Monday, April 29, 2013

Record set today for highest price evert paid for a Jewish Book or Manuscript

                                                                                                                                          from the AP
The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and The Israel Museum have jointly purchased a 15th century Rambam.

Sotheby’s announced Monday that the two institutions have acquired the Mishneh Torah from the Michael and Judy Steinhardt Judaica Collection. It was about to be put up for auction in New York City.

It’s the second of a two-volume illuminated manuscript. The first is housed in the Vatican.

The Rambam had a pre-auction estimate of $4.5 million to $6 million.

Sotheby’s declined to say how much the two museums paid. But it was more than the $2.9 million paid for a Chumash in 1989 at Sotheby’s, which set an auction record for Judaica.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Interesting stamp of a Rabbi from Lodz RABBI MENACHEM YOSEF HALEVI SEGAL

I just got in an 1883 Jusefef edition of Ruach Chen by R. Judah b. Samuel ibn Tibbon. There are several stamps in the book of Rabbi Menachem Yosef Halevi Segal of Lodz. He is mentioned in several Rabbinic works of his era see for example ילקוט יצחק by יחיאל יצחק בן אפרים פישל בערמאן printed in Warsaw in 1937.
His stamp seen in photo above is a circle surrounded by his full name and enclosed within, is his description "רב דתי ורשמי חבר ועד הרבנים לאדז"  roughly translating as "A religious and official Rabbi on the Rabbinate of Lodz".
The situation must have been very dire indeed for a Rabbi to have to advertise that he was 'Dati" religious.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013


A fellow brought in to our store recently a Talmud volume printed in Vilna. As you can see in the photos above, the book came from the great Volozhin Yeshiva with an inscription at beginning and end of book "donated for the Yeshiva Etz Chaim in memory....."
On the front free-ends of the volume, there is 4 lines of a partial poem in Hebrew, reading somewhat like this"
כי מי מישראל חמד לראות ולהדר שמהלוכו האפשרות ולצאת followed by a few undeciphered words.
In addition, there are several large childish-like signatures in large letters Bialik and Chaim Nachman Bialik as well as one Hebrew signature written as חיים
Presumably, this is in the handwriting of the great Chaim Nachman Bialik. Bialik arrived at age 17 in Volozhin (1890) and stayed in the Yeshiva for about 1.5 years. The Yeshiva closed shortly after he left the Yeshiva, so we can safely assume that this volume was in the Yeshiva during his brief stay.
When comparing the writing of the partial poem to his known handwriting, the handwriting looks to be identical. What left me confused though, is his writing in the Latin Alphabet. Presumably, while still in Yeshiva, Bialik would not have been using the Latin Alphabet, as in his country of birth, the Cyrillic Alphabet was the one used. Could it be that he was studying German and practicing the alphabet while still a youngster in Yeshiva? Comparing the handwriting though proved very difficult. In general, handwriting in such large format does vary greatly from a standard signature, and presumably, at this time, he was just starting to learn the alphabet at most. It does not seem to match his known German signatures, but then again, should it be expected to?
The interior of the volume is very worn. The partial poem is written in pen and the names are written in pencil.
Anyone who can shed light on this matter please do. If it is indeed as we suspect, the very volume that Bialik used in Volozhin and perhaps even by the  "HaMatmid" we have a great piece of history in our hands.
The first title page is rather worn, but there is a title page in middle of the book for the Seder Zeraim, photos below. The date of printing, 1890, works out well chronologically for the young Bialik, the book being printed just as he got to Yeshiva.

UPDATE: 4/24
Here is some thoughts on the matter sent to me from the legendary S. of onthemainline. Thanks!

 "As for the German, there is no stira at all. The Enlightenizing (to coin a term) Russian Jews were always attracted to German, which was then the international language of culture and scholarship. Plus, the Latin alphabet was key to French, English, Italian, etc. This was true to a degree for educated Russians across the board (not dissimilar to how today an educated person invariably has or wants to acquire some English). In the 19th century Russia was first developing its own culture, and Russians were still looking to the West. For someone like Bialik who indeed moved to Berlin, we should hardly be surprised to see a youthful signature in the Latin alphabet. Also bear in mind that it is entirely possible that this signature does not date to his youth at all, despite looking somewhat childish. He could have scrawled it absent-mindedly one day as someone prattled on to him. I'm just saying, it's possible. 

