Office Makeover

The Judaica Collection’s offices and reading room underwent an extensive renovation during the Fall 2009 semester. The beautifully redesigned offices are brighter, incorporate a more efficient and spacious layout, and have been technologically updated. We invite you to stop by and see the transformation!

The Reading Room has been updated with new furniture, more shelf space, and a digital projection system.

The offices have been modernized and incorporate a new office for the curator and more spacious work stations for the Collection’s staff.

The North African Jewish Collection

With the acquisition of manuscripts from North Africa over the last ten years, the Yale library is becoming a center for the study of North African Jewry. The library’s holdings include manuscripts from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. The heart of the collection, however, is the material relating to the Jews of Morocco. Moroccan Jewry was and still is the largest and most influential in the region. It has a long and illustrious history that goes back to Greco/Roman times and over the centuries the community produced many noted scholars, rabbis, poets, men of commerce, and statesmen. The Jewish population is composed of groups indigenous to the region and Jews that immigrated to Morocco from Spain and Portugal. While Jewish life has ceased to exist in most Muslim countries, Morocco still has an active Jewish community.

The Yale collection contains documents from all the major centers of Jewish life in Morocco. These include Casablanca, Fez, Marrakesh, Mogador (also known as Essaouira), Meknes, Rabat, Sefrou, Tetuan and Tangier. There is also material from smaller and less well-known towns and villages. The documents are in Hebrew, Arabic, Judeo-Arabic, Ladino, French and Spanish. The collection consists of documents from the late 16th to the mid-twentieth centuries. They consist of rabbinic documents concerning such issues as marriage, divorce, property and inheritance. In addition, there are manuscripts of poetry, liturgy and other subjects that remain to be studied and identified. In order to make the North African Collection accessible to researchers, we invited Professor Moshe Bar Asher, who was born in Morocco and is one of the most knowledgeable scholars in the world on the subject, to help organize and catalog the collection. Professor Bar Asher is also president of the National Academy of the Hebrew Language and an emeritus professor of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Here are several examples of documents that Professor Bar Asher has identified:

  • A page from Ta’anug ve-simhahTa’anug ve-simhah: This is a unique manuscript of an unknown work whose title is “Ta’anug ve-simhah” by Yehudah ben Avraham El-’Asry from Ksar-Es-Souk, southeastern Morocco (Metaghra, currently known as Tafilalt), copied by his nephew Avraham ben Moshe El-‘Asry in 1916. The manuscript has many colophons, one on the first page and a few others on different pages of the manuscript. All of them indicate the name of the copier and the date. The Manuscript consists of exegesis and novellae on the portion of the week from the Pentateuch and other subjects. The language is mostly Hebrew, however, a few texts are written in the Judeo-Arabic of Ksar-Es-Souk. Rabbi Yehudah was born in the first part of the 19th century and died in 1905. Rabbi Avraham was born in 1902 and died in Jerusalem in 1988.
  • A manuscript recording a series of halakhic (legal) decisions by different rabbis of Fez, primarily from the year 1882-1883. Among the rabbis listed are Ya’akov Khalfon, Yosef Samun (d. ca. 1768), Shelomoh Ha-Kohen, and Yuhudah Moshe Aflalo. Many of the decisions are concerned with the collection and distribution of charity for needy Jews living in Fez. More than 125 decisions are included in the collection.

A group of manuscripts bound together and copied in Fez, most probably in the 19th century. The texts were composed, however, in the beginning of the 18th century. They include decisions made by Yehudah ben ‘Attar, Ya’akov ibn Tsur, Yehudah ‘Uzziel, Sa’adia ‘Akiba ben Danan , Shaul ben Danan, and others. Most of these rabbis were the religious leaders of the city of Fez at the end of the 17th and the first part of the 18th century. The scribe is Yitshak Kohen. Many of the texts are queries with detailed answers to various Jewish legal questions (responsa). In addition, one finds in this collection a homily on the subject of establishing fixed times for prayers

These are but a few examples of the manuscripts; there are literally thousands more to be examined. With the assistance of Professor Bar Asher, we hope to get a better understanding of the contents of this important collection.

–Nanette Stahl, Judaica Collection Curator

Judaica Manuscript Collections in the Yale Library

In addition to the collection of Judaica books in the library, we have been collecting manuscripts of various kinds that are of interest to scholars. These different genres of materials enhance the Judaica Collection by providing library patrons with materials that are unique to Yale. Since the library’s holdings are cataloged online, knowledge of these items is accessible to scholars all over the world.

