greek writer of the twelfth century); and (3) fragments of a Persian commentary (Hebrew character) on a portion of the Prophets.
  • III.Midrashim and Midrashic Discourses: These include copies of the three important Yemenite Midrashic compilations known as the "Midrash ha-Gadol," "Midrash ha-Ḥefeẓ," and "Nur al-Ẓulum." Unique are the texts contained in Add. 27,292, and probably also Harley 5704 (containing a Midrash on the Minor Prophets in the style of the Yalḳut ha-Makiri). One may notice, besides, Midrashic discourses by David b. Abraham Maimuni and Sa'id ibn Da'ud al-'Adani.
  • IV.Talmud and Halakah: In the older British Museum collections only one volume of Talmudic texts of the twelfth and another of the fourteenth century are contained; but by the latest acquisitions from the Cairo Genizah three other important fragmentary numbers have been added to the library. Of the Jerusalem Talmud the Museum possesses three volumes of the sixteenth century, with the commentary of Joseph Syrillo. Note-worthy for its antiquity is a volume containing Rashi's commentary on Baba Meẓi'a, dated 1190 C.E.The Halakah portion of this section is very rich in interesting and valuable codices, including five copies of the Yad ha-Ḥazaḳah of Maimonides, important copies of the , the , Alfasi, and various responsa. As unique may be noted the additions of Samuel b. Meïr (RaSHBaM) to Alfasi, contained in Add. 17,049-50 (mistaken by Leopold Dukes for notes by Samuel Schletstatt). A fine specimen of richly illuminated title-pages and headings is presented by Harley 5698-99 (Maimonides, "Mishneh Torah").Karaite Halakah is also represented; e.g., by Yusuf al-Baṣri's "Questions and Answers," Ḳirḳisani's "Book of Commandments," and Samuel al-Maghrebi's "Al-Murshid," not to mention several other works which still await a thorough investigation.
  • V.Liturgy: This section is also a very rich and important one. It includes very fine specimens of almost all important rites. Margoliouth's study of a number of these manuscripts has revealed many features that were unknown to the great liturgiologist Leopold Zunz. Very many hymns will have to be added to the known list when these manuscripts are fully catalogued. Special mention may here be made of several fine copies of the illustrated Haggadah, belonging to the Spanish school of the fourteenth century. It may also be noted that a fine copy of the North African Liturgy (Or. 5600) was recently acquired by the trustees at the sale held at Amsterdam of the late D. H. de Castro's library. The Karaite ritual is also fairly well represented.
  • VI.Cabala: It has already been stated that this section contains no less than 130 numbers. It includesAbraham Abulafia's commentary on the "Moreh Nebukim" (perhaps unique), and works by Joseph Gikatilla, Moses b. Shem-Ṭob of Leon, Moses Cordovero, and Moses Ḥayyim Luzzatto (Add. 27,110 being his autograph). Some interesting additions to the section are supplied by the Cairo Genizah.
  • VII.-IX.Ethics, Philosophy, and Poetry: These sections are small; but specialists will no doubt find in them a number of interesting codices for collation. The most noteworthy manuscripts are: in ethics, the unique "Ge' Ḥizzayon" of Abraham b. Jacob, and two copies of a Persian version in Hebrew characters of Abraham b. Ḥasdai, "Ben ha-Melek we-ha-Nazir" (Balaam and Josaphat); in philosophy, four manuscripts of early Karaite speculations, besides some important codices of well-known Rabbinite works; in poetry, a copy of Al-Ḥarizi's "Taḥkemoni," dated 1282 C.E., a unique volume of poems by Joseph b. Tanḥum Yerushalmi, and Bible stories in Persian verse (Hebrew characters) by Mollah Shahin.
  • X.Philology: This section contains fifty-three numbers. Noteworthy are a fine early copy of Abu al-Walid's "Kitab al-Uṣul" (which came from Yemen), several good though fragmentary copies of Nathan b. Jehiel's "Sefer ha-'Aruk," two early copies of the "Maḥberet" of Menaḥem b. Saruḳ (1091 and 1189 C.E.), and the Mushtamil" of the early Karaite grammarian Abu al-Faraj Harun.
  • XI.-XIII.Mathematics, Astronomy, and Medicine: These sections can, of course, be properly appreciated by specialists only. On account of the language in which it was written, Add. 7701 may be noted here, containing works on astronomy and the calendar in Persian (Hebrew characters).
  • XIV.Miscellaneous MSS.: This section is full of interesting matter of various kinds. Special mention should, perhaps, be made of the controversial works (Jews and Christians, Rabbinites and Karaites). But the gem of the section is no doubt Add. 11,639, containing a great variety of works written partly in the body of the page and partly on the margin. It is accompanied by fine pictorial illuminations of the French school of the thirteenth century (latter half).

