Guest Post: Rare Volumes in the Towson University – Joseph Meyerhoff Collection

Examples of Inscriptions, Censorship, Provenance, and Reconstruction
By: Chaim Meiselman

In this forum I hope to share some of the items and history I’ve uncovered at the Meyerhoff Collection at Towson University.

Along with my work of cataloging and describing the items in this collection, I have been collecting data about each books to add to Footprints. Below, I will share a selection of the items from this collection that I’ve shared with the Footprints project.

The Joseph Meyerhoff Collection is the product of the decades-long building of a rare Hebraica library: first at an institution known throughout the years as the Baltimore Teachers College, Baltimore Hebrew College, and Baltimore Hebrew University, and as of 2009, in its current location at the Towson University-Meyerhoff Collection.

  1. In April of 2018, I added a volume of Tseror ha-Mor by Abraham b. Jacob Saba, printed at Venice in February 1567 [1] by Giorgio de Cavalli. This is the third printing of this literary work.

There is much evidence on this volume. Its footprints describe almost the entire life of this copy of the Tseror ha-Mor until its assumption into the Meyerhoff Collection.

The book includes the inscription of three generations of Parnasim and publishers of Hebrew Books in Fürth at the opening of the 18th century. Beginning with the ownership of Shmu’el Böenft Shnur (perhaps derived from the French “Bon Fit”, a translation of the Hebrew name “Yakar”), this volume was passed to his son Zalman, a prominent cantor and preacher at Mainz. Joseph son of Zalman received the volume after his father. A further Footprint with a long inscription describes a later owner who also carried the surname of this family of printers.

  1. The Meyerhoff collection includes books which carry the inscriptions of the “שלש קהלות”, the Tripartite Communities of Altona-Hamburg-Wandsbek; these inscriptions provide insight to the literary and bookselling environment of these communities.

Here is the inscription on the title of our copy of ‘Livyat Ḥen’ by Efraim b. Shmu’el Zanvil Hekscher, printed in Altona 1732-33 [2]:

The author of the volume, Efriam Hekscher, was a prominent figure on the Altona Bet-Din, along with the head of the Tripartite Community, Yehezkel Katzenellenbogen.  The former was the publisher of the latter’s responsa. Katzenellenbogen’s books were printed at Altona, and because of this evidence within this copy, we can see them traveling to the other communities of the Tripartite.

Here is the Footprint describing the movement of the volume: from the author to his son to a Parnas in Wandsbek. The inscriptions indicate that the receiver gave it to his son as an inheritance.

  1. Our copy of Menorat ha-Maor, published in 1824 in Slavuta, Ukraine by the Shapira brothers, was among  the books at the Offenbach Archival Depot during the Second World War. Previous to that, it was a gift (as a newly printed volume) to the Av-Beth-Din of “Brisk” (Best-Litovsk, Belarus), Avraham Katzenellenbogen.

  1. Our copy of Maʻaśeh ḥoresh ṿe-ḥoshev, published in 1711 in Frankfurt, begins on its page of Haskamot (approbations)[3]. This volume is a small Yiddish book written to teach mathematics and arithmetic, and carries tables of the exchange rates and some prices of items that would’ve interested a Jewish merchant.

Our copy is bound in its original boards and heavy leather binding, which withstood travel and heavy use.

It contains two inscriptions by the same owner: one in German at the rear and one in Hebrew at the front. These inscriptions record the buyer’s purchase of the volume for a friend, or perhaps for his father. The buyer records his travel from Poland to Peckelsheim, then a hamlet in Westphalia, Germany, using sentimental (and maybe once accented) German; it is noted in his inscription that he traveled from Poland to Germany.  Perhaps he was a merchant, interested in exchange rates for Frankfurt and Holland (shown).

  1. Finally, I cataloged a copy of Jacob b. Asher’s Arba’a Turim, published in Augsburg in 1540, by Hayyim Shahor. Our copy is white and fresh, and the beautiful fonts and inks are in excellent condition.

There are pages in this volume which are censored, and some heavily, such as on  these leaves in Hilkhot ‘Avodah Zarah:

Appended to the end of the Towson copy are manuscript leaves roughly contemporary to the imprint. These leaves are water damaged; they have a stab-opening which pierced through all of the manuscript leaves. At the heading of the leaves is a damaged leaf in Polish script, which once belonged to a ledger, likely of a bookseller.

The volumes which make up the collection of rare books in the Joseph Meyerhoff – Towson University Collection have journeyed through many paths to reach their present home. Evidence of travel, war, the Holocaust, and American Jewish Studies has traveled with the volumes and continue to accompany them; the Footprints Project has given us a platform to trace and organize the provenance of these volumes.

[1]   The exact date of printing is contradictory between the title information and that on the colophon. The title reads ’Shevat 327’, i.e. Feb. 1567, while the colophon reads ’ … today, sixth day (Friday), 5326 (1566)’ but does not include the month.

[2] Work started at the beginning of Elul (August-September) 1732, finished “Bekhi-Tov” Shvat (January) 1733. Likely “Bekhi-Tov” is referring to the closing of the month.

