90,000 Hebrew Manuscripts Available Online for First Time in History

“Take this book of Teaching and place it beside the Aron Brit Hashem your God, and let it remain there as a witness against you.” Deuteronomy 31:26 (The Israel Bible™)

Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion, was a visionary who not only played a crucial part in the creation of the Jewish state but also understood the importance of preserving Hebrew manuscripts. Declaring, “It is our first duty to save Hebrew literature,” he sent experts across the world to find and reproduce with permission Hebrew manuscripts that could not be physically brought to the Holy Land.  

It is estimated that Ben-Gurion’s mission collected 90 percent of the world’s Hebrew manuscripts, either in their original forms or on microfilm. These records have been held at the National Library of Israel in Jerusalem since the 1950’s.

On August 6, at the opening of the World Congress of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, Ben-Gurion’s vision was launched into the modern era by way of a new website digitizing millions of images from dozens of collections for online use. The website, called Ktiv: The International Collection of Digitized Hebrew Manuscripts, has preserved for posterity some 90,000 Hebrew manuscripts and images from 40 countries dating back to the Middle Ages until today.

“This is an important project for scholars and laypeople alike as so many manuscripts have been destroyed over the ages, often through anti-Semitism or natural disasters,”  commented Roni Segal, academic adviser for The Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, a company which offers language courses online, to Breaking Israel News. “Both Biblical and modern writings are now centrally preserved for all to study.”

Accessible through innovative search and discovery tools, savvy researchers who love Hebrew, history and the Bible may now see online the Babylonian Talmud from the 14th century, and a manuscript written by Rabbi Joseph Caro, the author of the famous Jewish law book, the Shulhan Arukh, in his own hand. Additionally, one may view important previously unpublished Kabbalist documents relating to Jewish mysticism and Hebrew poetry dating back to the Middle Ages and Renaissance.

Other manuscripts of interest are the Leningrad Codex, significant Judeo-Persian handwritten writings such as from Moses Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah (Repetition of the Law) dating back to Persia 1549-50, the Aleppo Codex, documents from the 13th century detailing struggles within the Yemenite Jewish community, commercial and family records chronicling Jewish life in Afghanistan in the 11th century and discourses in philosophy, astronomy, science, medicine and the Jewish calendar.

Also included are the First Gaster Bible, dating back to the 9th-10th century and containing fragments from Psalms, and the Second Gaster Bible which dates back to the 11th-12th century and includes sections from the Pentateuch. Both are decorated with Islamic style motifs. There is also an Italian decorated daily prayer book dating back to the 15th century.

Ktiv is a joint venture of Albert D. and Nancy Friedberg through the Friedberg Jewish Manuscript Society, The National Library of Israel (NLI) and the Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF) in cooperation with the Israeli Ministry of Jerusalem and Heritage’s Landmarks project. The Vatican, the British Library, and the national libraries of Austria, Germany, France, Russia, as well as dozens of other important institutions, are also participating, making the site is one of the largest digital collections of manuscripts in existence.

“Over the course of thousands of years, the Jewish people used the written word to express their religious beliefs and their scientific knowledge,” Chairman of The National Library of Israel David Blumberg said. “They meticulously copied Torah scrolls, books of religious laws and customs, and essays on different topics related to religion and science.

“Hebrew manuscripts, reflecting the knowledge and culture of the Jewish people, traversed countries and continents before finding refuge in large libraries and the vaults of private collections. Today, these manuscripts present a rich resource for learning about the spiritual and material cultures of Jewish communities across the globe and we are now enabling free access to all Hebrew manuscripts from any computer or mobile device.”

Though every manuscript is written in Hebrew letters, there is a wide range of Jewish languages represented, including Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic and Judeo-Greek. The collection only consists of hand-written texts.

“Not only will this library preserve ancient and modern Hebrew, but, as many of the manuscripts are richly illustrated, it will serve those interested in Jewish art,” noted Segal. “For example, documented is the Sephardi Golden Haggadah from 1320 AD which includes stunning images from Genesis, the Exodus story and Jewish rituals.”

To learn more about Biblical and modern Hebrew, please visit here.

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