Note the stamp inside: L. B. Cohen-Weismann. This is almost certainly a man named Lazar Benisch Cohen-Weismann, whom the internet reveals was naturalized in England in January of 1913. Not sure what to make of that, but apparently he was the owner at some point. 

UPDATE: 4/26
Some very helpful information supplied by Prof. Shnayer Leiman: Thanks!

There are may yeshivos called Etz Hayyim. The Volozhin Yeshiva had a rubber stamp with which they stamped each sefer in the Yeshiva library. This has no stamp. 
It's certainly possible that this was Bialik's gemara. If so, it was his personal gemara. 
It was the practice at Volozhin to distribute gemarot to the students. It's possible that Bialik brought his own masechta to the yeshiva, or that he turned the copy given to him into his own copy.
My good friend Meron Eren of Kedem Auctions visited today, he compared the Bialik Hebrew writing to his known handwriting and declares the writing in our gemara is in Bialik's hand as well in his opinion. The signature he feels though will be impossible to ever guarantee 100% due to our lack of comparable writing to match it to.

Monday, April 15, 2013

How books (yes, books) will slowly kill the bookstores; the slow and painful death of the Book Dealers

It is widely believed that the long term future of the bookseller is grim. Many reasons are given for this, with e-books usually being the prime target, which is of course very true. As a bookseller myself though, I have come to the conclusion that it may be nothing other than books that will kill the bookstore and bury the booksellers within it.

Such an accusation against our beloved books needs an explanation, and supply one I will. To understand this, we must look at the history of the printing of books and the nature of the average reader.
I will focus on the reader of Jewish books, as that is the field I interact with. There are aprox 15 million Jews in the world (Those damned statistics!), of which, there are aprox 4 million that would be observant enough to have Judaism somehow part of their daily life. Of these 4 million, if we are very generous with our numbers, aprox 5% read 20 or more books a year. If these numbers sound harsh, take a recent American study which showed, that 1/3 of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives and that 80 percent of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year, let alone read one.

That leaves us with 200,000 people in the world who read 20 Jewish books on average a year, who we will call the serious reader. A search of OCLC, the world's libraries database, shows that there are slightly over 1 million books of Jewish interest published to date, just in the languages of Hebrew & English. Using these numbers, assuming that every book of the million books a series Jewish reader can choose from is evenly spread out, an average Jewish book is read 4 times a year. Naturally, there will always be best sellers and more popular books which are read more than others, leaving thousands of books that are rarely if ever read.

This has not always been the case in history though. If you lived in the mid 1500s for example, and you had a love for books, you can purchase every Hebrew book ever printed, and fit them all in your bedroom. In the good old days, for a book to be printed, it generally needed to be a good one, and a well versed reader only needed to read a few hundred books in his lifetime, as that was all there was to read. There were years when less than a score of Hebrew books were printed, and if you were a good reader, you can read faster than the books were coming off the presses, literally. With the advancement of printing and the lowering of the cost of printing over the years, more and more mediocre books made there way to the press. These mediocre books were read for a few years and were soon enough forgotten, other than to a few of the Jewish intelligentsia. With time, the numbers of these mediocre books multiplied and there were less and less people who would be able to recognize any specific author or title. In an age, where there is a Guinness world record for the most prolific authors and professors are ruled by publish or perish, it is little surprise that we have authors who have not have had an unpublished thought.

Even though the books were being printed faster and better, the amount a reader can read has yet to have changed over the centuries. This translates in to more and more books fighting for the reading time of the readers, who have not grown much in number, in turn translating in to many more books being forgotten over the years. We can imagine that an educated Jew, living in the 1750s for example, can name you 100 books printed in the last 20 years of his life, how many titles can a Jew living today name that were printed in those two decades? very few if any, I would suspect.

How does this translate for the bookseller? Not well, to say the least. All these books, printed throughout the ages, are now available to the intelligent reader of our days. He can now choose between 1,000,000 books, what he will read next. There will always be the popular books which will come around again again, but the time the reader spends on less known works, will now be divided by this ever growing number of books. A reader will now be searching for any one of these 1,000,000 books, and a bookseller, whose place it is to supply him with his needs, will find it harder and harder to stock all the titles that are available.