[3] It carries the approbations of Naphtali ha-kohen Katz (1649-1718) of Frankfurt, dated Tuesday 8 Tevet 1710;  Samuel ha-kohen Schotten of Darmstadt, dated Friday, parashat Vayigash, 1710; and Hirsch Spitz Sega”l of Worms, dated Thursday 10 Tevet 1710.

Guest Post: Footprints as an Effective Collaborative Crowd-Sourcing Project

Miryam Gordon is a student in Johns’ Hopkins’ Museum Studies program.  Miryam completed a digital curation internship, during which she worked on all aspects of Footprints.  She has generously shared her final thoughts and feedback on the project, and has allowed us to reproduce a portion of it here.

Collaboration is a necessary ingredient for effective scholarship and creation of new knowledge. While collaboration has long been in use, the innovation behind Footprints is the digital aggregation of multiple bodies of data regarding Jewish book circulation into one location. Libraries and information that have been scattered around the world are being virtually reunited through the project. Footprints has managed to become an effective model due to its community approach, transparency, accessibility, and flexibility. While the project may not yet be perfect in all areas, it had been set up with systems and policies in place that are causing it to be effective in each of these areas.

  1. Building an Engaged Community

Success in Digital Humanities comes from an understanding that scholarship is a social undertaking. Current technological advances can be used to “share and exchange skillsets, continuous change, and collective decision making” (Chesner, Lehman, Shear, & Teplitsky, 2018). From its founding, Footprints has been a collaboration between scholars at Jewish Theological Seminary, Columbia University, University of Pittsburgh, and Stony Brook University. The advisory board consists of historians, scholars, librarians, and other experts from institutions such as Queens College, Oxford University, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton University, Jewish Historical Museum, and the National Library of Israel (Footprints, n.d., “Credits”). In addition to individuals from these institutions, even before the site’s creation the directors had many conversations with other experts to gain their feedback and even conducted beta testing to ensure that everything was working appropriately. Interest in Footprints has risen due to conversations at conferences and on social media. As interested parties hear about Footprints and its purpose, they recognize its value in making previously hidden collections widely accessible.

Footprints’ success relies on a vast network of invested contributors. If only those that were initially involved were the ones contributing, the database would not go anywhere. It relies on a community of users to get to a truly valuable critical mass. Footprints has an increasingly growing list of institutions and scholars around the world that are working to add data to the site. Its directors encourage colleagues and scholars to add information, as well as encouraging professors to teach using the repository to build continued interest and involvement (Lehman, 2016). Footprints is working with libraries and institutions from all over the world to capture and upload information from their books and other resources to the site. Examples include: Leo Baeck Institute, Russian State Library, Washington University, Archbishop Marsh’s Library, Library at the Katz Center for Advanced Jewish Studies at University of Pennsylvania, Yeshiva University Library, and the Material Evidence in Incunabula Project at Oxford. There are over fifteen individual scholars and researchers listed on Footprints’ site as having worked on the project in some capacity (Footprints, n.d., “Credits”). Contributors to the project have been varied and located across the world.

Without encouraging and supporting these users and contributors, Footprints would not have seen the success that it has to this point. However, the project directors still need to work on creating a centralized method of communication between contributors. While many individuals and institutions are actively working on the project, they would benefit from a centralized place to communicate and share insights. Footprints’ blog and twitter feed are places where this does occur, but that is controlled exclusively by the project’s directors. Some user-generated content would encourage said individuals and give them a stake in the process of building the repository. Perhaps a discussion board or a comments section under the records would be helpful in this down the line. (Ed. note: We do have a Google Group for Footprints contributors, but we could do better in promoting and encouraging its use)

  1. Transparency

Footprints is touted as a scholarly project and so it is essential for it to be transparent to be trusted and taken seriously. Each footprint record cites the evidence from which it is derived. If users wanted to, they could easily view the source from which the contributor determined that information (Footprints, n.d., “How to Enter a Footprint”). To address those that are skeptical about the idea of crowdsourcing, Footprints takes its data integrity seriously by training and supervising its contributors. Once data is entered, the directors have a formal moderation structure in place to ensure quality control (Chesner, Lehman, Shear, & Teplitsky, 2018). When records have errors or do not confirm to standards in some way, they can be flagged manually or automatically for more experienced users to view and moderate. Without clean and accurate data, Footprints is nothing so this point is especially important to its founders and contributors.

  1. Accessibility

The entire purpose of Footprints is to make otherwise inaccessible data accessible to the public. Therefore, Footprints is an open-source and open-access tool. Its source code is easily available on Github and can freely be copied, distributed, and modified, as long as the changes are tracked in the source files. The data that is available on the site is held under a Creative Commons Attribution + Share Alike 4.0 License. This means that it can be freely copied, distributed, and modified. Attribution to the original author and changes must be tracked in the source code (Footprints, n.d. “Frequently Asked Questions”). Scholars are choosing to add their newly researched information to Footprints, rather than saving it for their own publications, because they see the value in the “trusted crowdsourcing model” of Footprints (ibid.). The new data is able to be put to use immediately and users are able to frame research questions as well as use the database to answer their questions. Footprints allows for an immediate give and take by scholars regarding the research they have done or want done.

