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International Digital Library of Hebrew Manuscripts

 The British Library partners with the National Library of Israel

As part of the International Digital Library of Hebrew Manuscripts initiative, a joint venture of the National Library of Israel and the Friedberg Jewish Manuscript Society, the National Library of Israel and The British Library are pleased to announce the signing of a partnership agreement providing for the digitization of at least 860 Hebrew manuscripts from the British Library’s collection, in addition to 1,250 already being digitized and made available through an earlier project funded by The Polonsky Foundation. Through these two projects, all 3,200 manuscripts in the British Library’s collection will be fully catalogued and digitized images of at least 2,110 made available online via the International Digital Library of Hebrew Manuscripts website and the British Library’s website. 

The selected manuscripts include some of the most important previously unpublished Hebrew documents in existence. The National Library of Israel together with the British Library will make these significant works readily accessible online to both academics and the general public. The undertaking is part of the larger global initiative shepherded by the National Library of Israel to make tens of thousands of Hebrew manuscripts from hundreds of collections around the world available to researchers and lay readers alike.


The British Library holds one of the most important collections of Hebrew manuscripts anywhere. Its volumes encompass many areas of Hebrew literature, with Bible, Talmud, Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), philosophy and poetry being particularly well represented.  While most manuscripts date back to the Middle Ages and Renaissance, some were written as recently as the 19th century.


First Gaster Bible, Egypt (?),  c. 10th century.
Fragments from the Book of Psalms, ornamented with Islamic style motifs
Or. 9879, f. 14r


The agreement between the National Library of Israel and the British Library will enable the digitization of the manuscripts not yet accessible online that are held in the British Library's collection, enriching the global Hebrew manuscript platform created by the National Library that will showcase the world's leading Hebrew manuscripts on a user-oriented website. Most notable among these are: the First Gaster Bible (Or. 9879), c. 10th century which contains fragments from Psalms and the Second Gaster Bible (Or. 9880), c. 11th-12th century comprising sections from the Pentateuch, both of which are ornamented with Islamic style motifs, a Siddur (daily prayer book) according to the Italian rite copied and decorated in Italy in the 15th century (Or. 10752), a Mahzor (festival prayer book) according to the rite of Avignon with illuminated borders, Provence, 1541 AD, (Or. 10733) as well as significant Judeo-Persian handwritten books, such as for example the Moses Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah (Repetition of the Law)  copied in Persia in 1549/50 (Or. 10043) and various others.


Several hundred of the British Library’s manuscripts are richly illustrated, and serve as widely-used sources by scholars of Jewish art. One of the most famous is the much-admired Sephardi Golden Haggadah (Add. 27210), circa 1320 AD, recounting the story of the exodus from Egypt. The holy text is written on vellum pages with stunning miniatures depicting stories from the biblical books of Genesis and Exodus and scenes of Jewish ritual. This exquisite Passover haggadah and many other decorated and sumptuously illuminated Hebrew codices held in the British Library’s collection have already been digitized and made available to users worldwide via the Library’s Digitised Manuscripts site, as part of the previous project generously funded by The Polonsky Foundation.


 Second Gaster Bible, Persia or Babylonia (?), c. 11th -12th century.
Sections from the Pentateuch with floral ornamentation inspired by Persian art
Or. 9880, f. 6v


The British Library’s Chief Executive, Roly Keating, said: “Hebrew manuscripts are one of the great strengths of the British Library’s vast collections, so we are delighted to be working with our counterparts at the National Library of Israel to make these remarkable manuscripts available online. One of our core purposes as the UK national library is to work with partners around the world to advance knowledge and mutual understanding: this agreement will enable us to share thousands more of these treasures with a global audience, whether for research, inspiration or enjoyment.”


Mr. Oren Weinberg, Director of the National Library of Israel, praised this joint undertaking as a groundbreaking collaboration for its positive implications for both the global academic community and the public at large. “For the first time, large numbers of researchers, students and other curious members of the public will be able to study these important manuscripts and enjoy their rich content.” Weinberg praised the openness of the British Library’s Chief Executive, Mr. Roly Keating, who facilitated the agreement. “The field will benefit greatly from Mr. Keating’s knowledge of and commitment to large-scale digital collecting.”