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Introduction to Jewish Book Collecting

By Jonathan Fishburn 

When Jewish families sit down to celebrate the Passover festival, they read from the Haggadah, a book that recounts the story of when the Children of Israel left the bonds of slavery in Egypt and became a free nation. The Haggadah is one of the most iconic and popularly collected Jewish books – there are approximately 7000 editions with translations from Hebrew into different languages including English, Arabic, Russian, Amharic, and German. Many are graphically illustrated, and in particular, editions by the artist Arthur Szyk have become increasingly in demand and a first edition has made in excess of £20,000 hammer price.

A Jewish book is easily defined as a book about any aspect of Jewish life including the religious practices, culture, rabbinic texts, history, literature, philosophy and community life of Jews throughout the world. However they are often classified into Hebraica and Judaica: the former being books in the Hebrew language and other Jewish languages such as Yiddish, Ladino and Judeo-Arabic which use Hebrew characters, and the latter referring to books about Jews in any other language.

Jewish books were first printed in Italy and Spain in the 1460s and the first dated Hebrew printed book is Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki’s commentary on the Bible printed in Regio, Italy in 1475. A single page of this book went for $82,000 in 2004. The first Hebrew Bible published in America was published in Philadelphia in 1814 and the first Hebrew calendar in America was not printed until 1851. Interestingly, Hebrew books were not printed in Jerusalem till the 1840s and they have also been printed in China, India, Germany and Iraq.

Institutions began collecting Jewish books in the mid 18th century.  The British Library formally acquired its first Hebrew books in the 1750s and have developed an outstanding collection of books and manuscripts including approximately 100 Hebrew incunables.  The Bodleian Library at Oxford has one of greatest collections in the world of Hebraica – at its core is the library of Rabbi David Oppenheim, an 18th century bibliophile who was initially chief rabbi of Moravia, and later of Prague.  Bought in 1829, it consisted of 5000 printed books and 1000 manuscripts.

Other important public Judaica collections include the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress in Washington, The Vatican, the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Large American university libraries bought heavily in the 1960s with the growth of academic Jewish studies.

While bookdealers handling Judaica are primarily based in Israel, America and Europe, Jewish books attract a wide variety of individual collectors across the globe, including Christian theologians, those interested in Kabbalah and mysticism, university scholars and private collectors who often have an ultimate desire to contribute to Jewish history which becomes evident when they bequeath their collection to a specific institution.

Judaica is increasingly sold by specialist auctioneers such as Kestenbaum and Co. in New York. Established auction houses such as Sotheby’s, Christies and Bloomsbury do occasionally have individual Jewish items or collections for sale, but not as regularly as they once did in the 1970s and 1980s.

Currently, there is a strong market for early Zionist material; for example a copy of the complete first edition of Theodore Herzl’s Der Judenstaat, his blueprint for the establishment of the State of Israel, can fetch $15,000 and letters and autographs of leaders such as Chaim Weizman and David Ben-Gurion are popular. The first printings of Chassidic works and early American Jewish printings are also in high demand. Paper-based items such as posters, broadsides and pamphlets fare well. Reflecting the general market increase in photographic books, Jewish photographic books of travels in Palestine and those that document pre-war Jewish life in Eastern Europe are sought after.

One area that has not done particularly well are Hebrew grammars and Christian Hebraica. Additionally, scholarly books have not held their prices: the ‘Judaica Bookdealer’ catalogues from the 1970 indicate that scholarly books had much higher relative values than today and this is clearly a reflection of the impact of the internet and print on demand services. I am often called by people with an old edition of the classic Funk and Wagnall’s 12 volume ‘Jewish Encyclopedia’ who expect that they are sitting on a goldmine. I have to gently break the news that they would be lucky to get £75 for it.

The article was first published in Sheppard’s Confidential, 2007. It is presented here by permission of Jonathan Fishburn and Sheppard’s Confidential. Thank you very much.

Published since 08 Dec 2009