While the data from individual records is available, improvements can be made to make it more easily and intuitively findable. Advances can also be made to put the material into its context, with historical backgrounds, timelines, and biographies included on the site. This would truly make the data accessible and easy to understand by those that may not be experts in the field.

  1. Flexibility

Footprints’ openness to technological experimentation with different platforms and media for ingesting content has contributed to its success since inception almost ten years ago. What grew out of a conversations among experts has become a worldwide project due to the project’s willingness to adjust as situations demanded. It is often assumed that crowdsourcing projects start out well and then stagnate, but if the developers move with the project then they can be successful for longer terms. Footprints has a focus of Jewish books that were published from the late 1400s until the 1850s, but the project is flexible with the definition of Jewish books, as well as those dates when specific situations warrant. The project directors have chosen to focus the year 2018 on incunabula to develop that area of the database, while also adding data related to other texts when pertinent (Shear, 2017). They are committed to ingesting as many footprints as possible and will look for incunabula first, but will not stop there.

Footprints is set up to allow for micro and macro data to be added to allow for as many types of uploads as possible. Larger institutions can add their data by using the batch upload option, while individual scholars may choose to input information piece by piece (Chesner, November 2016). The various methods for adding information show Footprints’ commitment to as many types of contributors as possible. They welcome contributions from these large institutions, smaller archives, private collections, as well as single pieces of data that scholars and librarians come across through their own research. By casting a wide net for contributions, Footprints is allowing the project to grow and develop organically.


The study of the Jewish book is a perfect example of a field that benefits significantly from a collaborative crowd-sourced model such as Footprints. The scholarship is so dispersed that a united approach to gathering that information will result in increased knowledge regarding the Jews who owned these books and the world in which they lived. Footprints has managed to continuously build an effective model for collaborative crowdsourcing by combining the best ideas for a successful model and plans for future improvements. The co-directors have developed the project by building a community around it, by ensuring that their data and its sources are transparent, that users have access to the information that is being collected, and that there is room for growth and flexibility in their future plans. As Footprints continues to develop and expand its coverage, it will be fascinating to watch the new insights that are learned about the historical time period it covers and their implications for today.


The missing Breslau incunable

As we have mentioned time and again in the last seven months, we have been working hard in 2018 to gather data on the movements of Hebrew incunabula (that is, books produced from the invention of moveable type until the year 1501).  As of today, we have 1226 records for books from this era, and the data continues to grow. We have already ingested data from the Jewish Theological Seminary’s extensive collection, the collection at Yeshiva University, the University of Pennsylvania, and many others.  Still more are in process, and will be added soon to our corpus.

One of our in-process batches is based on Dr. Adri K. Offenberg’s list of Hebrew incunabula missing after World War II.  Dr. Offenberg painstakingly scoured lists of pre-WWII European collections to find incunabula, and followed up with those that remained extant to find what was lost.  Unfortunately, many libraries (and their caretakers) had been destroyed, and their collections scattered to the four winds.  One of these collections was the library of Jewish Theological Seminary in Breslau (modern-day Wrocław, in Poland), and some of its items have been appearing in Footprints search results.

To my delight, one of these was an incunable, the commentary of Abraham ibn Ezra on the Bible (Naples, 1488), and one of the books listed as missing in Dr. Offenberg’s list!  The book can be found today at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and its Breslau provenance is duly cited in Iakerson’s catalog of incunabula at JTS, number 47a.  Slowly but surely, our work on Footprints is (virtually) reuniting collections long thought lost to the world.

A family of collectors comes (back) together in Footprints

Over the course of Footprints work, it is not unusual to find relatives within one specific collection.  A good example of this can be found in the Columbia collection, with the books of Ya’akov Emden.  Among his books are books that were formerly owned by his father, Tsevi Hirsch ben Ya’akov Ashkenazi (aka Hakham Tsevi), and his grandfather, Ya’akov of Vilna.  But that is hardly surprising, as family collections often remain and travel together.

Rabbi Nethaniel Weill

More exciting is when families begin to appear in scattered collections, their books re-connecting virtually via the Footprints database.  A recent example was just discovered, thanks to Footprints contributors Chaim Meiselman and Tali Winkler.

Signature of Nathaniel Weill

In his work on the Meyerhoff Collection of Judaica at Towson University, Chaim Meiselman discovered the signature of Nathaniel b. Naftali-Hirsch Weill (Stühlingen 1687- Rastatt 1769), Av-Beth-Din and head of the Rabbinate at Kahrlsruhe on a volume of Pri Hadash, which was printed only a year before his death (Furth, 1768).

Nathaniel Weill first gained fame in Prague, but history would have it that his rabbinate would ultimately move to a regional one in Germany, the “Scwarzwald,” headquartered in Mühringen, an area in Rheinish-Neckar, or Neckar in the Rhineland.  It was here that he completed his magnum opus, Korban Netanel, a commentary on the Perush Rabbenu Asher on the Talmudic orders of Mo’ed and Nashim.

Example of full t.p. (Wikimedia)

This title is elaborately decorated, and includes detailed documentation of his rabbinic life.  It was printed in Kahrlsruhe because he had moved there to head the Rabbinate of that area, a position he held until his death.

