“Prague- The Crown of Bohemia, 1347-1437” Exhibition at Metropolitan Museum to Feature Library’s 1489 Illuminated Bible

Sep 7, 2005 — A rare 15th -century Hebrew Bible, held by Yeshiva University’s Mendel Gottesman Library, will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City from September 20, 2005-January 3, 2006 as part of its “Prague, The Crown of Bohemia, 1347-1437” exhibition. Valued at $3 million, the 1489 Bible is a Hebrew manuscript written and dated in the city of Prague. The late Ludwig Jesselson, former chairman of the YU Board of Trustees, together with his wife, Erica, arranged for the Bible to be presented to Yeshiva University (YU). Mrs. Jesselson is chair of Yeshiva University Museum Board of Directors. The Jesselson family is well known for its philanthropy and communal leadership, and family members are avid collectors of Judaica.

One of the finest examples of a complete Hebrew manuscript Bible in existence, the three-volume manuscript includes 84 leaves with illuminated panels, gold calligraphy against foliate decorations and exegesis by Rashi, the renowned medieval commentator, in a text containing variants from other published editions. Due to anti-Jewish sentiment in medieval times, hardly any works of this nature have survived to the present day.

The Prague Bible has been held at the Gottesman Library in the Rare Books and Manuscripts Collection since 1985. The Library’s rare collection contains more than 8,000 Hebrew books, some dating back to the earliest days of printing (15th century) and more than 1,100 manuscripts. The Library plans to publish a digital version of the manuscript within the year.

Written for Israel Pinchas of Prague by a scribe identified as Matityah ben Jonah, the Bible later belonged to the philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. The work then passed into the hands of the famed Berlin Court Jew, Daniel Itzig, and at one time was also in the collection of Rabbi Abraham Geiger, the noted scholar and leader of the Reform movement. It is believed the manuscript became the property of the Hochscule fur die Wissenschaft des Judenthums in Berlin, where Rabbi Geiger was a faculty member. The Bible remained in the Hochschule until it was taken out of Nazi Germany, along with other rare books and manuscripts, by a member of the faculty.

In 1984, the items were sold through Sotheby’s Auction House. Robert Abrams, then New York State Attorney General, sued the auction house on the grounds that the treasures did not belong to an individual but rather to the Jewish community, and that they should be brought into the public domain.

Under an agreement by the New York State Supreme Court, the Bible was awarded to Yeshiva University, and a machzor–special prayer book used on holidays– was transferred to The Jewish National and University Library in Israel. The agreement also established the Judaica Conservancy Foundation, an organization of six cultural institutions that divided the remaining rare treasures among its members. Each institution holds them on behalf of the Foundation. The institutions are Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, OH, Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Yeshiva University, Leo Baeck Institute in New York, Leo Baeck College in London, and The Jewish National and University Library.

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