Tag Archives: Amsterdam

Wandering in the Stacks: the Americas, Spanish & Portuguese, and Christian Hebraists

As part of the follow up on the fantastic work that was done by Kelilah, Hannah, and Avinoam, I have been revisiting some of the interesting materials that they came across while working on cataloging our rare Judaica imprints.  Below is just a sampling of some of the wonderful materials that we have in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library:

  • It isn’t surprising, given the strong  history of Hebrew at Columbia since its inception,  that we have a copy of Judah Monis’s Grammar of the Hebrew Tonguethe first book to be printed using a significant amount of Hebrew type in the Americas. Due to lack of Hebrew type availability, Monis convinced Harvard to order the type specially from London (prior to this printing, students had to copy his textbook by hand for his class). Columbia’s copy was owned by someone (perhaps one of Monis’s students) as early as 1737 (see photo above), and there is a description of Monis and his work on the flyleaf facing the title page of the book, as pictured on the right.
  • An earlier book with American-Hebrew connections is the Arte Hebraispano, printed in Lyon, France, in 1676.  The book’s author, Martin del Castillo, was a “calificador” (an expert consultant) for the inquisition at the Monastery of San Francisco in Mexico City.  Not having access to the necessary type in Mexico City, he sent his manuscript to Lyon for printing.  The author includes an apology, noting that, as the book was printed so far away, there were many errors made in printing. Columbia’s copy had been previously owned by Monastery of San Cosme in Mexico City. This seems to be the oldest Hebrew grammar written (but not printed!) in the Americas. [Many thanks to Dr. Francois Soyer, who explained to me the difference between an Inquisitor and a calificador. Thanks to Dr. Jesús de Prado Plumed for clarifying that this is a solely Hebrew grammar, not a Judeo-Spanish book.]
  • Another book comes from a century earlier.  Printed in 1523 by the famed Venetian printer Daniel Bomberg, this Sefer Ha-hinukh was missing some pages.  The book’s owner painstakingly copied the Hebrew type to fill in the missing leaves.  Can you tell which was printed and which was handwritten?
  • Jews traveled for many reasons: persecution, trade, marriage, to name just a few.  The owner of this Sefer ha-Rokeah (an ethical work, this one printed in 1505) apparently traveled often, but wanted to bring his book of ethics along on his journey.  At the end of the front matter, right before the text begins, the owner wrote Tefilat Ha-derekh, the Wayfarer’s prayer, as shown below.
  • We know from owners’ marks that the kabbalistic text, Ṿe-zot ha-sefer ha-Nefesh ha-ḥakhamah was owned by Ya’akov Yisrael Levenshtat.  Not much is known about Levenshtat himself, although about 85 of his books were included in the collection donated to Columbia by Temple Emanue-l in 1892. This book was bound in a piece of parchment that included a list of names. The front board (partially obscured by the bookplate given by Columbia to the Temple Emanu-el books) was the top of the document, reading (in Portuguese), Pauta dos Yrmãos, or List of Brothers.  It is a list of the founders of a “pious organization” from late 17th century Amsterdam. Some of the names mentioned include:
    • Ischac Nunes Carvalho
    • Rephael Nunes Carvalho
    • Eliau Gaon
    • Mordochay Lumbrozo

[Many thanks to Dr. Aron Sterk for his assistance with identifying this document.]

  • The last item, a Hebrew Bible, was probably owned by a Christian interested in studying the text in its original language.  The owner had a special binding made for the book to allow for his study.  Between each leaf of the original book, the binder inserted a much larger paper for comments and notes. This way, the owner could add his extensive glosses to the text without interfering with the original.  The binding nearly doubled the size of the book, as shown here.

Hebrew mss @ CUL: The (Raphael Jesurun de) Spinoza autograph

The advantage to working in a collection such as Columbia's, with its very deep and diverse resources, is that new and interesting materials pop up almost daily.  A couple of months ago, I received a phone call that someone wanted to come and look at our Spinoza autograph. 

Columbia is home to the Oko-Gebhardt Spinoza collection, with nearly 4,000 volumes by and about Barukh/Benedict Spinoza.  Until the phone call, however, I did not know that any autographs by the controversial philosopher himself were present in our collection.  I hurried over to the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, where I saw the volume shown here.  It seemed a bit strange, as the text, Sefer ha-hinukh, is a work about the commandments of Judaism, but I speculated that perhaps this was something he owned very early in life, perhaps even as a child.

I emailed Professor Adriaan Offenberg in Amsterdam about the find, knowing that Professor Offenberg has done a tremendous amount of research on the subject, and that the only known autographs by Benedict Spinoza were in Amsterdam.  His response was tremendously helpful, and told a totally different story:

The signature shown here is actually in the hand of Raphael Jesurun de Spinoza, born around 1617, and also known as Bartholome Rodrigues Henriques.  His name is mentioned in the Portuguese Community of Amsterdam's archives between 1657 and 1673.   There are at least six known books that contain his signature, one of which, a Bible, caused a tremendous controversy in the 1950s, when a scholar published its manuscript notes assuming that it had belonged to Benedict Spinoza.  Dr. Leo Fuks, the librarian of the Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana at the time, published a very strong rebuttal in Dutch, in Amstelodamum (November 1959), which proved that the signature was not Benedict's.

No doubt Raphael Jesurun de Spinoza was an interesting figure as well, even if he wasn't the philosopher that I had hoped he would be.  Through him I learned a fascinating story about scholars and scholarship, and of the importance of thoroughly researching a topic before jumping to any conclusions.

Many thanks to Professor Offenberg for his help in demystifying this enigma.

Hebrew Mss @ CUL: Travels to India

 Relacion delas noticias delos Judios de Cochin The manuscripts relating to Jewish Studies in the Columbia University Libraries are not limited to those in Hebrew.  This manuscript, written in Spanish in the 17th century, describes one of the far-flung communities of the Jewish diaspora: that of Cochin, India.  The author of the manuscript, Moses Pereyra de Paiva, traveled to Cochin with his friends, and wrote the story of his travels in this book, called Relacion delas noticias delos Judios de Cochin.  The printed edition first appeared, in Portuguese, in the city of Amsterdam, in 1678, and then in Spanish, in 1687.

CUL has a number of Spanish and Portuguese manuscripts produced in Amsterdam by Jews and Crypto-Jews who fled the Iberian Peninsula after the Expulsions in 1492 (Spain) and 1497 (Portugal), and throughout the period of the Inquisition.  (Keep an eye out for a special announcement relating to manuscripts in this genre!)

This is manuscript MS X893.19 P41, found in CLIO here: http://clio.cul.columbia.edu:7018/vwebv/holdingsInfo?bibId=7518883.  Another manuscript describing the community of Cochin (in Hebrew) is a scroll, written about 100 years later, in 1781 (MS Plimpton Hebrew 004)

Image photography by Ardon Bar Hama.

Update: Due to discussion in the comments, I have added an image from MS Plimpton Hebrew 004, a manuscript which describes the Jews of Cochin in Hebrew, below.