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The Jacob M. Lowy Collection

The Hebrew Bible is the fundamental literary work of western civilization; Hebrew letters, developed in ancient Israel and cultivated by the Jewish people for millennia, have been the concern of non-Jewish scholars and poets from Jerome to Aquinas, from Racine to Sartre, from Milton to Joyce. Collections of Hebraica, assembled by Jewish and gentile connoisseurs of the printed word, have for centuries been considered and sought as both the cornerstone and the crown of general collections in the great libraries of the western world. Private collections of Hebraica are often acquired to form the nucleus of larger and more developed collections of Hebraica and Judaica in the ranking national and university libraries in Europe and North America. Among the libraries possessing such collections have been the British Museum, the Bodleian Library at Oxford, the Bibliothèque nationale in Paris, the Royal Library in Copenhagen, the State Library in Leningrad, the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest, the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem, the Library of Congress in Washington, the New York Public Library, and the university libraries of Harvard, Columbia and Yale.

In this tradition, the National Library of Canada was fortunate to receive as a gift to the Crown, for the government and people of Canada, one of the three foremost private collections of rare Hebraica and Judaica, and one of the outstanding collections of Hebrew incunables, in the western hemisphere. This collection of international renown was presented to the Library in 1977 by Mr. Jacob M. Lowy, industrialist, philanthropist, and bibliophile, of Montreal, Quebec. Born in Bardejov, Slovakia, before the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Jacob Lowy made his first acquisition at the age of 12, when he was awarded a book of questions and answers on talmudic subjects by the principal of the Rabbinical College of Bardejov. The inscribed copy of this book, lost during the upheavals of the 20th century, was found and returned to him after an interlude of more than three decades. Mr. Lowy's father, Raphael Löwy, a leader of the Jewish community of Bardejov, remained in Czechoslovakia after the German occupation. His efforts to save Jewish children from deportation to Nazi concentration camps are well documented. Together with other members of his family, he later perished in Auschwitz.

A talmudic scholar well versed in rabbinic literature, Jacob Lowy collected first editions of modern Hebrew literature in central and eastern Europe before World War II. Following his flight as a refugee to England in 1938, and throughout his career in Canada since 1951, Mr. Lowy has collected first and rare editions of ancient, medieval, and rabbinic Hebrew literature, the Bible, and select areas of Judaica. The product of nearly 50 years of careful acquisitions, the Jacob M. Lowy Collection, whose estimated worth is in the millions of dollars, was the single most valuable gift ever received by the National Library, and constitutes the most important part of the Library's Hebraica and Judaica collections.

The Scope of the Collection

The holdings of the Lowy Collection, rare Hebraica and Judaica spanning a period of over five centuries, include over forty volumes of Hebrew and Latin incunables, over one hundred early and rare editions of the Bible in many languages, and numerous editions and translations of the works of the ancient Jewish historian Josephus. The remainder and majority of the collection consists of rare Hebraica from the 16th to the 19th century, encompassing all aspects of rabbinic and Hebrew literature published during this period, two thirds of these works being first editions and extreme rarities. The entire geographic and intellectual scope of the printing art is represented, including early Hebrew printing from Italy, Spain, Portugal, the Balkans, North Africa, Palestine and the Orient, and North America, as well as outstanding examples of Christian Hebraism, Renaissance humanism and classical scholarship in western Europe. The collection contains nearly one quarter of all Hebrew books printed during the 16th century, notably the productions of the great Renaissance printers Estienne in Paris, Plantin in Antwerp, and Froben in Basel. The collection is particularly rich in Venetian Hebrew imprints, among them a nearly complete set of the first edition of the Babylonian Talmud printed by Bomberg, and the first edition of the Jerusalem Talmud.

Aside from talmudic and midrashic literature, the collection also contains some of the earliest editions of the legal-ritual codes and hundreds of volumes of responsa; biblical commentaries; philosophical and mystical works; medieval and post-medieval Hebrew works on medicine, mathematics and the sciences; historical writings; philology and medieval Hebrew poetry and belles-lettres; liturgy and illustrated editions of the Passover Haggadah; writings from every corner of the Sephardic world; literature of the anti-rabbinic Karaite sect; general rabbinic literature published through the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, including central and east European Hebraica and some Hasidic works; early and rare works in the field of Hebraic bibliography; and Hebraic manuscripts. Indeed, if one work of a particular author is not found in the collection, then another of his works is; if not his own work, then one in which his approbation appears, or that of his teacher or his student. To quote the words of the ancient talmudic sage, "Turn it over, and turn it over again, for everything is contained therein."

