The following notes have been extracted from an article on the collection by Dr. Menahem Schmelzer, former Librarian and Professor Emeritus of Medieval Hebrew Literature at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
It was in 2003 that the trustees of the Montefiore Endowment decided to sell part of this collection in order to comply with Sir Moses’s expressed wish that his legacy should be used primarily to promote Torah education. The proceeds of the sale were used to revive the Judith Lady Montefiore College as a training centre for future rabbis. Manuscripts that once belonged to Sir Moses were not sold but retained permanently and now form the basis of the Core Collection.
The celebrated Montefiore collection consisted of over 450 rare Hebrew manuscripts, many of which date to the medieval period. These remarkable volumes, assembled in the late nineteenth century, attest to a pivotal era in the history of Jewish scholarship. The nineteenth century witnessed the beginning of the modern historical study of every facet of Jewish culture. New fields of merged as the concentration of scholars on rabbinic studies expanded to encompass the exploration of Jewish history, literature, poetry, as well as the history of science, medicine and philosophy. This new movement was launched by European scholars; chief among them were Samuel David Luzzatto (1800-1865), the renowned Italian philologist, poet, and biblical exegete, and Leopold Zunz (1794-1886), the German historian and founder of the modern “science of Judaism”.
Modern Jewish scholarship was founded upon and nurtured by the discovery and exploration of medieval and early modern Hebrew codices. Luzzatto, Zunz and others based their trail-blazing studies on information gleaned from codices that had lain hidden for centuries. They also acquired extensive personal collections of Hebrew manuscripts.
A younger contemporary of these luminaries was the Polish scholar and bibliophile, Solomon Hayyim Halberstam (1832-1900). A wealthy and avid collector as well as a diligent and keen scholar, he acquired hundreds of valuable Hebrew manuscripts, including codices from Luzzato’s estate and Zunz’s private library.
The next phase in the history of these manuscripts was set in motion by Sir Moses Montefiore. In 1869 he founded the Judith Lady Montefiore College in Ramsgate, England, in memory of his wife. Montefiore had the foresight to empower Louis Loewe (1809-1888), the first principal of the College, to assemble a formidable collection of Hebrew manuscripts for the new institution. Moses Gaster (1856-1939), the second principal of the College, expanded the collection with the acquisition of 412 manuscripts from Solomon Halberstam.
References to the Montefiore manuscripts, abound in scholarly literature. Access was facilitated in 1904 by the publication of a fine catalogue by Hartwig Hirschfeld.. The contents of the collection are exceptionally rich and diverse, touching on all branches of Jewish learning. The manuscripts originate mostly from Spain, Germany, Italy, France, Greece, North Africa and Yemen.
Details of the Dispersal
- Part of the collection was sold in 2004 by auction in New York. Sotheby’s published a fine scholarly catalogue entitled Important Hebrew Manuscripts from the Montefiore Collection, in which Dr Schmelzer’s article may be found. This catalogue may be consulted on application to the Secretary.
- Another part (mostly the Zunz collection) went to the library of the Oxford Centre of Hebrew and Jewish Studies, where it is now known as The Foyle-Montefiore Collection. The main emphasis is on the eighteenth and nineteenth-century history of Jews in Europe, their fight for emancipation and integration into wider society while retaining a Jewish identity. Over 150 titles, many of them rare nineteenth- century pamphlets, relate to the legal position of Jews in various states, covering commitment to secular rulers: these regulations come to light in a number of eulogies on the occasion of the enthronement or death of emperors, kings or princes.
- Over 100 manuscripts remain in the ownership of the Endowment and may be accessed by application to the Secretary. These include a number of Sepharim (Torah scrolls), some of which were specially written for Sir Moses Montefiore by his favorite scribe in Vilna.
- Those manuscripts that once belonged to Sir Moses Montefiore (described as the Core Collection) are listed separately on this website. These may all be accessed by application to the Secretary.
Sets of microfiches of the entire collection, before it was dispersed, have been placed on loan in the library of the London School of Jewish Studies and in the Library of the Oxford Centre of Hebrew and Jewish Studies. A further record is available at the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem. The National Library is digitising (or has digitised) these microfiches for public access.
You can browse the collection of manuscripts on this website.