“Netanel Weill … A.B.D. (Av-Beth-Din) de-medinot Durlakh u-medinot Baden … ve-lifnim hayah A.B.D. be-medinot Schwarzwald … ve-epelendt (?) (s.i.c.; i.e. rabbinical judge) be-k.k. Prag ha-birah, tivneh ve-tikon”. Following is a dedication to Karl-Friedrich (Charles Frederick), margrave elector of Baden-Durlach.

Signature of Tiah Weill

Tali Winkler, a Footprints collaborator who worked on footprints in the collection of the Spertes Institute for Jewish Learning and Scholarship in Chicago, learned of the above signature, and and pointed out that his son, Tiah Weill, is represented in Footprints as well, as owner of a copy of his father’s book, Karban Netanel (Kahrlsruhe, 1755).

In continuing his work at the collection at Towson, Chaim Meiselman then discovered a footprint for Tiah’s son (Nathaniel’s grandson), who is now also represented in the database. Nathan Weill (Prague 1721 – Kahrlsruhe 1805) owned a copy of Menorat ha-Ma’or (Sulzbach, 1757) in Karlsruhe, around 1800.


Signature of Nathan Weill

With this, three 18th century collectors from three generations of the rabbinic dynasty reunited (virtually, at least)!

Special thanks to Chaim Meiselman for his work on the history of the Weill family for this post.

Guest post: Latin and Greek inscriptions in Chaim Meiselman’s library collection

Editor’s note: Chaim Meiselman is one of our most active contributors to Footprints, adding data from his own collection as well as from others, and he has assisted in identifying many of the difficult hands from the “can you help?” footprints.  He reads a plethora of languages, including German, French, Latin, Hebrew, Yiddish, as well as Dutch, Polish, and Italian.  Meiselman writes below about some items in his personal collection that are documented in Footprints.

Over the course of book collecting, I have begun entering data and inscriptions from my library into the Footprints Project.

Jacob Friedrich Reimmann

I hope to share some of the Footprints in this space occasionally. I will begin this endeavor with some Latin and Greek sourced items from my collections.

Liber Cosri (Kuzari): Basel, 1660

I will begin with a long inscription with a traceable owner. Jacob Friedrich Reimmann (1668 – 1743) of Hildesheim, was a Lutheran Theologian and historian.  Included in his works are philosophy (and history of Philosophy), German religious poetry, and even a history of atheism.

In my volume of ‘Liber Cosri’, the edition printed by Johann Buxtorf in Basel in 1660, Reimmann wrote a long description of the volume, and even compliments Buxtorf in Greek (perhaps a sign of fellowship among men of letters). In my Footprints entry on this inscription, I transcribed the entire inscription.

Here it is, beginning with my introduction:

Below I will transcribe the entire Latin inscription, because it is historically valuable. Reimmann was a friend (or peer) of Gotthold Wilhelm Leibnitz, Christian Wolff, Gottlieb Stolle and included in his correspondence Pierre Bayle, Johann Franz Buddeus, and other contemporary scholars.


“Liber Cosri vel potius Hachosari Ebraice et Latine cum notis Buxt. – Buxtorfii Basel 1660. Auctor est R. Jehuda Levi filius Saulis Hispanus – qui vixit Sec. (Saeculum) XII et huc colloquim Theologicum – Philisophicum. Regis Coser cum eruditis, Sive verum Sive dictum. scrip sit Arabice, et veritatem religionis Judaica defenderet, et contra insultus Ethnicorum et Karaitanum, vindicaret unde eadem tempentate in unquam obruam translatius R. Jehuda Aben Tybbon. Feranatensi, et Cohanstantinnopli primum ,tum Venetiis et tandem Basilea editum dignum omnino quod accurate et studiose abii lectitetur. qui quid satis in Synagoga Judaorium insit, ωζ ξν ςυγομπ mens picere gestiunt.

J. F. Reimannus

Superintendens Hildesiensis


Translation:  Book (called) Cosri or better, Hachosari [printed] Hebrew and Latin, with [editions] addition of Buxt. – Buxtorf [;] Basel 1660. Authored by Judah b. Saul halevi in Spain – who lived c. 12th century among the theological and philosophical [scholarly] colloquium there. King Coser, the learned and erudite.. Written in Arabic as [for use of] true Judaic religious defense against the attacks of the foreigners and from within by the Karaites; R. Judah Aben Tybbon’s [translation] was not understandable to other translation.  [Printed first in] Feranatensi [Fano], and Cohanstantinnopli [Constantinople] for the first time, next Venice, and I am most satisfied now with the studious and dignified one latest at  Basil was published. The one who is able to satisfiy with Synagoga Judaicum is in here [i.e. the translator and commentor], ωζ ξν ςυγομπ (and more so, Greek) he has studied [looked at – lit.] carefully their time.

J. F. Reimann

Superintendant – Hildesheim


This volume was also in the collection of another Lutheran Theologian, Johann Hilpert (1627-1680) in Coburg. This is the inscription:

“Liber Cosri inter Christianus esse rari stium   verbit J. Hilpertur un disquis. de mutuam itus e.s.p.d. scribet hic Hilpertus A.C. 1696 quo tem pocc a Buxtorfi nondum erat editas.”