The Exhibition

Incunabula, Hebraica & Judaica, the first major exhibition of the Lowy collection, encompasses the "cradle books" of Hebrew printing, not only the classic incunables printed during the 15th century, but also some of the other first fruits and finer exempla of Hebrew typography from around the globe and spanning five centuries. Although primarily a display of Hebrew printed books, the exhibition also includes a number of items of rare Judaica from the incunable period until this century, as well as some Hebrew manuscripts from the far reaches of the Jewish world. A few printed books included in the exhibition have been drawn from the general holdings of the Rare Books and Manuscripts Division, and some oriental manuscripts from the Saul Hayes Collection of Hebraic Manuscripts, also housed in the Lowy Room.

The oldest Hebrew book shown here is one of the oldest in existence, Maimonides' Mishneh Torah (Code), whose printing began circa 1474 in Rome, assumably the first city of Hebrew printing in the world. The most recent book displayed is an unrecorded item of Canadian Hebraica, published forty years ago in Ottawa. The opening of the exhibition in 1981 coincides with the quincentennial of the publication of two of the most significant incunables in the Lowy Collection, one in Hebrew and one in Latin. The first is a single leaf from an edition of the Tur Yoreh De'ah, part of the code by Jacob b. Asher, printed in Guadalajara ca. 1481-1482; this fragment, printed in Spain before the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, was believed until recently to be a unicum. The other is part of a finely illuminated edition of the Bible with the Postillae of Nicholas de Lyra, issued in Venice in 1481; the first Christian commentary on the Bible ever printed, the work of de Lyra is of great Jewish interest as it cites a length the medieval Jewish commentary by Rashi of Troyes. Among the other non-Hebrew incunables are the editio princeps of the works of Josephus, printed in Augsburg, Germany, in 1470, the oldest printed book in the National Library, and the first edition of Josephus in Italian, published in Florence in 1493, the Library's oldest book in any European vernacular language. Altogether thirty separate titles of incunables are displayed here, of which 23 titles, in more than 25 volumes, are in Hebrew.

The contents of the exhibition have been carefully selected to reflect the intellectual and geographic diversity of the holdings of the Lowy Collection and, simultaneously, the history of Hebrew printing. The eighteen thematic categories into which the contents of this exhibition have been divided are in a sense arbitrary. There is often but a fine line between an ancient biblical version and a medieval commentary; between philosophy and science, or philosophy and mysticism (or mysticism and pseudo-science); between wartime responsa and an historical treatise. Still, these divisions are calculated to underscore the breadth and strengths of the Lowy Collection in all the domains of Hebraic, and Judaic, literature, beyond the solely theological and rabbinic, during the first five centuries of printing. Although the presentation begins with Incunabula Hebraica - and Hebrew and Latin incunables have been interspersed throughout the sections of the exhibition - nevertheless the development of the art of printing to an extent unfolds here chronologically.

First and most important in the history of the printed word is the Bible, from the beginning the most popular of all books, the common intellectual tradition of the western world. Shown here are a restored Hebrew edition of the Pentateuch printed in Portugal in the incunable period; a mammoth edition of Martin Luther's translation (made from a Hebrew incunable) inaugurating the Reformation and renewing the German language; the last and finest of the polyglot Bibles, printed in London in the 17th century; and an edition of the New Testament in Syriac, with a Latin translation by an apostate Jew. Also to be seen here are both issues of the first edition of the King James Version of the English Bible, distinguished as the "Great He Bible" and the "Great She Bible" as a result of a textual error in the third person singular. One of the most colourful items is an illuminated scroll of the Book of Esther in a silver case, prepared in western Europe around the turn of the twentieth century, part of a manuscript tradition that did not end with the invention of movable type.

