The Rothschild Mahzor

This image comes from a beautifully illuminated manuscript created in Italy in 1490. It illustrates the first mishnah in Pirkei Avot and appears under the words which translate as Moses Received. “Moses received the Torah at Sinai and transmitted it to Joshua, Joshua to the elders, and the elders to the prophets, and the prophets to the Men of the Great Assembly.” Note that Moses appears in apparent in “biblical attire” while Joshua and the convened Israelites are depicted in Renaissance finery; perhaps the artist is showing the timelessness of this connection between Moses, the Torah, and the people. The volume became part of the JTS collection in December 1966, a donation from Baron Edmond de Rothschild. It had been part of the family’s holdings for three generations.

But the story of how this remarkable manuscript came to the JTS library is much more involved and begins with an entirely different rare book now known as the Rothschild Miscellany. In 1950, legendary JTS Librarian Alexander Marx was offered an “exceptionally fine and voluminous manuscript on vellum with many extraordinary features.”[1] The book was purchased from a Berlin bookseller for roughly $5,000. Upon receiving the Miscellany, Marx comments:

“I must say that the mere handling handling of this magnificent volume was a most exciting experience for me. I, for one have never seen anything more beautiful in Hebrew manuscripts, and the late Grand Rabbin of France, Professor Israel Levi, in his description of the manuscript in Revue Etudes Juives, 1930, states that this is without a doubt one of the most beautiful Hebrew manuscripts known to exist.”[2]

His effusion over the manuscript underplays the fact that he had read about this unique book in an article published two decades earlier. His encyclopedic mind determined that this manuscript was looted from the Rothschild family during World War II. So, rather than adding it to the Library’s collection, Marx returned the manuscript to Baron James de Rothschild. The family later donated the Rothschild Miscellany to what became the Israel Museum, where it remains to this day.

So how did JTS come to hold yet another rare book from the Rothschild family? In 1966, more than a decade after Marx’s death, the Library of JTS experienced a catastrophic fire in which 70,000 volumes were burned. The library leadership made an impassioned international plea to recover its holdings. Baron Edmud de Rothschild, cousin to James, responded by donating this mahzor, acknowledging Marx when donating the piece.

If you are interested in a more detailed account of this story, please check out David Wachtel’s speech at the Convention of the Association of Jewish Libraries from June 22, 2004. Wachtel is a Senior Consultant to the JTS Special Collections. Feel free to explore the entire Rothschild Mahzor here.

[1] Wachtel, David quoting a letter dated April 24, 1950 in the folder labeled “Rothschild Manuscript,” in the Library of JTS, Alexander Marx Archives, ARC 80.

[2] Wachtel, David quoting a letter dated June 9, 1950 in the folder labeled “Rothschild Manuscript,” in the Library of JTS, Alexander Marx Archives, ARC 80.