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Hebrew printed books: History and scope

In its nearly 250 years of existence, the British Library's collection of Hebrew printed books has evolved from a modest reserve into a wide-ranging scholarly resource. Its holdings, numbering some 73,000 titles, encompass all facets of Hebrew literature and represent five centuries of printing in Hebrew characters around the globe.

Hanhagat ha-hayim [The management of life]

Hanhagat ha-hayim [The management of life] by Moses Almosnino, Salonica,1564. Text in Judaeo-Spanish. [1933.d.26] © The British Library.

At its inauguration in 1759, the British Museum counted a single Hebrew work among its half million printed volumes. This was the first edition of the Bomberg Talmud, printed in Venice 1520-1523, from the Old Royal Library of King George II. 

That same year saw the addition of 180 Hebrew printed volumes, a gift of Solomon Da Costa Athias (1690-1769), a London merchant of Dutch origin. 

This addition consisted of valuable editions issued between 1484 and 1659 in Ferrara, Mantua, Venice, and also in Constantinople and Salonica. They included Moses Almosninos' ethical treatise Hanhagat ha-hayim [The management of life], Salonica, 1564 (1933.d.26), probably the first Judeo-Spanish book to enter the British Museum's library. The fact that these books had previously belonged to King Charles II enhanced their collective significance. 

By the end of 1847 the national collection of Hebrew printed books amounted to 600 items. In 1848, this number increased greatly when the Museum purchased almost 4,500 volumes from the estate of Heimann Joseph Michael (1792-1846), a merchant and bibliophile from Hamburg. 

Many of the volumes in this collection derived from the library of Jacob Emden (a famous Talmudic scholar, 1697-1776) and contain his marginal notes. Michael's collection also abounded in biblical commentaries and liturgical, kabbalistic and scientific texts. In addition, it included many 16th century works from Poland and Turkey, as well as early imprints from the Hebrew presses in Italy and Portugal.

In the second half of the 19th century, thousands of books and journals in Hebrew and related languages were acquired, turning the national collection into an indispensable resource for bibliographers and for scholars of Hebrew and Jewish studies. In addition, though to a much lesser extent, works of Jewish interest in English and other European languages were added to the collections. At the dawn of the 20th century, the Hebrew holdings numbered some 20,000 volumes.