Ancient manuscripts

Vast Library of Congress Hebrew collection published online for the first time

A pandemic-era digitization push and a grant from the David Berg Foundation allowed the library to create a high-quality digital archive of Hebrew manuscripts dating back centuries

Hilary Phelps for Jewish Insider

Ann Brener, Hebraic specialist, holds an 18th-century prayerbook that was written and illustrated by the artist Joseph ben Meir Schmalkalden in Mainz, Germany.

For more than a century, the Library of Congress has built up an impressive collection of Hebrew-language manuscripts that are hundreds or even thousands of years old.

Now, for the first time, amateur researchers and serious scholars alike can access 230 items from the library’s Hebraic section online, thanks to a digitization effort that began during the pandemic with a $50,000 grant from the David Berg Foundation.

“It’s a library-wide push to digitize, and we’re just part of that,” said Sharon Horowitz, a reference librarian in the Hebraic section. “Since the pandemic, the library as a whole has been trying to digitize as much as is legally possible, and as much as they can afford, because they realize that there are distant researchers who can’t get here.”

Earlier efforts to digitize the documents, many of which are handwritten and incredibly fragile, relied on volunteers and limited technology. Now, the works will also appear in high-resolution on the website of the National Library of Israel alongside other Hebrew-language documents housed in libraries and museums around the world.

“Researchers, basically at the click of a link, can have access to all those things,” said Horowitz.

The works are not revolutionary documents that will dramatically alter modern understanding of Jewish law or history. Instead, they showcase different ways in which Judaism was practiced around the world, at different times — much more mundane, but no less important to developing a deep understanding of what it meant to be Jewish throughout history.

“Funding projects like this, that preserve and present Jewish culture, helps to ensure the centrality of the Jewish past,” said Michael Glickman, an advisor to the David Berg Foundation.

For instance, visitors to the library’s website can now click through the pages of the Seder Keriat Shema, a book with the prayers one is supposed to say before going to sleep. The one inch-by-1.5-inch book, written and illustrated in 1745, was commissioned by a German Jewish man as a gift for his wife. Or they can look at a ketubah, or Jewish marriage contract, written in Italy in 1869 in much the same style that ketubot still appear today. 

“What’s touching to me is that a lot of these prayers are similar to what you would see in a prayer book today,” said Horowitz.

Putting these documents online also protects some of the old and fragile works. A team of people trained in handling manuscripts in the library’s “Scan Lab” handled the digitization, with Horowitz — who can, of course, read Hebrew — occasionally showing up to make sure the pages appeared in the right order.

“It’s better for people to be looking at the digital format than actually touching them, than turning the pages, which in some cases are falling apart,” said Horowitz. 

The library’s collection contains millions of volumes in dozens of languages, of which Hebrew is just one.

“If you’re going to be a country of great scholars, you can’t really be parochial in your outlook, and the Library of Congress is now the largest library in the world, with all languages and all subjects,” then-Hebraic specialist Ann Brener told Jewish Insider in 2021. “You’re asking why Hebrew, but the point is, why not?”

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