8447 - 1,300 British Library Hebrew manuscript treasures now online


Biblical scenes in miniature paintings, illuminated in gold and striking colours. The Golden Haggadah, Catalonia, c. 1320 CE (Add MS 27210).
A major project to digitise some of the British Library’s most spectacular Hebrew manuscripts has just completed its first phase. Generously funded by The Polonsky Foundation, the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project aims to provide free online access to the Library’s collection of Hebrew manuscripts – one of the finest anywhere in the world. 
Among the many highlights are the lavishly illustrated 14th century Golden Haggadah and a 16th century Pentateuch scroll 52 metres in length.

The project has involved the photographing, description and, where necessary, meticulous conservation of 1,300 items ranging from illuminated service books to Torah scrolls, from scientific and astronomical treatises to great works of theology and philosophy. They bear witness to the full flowering of culture, thought and artistry in the Eastern and Western Jewish communities across more than a thousand years.

The project makes complete manuscripts available online via the British Library’s Digitised Manuscripts website, and is now being accessed by scholars across the UK and around the world, in locations ranging from Cork to Haifa, from Toronto to Berlin.

“The British Library’s collection of Hebrew manuscripts is one of the finest and most important anywhere in the world,” said Ilana Tahan, the Library’s Lead Curator of Hebrew and Christian Orient Collections. “It spans all major areas of Hebrew literature, with Bible, liturgy, kabbalah, Talmud, Halakhah (Jewish law), ethics, poetry, philosophy and philology particularly well represented. Its geographical spread is vast and takes in Europe, North Africa, the Middle and Near East, and various countries in Asia, including Iran, Iraq, Yemen and China. This project makes 1,300 codices and scrolls freely available to scholars and researchers around the world as never before, with items fully searchable by date, place of origin, scribe and keyword.”

Dr Leonard Polonsky, Chairman of The Polonsky Foundation, said: “I am delighted to see the Library making this rare collection available to scholars worldwide and, through the new Hebrew Manuscripts web space, to extend access to the wider public also.”

The resource has been promoted via the Library’s social media platforms using the hashtag #HebrewProject, and through blog posts and tweets on topics ranging from the largest and smallest items (a 52 metre long leather Pentateuch scroll and a scroll of the Book of Esther just 50mm wide) to the processes of conserving both the scrolls themselves and, in the case of some Torah scrolls, the often elaborate embroidered covers that have protected them for centuries.

“Social media is a powerful tool for raising awareness of these remarkable treasures far beyond the research audience,” said Adi Keinan-Schoonbaert, digital curator (Polonsky Fellow) for the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project. “By sharing spectacular images from the manuscripts, as well as going behind the scenes on the work of digitisation, we want to encourage people to find out more and explore online manuscripts that they would previously only have been able to access on microfilm or by visiting our Reading Rooms at St Pancras.”

A second phase to the Hebrew Manuscripts Digitisation Project was announced last year, in partnership with the National Library of Israel. The second phase of digitisation – currently underway – will see at least a further 860 manuscripts photographed and made available online.