Guide to the Research Collections



In 115,100 volumes, 550 manuscripts, and 200 letters the Jewish Division presents a comprehensive record in many languages of the Jewish people, and collects books in Hebrew and Yiddish on all subjects. Many thousands of works throughout the library complement the division's resources.1

The division holdings include specialized bibliographies and reference works; Jewish Americana; Jewish folklore, history, and social studies; Biblical archaeology; Kabbalistic and Hasidic writings; works by Christian Hebraists; rabbinic responsa; classic and modern Hebrew and Yiddish literature; and one of the largest collections in the world of Jewish newspapers and periodicals, both in their original form and on microfilm. Also worthy of mention are the resources dealing with Samaritans, Karaites, Jewish apologetics, and anti-Semitic writings. In addition to the holdings in Hebrew, Yiddish, and other languages, there is notable material in Ladino (Judeo-Spanish), Aramaic, Judeo-Arabic, and Judeo-Persian. Of the

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division's 115,000 volumes, about 45,000 are in Hebrew, 15,000 in Yiddish, and the rest in English, German, Russian, French, and other languages.

The policy of collecting material with Hebrew or Yiddish text in all subject categories extends to such items as illustrated art books, music scores, and government documents, ordinarily held in the appropriate subject divisions of the library. Material in the exact sciences in Hebrew received from Israel is also presently kept in the Jewish Division.


The growth of the Jewish Division during the first seventy years of its existence is shown in the following:

18972,000 volumes*

The Jewish Division was established two years after the formation of the New York Public Library, and Jacob H. Schiff offered $10,000 for the purchase of Semitic literature; his gifts to the library in this field were to total some $100,000--a bequest of $25,000 still yields income used to acquire rare and classic works. Abraham Solomon Freidus, the first chief of the division, brought together from all parts of the Astor Library the Hebrew books and books in other languages on Jewish subjects published after 1600. To these 2,000 volumes, 300 of which were in Hebrew, were added Hebrew treasures from the Lenox Library, including a fine Pentateuch printed on vellum in Bologna in 1482. The working library of Leon Mandelstamm was acquired through A. M. Bank in 1897. Mandelstamm, a scholar and educator, served as secretary to the Russian governmental commission established to draw up an education system for the Jews. He assembled some 2,000 volumes in Hebrew, German, and Russian, giving particular attention to history, literature, and classic Hebrew texts. In 1899 several hundred volumes were added from the library of Meijer Lehren of Amsterdam. These included about 100 volumes of rabbinical responsa, written opinions and decisions by eminent Hebrew authorities, which are a basic resource for the study of Jewish social history; works on Jewish sectarian movements were also notably represented. The Aguilar Free Library, which became part of the Circulation Department (now the Branch Libraries) of the New York Public Library in 1903, had a sizable collection of Yiddish materials. These were transferred to the Jewish Division and formed the nucleus of holdings which have grown to great importance.

The growth of the collection through the past seventy years has been steady and cumulative, rather than by acquisition of large collections. The periods of most rapid growth were 1897 to 1911, and post-1933. In 1964 Israel was incorporated in the PL-480 Project, with the New York Public Library as one of the participating libraries. Under this project the Library of Congress administers appropriations granted under the provisions of Public Law 480 (the Agricultural Trade and Development and Assistance Act of 1954, as amended); these funds are used to purchase foreign currencies to finance an acquisition and distribution program for books and booklike materials for participating United States libraries. By 1966 the Jewish Division was receiving approximately 2,000 titles from Israel annually under the project; Israel was not involved in the project after 1973. "Titles" is not synonymous with "items"; the Library of Congress PL-480 Newsletter no. 9 (March, 1965) indicated an average yearly receipt from Israel of 13,442 pieces per library.


Microform Catalog

A listing by title of Hebrew-alphabet materials that have been filmed by the library (active, 5 card drawers).

Picture Index

A subject index to pictures in books shelved in the division (inactive, 14 card drawers). The subjects include archaeology of the Holy Land, biography, history, etc.

Responsa Catalog

A subject index on cards of rabbinical responsa, opinions and decisions rendered by eminent Central European rabbis of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries on questions submitted to them (inactive, 8 card drawers). The responsa cover a wide range of topics.

The card catalog of the Jewish Division has been published in book form in fourteen volumes by G.K. Hall & Company (Boston, 1960).