An average used bookstore today, stocks under 20,000 titles, thus, the chances of the store having a specific out of print title are rather slim. The rate that books are being printed, does not seem to be slowing down at all, and the likelihood of a bookseller making a sale will go down with every additional title published. There is at some point a ratio, say for example, if a bookseller doesn't have even 10% of books requested, that he will find himself out of business.

There will naturally be some bumps for the better of the bookseller. For those selling over the Internet, their customer base will widen with the spread of the world wide web. The spread of English through the world, will help sellers focus on the languages readers will likely be reading and thus no longer need to stock multiple languages. The overall trend though, appears to be for the worse. But for those of you cheering our downfall, I have news for you. Us booksellers will not got down without a fight. Like the Luddites of old, we will continue to pester people to read and buy books and will most likely be remembered as a clan of old men who would rather starve to death than give up their love for the book.

“Good friends, good books, and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life.”
― Mark Twain

A document from the Syrian Rabbinical Council of New York regarding Yom Ha'Atzmaut, Israeli Independence Day

For posterity, Above is the official opinion of the Rabbinical Council of the Syrian and near Eastern Jewish Communities in America regarding saying Hallel on Yom Ha'Atzmaut. Dated 1987, this was before the days that the more "black hat" Rabbis took the leadership of the community.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013


Above, are photos of a fascinating handwritten sign I just acquired. Apparently, it was hung in the synagogue in Timisoara, Romania, dated 1896. The writer, the Av Bet Din of the town, quoting a Magen Avraham, states that at any time in History, that we are living in peace, there is no need to fast any of the Rabbinic fasts. 
"I want to let the members of my holy congregation know, that you are now exempt, in our great motherland, the land of our birth and the pride of our religion, from fasting on these days"

History has proven though, that his patriotism was a bit premature. A half century later, his neighbors did not resist when the entire community was deported to the camps.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Is there such a thing as a "JEWISH TUNE"? Can a gentile song be "converted"?

In light of recent banning of specific Jewish Music and Singers by Orthodox Rabbis and the “Committee for Jewish Music” founded in Bene Brak which gives Kosher seals of approval to Music they deem Jewish, the question arises; what is Jewish Music?
Above is a surprising view held by the great Rabbi Yisrael Moshe Hazan, In the first responsa in his Shu"t Kerach Shel Romi, in response to a question asked whether it is permissible to use non-Jewish tunes for Jewish prayers.
Here is a piece of the Teshuva" AND I TESTIFY IN THE NAME OF THE HEAVEN AND THE EARTH, That when I was in the great city of Smyrna (Izmir), may god protect it, I saw the famous Rabbis and Cantors, that were great singers on the correct musical scales, and at their head, RABBI AVRAHAM HAKOHEN ARIAS z"l. And for the musical scale of the High Holidays, which needs great submission, they would go to the churches of the Christians behind the curtains on their holidays to hear and learn from them their voices of songs of submission that breaks one's heart. They would make from these tunes Kaddish and Kedushot on a wondrous scale........

A view in to old printed texts of Jewish Songs, such as the legendary זמירות ישראל - רבי ישראל נגארה from the very first edition on (1586 Safed) we see Arabic, mostly Turkish tunes listed as the tunes that the songs should be sung with. Through recent years, especially with Jewish Songbooks published in the Middle East, even to songs written by great Rabbis, we see every song introduced with it's gentile tune as the one to sing it to.
Apparently, throughout history, Jewish Music to Jews was nothing more than Jewish words to gentile tunes, a stark contrast to what people are being led to believe today.


Above is a sample of a great introduction to a Pirke Avot commentary by Rabbi Shaul Broch (1865–1940).
Here is a sample quote shown above;
"To my brothers I send a plea  to anyone who believes in the Torah of Moses, should stay very far away from the camps of the Zionists and Mizrahis and should refrain from drinking and eating with them. It is proper to seperate them from the community like our fathers did to the Tzedokim, Baytosim and Karaites, and since we are in the days of Mashiach and the Sitra Acahara's power is rising..... Each man should worry for his own family and not marry in to them as they will not merit to see the light of redemption.........