The Jewish forms and elements of the classical tradition are also manifest here, in first editions and translations of the histories of Josephus and the editio princeps in Greek of the works in the Hellenistic philosopher Philo; a medieval Hebrew translation of a pseudo-Aristotelian Epistola Ethica; an incunabular edition of the Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas, whose adduced proofs for the existence of God are drawn from Maimonides; the first edition of Spinoza's Opera Posthuma, containing the Ethics and his Latin grammar of Hebrew. In addition to imprints of Hebrew works on rational philosophy and logic by authors from Maimonides to Mendelssohn, there are first editions of the basic works of Jewish mysticism, the Zohar and the Book of Creation.

The preeminence of Venice as a Hebrew publishing centre is apparent in the large number of books from that city displayed here - it is represented more than any other place of Hebrew printing in the exhibition. At the same time, books from every continent and major centre of Hebrew printing are displayed, from one of the earliest Hebrew books printed in India and the first Jewish prayerbook printed in Jerusalem to a commentary on "Ethics of the Fathers," published in New York in 1860, the first original Hebrew book printed on the American continent. Notable among the works of the Renaissance printers is the grammar by a Christian Hebraist, published in Basel in 1524, which contains inter alia the oldest printed musical text in the National Library. Along with Hebraic products of the Renaissance and the Christian West, from a medieval Hebrew version of the fables of Marie de France to illustrated Hebrew algebraic-trigonometric-astronomical treatises by a Jewish student of Galileo, there are also examples of the influences of the Arab world and of all parts of the Orient on the development of the Hebrew book. In this latter category are such curiosities as the single printed edition, a Neapolitan incunable, of a Hebrew translation of the medical Canon by the Islamic doctor Avicenna; a Hebrew incarnation of an originally Hindu tale about the childhood of Buddha; samples of exotic Hebrew imprints from Baghdad and Calcutta; and the manuscript of a Judeo-Persian epic written in a khanate of Russian Central Asia, now Uzbekistan.

Aside from the many facets of rabbinic and Hebraic literature, both religious and secular, which comprise this exhibition, two areas in particular should finally be noted here. Usually ignored in the history of Jewish literary creativity, and of printed Hebraica, are the sundry Jewish languages that developed among the far-flung communities of the Diaspora. The definitive history of their printed and manuscript traditions has not yet been written. In an array of perhaps the largest number of these languages ever exhibited together, books and manuscripts containing texts or glosses in ten different Jewish languages are shown here, from Ladino in Venice to Karaitic Tatar in the Crimea. These consist of biblical versions and commentaries, vernacular glosses in legal codes, liturgical translations, history, philology, poetry and fables - as varied as Hebrew literature itself. Curious in the field of Jewish languages are some of the oldest words and phrases in Czech, transcribed in Hebrew characters, found in a rabbinic work written in medieval Bohemia and first printed in the Ukraine a century ago, one of several items of Czech Hebraica included in the exhibition. Among the various works in Yiddish, the most widespread of Jewish languages, there is one rare book of poetry published in this century in the capital of Canada, a country recognized as a haven and centre of Yiddish letters and publishing.

Of similar significance in the Canadian context are the large number of works of Sephardic provenance included here. More than five different editions of various works of Maimonides are displayed, including two incunables. Equally important, stemming physically from the source of Sephardic culture, are several complete incunables and unique fragments published in Spain and Portugal before the expulsion of the Jews. Among these are the first two books ever printed in Lisbon, one a complete copy of the first edition of the commentary by Abudarham on the synagogue liturgy, published in 1489, and a single leaf of a Hebrew Bible, printed on parchment in the Spanish town of Híjar one year before the decree of expulsion in 1492, a moving relic of the Golden Age of Spanish Jewry which seems today so remote. The subsequent creativity of the whole Sephardic diaspora is surveyed, from works published by Menasseh Ben Israel in Holland, manuscripts and printed books emanating from the breadth of North Africa, to volumes in Hebrew and Judezmo (Judeo-Spanish) published in the Ottoman Empire, where, as in Portugal, North Africa and parts of the Orient, the printing art was introduced by Jews. The history of a blood-libel in Damascus is recounted in one of two exhibited books by Chief Rabbi Palaggi of Izmir, the most prolific of Sephardic authors in the 19th century, practically all of whose printed works are held in the Lowy Collection. From an earlier era of the Sephardic community in Montreal, one of the oldest and most active of such communities in North America, is a prayerbook edited by the Minister of the Portuguese Congregation in 1878, one of five items of rare Canadiana included in this exhibition. The culture of the Oriental Jews, too, is reflected by 19th century Judeo-Arabic books and manuscripts from Bombay and Shanghai.

