Prince of the Press

How One Collector Built History's Most Enduring and Remarkable Jewish Library

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Joshua Teplitsky
  • New Haven, CT: 
    Yale University Press
    , January
     2019.
     336 pages.
     $35.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780300234909.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The Court Jews, a group of wealthy Jewish families who acted as financiers and agents for the rulers of Central Europe between the middle of the 17th century to the beginning of the 19th century, were also leaders of their respective Jewish communities. Previous scholarship has focused on their relations with the rulers they worked for, and their roles as intermediaries between the Jews and their rulers. The role of Court Jews as harbingers of modernity has also attracted the attention of scholars. An area neglected until recently are the activities of Court Jews as patrons of Jewish learning, by establishing yeshivas, subsidizing the publications of religious books and even, establishing a printing press in one case. 

Rabbi David Oppenheim (1664–1736), the subject of Joshua Teplitsky’s study in Prince of the Press: How One Collector Built History's Most Enduring and Remarkable Jewish Library, was a member of this Jewish elite. Teplitsky begins by detailing the events of Oppenheim’s early life. Born in Worms into one of the wealthiest and important families of the period, the Oppenheim’s (some parts of the family used the name Oppenheimer) were “Court Jews,” who served the rulers of Central Europe. Oppenheim married the daughter of Leffman Behrends of Hannover, and with his large dowry and personal wealth decided to pursue intellectual interests and became a rabbi rather than entering the world of the court Jew. He studied with Rabbi Hayyim Yair Bacharach—a major rabbinic authority—and other important rabbis. Appointed to a rabbinic position in Moravia, in 1702 Oppenheim became the chief rabbi of Prague, where he remained for the rest of his life.

Oppenheim’s interest in books and building a personal library began in his youth. Teplitsky observes that there are journals preserved in Oppenheim’s collection where he noted what he bought, from whom he bought it and what he paid, as he began building his library. There are additional documents in the collection that shed light on the book trade and how books circulated in this period. As Oppenheim’s importance and fame grew, so did the opportunities to acquire books and manuscripts. People wanting his help would offer him a book or manuscript as a token of good will. Teplitsky notes that even Johann Christoff Wolff, the great Christian bibliographer of the Hebrew book, sent a book when he wrote Oppenheim asking to visit his library, which by then had become famous. 

According to Teplitsky, Oppenheim’s collecting interests were universal. Everything Jewish was of interest to him. In addition to the usual scholarly works, his accumulation contains the largest collection of Early Modern Yiddish books, pamphlets and broadsides, and other items categorized as ephemera. It is ironic that despite his great love of books, Oppenheim was not able to have his library near him in Moravia and Prague, where he spent much of his life. The Holy Roman Empire and the Catholic Church imposed strict censorship and confiscation of books in their battle with Protestantism. Instead, his library was located in Hannover, Germany under the supervision of his son. Oppenheim visited it during his travels and had extracts copied and sent to him when he required something. He was also very generous with his library, allowing scholars to visit and use its treasures for research and study, and a number of its manuscripts were published by other scholars.

Teplitsky writes that, in the 17th and 18th centuries, great libraries bespoke wealth, power, and influence, and many rulers and noblemen built them. The education needed to create such a library also spoke highly of its owner. Beyond his personal interest as a lover of books, Oppenheim’s collection gave him many of the same prerogatives accorded to Christian noblemen and rulers who had great libraries. It was a source of rabbinic authority and enhanced Oppenheim’s reputation as a great scholar who should be consulted on matters of importance. For example, in one rabbinic dispute, Oppenheim was able to produce a rare volume from his library that showed how the author of the volume, a universally recognized authority, had ruled in accord with Oppenheim’s opinion and against the view of his opponents. Due to Oppenheim’s reputation as a connoisseur of books and scholarship, many new authors sought his approbation for their books.

After a collector’s death, private libraries are often broken up with individual volumes sold at auction, and with this the legacy of the collector is forgotten. After Oppenheim’s death, his library had a variety of vicissitudes but ultimately was sold as a collection to the Bodleian Library where it remains as a memorial to Oppenheim and his love of books. It is probably the most influential collection created by an individual that has remained intact. It is also the core around which the two most important bibliographies of the Jewish book were created, Wolff’s Bibliotheca Hebraea (Hamburg, 1715–1727), and Moritz Steinschneider’s Bodleian Catalog (Berlin, 1852–1860).

There is relatively little prior scholarship on Oppenheim, and most of it concentrates on his activities as chief rabbi of prague. He is mentioned in some works relating to the history of the Jewish book, but this is the first monograph devoted to Oppenheim and his place in the history of the Jewish book. In Prince of the Press: How One Collector Built History's Most Enduring and Remarkable Jewish Library, Teplitsky has told this story in an engaging and erudite manner. He has also placed Oppenheim and his project into the context of Early Modern Central European culture, both Jewish and general. It is an important contribution to the history of the Jewish book and Early Modern Ashkenazi Jewry.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Morris M. Faierstein is Research Associate at the University of Maryland.

Date of Review: 
February 22, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Joshua Teplitsky is Assistant Professor of History at Stony Brook University. He specializes in the history of the Jews in Europe in the early modern period and in the study of books and media. He lives in New York City.

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