When Susan and Martin Wilson, two retired teachers from Cumbria, in northwest England, went to Hanson’s Auctioneer to appraise a Harry Potter book, they brought along a small volume Susan recently had inherited as well.
The leather-bound, handwritten, illustrated Hebrew book turned out to be a Shabbat siddur possibly owned by the grandson of Yaakov Emden, a leading 18th-century German rabbi.
And while the value of the Harry Potter title was unreported, the siddur sold for nearly $90,000 at auction earlier this month.
“It was with a degree of incredulity that we watched the sale,” Martin told the Lancashire-based Lancs Live. “We are a little stunned by the outcome.”
Jim Spencer, a book expert with Hansons, told Fine Books Magazine that the rare siddur “was shown to me as something of an afterthought.
“Before we shook hands to leave, [Martin] pulled this little leather case out of his bag and asked me if it was anything worth looking at,” he said. “I was completely bowled over by it. It’s beautiful.”
The book originally belonged to Susan’s uncle, who lived in Amsterdam. His wife inherited it after he died. She died last summer at 98, and then it was passed on to Susan. “We think it’s been in the family for around 50 years,” Martin said.
The manuscript contains Shabbat prayers, the prayer for the New Moon, and Perek Shirah, an ancient hymn of praise in which every created thing — from the animate to the celestial — thanks God for its existence.
A Hebrew inscription in the book says it belonged to Abraham ben Meir Emden. It also had a date — the 13th of the Hebrew month of Shevat, 517 (meaning 5517 in the Hebrew date system), which corresponds to February 3, 1757.
Though there is no proof, the inscription suggests the possibility that it belonged to the grandson of prominent German rabbi and talmudist Yaakov Emden (1697-1776), whose son Meir lived from 1717 to 1798 and was the rabbi of a town in Ukraine. (Meir’s brother Rabbi Meshulam Zalman was a rabbi in London and claimed the title of the United Kingdom’s chief rabbi.)
Given the opinions for which he is famous, Rabbi Yaakov Emden is unlikely to have been a Harry Potter fan. A harsh opponent of followers of Shabtai Tzi, the disgraced would-be messiah, Rabbi Emden investigated the Zohar and became one of the first scholars to realize that in fact it was not written by the Talmudic sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. He famously accused a senior contemporary, Rabbi Yonasan Eibschutz, of being a secret Sabbatean. His central evidence was the magical amulets Rabbi Eibschutz had written and given to members of his community. Rabbi Emden interpreted them as reflecting Sabbatean tendencies.
Neither position would have gone over well at Hogwarts, the magical school in the Harry Potter novels founded seven or eight centuries before the senior Rabbi Emden’s real-world birth.