Before the internet, before any kind of telecommunications, before the printing press, even before general literacy, there still were books. But back then, it was possible to try to gather a copy — a handwritten copy — of all of the world’s knowledge — okay, all of the Western world’s knowledge — in one admittedly large room. Or series of rooms. But in one place.
That’s the origin of many of the world’s great old libraries, including the Vatican Apostolic Library, first conceived in the fourth century C.E., and finally established formally more than a millennia later, in 1475, with books far older than the library itself.
According to Rabbi Dr. David J. Fine, the library’s holdings include “handwritten manuscripts from the 14th century, works by Rambam, Rashi, old prayerbooks.”
Rabbi Fine, who leads Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center of Ridgewood, had a firsthand glimpse of what the Vatican library has in its vast arched spaces in July, when he was part of a program created jointly by the library and the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano Marshall T. Meyer to study some of the Jewish gems in the collection.
The program — a week of intensive work and extensive welcomes, speeches, and expressions of gratitude, to be followed by a year of distance learning together — is an outgrowth of the relationship between Pope Francis I and the Jews of Argentina.
The pope, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, was the archbishop of Buenos Aires. That city is home to the seminario, a Conservative/Masorti rabbinical school. (Marshall T. Meyer, who founded the seminario and after whom it is named, was the American Conservative rabbi who spent many years of his rabbinate in Argentina, fighting against the junta that terrorized the people it ruled, until finally it lost power and he returned home to revive Congregation B’nai Jeshurun on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.)
Francis’s relationship to Buenos Aires’s Jewish community is both strong and deep, Rabbi Fine said, so when the library’s leader wanted to stress how open its resources are to scholars around the world, the seminario’s head, Rabbi Ariel Stofenmacher, suggested that the Vatican ask Jewish and non-Jewish leaders to inaugurate this program.
That’s how Rabbi Fine found himself one of 20 clerics — mostly but not all Jewish, all but two from outside the United States, all scholars of Hebrew texts, all but him fluent in Spanish or Italian — in the Vatican in July.
Before the group began to study, it was welcomed at the Vatican and at the Argentinian embassy to the Holy See; there also was a ceremony commemorating the Amia bombing that killed 85 people and injured more than 300 at the Jewish community center in Buenos Aires on July 18, 1994, exactly 29 years before. “An official from the Argentinian embassy and an Italian official both spoke about memorializing the tragedy and fighting against antisemitism,” Rabbi Fine said.
The group visited the synagogue at Ostia, an ancient city that was excavated in the 1960s, and provided a wealth of information about the Jews who once had — who knew? — lived there. “It was an extraordinary site,” Rabbi Fine said. “We gathered there and sang the Shehecheyanu,’” the blessing for something new. “It was moving,” he said. But “it also was 105 degrees, as it was every day we were there. There’s not a lot of air conditioning. Walking around in a coat and a tie when its 105 is challenging.”
The group also went to the Great Synagogue in Rome and toured the old ghetto there.
Then they went to the library to work.
“It’s not as if the books were never available,” Rabbi Fine said. “They were always available for scholars. But the way it works is that you have to have permission for any manuscript you want to work on. But we got to see dozens of Hebrew manuscripts, not as specialists, but as honored clergy.
“It’s a gesture that the pope wanted to make to the seminario. He wanted to share the Jewish book treasures he has in his library.”
The program included lectures by Rabbi David Golinkin, the American-born Israeli scholar who had been one of Rabbi Fine’s teachers, and by Dr. Adolfo Roitman, the Argentinian-born, seminario-ordained Israeli curator of the Shrine of the Book.
To be clear, “the Dead Sea Scrolls are not connected with the manuscripts in the library,” Rabbi Fine said. “Dr. Roitman pointed out that they are much older. The specific connection between the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Vatican library is that when they were analyzed, scholars compared them to the Masoretic texts and the oldest biblical manuscript, the Septuagint, to see which is more accurate.
“The Septuagint is in the library; it was preserved by the church, although it’s in the Jewish tradition.”
Rabbi Fine loved being part of the group — a slot for which he applied and that he was given, he thinks, at least in part because he spends much time in Germany, where he teaches Jewish law at the Abraham Geiger College and the Zacharias Frankel College at the University of Potsdam. His doctorate is in history, “but my field is modern history, and I never have had the opportunity to look closely at a medieval manuscript, although I learned about them in my Talmud class at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
“JTS has them in its collection” — in fact, JTS has one of the world’s largest collections of Judaica — “but it’s not as if our teachers could have just brought them up to the classroom.”
