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From Amsterdam to Algeria: A Chapter in Hebrew Book History

(The following post is by Ann Brener, Hebraic area specialist in the Library’s African and Middle Eastern Division.)

“Order of Prayers according to the rite of the Sephardi Holy Community. Amsterdam 1739.” Hebraic Section, African and Middle East Division., Library of Congress.

Philadelphia, look out! You may be the official “City of Brotherly Love,” but Ouargla, a town deep in the Algerian desert, is about to give you a run for the money. And all because of a book: a tiny Hebrew prayer-book officially entitled: “Order of Prayers according to the rite of the Sephardi Holy Community,” published in Amsterdam in 1739. The title-page says it all.

There we read that the printing of the book was sponsored by three “learned young brothers who will not be divided: Tzemach, Jacob and David,” sons of one Meir Cresques to whom the sons respectfully append the title “Sage.” The place of publishing, Amsterdam, appears in large square letters, as befits a book published in the capital of the Hebrew book-printing world. Amsterdam was also the center of an important Sephardi community; Jews whose ancestors hailed from Spain and Portugal and for whom memories of the Exile in 1492 remained fresh and vivid. Our little prayer-book was only one of many such Sephardi prayer-books printed in Amsterdam in the 18th century, and there is nothing, therefore, to make us think that the Cresques family was anything but a local Amsterdam family, blown thither with other descendants of the Exile at some point in the distant past. The true story, however, is quite different.

Detail from a print showing the busy Amsterdam harbor in the 1700s. Detail of “Amsterdam aan de Water kant van t’Y te Sien.” [17–]. Library of Congress Prints and Photograph Division.

In 1739, when this book was published, Amsterdam was a prosperous, bustling city; a magnet for merchants and travelers from all over the world, and for Jewish travelers in particular, since it offered a measure of religious tolerance not usually associated with Jewish life in that period.

One of those travelers, as it turns out, was Meir Cresques, the father of our three brothers. A native of Ouargla, a market-town deep in southern Algeria, his purpose in coming to Amsterdam was to print a valuable Hebrew manuscript “hidden away for hundreds of years,” and written by one of the great early Jewish sages of Algeria, Rabbi Shimon bar Tzemach.

This manuscript was published as “Sefer Tashbetz” in 1738-1741, and fortunately for us, Meir Cresques also included a lengthy Hebrew preface to the book, full of chatty details. He was quite the traveler, was Meir Cresques, visiting cities great and small across two continents, all in search of wealthy Jews to underwrite the printing of his book. In Florence he hobnobbed with the Grand Duke of Tuscany; in Oran he was taken prisoner by Spanish corsairs. And in Rome, London, and Bordeaux (to name only a few) he met with leading Jewish personalities of the day, all of whom he studiously listed. Then home again for a spell, to relate his great joy at seeing his sons Tzemach, Jacob and David – the same three names that appear on the title-page of our little prayer-book.

Map of Algeria from 1884. Rinn, L. & Bissuel, H. (1884) Carte de l’Algérie: indiquant la situation, l’ importance numerique et la marche, des orders religieux Musulmans. Alger.: lith. Adolphe Jourdan. The town Ouargla may be found on the lower right portion of the map. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

Detail of Map of Algeria from 1884, showing the town Ouargla. Rinn, L. & Bissuel, H. (1884) Carte de l’Algérie: indiquant la situation, l’ importance numerique et la marche, des orders religieux Musulmans. Alger.: lith. Adolphe Jourdan. Library of Congress Geography and Map Division.

A traveler in the lonely reaches of Algeria. [Man on camel next to a slanting palm tree, desert in background]. (1860) [Between and 1900]. Library of Congress Prints and Photograph Division.

The sons, it would seem, were grown up by the time their father embarked on his publishing odyssey, and it must have been during that break back home that they gave him the money for the prayer-book in Amsterdam. Could it be that they saw their father home from his travels with a tattered, sea-stained prayer-book, and decided that a miniature prayer-book would be just the gift for their sea-faring, hard-traveling father? We can only surmise. But it is certainly possible, and we can definitely be sure that the little book was created with a traveler in mind. For in addition to its small size, which would make it easy to carry on any journey whether by camel or by sea, it was fitted with a specially-made leather case for added protection from the elements.

There is no doubt that the case was specially-made for this little prayer-book, as the case fits snugly around the fragile object and the cap closes tightly in the most satisfying way. It is a lovely piece of workmanship, and if a gift to their father – it was a gift of love, indeed.

“Order of Prayers according to the rite of the Sephardi Holy Community. Amsterdam 1739.”
Library of Congress Hebraic Section, African and Middle East Division.

But all this is conjecture. The only thing we can know for certain is that the bonds between the brothers must have been strong, indeed. They not only described themselves on the title-page as those “who will not be divided” but even found a way to emphasize these bonds through the date of the book. Like many Hebrew books before the modern period, the date of printing takes the form of a “chronogram” rather than numbers and is embedded in a biblical verse printed in the final lines on the page. The year is determined by adding the numerical value of the letters emphasized in the chosen verse; in this case: “the triple cord not easily broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:12). In many books the biblical verse seems to have been chosen almost at random, but in our “Order of Prayers” the verse is significant indeed. It is, first and foremost, a nod to their father’s publishing achievements in Amsterdam, for the last section in his book was entitled “The Triple Cord.” But perhaps even more important, the verse serves as a neat allusion to the three brothers themselves and to the strong bonds between them. Yes, Philadelphia may have been enjoying some “brotherly love” for a good half century by the time this little prayer-book book was printed, but it was definitely alive and well in Ouargla, too.

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