Witness to History: A Judaica Exhibition Brings History Alive

Yehudis Litvak

A unique Judaica collection was exhibited last week in Los Angeles, at Congregation Levi Yitzchok and at Cheder Menachem. The owner and curator of the collection, Rabbi Reuven Goldstein, is a Chabad shaliach in Cupertino, California. He has been collecting antique Jewish manuscripts, books, maps, and coins for the past five years for the purpose of showcasing them in a museum-style exhibit.

Rabbi Goldstein has always been fascinated by Jewish history. On a visit to the Morgan Museum in New York City, he saw a complete perek of the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah in the Rambam’s original handwriting. “I felt connected to history,” says Rabbi Goldstein. “A thousand years of history melted away right there.”

This experience inspired Rabbi Goldstein to begin his own collection, which eventually turned into a non-profit organization Witness to History. Its mission is, “Preserve, connect, and inspire.” Rabbi Goldstein explains that the exhibitions connect Jewish visitors to their history in a unique fashion. “The collection talks to every type of Jew, no matter what age or level of observance,” says Rabbi Goldstein.

The Witness to History collection consists of five parts. The Dawn of Jewish Printing collection includes rare 15th century printed books, such as the initial print of Josephus Flavius from 1470 and The Book of Prophets from 1494, printed by Don Samuel De Ortas, printer of Christopher Columbus’s astronomical tables. The Jewish Life Through the Ages collection includes antique tefillin and tzitzis, illustrated haggados, and the influential Book of Customs from 18th Century Amsterdam. The Talmud Takes Shape Collection demonstrates the five-hundred-year evolution of the Talmud from Soncino and Bomberg to the famed Vilna Shas of modern day. The Triumph of Survival collection contains censored books and ghetto documents of the Middle Ages and surviving remnants of the Holocaust. The Charting the Holy Land collection contains maps of Eretz Yisrael from the Renaissance era.

Each item in the collections has its own story. Rabbi Goldstein acquired most of the items from antique book dealers throughout the world, often through the internet. Sometimes the sellers are not aware of the Jewish significance of their merchandise. For example, an item was advertised as a picture of Constantinople, Turkey, but Rabbi Goldstein noticed a picture of a Jewish family being burned at the stake on the flip side of the page. It turned out that this was a page from the Nuremberg Chronicle, one of the earliest illustrated history books printed in Germany.

Like audiences elsewhere, the Los Angeles Jewish community was very receptive to the exhibition. “Every class in Cheder Menachem attended, and the kids were fascinated,” says Rabbi Goldstein. The adults who attended the exhibition at Congregation Levi Yitzchok found it powerful as well.


Tabernacle of Moses, 1675 – Wood cut engraving by August C. Fleishmann, “The Tabernacle of Moses” featuring Israel camped at the foot of Mount Sinai.


Terra Sancta, Map of the Holy Land, Willem Blaeu, 1629 – Map includes markings of the significant events of the journey by the Children of Israel to the Promised Land.

Mikraot Gedolot, Venice 1525 – Printed by Daniel Bomberg, edited by Jacob Ben Chaim. The Rabbinical Bible became the determinative Biblical text, first for Jews and subsequently for the scholarly world as well.

The Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493 – Written in Latin by Hartmann Schedel, the Nuremberg Chronicle is one of the best documented early printed books –an incunabulum- and one of the first to successfully integrate illustrations and text. It is an illustrated book of world history dating back to creation. This page describes the burning of a Jewish family at the stake in the city of Sternberg Germany in 1492. Text reads as follows “On the 22nd day of October 1492, in the city of Sternberg, then under the Dukes of the principality of Mecklenberg, Eleazar, a Jew and his relatives; through a priest named Peter, were accused of blasphemy. When the matter was reported to the two brothers, the Dukes Balthasar and Mangen, they inquired into the matter and ordered the Jews seized and burned as scorners of the faith.”

