Bibliophiles and collectors of Jewish texts have been prowling the precincts of Kestenbaum & Company these past days, covetously eyeing and reverently handling the rare items now on display and scheduled for auction on Thursday, June 25. Dubbed the “Singular Collection,” the provenance for this remarkable grouping of early printed Hebrew books, and Biblical and Rabbinic manuscripts remains undisclosed.
Rumor has it that the collection is being sold off to pay the debts of a well-known dealer who’s fallen on hard times but regardless of its source, the auction offers an opportunity to acquire items rarely available for sale. Adding frenzy to an already passionate marketplace is the fact that the items are being offered at surprisingly low reserves, encouraging Hebrew booklovers from all corners to come out and bid. As one fanatic collector said, avidly poring over the catalogue and items on display, “If I had the money, I’d buy the entire catalogue— books, art, letters and all.”
Although small in size, the collection is wide-ranging and extraordinary in the quality and rarity of the many of the items up for sale. The highlights of the auction, according to Daniel Kestenbaum, owner of the auction house (full disclosure: Daniel’s a distant cousin of my husband), are the Hebrew manuscripts, “scholarly, esoteric and rarely available.” Almost one-third of these medieval and pre-modern Hebraic manuscripts have never been printed.
Perhaps the crown jewel of the collection is the autograph manuscript of the Melecheth Shlomo, a seminal work by Rabbi Solomon Adani, one of the key commentators on the Mishnah. Born in Yemen in 1567, Rabbi Adani moved to Hebron where, at age 22, he began the work that was to occupy him for the next 30 years: attempting to “resolve textual difficulties and establish the most reliable reading of the Mishnah.“ His was an impoverished and tragic life — all of his 11 children died — and in the introduction to his book, Rabbi Adani wrote: “It is now the year 5379 (1519), and today I am fifty-two years old. And to this day I have not been privileged to have a son to follow my guidance…" His legacy however did live on through his monumental opus. You can sense the excitement of the scholars, hovered reverently round this remarkable text, who are finally able to see and touch this museum-worthy tome “Bi’ktav Yad Kadsho” (written in his sacred hand).
Other treasures include a 12th century Hebrew manuscript of Psalms “written in a square Spanish hand…on vellum” and “most likely of Spanish origin – hence remarkably scarce,” according to the catalogue, along with a 13th century German manuscript of the Book of Genesis whose Hebrew is calligraphed in Gothic lettering. Kestenbaum enthused, “I’ve been doing this for 30 years and I often have Rabbinic manuscripts but not of this quality.”
Ranging across several centuries, the collection contains a first edition — and a personal copy — of the anti-Sabbatian polemic, “Zoth Torath Hakan’oth” by Rabbi Jacob Emden from 1752. Revealed on its margins are the revered Talmudist’s hand-written, “bitingly sarcastic” notes contemning Sabbatai Tzvi, the self-proclaimed 17th Century messiah, whose initial message of redemption and ultimate conversion to Islam wreaked havoc on the Jewish world of that time. Rabbi Emden’s loathing of the entire Sabbatian movement was so strong that it led to his accusing his contemporary, Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschutz, the renowned Rabbi of the “three communities,” of being a secret follower of that reviled sect.
But manuscripts and books are not the only items of interest. An emissary letter signed by the “Saintly R. Menachem Mendel of Shklov” written in 1823, now frayed and taped, was originally penned in order to obtain a license from the authorities in Constantinople to rebuild the ‘Churvah’ synagogue in the Old City of Jerusalem. “It’s extraordinarily appealing,“ Kestenbaum mused, “to imagine the trip that letter took just sitting in the pocket [of the emissary]. It’s the original meat and potatoes of history in tattered condition.”
It should prove to be an exciting and interesting afternoon. If you’re there, waiting with the other eagerly anxious attendees, be sure to check out the wonderful bits of history lining the walls and shelves. Early Zionist posters mingle with Bezalel rugs while a beautifully illuminated manuscript from 1920 celebrates the appointment of Sir Herbert Samuel, “the first Jewish Governor of our Holy Land in two thousand years.” Imagining the trip of each of these wondrous items, many of which changed the course of Jewish history, can be dizzying.
Kestenbaum & Company, an auction house specializing in the fields of Hebraica and Judaica, is at 242 West 30th Street, New York City. Online bidding is available.
Gloria Kestenbaum is a corporate communications consultant and freelance writer.