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David Oppenheim – a man who liked books

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Prince of the Press: How One Collector Built History’s Most Enduring and Remarkable Jewish Library by Joshua Teplitsky (Yale University Press)

Lately, selling or even giving books away can be challenging. Used books (at least in first world countries) have little or no financial value; nowadays many people (not just young ones) prefer to read on a screen.

Prof. Sara Horowitz recently wrote movingly in her CJN column on Feb. 5  about the importance of owning books, taking issue with the suggestion that no home needs more than 30 books.  “Books are the lifeblood of any Jewish home. Thirty books? A decent library of Judaism and Jewish culture spills over into several bookcases.” 

Prof. Joshua Teplitsky opens a fascinating window on a very different world. In Prince of the Press: How One Collector Built History’s Most Enduring and Remarkable Jewish Library, he tells the story of Jewish books – and the Jewish world in general – of 300 years ago. Teplitsky, a Canadian who began his Jewish education in Toronto’s day school system, is a rising young star in the field of academic Jewish Studies, currently assistant professor of history at Stony Brook University.

Teplitsky’s book focuses on the life and library of Rabbi David Oppenheim (1664-1736), who grew up in Worms, Germany. He may not have been the greatest Torah scholar of the 18th century but he was perhaps the most sought after by Jewish communities looking for a rabbi.

Oppenheim was lucky enough to be born into a wealthy and well-connected family of “Court Jews,” Jews who had enough money and prestige to have access to the non-Jewish governments. Court Jews, including the members of Oppenheim’s family, often practised what Teplitsky calls “tactical endogamy,” purposefully marrying someone from another wealthy and powerful Jewish family. Some scholars claim that Court Jews (despite their perhaps dated ideas about marriage) were the first emancipated modern Jews in Europe, more than a century before governments started to consider seriously the idea of granting rights to all Jews.

Since Jewish communities understood that Court Jews were in the best position to protect their interests, Oppenheim, who had relatives who were also Court Jews in many European cities, was invited to serve as rabbi of many communities. Eventually he accepted the position of av beit din (“head of the rabbinical court,” essentially chief rabbi) of Prague, the city that had the largest Jewish population in the early 18th century. He held the position for the last 33 years of his life.

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Already in his teens, Oppenheim started to collect books, soon building up the most comprehensive Jewish library in Europe. In a conscious inversion of the teaching of Ecclesiastes (12:12), “Beware, my son, of making many books without end; much study is a wearying of the flesh,” Oppenheim declared he wanted to “make books without end.”

A few decades later, Moses Mendelssohn, the so-called father of the Jewish Enlightenment, wrote of the Oppenheim collection, “It contains not only many individual rarities, the price of which cannot be determined, but also the totality has such great worth that I cannot assign [a price] to it.” Teplitsky brings the collection to life for us with dozens of pictures of its books and manuscripts.

Oppenheim’s library contributed to Jewish intellectual life in his own time and beyond. Among the many treasures that Oppenheim found was an almost complete manuscript of the previously lost Torah commentary written by Rashi’s grandson, Rashbam (Rabbi Samuel ben Meir).

In the 1680s, when word got out that the young Oppenheim was trying to assemble a Jewish library, a bookseller in Worms took him to the upper level of a synagogue where he found, as he put it, “thousands of manuscripts,” that were abandoned, “fetid, dusty, moldy, infested with vermin, and rotting from exposure to rain.” Oppenheim wrote that “the Lord brought this book [the manuscript of Rashbam’s Torah commentary he found in that attic] into my hands … a writing of truth, of ink on parchment.” 

In the beginning of the 18th century, Oppenheim published Rashbam’s commentary for the first time. All subsequent printed editions of Rashbam’s Torah commentary, which is now considered one of the standard rabbinic commentaries on the Torah, are based on this one manuscript. Most of Oppenheim’s collection is now in Oxford (Teplitsky unfolds the interesting story of how it ended up there), but this particular manuscript went elsewhere. In 1939, it was known to be in a library in Germany, but unfortunately, all traces of it disappeared, and it is apparently lost forever.

Aside from telling the story of Oppenheim and his life, Teplitsky makes insightful comments on how private book collections worked as valuable commodities in the 17th and 18th centuries, before the days of public libraries (and of course well before the Internet). Oppenheim was able to amass this library because of his wealth. And then, because of his stature and influence, people would give him books and manuscripts as presents. The growing library, in turn, conferred on him additional prestige.

But like any commodity, Oppenheim’s collection could be and was used for the public good, as a form of tzedakah. He shared his “wealth” by giving others access to his unique collection during his lifetime.

The Oppenheim collection is a gift that keeps on giving: as recently as  February 2019, two respected scholars, Barry Dov Walfish of Canada and Sara Japhet of Israel, published an edition of an anonymous medieval Jewish Hebrew commentary on Song of Songs (The Way of Lovers; Magnes Press), based on a manuscript that David Oppenheim thankfully saved for posterity.