היש מספיק בכל שירה ומזמור
Are there words enough in all of song / to praise the pen? "
Shem Tov Ardutiel
(Trans. Peter Cole, The Dream of the Poem)
For over five hundred years Cambridge University has been building up one of the world’s most important collections of Hebrew manuscripts. The University Library holds significant numbers of Bibles and biblical and talmudic commentaries, along with important halakhic, liturgical, poetic, philosophical, kabbalistic and scientific manuscripts. Chief among the treasures are the famous Nash Papyrus, one of the earliest known manuscripts containing the words of the Hebrew Bible and an artefact that continues to excite debate more than a hundred years after its discovery, and the Cambridge Mishnah, one of only three complete manuscript codices of this central text of Jewish law.
The first Hebrew manuscripts were probably acquired from local pre-expulsion Jewish communities; later, Christian clerics gave an impetus to the study of Hebrew for scholarly purposes. A sounder basis for Hebrew study grew in the University from the 16th century, after the Regius Professorship in Hebrew was founded in 1540, and many significant manuscript collections came from Cambridge scholars who collected texts for their own use.
Notable collectors from early times include the Arabist, Abraham Whelock (who was the first Professor of Arabic before his appointment as University Librarian in 1629) whose efforts brought about significant additions to both the Arabic and Hebrew collections, including the transfer to Cambridge of the Dutch orientalist Thomas van Erpe’s (Erpenius) collection, which contained thirteen Hebrew manuscripts and one written in Judaeo-Arabic.
A second important collection was that of Isaac Faraji (Pragi) whose collection of ten Hebrew manuscripts was purchased by John Selden, the jurist and scholar and a name more often associated with the Bodleian. He was responsible for the acquisition of the collection from the London bookseller George Thomason in 1648.
More manuscripts and books came to the Library in the 17th century from the collections of the scholars Richard Holdsworth (Master of Emmanuel College), Henry Lucas and Edmund Castell (1606–1685), the compiler of the ‘Lexicon Heptaglotton’ who left nineteen Hebrew manuscripts to the Library. The acquisition by the Library of the Royal Collection of George I in 1715 brought with it a small number of Hebrew volumes including a 14th-century Bible from Spain.
In the early 19th century the missionary Claudius Buchanan (1766–1815) presented twenty-one Hebrew manuscripts, some relating to Jewish communities in South India. During the late 19th century, when the post of Librarian was held by Henry Bradshaw and the Bible scholar William Robertson Smith, the collections of Hebrew manuscripts were greatly increased.
Under the influence of Dr Solomon Schiller-Szinessy, who exercised a formative influence on 19th-century Hebrew studies in Cambridge, many manuscripts were purchased from dealers in Continental Europe such as Samuel Schonblum, Fischl Hirsch and Lipschutz.
Catalogues of the Hebrew manuscript collections have been made over the years by several scholars including Solomon Schiller-Szinessy and Herbert Loewe (1882–1940). In 1975 responsibility for this task was taken over by Stefan and Shulamit Reif whose catalogue of the complete collection, incorporating much of the work from earlier listings, was published in 1997.