Hilpertus is likely speaking of Johann Hilpert (1627-1680) , a Lutheran theologian from Coburg.  Since he was dead at the date of this writing likely the note is of an inventory of his theological books.

Finally, this volume met a censor later in the 18th century. Here is the information:

Text from inscription: L. Purarx  in speciam hic sor nab. p. 384 .

Post script: In preparing this post for publication, Footprints co-director Michelle Chesner realized that there may yet be another footprint to be identified, based on the stamp from the Jews’ College Library in the image above.  Chesner knew that there had been sales of books from Jews College Library at Kestenbaum and Co. in the early 2000s, and she checked her backfile of Kestenbaum catalogs (which Chaim Meiselman did not have) to see if it appeared there.  Sure enough, this book (confirmed by the description of the binding) was Lot 115 in Kestenbaum Sale 23, March 2004.  This is just another example of how allowing multiple people to access the same data can allow for much more “value added” in the long run.

Book 2: Yalkut Shim’oni, Livorno 1649-50

Contrast the previous detailed inscriptions with a copy of the large tome Yalkut Shimoni, published in 1649-50 in Livorno. My copy is without complete inscriptions or more traditional Footprints. However, it is clearly ex-library, and a fine copy; so I looked deeper.


The book is censored only for the beginning chapter of Genesis. That already gave me a clue that it wasn’t a traditional case of censorship; likely it was an aspect of ownership in the volume.

On close inspection, I found something very minute but telling.

On the opening chapter of Numbers, the text reads from the Midrash on the Well of Miriam. Thematically, the Midrash recounts that sustenance ended at the death of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.

… והבאר בזכות מרים – והיכן היו עשויה כמין סלע/ the well, in the merit of Miriam, was composed ‘like a rock-form’.


The interpretation of this passage differs; as an example, Rashi writes that it was rock-hard, and it would roll along as the nation traveled.

Between the lines of my copy, this volume was inscribed with one word: ‘Ascon’. This is a Greco-Latin word directly referring to natural sponge-material;  the meaning being that the owner interpreted it as not being a rock at all, but a natural absorbent (which was used to give off and store water in the desert).

No other inscriptions are on the entire volume.

Guest Post, Shevi Epstein: Art History in the Binding

Shevi Epstein, an MLS student at Rutgers’ focusing on Archival Studies, has been working on entering Footprints at the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She describes her experience – and discoveries – below:

Sefer Tehilim Wittenberg, 1576

The library at the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies holds a Sefer Tehilim, or Psalter, printed in Wittenberg Germany in 1576. The text of the book is translated from Hebrew side by side into Ancient Greek and Latin. Books formatted in this fashion were typically meant to help teach Hebrew to Christians.  The layout assumed that the reader would be able to read Latin and/or Greek and would be able to infer the meaning of the Hebrew text from these translations. However, it is not the content of the book that is intriguing to me, but rather the cover.

When the book was printed, the original owner, likely a non-Jew, would have selected the binding and any decorative motifs for adornment. The image that they selected for the front cover of this book is of Judith beheading Holofernes from the Book of Judith. This somewhat gory choice is interesting, given that the image has no connection to the contents of the book. So, why was this particular image chosen?

Though the Book of Judith was accepted as canonical by the Church and was accepted in the Vulgate, the Catholic Church’s official Latin version of the Bible from the 14th century, it is not the most popular or well known story. Whether or not the owner was well versed in the story or aware that it had no connection to the text of the Psalms, the image of Judith with her sword and the decapitated head of Holofernes would have likely been familiar to Germans by the 1570s.

Judith with the Head of Holofernes
Lucas Cranach the Elder, Germany 1530

In the 1530’s , the image of Judith beheading Holofernes became a popular subject for German painters. Judith was typically dressed elegantly in the German fashions of the day, with a hat on her head and a sword in one hand, while the other rests on the head of Holofernes, just as she is depicted on the cover of our book. Though four decades had past between the height of this pictorial fad and the printing of this book, it is not difficult to imagine that the image would have been familiar to the owner of the Psalter. Because of the popularity of this theme, it may well have seemed to be an attractive and trendy choice of image for the cover of the book, even if it didn’t correspond to the materials within.


Guest post: Shevi Epstein on Footprints at Penn’s Katz Center

Shevi Epstein, an MLS student at Rutgers’ focusing on Archival Studies, has been working on entering Footprints at the Katz Center for Advanced Judaic Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She describes her experience – and discoveries – below:

Through my contributions to the database for Footprints: Jewish Books Through Time and Place, I have discovered a wealth of Jewish history, which might have otherwise been lost. Hidden in the various clues left behind by past generations are details of the movement of these Jewish books over the past 500 years and a glimpse into the lives of those who possessed them.

Throughout Jewish history, there have been innumerable attempts to not only wipe out the Jewish people, but also their literature. From the Spanish Inquisition to the Austrian Holy League to the Nazis, the burning of Jewish books has been an efficient way to destroy these materials while simultaneously sending a clear message of warning to the Jewish community. In some sense it is surprising that any Judaic books have survived these waves of destruction. Today, handling the 500 year old books in the collection of the Katz Center for Advanced Studies in Philadelphia is all the more incredible given their survival over the centuries and the journeys that I have had the privilege of piecing together.