And then there’s the classroom, the physical space in the Vatican where the group met.
It was spectacular.
The ceiling was vast and vaulted and stunning. “There was a statue of St. Thomas Aquinas behind Professor Golinkin, as he was teaching us,” Rabbi Fine said. “And then I look up at the ceiling, and I see the seal of the Vatican.”
The group got a tour of two laboratories — the repair department, where bindings are repaired and bugs are removed, and the photography lab. It was the kind of behind-the-scenes look that few visitors are granted. “On the wall, there was a collage of Pope Francis getting the same tour that we were getting,” Rabbi Fine said. “For us, they brought out the Hebrew books.”
Most of the Hebrew books have been digitized; that work is done in the photography lab. “They showed us how they could capture things that fade away, and how ultraviolet and infrared light can make them visible,” Rabbi Fine said. “They showed us what they were uncovering.”
The technicians were working on a Hebrew manuscript. “You could see the dots and the lines,” Rabbi Fine said. “One of my colleagues came over and started to sing it.” To sing the text. It was a haftarah — a selection from the Prophets — and the dots and lines were the trope. “The technician’s eyes nearly popped out,” he said. “She said, ‘How did you know that?’
“That technician was the head of the department, and you could see that she was feeling real awe.
“Another one of the technicians prepared a little PowerPoint for us,” he continued. “The title page was a Hebrew manuscript. It was upside down.”
In the repair lab, the group got to see how repairs are done. “They showed us how they fix the binding,” Rabbi Fine said. “They use Japanese parchment to fill holes. The Italian librarian was talking to Rabbi Golinkin, showing him how they were repairing a random Renaissance book. The paper that had been used in the binding on the spine came out, and it was four strips of a Hebrew manuscript that he identified as coming from the Jerusalem Talmud.
“It just came out of the binding!” he marveled. “They” — the people who first made this repair, possibly centuries ago — “had just gotten these strips, lined them up, and used them in the binding.
“On the last day, they brought us out a selection of books, just sharing the treasures with us. We got to touch them. These was a volume of Talmud that I could open.”
It can be difficult to find the passage you’re looking for, he said, because early manuscripts are not standardized. A page would end where the scribe ended it. “And Professor Golinkin taught us that just because something is older, that doesn’t mean that it’s more accurate. Sometimes lines just got skipped, and you can see that.”
Rabbi Fine found that some of the greatest delights were the novel presentations of familiar texts. “We’re always studying Torah with Rashi, and Rashi has his key words,” he said. “I always learned that Rashi’s text originally didn’t have the Torah next to it. Here, in the Vatican library, I got to see it as a separate book, a handwritten manuscript from 800 years ago.
“To be able to see it and touch it! To see the books from the Renaissance period; to see the amount of Jewish learning that existed under the shadow of the church…”
Some of the treasures in the library are illuminated.
“They brought out a giant tome, with beautiful handwriting, that was a 14th century High Holiday machzor,” Rabbi Fine said. “We found the Kol Nidrei. The first word, Kol, with a drawing of a dragon, takes up the entire page, and the rest of it is on the facing page.
“About half a dozen of my Argentinian colleagues surrounded it, and they just instantaneously started singing Kol Nidrei, and the sounds start reverberating in the room, with the Vatican vault, the painted ceiling, above us.
“The Catholic librarians are watching us, and their eyes open wide. They are the custodians of this treasure, which had not been sung from for 800 years, and here we were in that library, singing.
“It was amazing.”
Although the Vatican’s collection of Jewish books and manuscripts, while certainly important, is not among the world’s largest, “what is most significant is that these manuscripts have been treasured by the Catholic church for hundreds of years,” Rabbi Fine said. “We think of the church as closed, not open to modernity or learning, but that is not the way the Catholic church sees itself.
“They brought us to a main hall that’s full of frescos that tell the story of books and libraries, starting with Moses, moving through the world’s great libraries, in Jerusalem and Athens and Rome, and culminating with the Vatican library and its treasures.”
There are ways in which the Vatican library resembles most other libraries around the world right now. “A number of the librarians said that they need funding,” Rabbi Fine said. “It’s not the Vatican’s top priority.”
The program was a great success in many ways, Rabbi Fine concluded. “A number of the manuscripts the Vatican holds are of great value and significance to the Jewish people. It’s a great opportunity for us to learn from them. It was a unique and special experience.”