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Hebrew manuscripts: History and scope 1

Foundation collections

Our collection of Hebrew manuscripts is one of the most important in the world today, and constitutes a vivid testimony of the creativity and intense scribal activities of Eastern and Western Jewish communities over the centuries. Its volumes embrace many areas of Hebrew literature, with Bible, Talmud, kabbalah, philosophy and poetry being particularly well represented.

Since 1973, the collection of Hebrew hand-written books has come under the aegis of the British Library, but its beginnings can be traced back to the British Museum and its foundation collections. 

King David at prayer

King David at prayer. Leipnik Haggadah, copied and illuminated by Joseph Leipnik, Altona 1740. Sloane MS 3173, f.27r. Copyright © The British Library Board

The libraries of Sir Hans Sloane, Sir John Cotton, Robert Harley and King George II that had been acquired by, or deposited in, the British Museum prior to its opening in 1759 contained important Hebrew manuscripts, some finely illuminated. 

For instance, among the 13 Hebrew manuscripts in the Sloane collection was the handsomely illustrated Passover liturgy known as the Leipnik Haggadah dated Altona 1740 (Sloane MS 3173). The Cottonian library yielded one Samaritan manuscript and several Anglo-Jewish charters recording business transactions between Jews and non-Jews in medieval England. 7 Hebrew volumes were amongst the manuscripts donated to the nation in 1757 by King George II, one of which, dated 1307, was Maimonides' Guide of the Perplexed (Reg.16.A.XI).

It was undoubtedly Robert Harley's legacy of some 130 manuscripts and charters that constituted the most significant addition to the burgeoning Hebrew collection. Amongst the Hebrew treasures in this famed library was the lavishly illuminated two-volume copy of Maimonides' Mishneh Thorah (Repetition of the Law) completed in Lisbon in 1472 (Harley MS 5698-5699), and a very fine copy of Jacob ben Asher's code of law Arba'ah Turim (The four rows) dated 1475 (Harley MS 5716-5717).

Maimonides' Mishneh Thorah

Maimonides' Mishneh Thorah [Repetition of the Law] Lisbon, 1472. Harley MS 5698, f.12r. Copyright © The British Library Board

Next: History and scope 2: 19th century expansion