Each book that I examine for this project has had a story to tell. From the carefully written owner signatures, to the meticulous personal notes in the margins, to the playful doodles scribbled across the pages, each mark tells the tale of a well-loved and oft-used book. However, some of the marks left in these books tell of a far more tragic past and of narrow escapes from destruction.

Some of the most important clues I look for when investigating the history of a book are the signatures of expurgators. These censors were typically Jewish who had converted to Catholicism working for the Catholic Church who would analyze Jewish books in search of any passages that were antithetical to the teachings of the Church and cross them out. They would sign their name at the end of the book and, usually, include the date to demonstrate that the book had been reviewed and censored. Some books contain as many as eight censor signatures, ranging from the 16th through the 17th centuries. Despite the clearly unethical practice of cultural erasure, the scratched-out lines and signatures that were left in these texts likely saved not only the books themselves from destruction, but their owners from further persecution related to the possession of the texts.

Many of the owners of these books were not lucky enough to survive the destruction that the markings in these books describe. Some of the books I come across contain stamps from the Reich Institute for the History of New Germany, which aimed to study the “Jewish Question” and justify the Nazi regime’s anti-Semitic platform through science.

These books almost always additionally contain a bookplate from the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc. The Jewish Cultural Reconstruction, Inc. was an organization in the American occupied zone of southern Germany from 1947-1952, tasked to collect and redistribute stolen Jewish property. Books in the collection of the Katz Center for Advanced Studies that contain this bookplate were from the group of books redistributed to Dropsie College in Philadelphia as their original owners had been killed in the war or could not be found.

Bought, sold, donated, stolen, redistributed, censored, gifted, and passed down through the generations, the history of Jewish books and the Jews who owned them are being carefully retraced by the participants in the Footprints project. Their efforts are shedding light on the long and hard road that has brought these books to where they currently reside and on all those who, for better or worse, had a hand in that process.


Guest post: From Italy to Dublin through double censorship

Javier del Barco, a Senior Research Fellow at the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Cientificas (CSIC) in Madrid, has just completed three months of work on Footprints collection in the Archbishop Marsh’s Library in Dublin. Below, Dr. del Barco shares just one example of some of the discoveries he made in the course of his work in Dublin. 


Hebrew books were subjected to censorship in Italy during the 16th and the 17th centuries. Censors’ signatures can be found in many books—both manuscript and printed—that circulated there, especially during the second half of the 16th century and the beginning of the 17th. Interestingly, these censors’ footprints enable us to follow the itineraries of the books by indirectly providing clues of the places where they were censored. One good example is Marsh’s Library’s copy of Levi ben Gershom’s (1288-1344) Milḥamot ha-Shem printed in Riva di Trento in 1560 (1)

Books printed in Riva di Trento are particularly interesting and important because the Hebrew press run there by Jacob Marcaria operated for only four years (1558-1562) and produced some 35 titles. Marcaria, who was both dayyan (judge) and physician in Cremona, established the printing press in Riva in collaboration with Joseph ben Nathan Ottolenghi, the famous rabbi of Cremona, and under the auspices and protection of Cardinal Cristoforo Madruzzo, bishop of Trento. (2) In fact, Madruzzo’s coat-of-arms appears in some of the Riva di Trento Hebrew books, as is the case with this copy of Milḥamot ha-Shem (see title page, right).

Printing Milḥamot ha-Shem was a very important achievement. This text includes Levi ben Gershom’s major work containing an almost complete system of philosophy and theology in which he relied on his predecessors—such as Aristotle, Averroes, Avicenna and Maimonides—and also gave his own theory. The work had circulated widely in manuscript copies, but its 1560 publication was the first time that it was ever printed, even if imperfectly. No further editions of the work were printed for over three centuries, until a new edition was published in Leipzig in 1863, probably due to the fact that understanding Milḥamot ha-Shem is not possible unless one is familiar with Levi ben Gershom’s commentaries on Averroes and the Bible.

The copy in Marsh’s library was read and studied by an unknown Jewish reader, who annotated it in the margins using a semi-cursive handwritten Ashkenazi script (see image #2, left). Most noteworthy, at the end of the work we find the signatures of three different censors. In the last page, we read “Dominico”, “ scipione 1597” (see image #3, below) and, in the previous page, “visto per me Gio domenico carretto 1618” (see image #4, below).

From this single book copy can learn much about not only the reading habits of Jews, but the censorship regime of the Counter-Reformation Catholic Church in Italy in the late sixteenth century.  The well-known Domenico Irosolimitano worked with Alessandro Scipione and Laurentius Franguellus, all of them apostates, in the Mantuan censorship commission from 1595 to 1597, the latter being replaced in 1597 by Luigi da Bologna. This commission was appointed by the bishop of Mantua and started to work in August 1595. As Popper states, “the Jews soon crowded to the building [of the Inquisition, where the commission worked] in great numbers, bringing their books with them, and carrying them away as soon as expurgated” (3). Even if Popper’s assessment should be considered with caution as far as the willingness of bringing books to the commission is concerned, it is a fact that Jews took their books to be censored in great numbers, probably in fear of the penalty for having uncensored books in their possession. After looking at the books and censoring them accordingly, censors would sign at the end of the book and add the date to their signatures, as Scipione did in this copy, but not Irosolimitano. This leads Popper to suggest that “Irosolimitano was probably at the head of the commission” (4) because “the chief censor often omitted even a date” (5). Thus Irosolimitano’s and Scipione’s signatures together and the latter’s addition of the date—1597—leaves no doubt that this copy of Milḥamot ha-Shem was under the scrutiny of the Mantuan commission in 1597.

