Monday, December 04, 2006

The Case of the Missing Books: Besamim Rosh in Berlin and St. Petersburg

While we have previously discussed how the Besamim Rosh to this day remains an enigma, there are two important texts which may have bearing on this issue. Benjamin Richler has been kind enough to provide additional information about these two sources. We therefore pick up from Benjamin Richler at the Jewish National and University Library:

The Case of the Missing Books: Besamim Rosh in Berlin and St. Petersburg
by Benjamin Richler

There are two sources concerning the Besamim Rosh that researchers would like to consult but cannot find.

One is a manuscript copy that belonged to Abraham Geiger and was briefly described in the list of Geiger’s manuscripts presented to the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums in Berlin in Hebraeische Bibliographie, 17 (1877), p. 11, no. 3.[1] According to the description the manuscript that may have been an autograph was dated 1757 and includes the introduction by R. Zvi Hirsch Berlin. Until 1984, nothing was known about the fate of the manuscripts in the Hochschule; it was assumed that the Nazis confiscated the library but it was not found after the War. In 1984 Sotheby’s offered a collection of Hebrew manuscripts for sale and before the sale it was identified as belonging to the Hochschule. These books had been smuggled out of Germany before the War. [2] Two of the manuscripts in Geiger’s list were not included in the sale. One of them is the Besamim Rosh. For years after 1984 it was considered lost, but recently it came to light in a collection of archives and manuscripts looted by the Nazis and later captured by the Red Army. These documents and books were kept in what was called the "Special Archives" recently renamed "The Center for Safekeeping of Historical Collections of Documentation" in the Russian State Military Archives in Moscow. The manuscript was microfilmed for the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts in Jerusalem where I examined it. The manuscript seems to be a neat copy, rather than an autograph draft, and when compared with the printed edition, I could find no significant differences in the text. I must admit, however, that I only checked a few passages at random, especially the beginning and end. My impression is that the manuscript is written in an Ashkenazic script of the 18th century. It may have been the copy that was sent to print or a copy that was made for R. Tzvi Hirsch before it was printed.

The second source that has not been examined for decades, perhaps for over a century, is a copy of the first edition with notes and additions by R. Saul Berlin himself. This copy was described by Shemuel Wiener who edited קהלת משה, the catalogue of the library of Moshe Aryeh Leib Friedland donated to the Institute of Oriental Studies in the Academy of Sciences of Russia located in St. Petersburg. [3] While the Friedland Library survive the War unscathed, and the manuscripts are accessible at the Oriental Institute, the 14,000 printed books were sent to storage and according to a senior fellow of the Oriental Institute who tried to extract this volume, it is impossible to locate any titles as the books are piled up to the ceiling in no particular order. Until premises are found to shelve the collection, the annotated copy of Besamim Rosh will remain inaccessible.

[1] Geiger’s name is not mentioned in the description, but Moritz Steinschneider, the editor of HB who probably wrote the descriptions, identified Geiger as the owner in his Vorlesungen über die Kunde hebräischer Handschriften (Berlin 1897), p. 64, n. 29.

[2] The manuscripts were in the possession of Prof. Alexander Guttmann, formerly a professor in the Hochschule, who claimed that the manuscripts were given to him in 1936 for safekeeping. After it became known that the MSS were originally the property of the Hochschule, the State of New York disputed the sale. A settlement reached by the parties resulted in the formation of the Judaica Conservancy Foundation, a joint undertaking of Jewish institutions of higher learning in the United States, England and Israel. Twenty-two lots, including nineteen MSS sold at the auction, were recalled and given to the Foundation, which deposited them in the libraries of some of its members. It also authorized the proceeds of the sale of two of the MSS, to be awarded to Guttmann in consideration of his role in saving the MSS.

[3] Volume 1, Petersburg 1893, no. 1793, Wiener noted that the manuscript was purchased from the bookseller and scholar R. Raphael Nathan Rabinovicz, author of Dikdukei Soferim.

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