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A Hebrew Book’s Trajectory


It is admittedly a bad habit for PhD students to acquire their source material on the free market: with funding so scarce, one better turn to libraries and archives that offer open access to their collections. By acquiring an item, however, students might not only ensure exclusivity on the source they now own, but could also take part in a historical process in which objects change owners, places, and meanings. Such process can be traced by following the clues on my own copy of the Hebrew book Zevaḥ Todah.

Copy of Yaḥya Ṣaliḥ’s Zevaḥ Todah (Calcutta 1851), previously owned by Sassoon Jacob Solomon. Photo: Julia Roos.
Copy of Yaḥya Ṣaliḥ’s Zevaḥ Todah (Calcutta 1851), previously owned by Sassoon Jacob Solomon. Photo: Julia Roos.

Zevaḥ Todah, which translates as »Sacrifice of Thanksgiving,« is a halakhic essay on Jewish ritual slaughter. Completed in the summer of 1779, it was composed by Yaḥya Ṣaliḥ (c. 1715–1805), a renowned Jewish sage and head of the Beth Din in Sana’a, Yemen. Despite the author’s wish that his essay be printed, however, no printing press existed in Sana’a or its vicinity at that time. For decades, Zevaḥ Todah could only ciruclate in manuscript form, meticulously copied by master scribes.

One such manuscript may have been in the possession of the Arakie (or ‘Iraki) family – leaders of the Jewish community in Sana’a and personal acquaintances of the essay’s author. As a result of a conflict with the Imam of Sana’a, members of the Arakie family fled the city around 1800. It can be assumed that they carried with them a copy of Zevaḥ Todah overseas, to the other side of the Indian Ocean.

In Calcutta, the primary seat of the British in India, Eleazar Arakie (c. 1802–1864) may have used the Yemeni manuscripts of his ancestors when he assumed the role of teacher and rabbi for the local Jewish-Arabian community. Against the backdrop of the Bengali Renaissance, an outburst of Indian intellectual creativity under colonial rule, Calcutta offered technical means for text reproduction that had not yet existed in Yemen. Arakie, who needed practical halakhic texts for his flock, could thus establish in Calcutta the first Hebrew printing press east of Jerusalem, possibly using types of his own making. In 1840, his first publication, titled She’are Kedushah (Gates of Sacredness), was an abridged version of Zevaḥ Todah. In 1851, his twenty-third publication, bearing his typical printer’s mark, represented the essay’s first full printed edition. A self-composed poem at the back of the book celebrated a print-job well done.

Known for their excellent quality, Arakie’s prints were not confined to the growing, but still small, Jewish community of Calcutta. As a handwritten note on the top righthand side of the title page reveals, this particular copy of Zevaḥ Todah was acquired in 1872 in Bombay, on the other side of the Indian subcontinent. Another inscription on the left, however, indicated that the book was resold in Bombay just two years later. The buyer was the Baghdad-born Sassoon Jacob Solomon (1848–1922), who had recently arrived in the city to try his luck as a merchant. In Bombay, Solomon joined the firm of the Sassoon family, a Jewish-Baghdadi clan who reigned over the opium export from India to China. In the 1870s, he was sent to represent the firm in Shanghai, where he would spend the rest of his life.

Although preoccupied with worldly commercial affairs, Solomon did not neglect his spirituality in his new home: He is said to have »spen[t] his days on the books of the Sassoons,« his employers, »and his nights on the books of the Cabbala.«Israel Cohen, The Journal of a Jewish Traveller, London 1925, 125. As part of his religious piety and intellectual curiousity, he assembeld a »remarkable library of Hebrew lore« in Shanghai comprising some two thousand volumes. Among them was this Zevaḥ Todah, which he had brought with him from Bombay.

Besides being a merchant and spiritual leader of Shanghai’s growing Jewish community, Solomon was also a devoted Zionist. Upon his death on 25 October 1922, local Zionist leaders decided to acquire his large library from his heirs and, in homage to his national commitment, donate it to the library of the Hebrew University that was soon to be established in Jerusalem. The books were posthumously stamped with a blue ex libris mark bearing Solomon’s Arabic name – seen at the bottom of this volume’s title page – and shipped off to Palestine. A list of the hundreds of items that arrived at Mount Scopus in 1925 confirms that these included Zevaḥ Todah. As a token of gratitude to the donors, the University Library’s director Hugo Bergmann (1883–1975) sent to China a photograph of the books in their new home, which was subsequently published on the Shanghai-based Zionist paper Israel’s Messenger.

Shanghai Jewry’s Gift to the Hebrew University.
Shanghai Jewry’s Gift to the Hebrew University. Photo: Israel’s Messenger, 4 June 1926, 10.

Solomon’s blue ex libris mark can still be found on many items at the National Library of Israel, which succeeded the Hebrew University Library. These books made up an important basis for the studies of the bibliographer Avraham Ya’ari (1899–1966) on Hebrew printing in the East. Meanwhile, the library acquired other copies of Arakie’s Zevaḥ Todah, one of which was filled with handwritten annotations. It is likely that the library decided to dispose of the duplicate from Shanghai. Almost a century after Solomon’s death, I stumbled upon his copy on the free market in 2021.

With its arrival on my bookshelf in Leipzig, this copy of Zevaḥ Todah begins another chapter in its history. Over its long journey, reconstructable through the marginalia left on its cover, the book changed not only many hands but also functions. Its extensive travels entailed transformations from manuscript to print, from a religious guide to an object of secular study, and from a practical handbook to a collectible. And while it did pass physically through the self-proclaimed center of Hebrew lore in Jerusalem, this copy of Zevaḥ Todah traveled primarily along the presumed margins of the Jewish world, bearing witness to a largely forgotten literary cosmos that once stretched between Sana’a and Shanghai.

Shaul Marmari has been a PhD candidate at the Dubnow Institute since 2018 and is writing a dissertation on the history of Arabian Jews in British India. He wrote his first seminar paper under the supervision of Yfaat Weiss in 2014 and has worked with or next to her ever since | marmari(at)dubnow.de

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