Of the charters it need only be said that they nearly all belong to the thirteenth century (some few being earlier), and that besides throwing some light on the circumstances of the time immediately preceding the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290, they give a good idea of Anglo-Hebrew caligraphy of the time.

The latest noteworthy addition to the interesting and important Samaritan collection is a fine copy of the Samaritan liturgy, dated 1258 C.E.

The Printed Books:

The collection of Hebrew printed books in the Museum now consists of about 15,000 volumes. Of these upward of 10,100 are described in Zedner's "Catalogue of the Hebrew Books in the Library of the British Museum," published in 1867, and the greater part of the remainder are entered in S. Van Straalen's "Catalogue of Hebrew Books in the British Museum Acquired During the Years 1868-92."

The distribution of volumes among the more important classes of books described in Zedner's catalogue is as follows: Bibles, 1,200 volumes; commentaries on the Bible, 510; Talmud, 730; commentaries on the Talmud, 700; codes of law, 1,260; grammars and dictionaries, 450; poetry and criticism, 770.

Of the 4,650 volumes described in Van Straalen's catalogue the greater part was published within the last fifty years. This large contingent is rich in specimens of works in the Judæo-German dialect, and in modern Hebrew belles-lettres, such as the publications of Mapu, Smolenskin, Gordon, and Lebensohn, and also Hebrew translations of works by Shakespeare, Milton, Schiller, Lessing, and other European writers. The numbers of volumes to be assigned to the classes mentioned above must, therefore, necessarily be smaller in proportion than those given in connection with Zedner's catalogue.

Printed Books, Whence Acquired.

The history of the acquisition of the printed books is naturally not so varied as that of the manuscripts. In 1753, when the Museum was first opened to the public, the editio princeps of the Talmud was the only Hebrew work in the collection, forming part of the royal library presented by King George II. But Solomon da Costa, a Jewish merchant who had immigrated from Holland, and whose name has already been mentioned above in the account of the manuscripts, presented to the Museum in the same year a collection of no less than 180 volumes, containing some of the most valuable works of Rabbinic literature. From the preface to Zedner's catalogue we further learn that "during the succeeding eighty-nine years the Hebrew books increased to about 600." But the great importance of the Hebrew library dates from the year 1848; for it was then enriched by the addition of 4,420 volumes purchased from the famous collection of H. J. Michael of Hamburg. "This acquisition gave," to use the words of the preface of 1867 just mentioned, "an impetus to this branch of the library, which has been constantly maintained" ever since, "and has resulted in making the national collection of Hebrew books the largest in the world."

The next notable addition to the library came from the collection of the late Joseph Almanzi, which had first passed into the hands of Asher of Berlin, and from which the trustees of the British Museum were able to select such works as were not already in the Museum library. The books acquired since that time came to the Museum gradually through the ordinary medium of booksellers, among whom the late Fischel Hirsch of Berlin was one of the most frequently employed.

The list of early printed books and other rare works in the collection is a pretty large one. The following statement relates to the books described in Mr. Zedner's catalogue:

  • 1. Of works of the fifteenth century, mentioned by De Rossi, there were then 65 in the Museum.
  • 2. Of works printed from 1500 to 1540, mentioned by De Rossi, there were 237.
  • 3. Of works printed from 1480 to 1540, not mentioned by De Rossi, 32.
  • 4. Of books of which no other copy, or only one or two copies, was known to exist, 38.

It has already been stated that the greater number of books described in Van Straalen's catalogue wereprinted in recent times. The proportion of early books must, therefore, be necessarily small. There are, however, to be noticed such works as Jacob b. Asher's code, printed at Mantua in 1476 (with MS. notes by G. B. de Rossi); the Pentateuch, printed at Bologna in 1482 (also with MS. notes by De Rossi); the Talmudical tractate Beẓah, printed at Soncino in 1483; the Pentateuch, printed at Faro in 1487; the books of Isaiah and Jeremiah, printed at Lisbon in 1492.

It may finally be mentioned that the trustees recently acquired a rather curious copy of the Talmudical tractate Ketubot which probably belongs to the sixteenth century, and appears to have been printed at Salonica. It is specially noteworthy that the foliation of this copy differs from the uniform arrangement adopted in the editions generally.

The antiquities contained in the Museum also include many objects of Jewish interest, notably a fine series of ancient Jewish coins in the department of coins and medals.

  • For the printed books, Zedner, Cat. Hebrew Books British Museum, Preface, 1867;
  • S. Van Straalen, Cat. Hebrew Books British Museum, Preface, 1901;
  • for the manuscripts, G. Margoliouth, Deseriptive List of the Hebrew and Samaritan MSS. Preserved at the British Museum, London, 1893;
  • idem, Catalogue, vol. i;
  • C. D. Ginsburg, Introduction to the Hebrew Bible, London, 1897.
J. G. M.