Month: November 2015

From the stacks of Spertus College Library, Part II

As described in a previous post, we were very fortunate to have Tali Winkler, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago, work with the books in the library of Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, entering Footprints from its storied collection.  Tali describes her experience further below (images courtesy Tali Winkler).

In my earlier post, I described the excitement of learning about people, both known and unknown, from marginalia in the books.  The second piece that stood out for me in my Footprints work was how we can learn about how books traveled from place to place. Sometimes it is even possible to identify multiple books belonging to the same collection, which had therefore been traveling together, perhaps for hundreds of years.

A pair of books in the Spertus collection illustrates the second exciting aspect of the Footprints enterprise. The first book is a collection of responsa authored by David ben Solomon ibn Abi Zimra (c. 1479-1589), also known as the Radbaz, and published in Livorno, Italy in 1652. I was able to find four footprints for this book. The first inscription I was actually not able to decipher at all; the second I was able to decipher the name “Binyamin” (see image, left). imageThe third footprint was a stamp in purple ink indicating that the book had been owned by Rabbi Mendel Walman of Viroshov in Jerusalem, at some point in the 19th century. Finally, Spertus had acquired the book before the year 1970 (though I do not know specifically what year.)

About a month later, I encountered another book of responsa, Bet Yehudah, written by Judah ‘Ayash, a 17th century Algerian rabbi. The edition was also published in Livorno, in 1746. As I tried to decipher an inscription on the title page, I recognized the same “Binyamin” (see image below) from the responsa of the Radbaz, and excitedly realized that the title page also sported a stamp with the name of Rabbi Mendel Walman, albeit in blue ink. And finally, this book had also been acquired by Spertus before 1970.image

These two books, both books of responsa and both printed in Livorno, albeit about a century apart, had thus been traveling together since at least the 19th century, if not earlier, and had at least three owners in common!

These small discoveries I made over the summer were really exciting for me at the time, but the broader implications of this method are perhaps even more exciting. Using owner inscriptions, scholars can potentially track the travels of individual books, reveal interactions between individuals in the context of the exchange of books, and even recreate the libraries of various individuals throughout time.

Finally, one of the most fundamental elements of the Footprints project is its collaborative nature. I could not read the rest of Binyamin’s inscription, for example, but hopefully someone else, looking at the picture uploaded to the footprint record, will be able to figure it out. So please, dear reader, give it a try and see if you can help!

From the stacks of the Spertus Institute Library, Part I

Footprints is open and ready for entries!  This summer, we were very fortunate to have Tali Winkler, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Chicago, work with the books in the library of Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership, entering Footprints from its storied collection.  Tali describes her experience below (images courtesy Tali Winkler).

As a graduate student enthusiastically following the progress of Footprints since its inception, I was eager to participate in the process myself. This summer, I had the opportunity to work with the rare book collection of the Spertus Institute for Jewish Learning and Leadership in Chicago, IL. The library has an extensive collection of Hebrew printed books, many of which contain handwritten treasures on the margins of their pages.

There are two aspects of this discovery process that I find most exciting, the first of which is described here.   (The second will be described in a later post.) The marginalia in an individual book can teach us an immense amount about the book, its owner(s), and how the book itself was used. Often we can identify an owner from other historical records, in which case it adds a new dimension to what we already knew. On the other hand, often the owner is not otherwise known or identifiable; utilizing this type of primary source thus allows us to hear the voices of those individuals that may not otherwise have been preserved.

A book titled Korban Netanel exemplifies this first exciting aspect of Footprints. The work was written by Nathaniel Weil (1687-1769), a scholar who worked in Prague as the head of a yeshiva and was eventually appointed as the Chief Rabbi of the city of Karlsruhe, Germany in 1750. He remained in this position until his death in 1769. The work is a commentary on Asher ben Yechiel’s writings. It was published for the first time in Karlsruhe in 1755; according to a note in the catalog record at Spertus, this was the first Hebrew book to be printed in the city of Karlsruhe.

An inscription on the title page of the copy owned by Spertus provides a brief window into the “life” of that specific copy of the edition. The inscription was signed by two individuals: Tiah (Jedidiah) Weil (1721-1805) and a Rabbi Eli. Tiah Weil was the son of Nathaniel Weil; he succeeded his father as Chief Rabbi of Karlsruhe after his father’s death, and he too served in that position until his own death. I have not been able to identify Rabbi Eli.

Tiah Weil wrote the majority of the inscription; in it, he explains that he was selling this copy to Rabbi Eli, rabbi of the city of Salzburg. He wrote the inscription while in Salzburg, and Rabbi Eli signed his own name beneath Tiah’s inscription.

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This short inscription captures a distinct historical moment of an interaction between two men, both leaders of Jewish communities in different cities. This moment encapsulates an exchange of scholarship, a physical object (i.e. the book), and presumably money or some other form of payment. It also reveals a great deal about the dissemination of books in this period; while conventional trade routes were presumably used as well, those involved in the printing of a work could take a more active personal role in the marketing of the book. Conceivably Tiah Weil travelled with copies of his father’s book, with the intention of selling them to scholars he encountered during his travels. Perhaps there are even other extant copies of the Korban Netanel with inscriptions written by Tiah documenting sales to other scholars he encountered in his travels in Europe, waiting for the next Footprints contributor find them!

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