Unusual & Fascinating - The National Library

At the request of my 15 year old son, this week we made a spontaneous & first ever Morris family visit to the Israel National Library - and had a (surprisingly, for me at least) fascinating time.

The National Library is located in the Givat Ram Campus of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

As with many institutions, the visible resources for the public are the tip of the iceberg, with literally millions of books stored in the archives downstairs. Nevertheless, the various reading rooms, libraries and collections on display and available for public perusal and study are phenomenal. Furthermore, should you wish to access the hidden treasures downstairs, specific books can be ordered and are delivered for reading, generally within an hour.

The first room we visited was the computer room, with rows of PC's for use by the public, including access to resources in the Library and (particularly Jewish sources) from around the world.
It was striking that the many users of the computer room included Jews (and Gentiles) of every stripe and colour - chareidim, dati leumi, secular, Ethiopians, Christian scholars, overseas visitors etc...

My enthusiastic son led us to the Gershom Scholem Collection - described as the world's most extensive (35,000) collection of books on Chasidut and Mysticism/Kabbalah.

In two compact rooms, much of the collection is available, as in a regular library, for taking off the bookshelves and studying in the rooms. 

I was particularly drawn to a large sub-collection of books about other religions, cults and minor faiths. These included books about the Druze religion (traditionally a secret), Gnosis (which, I admit I'd never heard of, but is a Dan Brown type hidden religion whose origins are related to the early Christianity - for more info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gnosis), Eastern and Middle Eastern religions and Cults, etc..

Moving on to the Cartography collection, the department manager personally showed us examples of maps of the Holy Land from the earliest mosaic map (from a Church in Jordan), through spectacular and wonderful medieval maps and up to relatively modern maps. 

Many of these maps are actually from within books, and the collection includes large and ancient tomes about the Holy Land, with fascinating maps, stunning illustrations and intriguing text. 

Another collection which we left for another time is the audio collection, consisting of original recordings, mainly Israeli and Jewish. going back a century and more.  

By chance, we met up with a neighbour from Ramat Beit Shemesh in the (pleasant) cafeteria; he works in the Library's manuscripts department, and he kindly gave us an explanation and tour of the department.   

He showed us microfilms, which have been made of many thousands of original manuscripts, both from within the Library and from around the world. 

He fascinated us with revelations from some of these manuscripts, which often give far more controversial opinions and information than printed books. I asked him about the infamous false messiah, Shabatai Zvi, period and he told us of original manuscripts in the collection by famous 'mainstream' Jewish leaders, which clearly show them to be actually have been followers of Shabatai Zvi. "People are much less guarded in their personal manuscripts, than they are in their published works", he said. 

Among the most famous manuscripts in the collection is the Rambam's original commentary, in his own hand, on the Mishna, as well as an early (13th Century) manuscript of the Mishne Torah.  

In our few hours at the National Library, I felt we were but scratching the very tip, of the very tip of the iceberg of the wealth of Jewish and Israeli publications in the Library. Much more is available online for both scholar and layman alike: http://web.nli.org.il/sites/NLI/Hebrew/collections/jewish-collection/Pages/manuscripts.aspx 

Before leaving, we made our own contribution to the National Library - donating a book written by my brother in law Daniel Kestenbaum, about my father in law, Rabbi Ephraim Kestenbaum, "Buying Jewish Lives". Actually, we learned that, by law, any book published in more than 50 copies in Israel, is obligated to submit a copy (or two) to the National Library.  We were delighted to oblige.  

Although we turned up at the Library on-spec, without notice or planning - we were advised it is best to join an organized tour, which are available for the public on Thursdays. See the Library website for up-to-date information.  

I can highly recommend a visit to the Israel National Library - even if you don't consider yourself bookish!


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