From Salonica—to Biblioteca Colbertina in Paris, and via Pauls Coffee House—to Oxford

Tanḥumot ʼEl  (‘Consolations of God’) is a collection of sermons on the Pentateuch, with its first edition printed in Salonica (today’s Thessalonikē in Greece) in 1578-1579, by the local Jewish printer David ben Abraham Azubib. These homilies were penned by a sixteenth century Salonican rabbi and scholar, Isaac ben Moses Arollia (also known as Aroyo). Arollia, an author of a few kabbalistic and philosophical works that were printed in Salonica in the sixteenth century, was a disciple of a prominent Talmudic scholar and kabbalist in Salonica, Joseph Ṭaiṭazaḳ. Ṭaiṭazaḳ hails from the family of Spanish exiles who had become well established in Jewish scholarly circles in the Ottoman Empire by the sixteenth century. That was the case so much so that Joseph Ṭaiṭazaḳ’s own rabbinic influence extended to Jerusalem and Damascus, while his disciples can be considered as the founders of the kabbalistic centre in Safed.

Therefore, when discussing the Hebrew booklore of the sixteenth century, the role of the exiles from the Iberian peninsula cannot be underestimated. Already in the incunabular period, Constantinople rose as an important centre of Hebrew printing besides Italy. As an example, the very first book that was printed in the Ottoman Empire was in Hebrew: Jacob ben Asher’s Arba‘ah Turim in 1493, by the Nahmias brothers. As Jewish refugees from Spain, David and Samuel ibn Nahmias had hoped to start their printing business in Naples but things did not work out for them in Italy, so they took up Sultan Bayezid II's offer that allowed them to become printers in Constantinople. Their Hebrew type is similar to those fonts that were used in Spain and Italy at that time, and the same is even true of watermarked paper that was exported from Italy.

With the growth of Jewish communities in the Ottoman Empire, new printing shops of Hebrew books were established in its main centres. Salonica was one such a hub where Hebrew scholarship and book culture flourished after the arrival of further waves of expelled Jews from the Iberian peninsula. The high number of biblical and talmudic, kabbalistic and philosophical, as well as homiletic works that were published in and around Constantinople and Salonica, reflects well the explosion of such knowledge, especially in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

It is, however, also worth exploring how the books from that far corner of the world arrived at Oxford, and their place on the shelves in an academic library. As an example, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries Christ Church Library became a new home for whole volumes of Jewish works from the Levant that are still in need of uncovering.

Christ Church’s copy of Tanḥumot ʼEl  was once owned by a certain Joseph who left in the book his name, along with a few marginal annotations in Hebrew, in late sixteenth or seventeenth century semi-cursive Sephardi script. The book’s current, seventeenth century striking French red morocco armorial binding adds to the provenance story: a version of Jean-Baptiste Colbert’s coat of arms are stamped in gold, on the upper and lower boards, with Colbert's monogram ‘JBC’ stamped on the spine, while ‘Bibliotheca Colbertina' is inscribed on title page.

Wondering what would a French statesman and King Louis XIVth’ minister have to do with Hebrew books? Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683) was not only an economist and politician but also a patron of the arts and sciences. From 1661 to 1683 he was the director of the French Royal Library, a founder of the Academy of Sciences, the Paris Observatory, and several other important cultural institutions in France.

Seventeenth century, in general, was a time when the French, as well as the English merchants and missionaries in the Levant began to appreciate the local book culture. Consequently, huge collections of oriental books and manuscripts were bought up in Aleppo and Constantinople and shipped to their new owners in England and France. The Bodleian Library in particular, but also the libraries at Merton college and Christ Church were direct beneficiaries of such an unprecedented trade in books and manuscripts, via the services of Edward Pococke (1604-1691) and Robert Huntington (1637-1701) as chaplains of the Levant Company.

While Huntington was busy in Aleppo filling in requests for specific material that had come from his friends in Oxford, Colbert too, had his eyes cast on Levant, in search of oriental treasures. Resulting from the French acquisitions that had been commissioned by Colbert himself, a number of manuscripts and books from Aleppo reached the French Royal Library in Paris. As a bibliophile and with involvement in booktrade, Colbert founded his own magnificent private library, Bibliotheca Colbertina. His collection grew over the years and became to be known for their distinct gold-tooled, stamped red morocco bindings. Long after Jean-Baptiste Colbert’s death, in 1728 the library was auctioned, and thus several copies have found their way in various libraries in England.

Most likely, it is Charles Barlow (fl. 1720-30), who bought the copy of Tanḥumot ʼEl  from the auction of Colbert’s library. The bookplate of Charles Barlow, Esq. of Emanuel Colledge (sic), Cambridge can be seen on upper pastedown.

Now, the last piece of evidence in the book remains a mystery—‘Bought at Pauls Coffee house', is inscribed on verso of last free endleaf. The trail of provenance seems to suggest that our precious book, bound in red morocco, made its way straight from the coffee shop to Christ Church. And here is a call to all those out there who frequent Pauls Coffee house: when you are offered, next to your cuppa, an exotic Hebrew printed book, we would like to hear from you!


Dr Rahel Fronda
Hebrew Antiquarian Cataloguer
Christ Church Library



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