An agreement between the National Library of Israel (NLI) and a Canadian organization promises to breathe new life into ancient Jewish manuscripts and help scholars study them from anywhere in the world.
The NLI recently announced a “historic” agreement with the Friedberg Jewish Manuscript Society (FJMS) that will “guarantee the long-term stability and development of the most advanced digital projects related to Hebrew manuscript research in the world.”
According to a statement from the library, the deal will merge the “cutting-edge” resources of the FJMS with the clout of the library, the world’s largest and most comprehensive home to Jewish books, manuscripts, periodicals and archives, both physical and digital.
The agreement will integrate the FJMS’s projects into the library’s technological infrastructure. It will preserve old and deteriorating manuscripts in digital form and showcase those that have been unavailable for decades.
Established in 2007 to preserve Jewish manuscripts, the FJMS is the brainchild of Albert Dov Friedberg of Toronto, the founder of Friedberg Mercantile Group Ltd., as well as a philanthropist and collector of rare Judaica (he’s donated most of his personal collection to the University of Toronto’s rare book library).
A decade before the society’s establishment, Friedberg heard a lecture on the famed Cairo Genizah, a priceless collection of Jewish prayers, poetry, legal texts and Talmudic commentaries dating from the 11th to the 19th centuries.
Discovered a century ago in the loft of the ancient Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo, it is considered among the most important finds in Jewish history.
But this was no tidy volume – it was composed of about 200,000 fragments that were difficult to match up. Friedberg also heard that many of the treasures were in storage, making them unavailable to scholars and the public.
So together with some American academics, he formed the Friedberg Genizah Project, which embarked on the massive task of digitizing the entire Cairo corpus, then assembling, cataloguing and publishing the fragments online. The resulting website allows scholars to view, read and annotate the texts. Using a kind of artificial intelligence, it can also help match disparate fragments like a jigsaw puzzle.
The Genizah project, which has offices in New Jersey and Jerusalem, became the FJMS’s flagship digital initiative.
Others include a website that provides digitized images of Talmudic fragments culled from 240 libraries around the world, a synoptic text of Maimonides’ code of Jewish law and manuscripts from the Yemenite Jewish community.
The agreement with the NLI covers “all manuscripts we’ve been working on,” Friedberg told The CJN, and others on such subjects as magic, law, philosophy, medicine and commerce. Often, he said, these are not books, but large rolls, individual pages or fragments.
“My thought was that to have a long life, I had to find a home for (the manuscripts). We contacted the NLI and they were very anxious to enter into a joint agreement,” he said.
Friedberg, 71, is no dilettante. A decade ago, he earned a PhD in Maimonidean studies, poring over texts from the 12th and 13th centuries.
“I found much of the material was still in boxes and not being used,” he recalled. “The scholarly world was anxious to see it, but had no opportunity. In order to see it, you had to travel to Cambridge. A hundred years after the material was discovered, we still did not know exactly what we had, and whatever we had was in very poor shape.
“I thought it would be a special service to the scholarly world to photograph all this in high definition and make it available to everyone for free.”
The deal with the Israeli library confers permanence on these treasures, he said. “It allows this material to be available forever, and updated, as we find more over the next few years.”