If the course of Jewish intellectual and social history is traced in this exhibition, even more so is the history of the Jewish book. The beginnings of Hebrew printing and the spread of Hebrew typography over four continents; the use of Hebrew type in non-Hebrew books and of Hebrew characters for languages other than Hebrew; Latin books studied and translated by Jews and Hebrew books printed for Christians; books printed by Karaites and books financed by Marranos - all of these are chronicled in the exhibition Incunabula, Hebraica & Judaica. And the story of the owners and collectors of these books, from the 15th century until today, is recounted with that of their authors and publishers. The remaining fragments of Spanish incunables almost lost to bibliographers forever and the pages of a Hebrew biblical commentary blackened by the inquisitorial censor, whose destructive ink has begun to fade after nearly half a millennium, bespeak the persecutions of centuries past. An old volume of responsa, confiscated by the Nazis and stamped with a swastika, mirrors an experience of modern times in which the collector himself participated. These books, slices of Jewish life and entries in the bibliographical history of the Jewish people, all form part of the Jacob M. Lowy Collection now on view to laymen and scholars.

The Lowy Room

The permanent location of the Jacob M. Lowy Collection is a special room on the second floor of the National Library of Canada, where the Saul Hayes Collection of Hebraic Manuscripts and Microforms is also maintained, together with a supporting collection of Hebraic and Judaic bibliographic and reference literature. The Lowy Room, environmentally controlled for the physical preservation of rare books and manuscripts, is open to researchers Monday to Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Guided tours are available to interested visitors by prior arrangement with the curator.

More than one of the great repositories of Jewish antiquarian books, the Lowy Collection is a major resource for advanced research in the various domains of Jewish studies, rabbinic and non-rabbinic, biblical and liturgical, historical, linguistic, literary and scientific. It is hoped that the exhibition Incunabula, Hebraica & Judaica and this accompanying catalogue will generate among Jewish and non-Jewish members of the scholarly community, in Canada and abroad, further interest in the holdings of the Lowy Collection, as well as in the other Hebraica and Judaica collections and resources, including Jewish Canadiana, in the National Library of Canada.

The Catalogue

Although issued in conjunction with the opening of the exhibition Incunabula, Hebraica and Judaica, this catalogue is intended to be of more than ephemeral value. The series of indexes may be used as a comprehensive guide to those first editions, rarities, and curiosities from the 15th to the 19th century held in the Lowy Collection and displayed in the exhibition. Access is provided to the 150 exhibited items by date, place, language, author, and title (both Hebrew and non-Hebrew), and a listing of the manuscripts by provenance is also included. In addition, a separate catalogue of all Hebrew and Latin incunables currently held in the Lowy Collection is appended; this catalogue provides access by author, printer, place and date of imprint. The present exhibition catalogue comprises the first general outline of a cross-section of the holdings of the Lowy Collection since its acquisition by the National Library of Canada.

A Note on Bibliographic Style

A few remarks are in order regarding the style of the bibliographic entries, with which some arbitrary liberties have been taken due to the nature of the exhibition catalogue. The forms and spellings of proper names, some Hebraic terms and titles, etc., are given according to contemporary usage, generally following the standard established in the Encyclopaedia Judaica (Jerusalem, 1972), occasionally at variance from established bibliographic norms. The romanization provided for Hebraic titles, however, follows with minor deviations the transliteration scheme currently employed by the Library of Congress. With few exceptions, only the short title, whether in Hebrew or other languages, has been provided, and the ellipsis has usually been dispensed with. Bilingual titles (Hebrew and Latin, Greek and Latin, etc.) have been provided more or less in accordance with the format of the short-title catalogues of the British Museum (now British Library). An effort has been made in the descriptive notes to indicate as far as possible the bibliographic priority of the items displayed.

Brad Sabin Hill
Ottawa, 1981

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