Yet, bearing a censor’s signature did not free the book’s owner from the obligation of bringing the book to subsequent censorship commissions. This is the case with this copy, as attested by the signature of Giovanni Domenico Carretto dated to 1618, who worked censoring Hebrew books also in Mantua from 1617 to 1619 (Popper, 142). This footprint then situates this copy in Mantua still in 1618, where it had probably been since 1597 or earlier.

The book arrived in Dublin thanks to the collection activities of Archbishop Marsh (1638-1713).  Marsh began collecting Hebrew books upon his arrival in Oxford in the middle of the 17th century. By 1679 he had relocated to Dublin, having been appointed provost of Trinity college, but he continued to expand his collection until his death in 1713. In most of his Hebrew books he wrote his Greek motto in the title page, as can be seen also in the title page of this copy, and in some cases, he also added a date. When the indicated year predates 1679, we can be almost certain that he acquired the book in Oxford, but if no year is indicated, we cannot be sure of the place of acquisition. As this copy of Levi ben Gershon’s Milḥamot ha-Shem has no specific date after Marsh’s motto, it could have been acquired by Marsh at any moment during his adult life, either in England or in Ireland.

From Riva di Trento and Mantua to Dublin in Ireland, probably by way of England or Amsterdam, this book teaches us about significant cultural and social aspects to consider when looking at early modern Hebrew books. Printed in Riva di Trento by Jacob Marcaria in 1560 under the sponsorship of the bishop of Trento, this copy tells us about actual collaboration and exchange between Jews and Catholics in a cultural and intellectual endeavour such as printing books in Hebrew in Northern Italy. This was possible only before the Council of Trent was finished in 1563, as the consequences of Counter-Reformation largely affected relationships between Jews and Catholics. This can be observed very well in this book, as it was censored twice in Mantua, in 1597 and in 1618, following the establishment of censorship commissions. After that date, we don’t know exactly when and how the book reached the hands of Archbishop Marsh, journeying from Mantua to England or Ireland at some point during the 17th century, but this journey reflects very well how Hebrew books in general traveled together with their owners across all over Europe and the Mediterranean since the very start of Hebrew printing and throughout centuries, until they were definitively shelved in a library. For this copy of Levi ben Gershon’s Milḥamot ha-Shem, it was Marsh’s Library in Dublin, where it remains to this day.

(1) Shelfmark: B3.3.2

(2)R. Posner and I. Ta-Shma, The Hebrew Book: An Historical Survey (Jerusalem: Keter, 1975), chapter 5, subvoce “Riva.”

(3) W. Popper, The Censorship of Hebrew Books (New York: Ktav Publishing House, 1969), p. 77

(4) Ibid., p. 78

(5) Ibid., p. 79

Announcing… the Year of INCUNABULA [AT] FOOTPRINTS

Consider this blog post part of a soft roll-out of a new concept here at Footprints HQ:  we are dubbing calendar year 2018 as the “Year of Incunabula.”  (If you read the last blog post from my colleague Michelle Chesner, you already know about some of our efforts in this direction.) Although we will continue to take in data on post-1500 imprints, we  have begun to focus our efforts on adding as many footprints of pre-1500 Hebrew printed books as we can between now and December 31, 2018.  (Stay tuned for the announcement–around this time next year–of 2019’s theme.)

In designing and launching Footprints, we explored many approaches to gathering data..  Some of our colleagues suggested focusing on a particular set of literary works and their editions and dissemination. (A wonderful model of this kind of research is The Archaeology of Reading at Johns Hopkins, Princeton, and University of London, with our advisory board member Anthony Grafton as one of the participants.)  Such a project–working from a limited corpus– allows great strides to be made in a limited amount of time.  Others suggested that we look at the output of a particular printer (we could have started by tracking down everything printed by Soncino) or the books printed in a particular city (Amsterdam in the 17th century).  Others suggested that we focus on the formation of particular collections.  

We heard these suggestions but resisted going this route as the project started.  Despite all of the potential in these options, we did not want to limit the scope of the project in the moments of its inception.   By looking at “Jewish” books (including books printed in Hebrew or other Jewish languages; books in non-Jewish languages on Jewish topics; and books owned by Jews regardless of content) printed in different places and times and their movement across time and place without limitations, we were able to explore the possibilities and limits of this new  kind of research project. In the iterative process of digital scholarship, we didn’t want to foreclose fruitful lines of discussion before we even got started.  And while this open approach has had some costs, the benefit can be seen in the architecture and flexibility of our database.  No doubt casting the net widely leads to some inefficiencies but other efficiencies are gained:  if we were focusing on production by Daniel Bomberg only, would it have made sense for me to sit in a rare book room and examine a Bomberg book carefully while ignoring the riches in a Soncino imprint bound with it?  If we were focusing on a set list of books and I found references to these in an estate inventory, should I put aside the books owned by a particular collector not on this list?

