Words Like Sapphires: 100 Years of Hebraica at the Library of Congress, 1912–2012

The Hebraic Section of the Library of Congress has long been recognized as one of the world’s foremost centers for the study of Hebrew and Yiddish materials. Its beginnings can be traced to Jacob H. Schiff’s gift in 1912 of nearly 10,000 books and pamphlets from the private collection of Ephraim Deinard, a well-known bibliographer and bookseller. The first Deinard Collection included material from more than 300 localities and spanned four and a half centuries.

In 1914, Schiff gave the Library a second gift of 4,200 Hebrew books that Deinard had collected. The Library purchased two additional collections from Deinard in 1916 and 1920. In less than a decade, the Library had acquired nearly 20,000 volumes, several hundred manuscripts, and a substantial number of incunabula (books printed before 1501).

In the century since Schiff’s initial gift, the Library has developed and expanded its Hebraic holdings to include all types of materials of research value in Hebrew and related languages. Today, the Hebraic Section houses close to 200,000 works in Hebrew, Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Arabic, Aramaic, Syriac, and Amharic. Its holdings are especially strong in the areas of Bibles, rabbinics, liturgy, the land of Israel past and present, contemporary artists’ books, and Hebrew language and literature.

This exhibit illustrates America’s hospitality to cultures as well as to people, a welcome that is reflected in the rich collections of the Library of Congress. The items in this exhibition, which deals with the Jewish experience, demonstrate this nation’s continuing commitment to collect, preserve, and make available the civilizations and cultures of everyone who has come to these shores in search of freedom and opportunity.

The First Deinard Collection Comes to the Library of Congress

Several individuals played key roles in creating a Hebraica collection at the Library of Congress:

Jacob Henry Schiff

Jacob Schiff donated the funds to acquire the First and Second Deinard Collections. Schiff was also a generous donor to the Jewish Theological Seminary, Hebrew Union College, Columbia University, Harvard University, and the Jewish Division of the New York Public Library.

Ephraim Deinard

Ephraim Deinard was a prolific author, bibliographer, and antiquarian book dealer who acquired Hebrew books and pamphlets during his travels through Europe and the Middle East. By 1920, the Library of Congress acquired a total of four collections from Deinard: the first two through the generosity of Jacob H. Schiff and the last two via funds provided by the Library itself for the newly-established Hebraic Section.

Dr. Herbert Putnam

Dr. Herbert Putnam served as Librarian of Congress from 1899 until 1939. A man of broad culture and vision, he transformed the Library’s holdings into a collection of universal knowledge spanning the literatures of the globe.

Dr. Cyrus Adler

Dr. Cyrus Adler served as Librarian of the Smithsonian Institution and then as assistant secretary. He later rose to positions of national Jewish communal leadership. Adler helped to negotiate the early stages of the Library’s acquisition of the First Deinard Collection.

Dr. Israel Schapiro

Dr. Israel Schapiro served as head of the newly created Semitic Division, later called the Hebraic Section, from 1913 until 1944. A prolific author, he wrote extensively for the Hebrew and Yiddish press on Jewish history and bibliography. He is shown above with Library staff in 1914.

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