The largest of our manuscript collections are the Jewish community registers from Europe. These registers, known in Hebrew as pinkase kehilah, were produced by synagogue congregations, study societies, charitable societies and burial societies (the hevra kadisha). The pinkasim in Yale’s collection originate primarily in Eastern and Central Europe (mostly Hungary and Romania). The contents consist of proceedings of meetings, regulations and by-laws, records of monetary contributions, and the recording of births and deaths. The title page of many of them are elaborately written and decorated. They are an excellent primary resource for the study of the economic, social and religious life of Jewish communities in Eastern and Central Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They originated in the large centers of Jewish life but also in small out-of-way communities. They thus shed light on Jewish life in geographic locations where there is precious little other information available. There are pinkasim in the collection that contain records that go up to the early 1940s, the point at which these communities were destroyed by the Nazis.

The community register collection serves as a complement to Yale’s large collection of yizkor books, memorials to the destroyed Jewish communities of Europe during the Sho’ah. These are works that were by-and-large compiled by survivors of those towns. Those that remained alive at the end of the war attempted to evoke the towns of their birth in earlier times when those towns were still vibrant and active. In addition to the many essays concerning the village, town, or city found in these books, the compilers also included photos of members of the various Zionist groups, sports clubs, school graduations, family outings, socialist or Bundist gatherings, and other events in the life of their community. The yizkor books celebrate the life of European Jewish communities that were brutally destroyed; the community register collection serve to shed further light on many of those communities. A complete list of Yale’s holdings can be found here.

Another group of manuscripts that we have assembled over a period of several years is the rabbinic emissaries collection. In Hebrew they were referred to as shadarim, an acronym for shilluhe de-rabbanan. The Jewish community living in Palestine under Ottoman rule was both poor and pious. Its members lived off the charity of Jewish Diaspora communities that sent funds to the Holy Land to support the Jews living there. The rabbinic academies, old age homes, orphanages, and hospitals thus sent on an almost regular basis men to various parts of the world to raise money. In order to prove that they were legitimate representatives of the institutions that sent them, these emissaries carried letters of introduction which they presented to the rabbis and notables of the Jewish communities to which they were sent. The letters shed light on Jewish life in Palestine before the secular immigrants from Eastern Europe began arriving in large numbers. Up until the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Jewish community in the Holy Land was composed of Sephardic Jews (of Spanish origin) who had been there for several centuries, and the ultra-orthodox Jews who had come from Central and Eastern Europe (known as Ashkenazim) who had come in the 18th and 19th centuries. Both these communities, Ashkenazic and Sephardic, lived primarily in what were known as the four holy cities: Jerusalem, Hebron, Tiberius, and Safed. And both sent emissaries to members of their respective communities in the Diaspora for the purpose of collecting funds. Many of the emissaries were important rabbis and Talmudic scholars and some even stayed on in the communities to which they were sent as rabbis and preachers. The economic, social and religious inter-connectedness between Jews in Palestine and those in the Diaspora is a subject for exploration and study and Yale’s collection provides a rich resource for research in this area. They can be found in Manuscripts and Archives at the Sterling Memorial Library.

Over the last few years, we have also built a collection of mizrah and shiviti plaques written and decorated by hand. Though they are used for somewhat different purposes, they are often combined into one. The shiviti plaque is inscribed with the Hebrew verse “I have set the Lord always before me” (Psalm 16:8).

Mizraḥ plaque : [Germany or Poland?], [19th century?] Manuscript, ink and paint on paper. The manuscript has a red background on which is placed an elaborate papercut design that includes birds, flowers, and a seven branch candelabrum held by two rampant lions. On either side of the lions are the Tablets of the Law consisting of the Ten Commandments in abbreviated form. In the center is the word "Mizraḥ" (east) and and מצד זה רוח חיים ("from this side [comes] the spirit of life"), four words composing the acronym, מזרח ("mizraḥ"). In the top two corners and above the lions are phrases of the Mishnah, "Be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer, and strong as a lion [to carry out the will of your Father in Heaven]" (Pirke Avot 5:23).

It is hung in a synagogue in order to exhort the congregation to greater devotion in its prayers. The mizrah (“east” in Hebrew) indicates in which direction to turn in order to face Jerusalem during the Amidah prayer.

Shiviti plaque : [Spain? North Africa?], [late 19th or early 20th cent]. Manuscript, ink and paint on paper.

Both are usually composed of prayers and graphics and are more often than not one and the same. The plaque is meant to be both spiritual and decorative and thus various religious symbols appear on it. The seven-branched menorah usually is at the center. On some plaques, kabbalistic images may appear. And still others may contain images of holy places or utensils associated with the Temple such as the incense burner or the Eternal Light. Often micrography (design with tiny Hebrew letters) is an aspect of the decoration. Shiviti and mizrah plaques can be found in synagogues all over the world; they are not unique to any particular Jewish community. They serve as examples of both religious and folk art and have much to teach us about the cultural and material milieu of the communities that produced them. They are housed in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

–Nanette Stahl, Judaica Collection Curator

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