Author: Joshua Teplitsky

Happy Anniversary, Footprints! (Or, “that’s not a knife, this is a….book”)

Happy Anniversary, Footprints!

Footprints wasn’t born in a day.  Before the website went live a team of planners, coders, and researchers spent years preparing.  But the website made its first appearance on November 13, 2014 with the upload of a Shehitot u-vedikot (owned in Beirut in 1862).

In honor of our fifth anniversary, we decided to advance the entries on that very first item.  The Shehitot u-vedikot has been of interest to me for some time now.  First composed in the fifteenth century by Jacob Weil (d. ca. 1456, a student of Jacob Molin), the book outlines the laws of kosher slaughtering, and was first printed in Prague in 1533.  It was something of a bestseller of the early modern period in Europe, gaining layers of commentary in subsequent publications in Krakow, Venice, Prague, Basle, Amsterdam, and beyond.  A search in the bibliography of the Hebrew book for this title yields 174 results, with 130 of those books printed before the year 1800.  That’s nearly an average of a printing every two years!

Opp 4o545 copy of Shehitot u-vedikot (Basle, 1611), held by the Bodleian Libraries.

I first grew interested in these books when I came across multiple copies of them in the Oppenheim collection of the Bodleian Libraries (the full story of that collection is the subject of the recent book Prince of the Press), and found them to be rich with signatures, certificates, and even the occasional doodle, perhaps at the hand of a student whose attention wandered during his training (the trainees would have almost always have been young men).  My favorite “footprint” appears in Opp. 4o 605(1), and is reproduced here (it also appears in the book, on p. 31).

Opp. 4o 605(1), copy of Sefer Tikkunei Zevah (Prague, 1604), held by the Bodleian Libraries.

Copies of Shehitot u-vedikot can be found in numerous library collections, and evidence of their historical use appears in inscriptions, the observations of Christian Hebraists, and the catalogs of modern booksellers.  Tracking copies of the book offers a tantalizing example of the quantitative power of Footprints to complement, enhance, and shine a different light on our understanding of bibliography, book culture, and Jewish life more generally.  Following this work we can see the power of a single author to become the authority on the topic of kosher meat production, and we can witness different centers vie for domination over the market (both economically and intellectually).  We also get to see the use of books designed not for elite figures but for communal functionaries, and we can see the travel of those books beyond the centers of scholarship and publication into smaller (often rural) communities of limited resource and cultural capital.  Most importantly, the rich accumulation of inscriptions in the books reveals the ongoing negotiation between the printed text and the spoken and manuscript word, that regularly intervened in and dialogued with the never-quite-canonical text.

A couple of weeks ago I uploaded information about 40 additional imprints of the work, with approximately 250 footprints accompanying those imprints, in preparation for a longer scholarly article.  All of those examples were drawn from the Oppenheim collection, but I’ve been working through other collections in the US, Israel, and Europe to identify copies of the book, and am almost overwhelmed by them.  And that’s a good thing.  Because Footprints is all about overcoming the limits to a single individual’s capacity, and transcending that capacity through aggregated findings that are, in turn, made intelligible once more through the recombinant power of the visualization tactics of the site.

In fact, not long after those 250 footprints went live, Chaim Meiselman, Judaica Special Collections Cataloger at UPenn libraries and friend-of-Footprints discovered multiple footprints in a volume of the Shehitot u-vedikot, including one from 1719 in colonial America, leading him to wonder if this is perhaps one of the earliest to be discovered so far for the young Jewish community of North America!

In this project, as in so many others, we invite our colleagues and friends around the world to upload and share information about the historical movement of Hebrew books by recording material you may come across about the Shehitot u-vedikot (or any other Hebrew book).  This incidental data from individual research will take on a new life when aggregated with others.  And along the way, you may find something that advances your research as well!

So Happy Fifth Anniversary, Footprints, and thanks to all of the planners, programmers, questioners, and contributors.  Looking forward to seeing what the next five years bring!

Don’t Kill Your Darlings, or, How Footprints is helping me to stop worrying and just finish my book

When I first began my research into the Oppenheim library, a senior scholar in the field casually suggested that I might also produce a new catalog of the collection.  The Oppenheim library is a marvel of Jewish bibliography: it holds medieval scientific manuscripts, Yiddish pamphlets from Amsterdam, Sephardic and Ashkenazic Talmudic commentaries, calendars, broadsides, and mystical manuals, polemics alongside concordances, grammars, dictionaries, and glossaries.  The last time a comprehensive catalog of the printed collection was produced was in 1929, in A.E. Cowley’s A concise catalogue of the Hebrew printed books in the Bodleian Library (Clarendon Press).  Cowley’s work was based upon the painstaking labor of Mortiz Steinschneider’s Catalogus librorum hebraeorum in Bibliotheca Bodleiana (1852-60).  