Printed Collections

Perhaps the oldest of the division's printed collections is Ugolino's Thesaurus antiquitatum sacrarum (Venice, 1744-69). Representing, as it does, translations into Latin of classic Hebrew texts, it is still outstanding for its encyclopedic range, and is an important source for the study of Biblical, Talmudic, and early Christian archaeology. There is a full collection of Festschriften in Hebrew and Western European languages. The division's files of publications of learned societies and institutions concerned with the promotion of archaeological study in Biblical lands are virtually complete. Almost all of the great editions of the standard codes of Jewish law and their commentaries are available. Rabbinical decisions and responsa form an outstanding body of material numbering some 2,000 volumes and spanning eighteen centuries.

Periodicals and Newspapers

Periodicals and newspapers make up a large proportion of the deteriorating materials which the library is attempting to preserve by micro-reproduction. By 1966 approximately 50 newspaper and 250 periodical files from the holdings of the Jewish Division had been filmed, as had some 6,000 pamphlets and books, including hundreds of popular Yiddish novels published in Vilna, Warsaw, and New York at the turn of the century; among the latter are the novels of N. M. Shaikewitz, Auser Blaustein, and Goetzel Selikovitsch,

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with the translations of Abner Tannenbaum.

The division currently receives some 380 periodicals and newspaper titles in Hebrew, Yiddish, and other languages from eighteen countries. By far the greatest number of items come from Israel itself (221 titles). Periodicals and newspapers from other countries include 105 titles from the United States, 11 from Argentina, 8 from France, 5 each from Canada, Great Britain, and South Africa, and 2 from Brazil. All newspapers are filmed on arrival and the originals discarded. In addition, the division acquires microfilm files of newspapers which are not received on a current basis.

Hebrew Periodicals and Newspapers

The mention of a few of the many significant titles contained in the division can offer an indication of the depth of resources in this area. The first successful modern Hebrew periodical, Hameasef [The gatherer] (Königsberg, Berlin, Breslau, etc., 1784-1811), is called the voice of the Enlightenment. It is included in the collection, as are the nineteenth-century Bikkure Ha-'Itim and Hashahar, and the first American Hebrew periodical, Hatsofe b-Erez Hachadosho (1871-73). An interesting attempt to romanize the Hebrew alphabet is found in Deror, a weekly published in Tel-Aviv in 1933/34. Haolam, the official organ of the Zionist movement, is also in the files. Russian newspapers in Hebrew constitute another important resource and include such items as Hamelitz (Odessa, 1861-1904) and Hazeman (St. Petersburg, 1903-14).

The bulk of current newspapers and periodicals are received from Israel; among the 6 newspaper titles are Haarets, Hatsofeh, and Hayom, and among 215 periodical titles are Sinai, Tarbiz, Zion, Molad, and Goldene Keit. Mention should also be made of complete runs of the American Hebrew periodicals Hadoar (1921-) and Bitzaron (1939-).

Yiddish Periodicals and Newspapers

Yiddish newspapers and periodicals also constitute a strong feature of the division's resources. Kol mevasser (Odessa, 1862-70) was the Yiddish supplement to the Hebrew Hamelitz; the American Yiddish newspaper Der Arbeiter (New York, 1904-11) was the organ of the Socialist Labor Party. The Jewish Daily Forward (1897-) was the first newspaper to be filmed in the division's microfilming program. Yiddish newspapers and periodicals are received currently from Australia, Canada, Israel, South Africa, and South America, as well as from various European countries and the United States.

Ladino Periodicals and Newspapers

The division holds a file of El avenir (Salonica 1897-1900), El tiempo (Constantinople, 1899-1902), and a full run of the American Ladino newspapers La vara (1923-48) and La America (1910-25). At present it receives El tiempo from Israel.

Rare Books

In 1923, when Joshua Bloch became the second chief of the Jewish Division, 2 Hebrew incunabula, and approximately 200 sixteenth-century books were contained in the division. By 1966 the division had 41 incunabula and more than 1,000 sixteenth-century books. The library owns books published in 253 of the 939 localities of Jewish printing.2

The incunabula in the Jewish Division form an impressive group, important not only for their specialized interest but often as examples of the earliest printing in the localities where they were produced. Arba turim by Jacob ben Asher, printed in 1475 on vellum in the Italian city Piove de Sacco, may be the earliest dated printed Hebrew book. The division has four of the eight to twelve incunabula printed at Rome, among them the Moses Nahmanides commentary on the Pentateuch, published before 1480; it has been suggested that this may be the first printed Hebrew book. There are examples of incunabula from Naples, another center of Hebrew printing.3 A commentary on the Pentateuch by Nahmanides dated Lisbon, 1489, is the first book known to have been printed in the capital of Portugal.

