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Ann Brener, Ph.D., Hebraic Area Specialist, African and Middle Eastern Division
Created: January 10, 2021
Last Updated: July 16, 2021
Amongst the crown jewels of the Hebraic Section at the African, Middle Eastern and Hebraic Division of the Library of Congress are its thirty-seven Hebrew books printed before the year 1501. These Hebrew “cradle books” or incunabula, as they are more generally known, offer a truly representative view of early Hebrew printing, with works ranging from rabbinical commentaries and responsa to poetry, belles-lettres, and Arabic philosophy. They come from the presses of some of the best-known Hebrew printers of late fifteenth-century Europe and span the three major centers of Hebrew printing during the first crucial decades of its existence: Spain, Portugal, and Italy. Thus, it is not only a well-rounded collection but also an important one, with such treasures as the unique holograph from the greatest of early Hebrew printers, Gershom Soncino (no. 17), or the ancient, envelope-style binding that graces our Hebrew version of Ibn Sina's Canon medicinae (no. 28).
The following descriptions capture only the more salient features of each individual book and are drawn from a variety of sources, including handwritten notes by Myron M. Weinstein, Head of the Hebraic Section from 1980-1984, and observations made by the writer of these lines herself. In offering these brief descriptions, we hope to make these incunabula available to a wider public and to encourage scholarly research into these little-known gems of early Hebrew printing.
The 37 Hebrew incunabula in the Library of Congress are divided between the Hebraic Section (with 24 books), and the Rare Book and Special Collections Division (13 books). Altogether they represent 30 different titles; 7 titles have copies in both sections and these are marked in the guide with an asterisk.
The incunabula have been listed chronologically, a decision facilitated by the practice of early Hebrew printers in giving not only the year of publication but also the month and the day. In the few cases where dates are conjectural, these have been listed with a question mark.
The African and Middle Eastern Division (AMED) was created in 1978 as part of a general Library of Congress reorganization. AMED currently consists of three sections - African, Hebraic and Near East - and covers more than 77 countries and regions from Southern Africa to the Maghreb and from the Middle East to Central Asia. Each section plays a vital role in the Library's acquisitions program; offers expert reference and bibliographic services to the Congress and researchers in this country and abroad; develops projects, special events and publications; and cooperates with other institutions and scholarly and professional associations in the US and abroad.
As a major world resource center for Africa, the Middle East, the Caucasus, and Central Asia, AMED has the custody of more than one million physical collection materials in the non-Roman-alphabet languages of the region such as Amharic, Arabic, Armenian, Georgian, Hebrew, Persian, Turkish, and Yiddish. Included in these collections are books, periodicals, newspapers, microforms, grey literature, and rarities such as cuneiform tablets, manuscripts, incunabula (works printed before 1501), and other early African and Middle Eastern publications. Among the most prized items are also several sizable pamphlet collections on African Studies.