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Worlds within Worlds, Books within Books: Hebrew Manuscripts as Binding for non-Hebrew Books

(The following is a post by Ann Brener, Hebraic Specialist in the African and Middle Eastern Division.)

Happenstance and an eye for aesthetics resulted in an unusual find last week in the Library of Congress. “I was re-shelving a book,” explains Marianna Stell from the Library’s Rare Book and Special Collections Division, “when out of the corner of my eye I noticed this beautiful, even manuscript hand peeking out from the shelf.”

Image from one side of the manuscript leaf binding that caught the eye of Marianna Stell in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division.

The manuscript, as it turned out, was a single parchment leaf in Hebrew letters, one that had survived the centuries as binding for a Latin book printed in Frankfurt am Main in the late 16th century. Her curiosity aroused, Marianna brought the manuscript leaf to the attention of staff in the Library’s Hebraic Section, who identified it as a fragment from “Beit Yosef,” a Jewish code of law produced during the first half of the 16th century in the lands of the Ottoman Empire.

Portrait of Frederick II, King of Denmark and Norway, 1559-1588. From “Rervm danicarvm Friderico II.” Rare Book and Collections

Detail from an engraving of the Peace Treaty of 1763 in “Rervm danicarvm Friderico II.” Rare Book and Collections Division.

The Latin book, “Rervm danicarvm Friderico II,” is an encomium to Frederick II, King of Denmark and Norway from 1559-1588, with emphasis on the Seven Years War between Denmark and Germany.

“Rervm danicarvm Friderico II” is a beautifully printed work, fit for its royal subject with several exquisitely engraved frontispieces and a series of pull-out engravings. Most of these engravings are of a decidedly military nature, though one of them depicts the convocation of kings that brought an end to the Seven Years War in 1763.


The Hebrew leaf that serves as the binding for all this royal blood and glory comes from a manuscript copy of “Beit Yosef” [The House of Joseph], a monumental code of Jewish law composed by Joseph Karo (1488-1575), one of the most important Jewish figures of all time.  Best known today as the author of “Shulhan Arukh,” a digest of “Beit Yosef,” Karo wrote his magnum opus over a period of twenty years in the Ottoman Empire and lived to see the first printed edition (Sabbioneta, 1553). The surviving leaf from this manuscript deals with complexities surrounding the biblical institution of levirate marriage, according to which a man is obliged to marry his brother’s widow.

To the right, the opening to Chapter 170, dealing with the laws of levirate marriage (fol. 219v).

From the first printed edition of Joseph Karo’s “Beit Yosef” (Sabbioneta, 1553). To the left, the first page of printed text from Volume III (“Even ha-Ezer”).

“Man’s search for meaning” may be natural to the human condition, but as we all gaze at the book on the table, it is hard to find any connection between the book itself and the manuscript leaf in which it is bound. Nor, perhaps, is there any real need to assume a connection between them. The past several decades have brought to light many examples of non-Jewish texts bound up in stray Hebrew manuscripts, creating a new field of research originally known as the “European Geniza” and now more aptly entitled “Books within Books.” Mauro Perani, one of the leading scholars in the field, estimates some 10,000 of these books in various libraries and archives across Europe, with a good 8,000 of these in Italy alone. Yet even in this wider historical context, the juxtaposition of the two texts is jarring, and to all of us looking at the book on the table, that manuscript leaf just seems so forlorn.

Rervm danicarvm Friderico II” by Gasparis Ens Lorchensis. Frankfurt am Main: P. Fischeri, 1593. Rare Book and Collections Division.

The Hebrew leaf now covering “Rervm danicarvm Friderico II” is the remnant of a luxurious, wide margined manuscript. How it ended up as binding on a Latin book published in Frankfurt is anyone’s guess, but like other Hebrew manuscripts that underwent a similar fate, there seem to be several possibilities. One is that the manuscript ended up as waste in a printer’s shop. True, there were no Hebrew printers in Frankfurt at the time “Rervm danicarvm Friderico II” was printed, but the manuscript, or the leaf from the manuscript, might have been sold for waste binding by one of the Hebrew print shops in Italy. This is a real possibility, given the fact that “Beit Yosef” has already undergone two printings earlier in the century, both of them in Italy. Parchment was a valuable commodity and “recycling” it for use in the binding of printed books was too lucrative for any printer to ignore. Binding printed books with parchment leaves of discarded manuscripts was a common practice among printers throughout Europe, Jewish and non-Jewish alike.

Another possibility is that this particular leaf ended up in non-Jewish hands as a result of local anti-Jewish riots, such as the Fettmilch Riots of 1614, which saw Frankfurt’s Jewish Quarter attacked and looted. Or perhaps it was confiscated by ecclesiastical authorities at some point, in Frankfurt or elsewhere.  But however this manuscript leaf ended up where it did, it is a fragment from some lost moment of history, and “fragments,” as Marianna notes, “can be extraordinarily precious.”

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