Among the books of the sixteenth century in the division are the publications of Daniel Bomberg, a Christian printer of Hebrew books from 1517 to 1549; and virtually all the books in Hebrew printed in Venice during the sixteenth century. A remarkable addition to the Ladino collection in the Jewish Division is Moses Almosnino's Regimiento de la vida (Salonica, 1564), the first printed original work in that language. Sefer middot, a work on ethics published in Isny, Würtemberg in 1542, represents one of the earliest printed works in Yiddish.

Another noteworthy possession is Martin del Castillo's Arte hebraispano (Lyons, 1676). This first American publication dealing with Hebrew grammar was written by the Franciscan monk in Mexico, but printed in France because there was no Hebrew type in America. A possibly unique set of First Fruits of the West is dated Kingston, Jamaica, 1844.

Other division of the library possess rare Judaica. The Rare Book Division contains fifteenth-and sixteenth-century editions of the Greek and Latin texts of Josephus and Philo Judaeus, Abraham Zacuto's astronomical works, and studies of the Hebrew language and the Kabbala by Johannes Reuchlin. A copy of the first sermon of the Jewish faith preached in America is also in the Rare Book Division. It was delivered in Spanish by Rabbi Haim Isaac Carigal at Newport, Rhode Island on May 28, 1773; the printed version is an English translation.


Hebrew Manuscripts

Most of the 90 Hebrew manuscripts in the library are Biblical and liturgical texts. Among

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the rarest items is a Samaritan Pentateuch in the Manuscripts and Archives Division consisting of 549 leaves, written in 1231-32. It was acquired by James Lenox in 1895 to cap his very great collection of Bibles in Hebrew and in translation. The Manuscripts and Archives Division holds 12 other Hebrew manuscripts, primarily Pentateuchs or Books of Esther on parchment scrolls of the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, and texts by Yemenite scribes. In the Spencer Collection the Xanten Bible, an illustrated manuscript in 2 volumes, carries the colophon "I, Joseph of Xanten, son of Kalonymus from Neuss have written and illustrated these twenty-four books for my friend Moses, son of Jacob...."4 It contains Masora and pen-and-ink drawings. The Spencer Collection has three Hebrew illuminated scrolls of the Book of Esther, dating from the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries.

There are some 70 manuscripts in the Jewish Division in Hebrew, including mahzors, Kabbalistic works of the seventeenth century copied in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; Yemenite liturgical texts written in the eighteenth century; manuscripts on folk medicine, magic, and astrology; and manuscripts of modern Hebrew literature, as well as several hundred letters written, for the most part, by twentieth-century Hebrew authors.

The Jewish Division acquired two manuscript mahzors on vellum as a gift from Louis M. Rabinowitz in 1952. Each of the manuscripts represents a compilation of Jewish liturgical and related texts employed in synagogue worship. One is a fourteenth-century work; the more lavishly illuminated of the two, it was used by the Hebrew scholar Samuel David Luzzatto, who supplied a handwritten table of contents in which he indicated those poems not to be found in printed books. The second was written in the fifteenth century and is a striking example of Hebrew calligraphy in red and black.5

Among other outstanding manuscripts is a Beth Israel by Israel Michelstaedt written in his own hand. This commentary on the Agada (legends and sayings of the Talmud) was started in Cracow and finished in Berlin in 1772; it has never been published. A 1640 manuscript of the Tsahut bedihuta de-kidushin [Comedy of betrothal] by Leone Sommo de Portaleone is the third oldest of five known manuscripts of this first Hebrew play, published for the first time in Israel in 1946. In 1961 the library acquired the diary of Abraham Jona, the last rabbi of the Venetian ghetto. The diary records special synagogue services, as well as the critical events which necessitated them during the disorders of 1797-1814, following the abdication of the Venetian government and the formation of a democratic republic by the French.6

Yiddish Manuscripts

There are approximately 460 manuscript items in Yiddish; some 300 are from the Boris Thomashefsky collection of works by Thomashefsky, Leon Kobrin, Joseph Lateiner, Osip Dymov, and others, including manuscript versions of about 150 plays, parts of plays, and scenarios performed for the most part in the New York Yiddish theatre. Mr. Thomashefsky was a leading actor and producer of Yiddish plays in New York City. The manuscripts form part of a large collection documenting his stage career and including typescripts of operas and operettas; manuscript orchestral arrangements and sheet music; scrapbooks, photographs, and clippings of Thomashefsky, his family, contemporary actors, and others; and much additional material. Given by Harry Thomashefsky in 1940, the collection has been dispersed through various divisions of the library.