Located inside the Portuguese synagogue in Amsterdam, the Ets Haim library is the oldest Jewish library in continuous operation. Martin Rosenberg explains its history, and its current conservation efforts:
The over-400-year-old library was set up by conversos—Jews who had converted to Catholicism, often by force, and their descendants. After fleeing Catholic persecution on the Iberian Peninsula in the early 17th century, they founded the library to begin the process of familiarizing themselves with the basics of Judaism.
Ets Haim has a staggering 23,000 books, only half of which have been cataloged. Those uncatalogued works may not be fully on the radar of scholars worldwide eager to consider in depth how they can elucidate and advance our understanding of Jewish thought, prayer, history, and culture. [According to Emile Schrijver, the scholar responsible for the library], some “100 to 200 books are very rare—we don’t know if they exist elsewhere.”
The oldest book in Ets Haim is a handwritten Mishneh Torah dated to 1282, the oldest copy of the work and therefore believed to be the copy most true to Moses Maimonides’ original language and intent. The Mishneh Torah, a code of rabbinic Jewish law, was compiled by Maimonides in Egypt between 1170 and 1180 CE.