On every shelf several books are propped open, exposing the black specks on yellowed-white within. The lettering is mostly familiar—Rashi script or regular Hebrew—and I can read the pieces of texts on display, excerpts often recognizable but sometimes unusual. Other books contain foreign characters—Latin, Italian—and I can only guess what the words signify. Many of the open pages bear illustrations: Moshe carrying the tablets of the law, the Cohen Gadol in his vestments, a family around a Seder table. And then there are fat young cherubs, scantily clad heralds blowing horns, even the forms of a man and a woman, neither one clothed. I witness these images framing our holy texts; their presence jars my modern eye. Yet when the books were printed, such illustrations were expected, accepted, their existence testified to the importance of the words they adorned. I gaze at the thin black lines that make up the images and I think about debates over whether art history classes may be taught and I marvel at how time and context change the way we think.
An alcove houses the particular treasure of this vast collection: the Bomberg Shaas, a Talmud with a tale. Behind glass the brown-red covers glisten still, thick straps of leather on each binding proclaiming their royal origin, open to pages that have lasted hundreds of years, totally intact. The words of the gemara occupy their usual spot in the middle of each daf; Rashi and Tosfos surround them, stolid companions. But without the super-commentaries, the flourishes we have come to expect, the pages look strangely bare.
On a wall in bold letters a quote from Judah Ibn Tibbon (father of Shmuel Ibn Tibbon, translator of Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim) reads, “ ssailed by multitudes, and the joy of these numbers overwhelms.