How a Famed Jewish Library Put a Two-Century-Old Manuscript Up for Auction

July 29, 2021 | Asaf Shalev
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When an auction house specializing in Judaica released its most recent catalog, the rabbi, translator, and researcher Elli Fischer took a close look at one item, a notebook, that led him to an unexpected discovery. Asaf Shalev reports:

The journal, known as a ledger, or pinkas, belonged to a rabbi from the [Galilean] holy city of Tiberias who had toured Jewish Europe some 200 years ago to raise money for his community. Fischer was fascinated to read the names of towns and rabbis visited on the tour. He even spotted the signature of one of his own ancestors, a German rabbi.

As Fischer looked through the digitized images of the ledger, he noticed a number stamped at the bottom of one page. The stamp, showing a faded “13723,” told Fischer that this manuscript, now being sold by an anonymous owner on the private market, had once been part of a collection, probably at a public institution.

Fischer turned on his detective’s brain, and what he would discover would soon scandalize the world of Judaica experts, help expose a controversial practice by a flagship institution of Jewish learning, and raise questions about the commitment of the Jewish community to preserving its own history.

All he had now, however, was a serial number. Fischer decided to type the number into the search bar of the catalog for the National Library of Israel—he got a hit. A description matching that of the auction noted that the manuscript was available in microfilm and digital formats on the library website. But the item did not belong to the National Library, nor had it ever. Instead, the manuscript was described as part of the world-renowned collection of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

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