May 26, 2019

The Glory of the Jewish Book


By John Dunkelgrün.

Lovers of illuminated manuscripts are in for a rare treat. To celebrate the founding of the oldest active Jewish library in the world “Ets Haim”, the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam has assembled a small but unique exhibition of (mainly) manuscripts from the Vatican, the University of Leiden, the Israel National Library, private collections and -of course- from Ets Haim itself.

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Omer calendar, Amsterdam mid 18th century. Photo by Ardon Bar-Hama.

The name Ets Haim means “tree of life”. Ets Haim-Livraria Montesinos, to give it its full name, was started by Jews who fled the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal after 1492.

Books have always been extremely important for Jews, who after the Romans destroyed their temple in Jerusalem, have been credited with developing the first “portable religion”, a religion no longer bound to a specific central edifice. With books they could take their religion, their culture and experience with them, wherever they chose or were forced to go.

The old books books were copied with minute attention to detail and much love by highly trained and valued scribes and were often illuminated by master artisans. This exhibition has magnificent examples of both.

The collection in this exhibition contains unique and priceless items, such as the only manuscript extant of Spinoza’s Ethica which is displayed next to the cherem, the document banning him from the Jewish community. There are prayer books from the Vatican Library, dating from the 13th and 14th centuries and a Jerusalem Talmud in Hebrew and Aramaic.


Arba’ah Turim, Mantua 1435, coll. Biblioteca Vaticana, Rome.

The opening of the exhibition was an example of how libraries and religions can work together. Mr. Abraham Palache of the Portugese Jewish community in Amsterdam and Mr. Antoine Bodar, a well known Dutch priest and art historian, gave their inspired views on the importance of books.

Mr. Palache pointed out that in reading about his 17th century forebear, Don Samuel Palache, he realised how much his cultural DNA had been passed on to him from generation to generation. It is interesting to note that Don Samuel came to the Court at The Hague as the first Ambassador of the King of Morocco! Mr. Bodar eloquently described the importance of books in a humorous anthropomorphic way.

The exposition runs until January 8th 2017, for information see

Santo Officio

Santo Officio



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