The Oppenheim collection has not had a shortage of catalogs.  It began as a personal library, and its owner carried his own handwritten inventory of the collection with him wherever he traveled.  He could consult it when he visited the great book markets in Leipzig to ensure that no new or old book escaped his great net.  This notebook was also sort of “portable” library.  It represented the sum total of the books he owned, and by extension, of the knowledge that he singularly possessed.  

1782 catalog of the Oppenheim collection

While the library was of great renown and under much demand in Oppenheim’s lifetime, after his death the historical winds of change began to blow in new directions.  With the declining wealth of Oppenheim’s heirs, the library was prepared up for auction.  The intellectuals of Central Europe oriented their knowledge pursuits in new directions: in the critical and focused library of the haskalah, in the culture wars between modernizers and traditionalists, in the fermentation and upheaval of the emergent Hasidic circles in the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth.  An auction of the collection in Hanover in 1782 found no buyer, but it did occasion the creation of a catalog.  Another forty years lapsed before another auction yielded yet another catalog in Hamburg in 1826.  And in the decades after the collection was purchased by the Bodleian Library of the University of Oxford in 1829, Steinschneider got to work on his magisterial Catalogus librorum hebraeorum.


Steinschneider’s Catalog

So why would there be need for another inventory of this collection?  My research brought me into contact with a myriad of byways leading from my central avenue into paths that could tell an infinite number of new tales.  Every scholar who works in archives inevitably discovers so much more data than she or he will ultimately include in the final product.  Leaving this data behind is a struggle and a shame, even if it is an occupational necessity.  It can sometimes even be crippling for a published work.  We’ve all encountered studies that derive from meticulous expert research, and then sag beneath the weight of the details.  Some of us might recognize the hardship we face in submitting a piece of writing for publication when it means slashing away at so many hard-won bits of data.


Footprints, on the other hand, gives life to that data.  It offers a venue other than the individual monograph or article for these triumphs of archival discovery to stay alive, and in the process become useful to others.  Rather than pruning away material that will then never see the light of day, Footprints allows a scholar to publish that data by different means, and to receive credit for the act of scholarly research even when it does not eventuate in the footnotes of a monograph.  


The beneficiaries of these micro-publications are manifold, especially in generating better inventories for the next user.  For example, an extant copy from Oppenheim’s library (Sefer Mateh Aharon, Frankfurt am Main, 1678–Opp. 4o 1344) does not reveal much about itself.  But when put into conversation with his personal, handwritten, catalog from the 1680s, we can learn that a book was owned and sold by a widow who was in need of funds, was bought by a wealthy young man whose father was a pillar of the Worms community, was stored in Hanover in the estate of the Court Jews to the man who would become King George I of England, and was lent to a young student, who returned it before it became a permanent fixture of a formal library.  You can check out the complete footprint record here.

Ms. Opp. 699, f. 81v. (personal catalog of David Oppenheim of Prague), held by the Bodleian Library.

Who cares?  The librarian, producing copy specific notes about a book that doesn’t tell its own story, who may not have the time or even the familiarity with these other documents that reveal hidden paths.  The scholar of George I’s Court Jew.  A historian of borrowing and lending practices.  A graduate student who wants to know more about the economic position of widows and women in premodern society.  This is the perfect space for librarians to both grow their individual catalogs and lend their material to the scholarship of others, and conversely for scholars to deposit the material they “just can’t fit” into a book or article for the benefit of the librarian and the next scholar to come along, all the while receiving credit for it.


Ultimately, such micro-research is a fun and fulfilling way to make new knowledge out of old data, and to contribute to an enterprise of growing information.  In the words of my colleague Adam Shear, it ensures “no datum left behind.”  For an example, stay tuned for my next post (called “In a Bind”).


Joshua Teplitsky (Stony Brook University) is one the of co-directors of the Footprints project.  He is finishing a monograph about the library of David Oppenheim of Prague (1664-1736) entitled Collecting as Power: David Oppenheim, Jewish Politics, and the Social Life of Books in Early Modern Europe.

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