Soncino Talmud Tractate Moed Katan Pesaro, Italy 1515 – The Soncino Hebrew printing press was established in Soncino, Italy in the year 1483. Members of the Soncino family were the first to begin printing the Babylonian Talmud and the first tractate, Berachot, was printed in 1484. Due to the difficulties that befell them, they were forced to leave their city and travelled to various cities throughout Italy. One of their stops was in the city of Pesaro in Northeast Italy where Gershom ben Moshe Soncino resided for several years and printed a few tractates on the Talmud. This printing, today called the Pesaro print, was a cornerstone in the history of the printing of the Babylonian Talmud. It is also the first to incorporate selected Tosafot as an integral part of the Talmud Daf. Previously the Spanish printings of the Talmud only included Rashi’s commentary on the Daf (it’s interesting to note that the Soncino family descends from some of the ba’alei Tosafot.) He ended up a printing a total of 23 tractates.


Bomberg Talmud Tractate Meilah/Tamid 1523, Venice – Daniel Bomberg, a non-jew, was the first to print the complete edition of the Babylonian Talmud. The project took four years, from 1519-1523. In addition to being one of the most significant texts in the history of Hebrew printing, it is universally recofgnized as one of the greatest books of the Western world. A native of Antwerp, Daniel Bomberg established his own printing shop in Venice in 1516. He was the first Christian printer of Hebraica. Bomberg produced a corpus of nearly two hundred basic texts of Judaism, many of which had never before been printed. He became known for texts that were scrupulously accurate and beautifully produced. Bomberg’s fonts were so esteemed that they continued to be used by other printers (typically identified as “Bomberg type”) long after his own printing career ceased in 1549. It was completed in 1523 and the final page of this volume concludes with the thoughts of the printing supervisor, Cornelius Adelkind. “Praise and thanksgiving to He who is the creator… He aroused the spirit of our lord Daniel Bomberg to print the Babylonian Talmud with rashi’s commentary, Tosafot and Maimonides’ commentary on the Mishnah. And he gathered and assembled the entire Talmud and these commentaries, which had been scattered in every land both distant and near and joined to them many other books. And [so] he accomplished more than his predecessors. He expended his fortune and his wealth and sent couriers, riding swift steeds, to call the finest craftsman that could be found in all these regions to do this awesome work.”


The Vilna Shas [Babylonian Talmud], 1881 – In 1880 the first volumes of an extraordinary edition of the Babylonian Talmud were published in Vilna. Known colloquially as the ‘Vilna Shas,’ this edition, published by ‘the Widow and Brothers Romm’ and completed in 1886, has been the authoritative, traditional edition of the Talmud and its commentaries. The Vilna Shas follows the classic Bomberg layout of the printed Talmud, with the text of the Talmud -both the Mishnah and the Gemara- in the center of the page, and with commentaries running down the length of both margins. Through turbulent times in Jewish history, as the Romm Talmud’s templates were transferred both to the land of Israel and to the United States, the Vilna Shas retained its centrality throughout the Jewish world, still referred to and honored by its original site of publication, The ‘Vilna Shas’.


US Army “The Survivors’ Talmud”, Munich 1946 – In the aftermath of WW2, the Jewish Holocaust survivors were by far the most desperate of Europe’s refugees. In the midst of mass trauma, a ray of hope emerged with the publication of “The Survivors Talmud” by the United States Army for survivors of the Holocaust in the Displaced Persons Camps. In 1946, a delegation of DP Rabbis approached General Joseph McNarney, from the US army with an urgent request to publish a Talmud since most copies across Europe had been destroyed by the Nazis. This copy, tractate Kedushin was the first of the set to be published.


Ella The Young Typesetter – We meet Ella in 1699, as a typesetter working on the famous Berman Shas of Frankfurt when she was twelve-years-old. Her father, Moshe ben Avraham Avinu worked for years setting type and printing important Jewish books in various places in Northern Europe. He employed his children to help him in the arduous task of typesetting. We know a bit about his daughter Ella from some tidbits that she left us as she signed her name to the books she helped bring to print. She and her brother worked on the setting type of the Siddur Drash that Moshe printed in Dessau in 1696. After recording that the book was set to type by Yisroel ben Moshe, a poem was written which tells us that a nine-year-old girl named Ella helped Yisroel in this project: “The Yiddish letters I set with my own hand, I am Ella, the daughter of Moses from Holland, a mere nine years old the sole girl among six children. So when an error you should find remember, this was set by one who is but a child.” Pictured here is the end of tractate Nidah, printed in 1699, where Ella signs her work “By the hand of the faithful typesetter in this holy work, Yisroel the son of Reb Moshe, and by the hand of his maiden sister Ella, daughter of Rav Moshe.”


