Established in its current form in 1812, with Thomas Jefferson’s donation of his personal library, the Library of Congress has since acquired a vast collection of Hebrew books, which Gabby Deutsch describes:
The Hebraic section was established in 1912, when the financier and philanthropist Jacob H. Schiff, a German Jewish immigrant, donated nearly 10,000 books and pamphlets; . . . the items had been collected by a prominent bookseller named Ephraim Deinard. “He went wandering into the marketplaces of Iraq,” [explained the library’s Hebraic expert Ann Brener]. “He went to people’s basements. That’s how you collected manuscripts and books in those old days. It’s all different now.”
The library’s collection spans geographies and time periods, with massive 15th-century tomes of biblical commentary, religious texts from places like Bologna and Safed, and illustrated Hebrew children’s books from the early days of the Russian Revolution. What unites the books in the collection is their use of Hebrew.
One 15th-century book at the library is a medical textbook, printed in Hebrew and translated from Arabic, into which language it had first been translated from Greek. The heavy volume is bound in leather that folds shut in the front, a style known as “envelope binding” that was common with Arabic books. “This is the only one we have in Hebrew,” Brener remarked.
It is one of the earliest Hebrew printed books, one of just 175 or so known to be printed before 1500. Jews had read books and other documents before the advent of the printing press in the 15th century, but they were previously written by hand, an onerous process that made procuring books more difficult and expensive.