That open approach will continue  as we build the database, but we have decided for several reasons to make a special push on incunabula this year. Choosing to focus on incunabula benefits us the most right now for building Footprints in a more systematic way, and also enables researchers interested in who read, owned, bought and sold these books to acquire the most comprehensive view of this area of the history of the Hebrew book as possible. You could say, we want to begin again from the beginning.

Toward this end,  we are joining forces with the 15CBooktrade project led by Cristina Dondi of Oxford University, a long-time advisor to Footprints. Our colleagues at 15CBooktrade have started to see the finish line in collecting information about incunabula in an  ambitious and incredibly rich database, Material Evidence in Incunabula  (MEI). Thanks to a generous grant, 15CBooktrade/MEI will hire 3 dedicated researchers to work on Hebrew incunabula for six months in 2018.  One will be based in Oxford, focusing on collections in the UK and northern Europe; one in Jerusalem, focusing on Israeli collections; and one in Italy, focusing on the richness of Italian and some other European collections. These researchers will enter all of the copy-specific features of incunabula in their areas into MEI and also record the “footprints” into our database.  

Meanwhile, our goal is to cover the major collections of Hebrew incunabula in North America.  We’ll be focused on the rich collections in the New York area, Philadelphia, Boston, New Haven, Washington DC, Cincinnati, Ottawa, as well as smaller collections or single copies in Los Angeles, Chicago, Hartford, Providence,  Bloomington, IN, and Provo Utah. (I am heading to Chicago soon where I will see the three Hebrew incunabula at the Newberry Library.)  We are especially eager to hear from members of our trusted crowdsourcing community who would like to work on some of these collections.   We are also reaching out to private collectors and encouraging them to join the effort.

As we continue our work with book lists, estate inventories, auction catalogues, and scholarly articles looking for “historical copies” as well as working from extant books in rare book rooms, we will focus our efforts this year on the incunables. As we learn about early modern Jewish owners of non-Hebrew incunabula we will enter those as well. We have 3 first-year undergraduates at the University of Pittsburgh eager to get to work in the spring term as part of the successful First Experiences in Research program run by Pitt’s Office of Undergraduate Research and we also intend to hire one research assistant who will input information from the rare book collection at the Jewish Theological Seminary.   We are also looking for interns in the cities mentioned above and faculty supervisors who are looking for hands-on research opportunities for their students.  

Does this mean we are abandoning the “big tent” approach to data collection?  Not at all: we remain committed to the idea that we want to ingest as many footprints as possible. We continue to work with partner libraries, downloading provenance data from catalogs and preparing them for upload to Footprints.  When we embed researchers to cover particular library collections (as we are doing now with the Marsh’s Library, Dublin)  we will ask them to look at the incunabula first but not to stop there! We continue to welcome contributions from crowd-sourcers and we are still happy to serve as a repository for datasets generated by independent research projects.  Surely we are always on the  lookout for other footprints as we hunt down the incunabula.   

We are not choosing  between a specific topic  and an open approach.  (But we are also not just saying “que sera sera” and leaving it at that.) Rather, we intend for the focused approach and the big tent model to co-exist; the focus on incunabula will enable us to concentrate on one area of Hebrew book history while maintaining our commitment to flexibility, which has  been the hallmark of our progress to date.  

As always, if you or your institution or your students want to join the fun, just let us know.  We look forward to hearing from you.

Updates: Collaborations, incunabula and new opportunities

Footprints thrives on collaboration, and it is wonderful when we see how collaboration with others can yield positive fruits as well.

In September, Javier del Barco started work at the Archbishop Marsh’s Library in Dublin.  The Archbishop Marsh collected about 200 Hebrew and Yiddish books in his collection, many of which have interesting stories to tell, and the library has partnered with Footprints to catalog its Judaica, and record its provenance into Footprints  (Footprints will be added to the database at the completion of the project).  A few weeks ago, Professor del Barco found a previously unknown incunabulum (a book printed from the invention of moveable type to the year 1501) in the collection: a commentary of Nahmanides on the Bible from Lisbon, 1489, in excellent condition, as part of his work on the collection.

The subject of incunabula brings us to our next announcement: we are excited to announce our next partnership: with the 15cBOOKTRADE/Material Evidence in Incunabula (MEI).  MEI collects similar data to Footprints, but with an emphasis only on books printed in the 15th century. We have partnered with them to collect data on Hebrew incunabula (a subset not easily accessible due to language and other limitations), which will be uploaded to both the MEI and the Footprints databases. To do this, MEI will be hiring three research associates: one in the United Kingdom, one in Italy, and one in Israel, to focus on studying the provenance of Hebrew incunabula in those places. We look forward to applications for this project!  Note that the deadline for applications is 31 October 2017.

As always, if you are interested in partnering with Footprints in any way: as an individual interested in entering Footprints; as an institution or a private collector with already cataloged materials that can be exported and uploaded to our database; as an institution or private collector with not-yet cataloged material that is interested in working with us on a cataloging/provenance project; or in any other way, please be in touch!  You can reach us at

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