Lengthy bid for perfect old Talmud finally bears fruit

JERUSALEM — A rare complete edition of one of the first printed editions of the Talmud will return to Jewish hands after some 500 years.

The volumes, the second edition of the Talmud printed by Daniel Bomberg in Venice between 1526 and 1531, come from the library of the Duke of Saxony. They have been in the library of Union Theological Seminary, a nondenominational Christian institution in New York, for the last 150 years.

The set was discovered in the Christian seminary in 1988 by Dr. Isaac Ron, professor of Talmud at Bar-Ilan University. Ron had been working that summer to re-catalogue the collection of editions of the Bomberg Talmud.

According to Ron, Jewish Theological Seminary has the largest collection of the Bomberg Talmud in the world. But like all those which have been in Jewish possession over the years, the sets are incomplete, with only some of the 40 tractates and missing and torn pages, the result of centuries of use and study.

Ron said that after work at New York's JTS he would go to other libraries in the area to examine their Talmud collections. When he looked at the card catalogue at Union Theological, he said, he saw an entry for only six volumes. Figuring that this, too, would be an incomplete edition he wondered if he should bother ordering it.

He did anyway. When it arrived, he found that each volume weighed several pounds and included several tractates.

"It was a full set. I was amazed to see it," he said.

It was also in perfect condition. Such a set, according to Ron, is very rare and only a handful exist in the world.

The Bomberg edition is of major importance because it was the first complete printed edition of the Talmud and its pagination has become standard for all editions of the Talmud ever since. It also set the pattern for the design of the pages, with the text in the center, surrounded by commentaries.

The set is bound in decorated pigskin over wooden boards. It bears the date of the binding, 1545, when Bomberg was still active. Inside each volume is the bookplate of the Duke of Saxony.

After discovering the set, Ron then went to the late Ludwig Jesselson, a New York commodities trader who until his death in 1993 was one of the world's leading Jewish philanthropists. Among his other positions, Jesselson was chairman of the board of Bar-Ilan.

Jesselson, himself a collector of Judaica, immediately offered to buy the volumes from Union Theological — a move the Christian institution rejected. Initially, Jesselson offered $250,000, and although he gradually raised his bid, the seminary, whose faculty was staunchly opposed to such a sale, continued to reject it.

Finally, in 1999, in the midst of a severe financial crisis, Union Theological's newly appointed president, Joseph Hough, indicated that the institution would consider an offer of $2 million. Although the faculty continued to oppose the sale, the board agreed to a sale for nearly $2 million to the Ludwig Jesselson Foundation, headed by Jesselson's son, Michael. The foundation reportedly intends to eventually present the set to the Jewish National and Hebrew University Library in Jerusalem.

"The sale went through last week, just before Shavuot, the holiday of the giving of the Torah. That was very significant," Ron said.