Navi Isaiah, Soncino 1486 – Joshua Solomon Soncino was distinguished for being the first Jewish printer to publish the entire Tanach in Hebrew. The Soncino prints excelled in their perfection of type and accuracy.


Handwritten Manuscript from 13th century – Commentary on Mishnah Tractate Keilim (author unknown) Upon the discovery of the Cairo Genizah at the end of the 19th century, scholars hoped to discover a similar European Genizah. Given the humid European climate and the widespread Jewish custom of burying old manuscripts in the moist of cemeteries, this hope seemed utopian. Most of the thousands of Hebrew manuscripts belonging to the Jews who had settled in European countries had decomposed over the years. By a twist of fate, the dream of discovering a European Genizah came true in the last two decades. The phenomenon of reusing manuscript materials was well known during the entire period of the Middle Ages. A material such as parchment was commonly re-employed for book binding. Some 1,700 Jewish parchment fragments have been found to date in European countries, the majority from Italy. Many of these “fragments” are from parchment folia to be re-employed as covers. The period in which the phenomenon of re-employment is most wide-spread, was the 16th and 17th centuries, when printing flourished. Print caused the slump in the price of manuscripts, which quickly became obsolete. Often, manuscripts were confiscated by the Inquisition’s authorities, and then sold to bookbinders at a low price instead of being burnt.


The Jewish War by Josephus Flavius, 1470 – One of the earliest printed incunabula on Jewish subjects. In 1475, five years after its printing, the first dated Hebrew book was published in Reggio De Calabria, Italy: Rashi’s commentary on Chumash.

Sefer H’aruch Venice, 1553 – Printed by Bragadin, Sefer H’aruch is a comprehensive lexicography by R. Nathan ben Yechiel of Rome. This copy printed in 1553, the very year the Pope issued the decree to burn the Talmud and related works, makes its survival and existence extraordinary. It was discovered in Aleppo, Syria and smuggled out in the 20th century.

Rabeinu Bachaye Riva De Trento, 1559 – Censorship of Hebrew books was first decreed by the Church in the middle ages. Manuscripts and printed books were examined for the purpose of ascertaining whether they contained “heretical” or other “objectionable” passages. In the event a book was fully rejected, it was banned and all copies were destroyed or burned. If a book was authorized conditionally, words and passages found objectionable were blotted over by the hand of the censor.

Ferrara Italy – The Expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 brought Jewish refugees seeking safe haven to Italy. The Duke of Family Este allowed some of the Jewish refugees to settle in the province of Ferrara. He promised their own leaders and judges, allowed them to practice commerce and medicine, and granted them tax reductions. This was the beginning of the Spanish community in Ferrara. Although the ruling powers protected the Jews from Church oppression, they allowed the Talmud to be burned in 1553. A year later, a meeting of prominent Jewish leaders of Italy was held in Ferrara to decide on precautionary measures to prevent further destruction of Hebrew books. In 1598 the oppression of Jews grew much worse. The Church issued a ruling that all Jews were required to wear an identifying badge. In the following year all Jewish owned real estate had to be sold, Synagogues were limited and Jewish owned loan banks were closed. In 1624 the construction of a ghetto in Ferrara was decreed and two years later the Jews were confined to it. The Jewish people were forced to be present at conversionist sermons and Jewish physicians were forbidden to attend to Christians. In spite of this, the life of Jews in Ferrara was far more tolerable than in Rome. In 1859, when Ferrara became part of the Italian Kingdom, the Jewish people finally obtained their freedom. Pictured here is one of the original documents relating to the opening of the Ferrara Ghetto in 1624 dictating the rules, regulations and costs for Jews to lease homes and do commerce.

More information about the collection is available at