Dear Mr Dangoor
It gives me immense pleasure to write to you to express my thanks for the warm welcome extended to me during my recent visit to The Exilarch's Foundation's offices.
It was indeed an honour and a privilege to be permitted to view the manuscripts of your grandfather, the Gaon Rabbi Ezra Reuben Dangoor Z.L., illustrious 20th Century Chief Rabbi of Baghdad and provinces, and prolific editor and printer of Hebrew books. Rabbi Dangoor's vast knowledge and love of Torah and the superb calligraphy exhibited in all his manuscripts particularly impressed me.
Rabbi Ezra Dangoor's recently published edition of 'Adi Zahav a copy of which you have kindly donated to us, constitutes an important addition to the Library's Hebrew collection of printed books and is greatly valued.
As a token of my appreciation I am enclosing a list consisting of 53 Baghdadi imprints held in the Hebrew collection, many of which were printed at your grandfather's publishing house. I would like to take this opportunity to cordially invite you to visit the Hebrew Section and the Oriental Reading Room. I will be delighted to show you and your circle of friends not only books printed at your grandfather's printing press, but also some of our treasured manuscripts.
The history of the Hebrew collection of manuscripts and printed books is rooted in the British Museum foundation collections. The libraries of Sir Hans Sloane, Sir John Cotton, and Robert Harley, the First Earl of Oxford which had been acquired by the British Museum in the 18th century, contained important Hebrew manusripts some of which finely illuminated. The Sloane library yielded some thirteen Hebrew manuscripts, the most notable of which being a 14th century translation of Aristotle's Historia Animalum by Samuel ha-Levi Abulafia and the handsomely illustrated Leipnik Haggadah, dated Altona 1740. The most significant contribution of Hebrew manuscripts derived from Robert Harley's collection and consisted of 130 manuscripts. Outstanding among those were the lavishly illuminated two volume copy of Maimonides' Mishneh Torah completed at Lisbon, 1471-72, a beautiful 13th century Biblical Italian codex in two volumes and a large Sephardic Bible from the 14th century known as the Harley Catalan Bible.
The following decades witnessed a steady expansion of the Hebrew manuscripts collection. This resulted partly from the dispersal of libraries owned by English aristocratic families as for instance that of the Duke of Sussex, King George IV's brother, but also from the judicious acquisition policies pursued by some of the Museum Keepers in charge of manuscripts, particularly Josiah Forshall and Sir Frederic Madden. Their major contribution was the purchase in 1839 of the elegant manuscript known as the North French Miscellany copied around 1280, and of the famed Ashkenazi and Barcelona Haggadot, which were added to the collection in 1843. By the mid-nineteenth century the Hebrew manuscript collection totalled about 300 manuscripts, half of which were biblical codices.
The breakthrough in the development of the Hebrew manuscript collection occurred in 1865 when the Museum acquired the library of the Italian bibliophile Joseph Almanzi comprising 332 fine manuscripts covering all fields of Hebrew literature. One of the jewels in the Almanzi collection is undoubtedly the exquisite Golden Haggadah copied and illuminated in Catalonia in the 14th century.
The contents of the collection was further shaped by two important developments, namely the acquisition between 1877-1882 of nearly 300 mostly Karaite and Yemenite manuscripts and the addition in 1925 or 1300 manuscripts from the library of Moses Gaster, who, for many years acted as the Hakham of the Sephardi and Portuguese community in England. His collection was rich in Samaritan works as well as Hebrew biblical, midrashic and cabalistic manuscripts.
Today, the British Library holds one of the most representative Hebrew manuscripts collections in the world numbering some 3,000 volumes and about 10,000 fragments deriving from the Cairo Genizah.
Besides manuscripts the collection boasts valuable printed book holdings numbering some 80,000 volumes. They too came into the possession of the British Museum at various stages after its foundation. At its inception in 1759, the Museum owned a single Hebrew work among its 500,000 printed volumes. This was the first edition of the Bomberg Talmud printed in Venice 1520-1523, from the library of King George II. That same year a gift of 180 books of great significance was offered to the Museum by Solomon Da Costa Athias, a merchant broker from Amsterdam who had lived in London for many years. A turning point occurred when the book collection of Michael of Hamburg - 4,420 volumes embracing all fields of Jewish learning - were purchased by the Museum in 1848. Subsequent acquisitions have included both religious and secular works leading to further expansion of the collection. Among the printed book material the most significant category are the Hebrew incunables (i.e. books that were printed before 1500), numbering over 100 works. In the collection there is also a fine assortment of 16th century imprints, and many unique examples testifying to Hebrew printing activities over the centuries in many parts of the globe.
Most of the manuscripts and printed books have been recorded in scholarly catalogues, copies of which are placed on open access in the Oriental Reading Room (see below). The most important are:
G Margoliouth's "Catalogue of the Hebrew and Samaritan Manuscripts in the British Museum", 3 vols. & Index, London, 1965 (reprint)
J Zender's "Catalogue of Hebrew books in the British Museum", London, 1867 (reprint 1964)
Van Straalen's "Catalogue of the Hebrew books in the British Museum acquired during the years 1868-1892", London, 1894
Second Supplementary Catalogue of Hebrew printed books in the British Library, 1893-1960. 2 vols. London, 1994
The Hebrew collection of manuscripts and printed books forms part of the Oriental and India Office Collection and is housed in the British Library's new building at 96 Euston Road, London NW1 2DB. Hebrew material can be viewed and consulted in the Oriental Reading Room, which is located on the third floor of the building. Admission to the Reading Room is by valid reader's pass only. A display of Hebrew illuminated manuscripts is on view in the Treasures Gallery of the Library, open daily to the public. One of the most beautiful manuscripts in the collection, the Golden Haggadah is displayed on the Turning the Pages interactive electronic system, which is accessible free of charge in the Treasures Gallery.
From the British Library
I understand that The Scribe will from now on be issued electronically on the Internet. Though I realise the importance of keeping abreast of new technology, I must express my personal regret that many of us will no longer enjoy the benefit of handling the printed version of this excellent publication. In the Library's Reading Rooms users and researchers have no access to the Internet as yet; consequently none would be able to read The Scribe in its new format. This is a great pity indeed! Besides I know of many library users who would much prefer leafing through the printed pages of a journal than scrolling through endless web pages. One of the sections of The Scribe most of its readers would no doubt miss is the visual material. The photographs accompanying the text were absolutely delightful!
Would it be at all possible to continue sending the Hebrew Section of the Library and other interested customers (such as myself for instance) hard copies of The Scribe? I hope I am not the only one voicing this request.
Curator in the Hebrew Section
Scribe: We had to go on the internet in order to move with the times and go forward rather than stay where we were. We acknowledge that this new practice may at the beginning cause inconvenience to some, but we feel in the fullness of time this will be overcome as and when the word has spread as to where we are and how they can 'connect up' in order to receive what we think will be an even more informative and flexible way of publishing due to its versitility.
On the question of visual pictures, this should not be a problem because we are getting an excellent reproduction on the internet of both colour and black and white pictures.
As an alternative to producing hard copies, we are prepared to provide a print-out of each issue to anyone interested at a cost of £10.00 plus postage. For your information, the old method of producing The Scribe used to cost £7,000 per edition!
If you would like to make any comments or contribute to the scribe please contact us.