“Questa terra è di Dio. Questo libro è il mio”
Censors, Owners and Old Collectors in the 15th–18th-century
Hebrew Books of the David Kaufmann Collection


In September 2022 we received funding for a new two-year project at the Oriental Collection of the Library and Information Centre of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. The project stands on two pillars: digitisation and cataloguing and involves about five hundred 15th–18th-century printed books from the David Kaufmann Collection of Hebrew manuscripts and books donated to the library in 1905.

Despite its relatively small size, the David Kaufmann collection is considered to be one of the most significant collections of Hebrew books in the world. David Kaufmann (1852-1899) was born exactly 170 years ago and the library takes this opportunity to raise the awareness of scholars and the interested public concerning his significant documentary heritage.
Currently, only a brief, sometimes erroneous catalogue compiled by M. Weisz in 1906 and short online catalogue records exist for these books. These are not detailed enough for the identification of individual copies.

Digitisation is carried out by the library’s staff and the digitised items are placed completely open access in REAL-R, the library’s repository of rare books and manuscripts, and in REAL-EOD, the repository of books printed after 1825. At the same time, the images are linked to the individual online records in the library’s catalogue. Thanks to this, these books will be freely accessible worldwide. Fabrizio Quaglia, an expert in the field is making detailed descriptions.

1. Kaufmann B 511: On the title page,
a purchase note by Yehudah b. Yoḥanan Ghiron.
The initial survey showed that the books can be distributed as follows: 13 volumes of incunabula containing 15 titles, 185 volumes of 16th-century books, 138 books from the 17th, and 163 from the 18th century. David Kaufmann was not only a notable scholar and professor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of Budapest but also an avid collector of Hebrew manuscripts and books. Kaufmann acquired not only single volumes from booksellers and via auctions but also entire libraries. It is known, e.g., that in 1877 he bought ten crates of books and manuscripts from the Jewish Trieste brothers in Padua. Mention must be made of his acquisition of the library of Marco Mortara (1815-1894), Rabbi of Mantua, who was one the most relevant Hebraists in Italy.

In addition to the presence of marginalia, the importance of this collection as printed and handwritten evidence of the Jewish history of the Diaspora is worth noticing. Behind the names of former owners, we can see the tortuous and hard lives of people, who often moved, by choice or by force, from city to city keeping their own books or selling them. Furthermore, for centuries these texts were sequestered by the Inquisition as it is shown by the signature of Church censors. Some censors after having seized them accurately expurgated Hebrew texts crossing out “prohibited” words and sentences, but others were more careless neglecting to delete certain expressions reputed anti-Christians or making only slight erasures that allow a glimpse of the suppressed passage. Hence, sometimes is simpler for us to understand what was cancelled than the signature itself that a censor inscribed on a book at the conclusion of his work. See, for example, the one of Bernardino Nuceti, notary of the Holy Office of Parma, on Kaufmann B 32.


2. Kaufmann B 32: Bernardino Nuceti’s signature on f. 33r.
As a consolation for these abuses, it can be affirmed that in many cases exactly their signatures allow us to guess where a Hebrew book was in Italy in the 16th or the 17th, and even the 18th centuries. The knowledge gained by this can help us identify the kinds of books a community reads. We report here only two examples that are testimonies of the diffusion of reading in the 16th-century Jewish community of Mantua: the merchant Jacob Tizzano, lived in Mantua in the first half of the 16th century, owned a 15th-century Tehillim (Kaufmann B 938) and Israel Usiglio (d. 1646), not a rabbi, but a civil leader of the Jewish community of Modena, possessed Ibn Ḥabib’s ‘Ein Yiśra’el, in the Cracow edition published in 1588 or 1590, that is a text-book of religious instruction (Kaufmann B 633). Furthermore, the material examined so far allowed us to find traces of unexpected important owners, like the 17th-century rabbis of Mantua Gur Aryeh Levi (Kaufmann B 479) and Samuel Portaleone (Kaufmann B 507); as well as Yehudah Ḥayyim Ghiron, Rabbi of Florence, who lived in the first half of the 18th century (Kaufmann B 511).

This last item includes an additional handwritten appendix showing a fundamental aspect of the life of Jewish communities, the persistence of their traditions. We can read, after the conclusion of the printed text, a copy of two Purim poems in eight pages by the same hand. The first one, on pp. [1]-[4] is titled Bimei Aḥašveroš, Ai Ester nosṭrah nuṭriṣe (“In the days of Ahasuerus, Ahi Ester nostra nutrice”). As its title shows, there are Italian words in it written in Hebrew characters. Apparently, only two copies of this poem are known: ms. 3281 in the Jewish Theological Seminary Library in New York, dated 1631, and the former Ms. 365 of the Montefiore Library in London, datable around the 17th-18th century.


3. Kaufmann B 511: Purin song (f.1r).
The second poem, pp. [4]-[7], is a well-known goliardic song, composed in Northern Italy, called אל ביל פורים פאטי אונורי (“Fate onore al bel Purim”). ‬Nowadays this song is still sung in Livorno during Purim in “bagitto” idiom, the Livornese Jewish dialect. A few handwritten versions of Fate onore al bel Purim exist.

In addition to the incunables, the material is of special significance because of the cultural and historical value of books on subjects like Kabbalah – a copy of Zohar, Mantua 1560 (Kaufmann B 226.3), sold in 1894 by the rabbi of Modena Salomone Jona (1822-1904) to David Kaufmann himself for 70 lire. Several items stand out for their rarity as well as for certain peculiar annotations. Scholars and curious readers will be able to appreciate the relevance of earlier owners, e.g. when the famous Italian scholar Samuel David Luzzatto (1800-1865) glossed his copy of Ketuvim, Venice 1618 (Kaufmann B 937).

The Kaufmann collection also reminds us how Jewish life changed during the ages – desires, dreams, and economic conditions included – and the intertwining of personal devotion, familiar inheritances and collecting, the examples of which are Abraham Joseph Salomon Graziano (1619-1685), rabbi of Modena, and rabbi Sanson Sacerdote Modon of Mantua (1679-1727). Kaufmann built part of his library on the basis of family inheritence as seems to show Kaufmann B 752 formerly owned by rabbi Loeb Lion Gomperz (1782-1859), the grandfather of his wife Irma Gomperz (1854-1905). On the other hand, Kaufmann also purchased items from foreign collectors with whom he perhaps had no direct relations, e.g. the Lithuanian hops and grain merchant Eliyahu Kappelman, d. 1914 (Kaufmann B 63).


4. Kaufmann B 63: On the verso of the second fron flyleaf, autograph Hebrew and Yiddish ownership note by David Kaufmann in his characteristic violet ink.

It is interesting to notice that some books owned by Italians were printed in foreign countries since this proves the mobility and the continuity of Jewish culture in Middle and Eastern Europe, where the printing of Hebrew books was often hindered no less than in Italy. Sadly, the presence of many items of Italian provenance is due to the intentional or negligent dispersion of private and communal libraries of Italian Jews, mostly in the 19th century. Despite this, just such a transfer may have saved them from neglect or even from destruction. That is why the collection is especially, though not exclusively, relevant.