Hebrew collections

Illuminated word panel featuring two birds
Detail from illuminated word panel featuring two birds at the beginning of the customs and prayers for the Jewish New Year. Italy, 3rd quarter of the 15th century (Add.MS.16577, f. 177r)

Assembled over the past 250 years first by the British Museum and since 1973 by the British Library, the Hebrew collection comprises holdings of material written and printed in Hebrew characters, ranging from manuscripts copied over 1,000 years ago to the most recent monographs and serials.

About the collection

Our collection - one of the most important in the world - encompasses all facets of Hebrew literature and a wide range of religious and secular area studies. It includes around 3,000 manuscript volumes and about 75,000 book titles – mostly in Hebrew and related languages that use the Hebrew script (e.g. Aramaic, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Italian, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Spanish, Yiddish and various others). In addition there are approximately 7,000 manuscript fragments, mainly from the Cairo Genizah, nearly 1,000 Hebrew and Yiddish periodical and newspaper titles, and considerable numbers of manuscripts, printed books and periodicals in microforms.

Historically, the Samaritan manuscripts totalling 178 items, with some early specimens dating from the 12th and 13th centuries, have always formed part of the Hebrew collection. Together with that of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester the British Library’s Samaritan collection is not only one of the largest in the United Kingdom but in the whole of Europe.

Highlights of the Hebrew collection include: the London Codex, Egypt, c. 10th century (Or.4445); the Kaifeng Torah Scroll, China, 17th century (Add.MS.19250): the Lisbon Bible, Portugal, 15th century (Or.2626-2628): the Golden Haggadah, Catalonia, 14th century (Add.MS.27210); and the Duke of Sussex’s German Pentateuch, 14th century, Lake Constance (Add.MS.15282).

Material relating to Judaic studies is also to be found in Eastern European and Western language collections in the Department of Manuscripts and in the India Office Records.

What is available online?

Details of the Hebrew and Yiddish printed holdings are mostly available in the Library’s online catalogue, Explore the British Library

Some of the printed manuscript catalogues are available online in the Internet Archive. For example the 3-volume Catalogue of the Hebrew and Samaritan manuscripts in the British museum (London, 1899), by George Margoliouth. Although its title mentions the Samaritan manuscripts, these were not in fact included in the catalogue.

We have finalised a three-year externally funded project to digitise 1300 Hebrew manuscripts from the collection. These digitised manuscripts have been uploaded and are searchable on the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site. More information on the digitised manuscripts can be found on the Hebrew Manuscripts website. A second digitisation phase has started in April 2016. This new project, aimed at digitising 860-1,250 Hebrew manuscripts, is an international collaboration with the National Library of Israel (NLI).

Over 100 partially digitised Hebrew illuminated manuscripts are searchable on the Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. Our Cairo Genizah fragments were digitised as part of the Friedberg Genizah Project (2010-2012) and can be accessed on their dedicated project page.

Other online resources

The British library also hosts the Endangered Archives Programme (EAP) which includes some digitised collections bearing on Hebrew and Jewish studies, for example The Jacques Mosseri Genizah Archive. Selected images relating to manuscripts from the Hebrew collection can be found in our Online Gallery (see especially Sacred Texts, Asia, Pacific & Africa Collections, and Turning the Pages). Additional images are also viewable on Images online and the Library’s Flickr account.

Collections items are sometimes described in our Asian and African Studies blog to which you can subscribe if you want to receive regular updates. We also tweet information on news, discoveries, bibliographical resources and collection items on Twitter using #HebrewProject and @BLAsia_Africa.

Explore the wonderful treasures of our Hebrew Manuscripts: Journeys of the Written Word exhibition online in our virtual tour.

What is available in our Reading Rooms?

The Asian & African Studies reading room is where you can consult printed materials, manuscripts and archives. Some especially valuable or fragile material is restricted and available only in exceptional circumstances. Self-service photography is allowed for certain categories of material, provided that its condition allows this.

Some reference tools relevant to Jewish studies are also available on open access in the Humanities 1 Reading Room.