Prince of the Press: How One Col­lec­tor Built His­to­ry’s Most Endur­ing and remark­able Jew­ish Library

Joshua Teplit­sky

By – January 1, 2012

David Oppen­heim (1664 – 1736) served as chief rab­bi of Prague for near­ly three decades, but his endur­ing impact rests in the Bodleian Library at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Oxford, Eng­land, which hous­es his vast col­lec­tion of Hebrew man­u­scripts and books acquired over a life­time. In his mas­ter­ful biog­ra­phy, Prince of the Press, Joshua Teplit­sky presents a vivid account not only of Oppen­heim, but also of the social, polit­i­cal, and cul­tur­al his­to­ry of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties of Cen­tral Europe between the Thir­ty Years War (1618 – 1648) and the Napoleon­ic Wars (1803 – 1815).

Oppen­heim was born in the Rhineland city of Worms, into a fam­i­ly of wealth and priv­i­lege who served as court Jews to roy­al fam­i­lies across the Holy Roman Empire. Their role was to rep­re­sent the needs of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty while pro­tect­ing the finan­cial inter­ests of the kingdom.

Unlike many of his peers, who stud­ied in pub­lic insti­tu­tions, Oppen­heim was tutored pri­vate­ly and, as was not uncom­mon among the wealthy, con­tin­ued his stud­ies in oth­er Rhineland cities. Trav­el­ing with a few prized books sig­naled both wealth and intel­lec­tu­al prowess. Teplit­sky reminds us that print­ing had not yet rev­o­lu­tion­ized — and democ­ra­tized — the avail­abil­i­ty of books. Books were a rar­i­ty, penned by a scribe on paper of the finest qual­i­ty. Hav­ing the lux­u­ry of one or two extra pages in his bound man­u­scripts, Oppen­heim began the process of cat­a­logu­ing his books, an unheard of and indeed vision­ary process in pre-mod­ern times.

In build­ing his library, first by absorb­ing small­er libraries, then by accept­ing books as gifts, and final­ly by deploy­ing agents through­out Bohemia and even Israel to active­ly pur­chase new and used Hebrew books, Oppenheim’s ulti­mate goal was to cre­ate a kehilla kedosha, a holy com­mu­ni­ty, which demand­ed the intel­lec­tu­al moor­ing of schol­ar­ship. While lead­er­ship could be con­sol­i­dat­ed through wealth and influ­ence in the roy­al courts, its the­o­ret­i­cal under­pin­nings rest­ed in study and scholarship.

Buy­ing books enhanced Oppenheim’s rep­u­ta­tion across the Empire and even­tu­al­ly in Israel, where he was declared a nasi, a prince of the land of Israel. His largesse sup­port­ed mul­ti­ple Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties across the Empire and Israel, and he was high­ly esteemed as both judge and posek,or decider of legal issues. Ques­tions pedes­tri­an and sub­lime were addressed to him; so vast and unique was his col­lec­tion that his response often relied on texts that only he pos­sessed, enabling him to resolve seem­ing­ly intractable issues.

After becom­ing chief rab­bi of Prague, and fear­ing over­sight and cen­sor­ship from the Jesuits, who were assum­ing con­trol of the city, Oppen­heim kept his col­lec­tion at his father-in-law’s home in Hanover. At one point, the author­i­ties ordered that Jew­ish books they had declared trea­so­nous be burned. Because of its loca­tion, Oppenheim’s library was saved. In Hanover, the col­lec­tion gar­nered so much respect that both Chris­t­ian and Jew­ish schol­ars trav­eled from afar to con­sult it.

Oppenheim’s son inher­it­ed his library but died only three years after him. His grand­daugh­ter Gnen­del took pos­ses­sion of the col­lec­tion and was unable to sell even a frac­tion of it, to pro­vide some relief from impov­er­ish­ment. The ful­ly intact library — 4,500 print­ed books and 1,000 man­u­scripts – did not find a per­ma­nent home until 1829, at Oxford.

Teplit­sky, an assis­tant pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry at Stony Brook Uni­ver­si­ty, tells the remark­able sto­ry of a library whose influ­ence extends well beyond the rar­efied walls of Oxford Uni­ver­si­ty but rather is felt dai­ly through the Tal­mu­dic com­men­taries and legal deci­sions Oppen­heim col­lect­ed, which are stud­ied, argued about, and ampli­fied to this day in yeshiv­otaround the world.

Rab­bi Reba Carmel is a free­lance writer whose work has appeared in Jew­ish Cur­rents and The Jew­ish Lit­er­ary Jour­nal and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. Rab­bi Carmel is a trained Inter­faith Facil­i­ta­tor and has par­tic­i­pat­ed in mul­ti­ple Inter­faith pan­els across the Delaware Region. She is cur­rent­ly in the Lead­er­ship Train­ing Pro­gram at the Inter­faith Cen­ter of Philadelphia. 

Discussion Questions

Prince of the Press: How One Col­lec­tor Built His­to­ry’s Most Endur­ing and Remark­able Jew­ish Library, by Joshua Teplit­sky is a beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten study of one of Jew­ish history’s great book col­lec­tors. Rab­bi David Oppen­heim built a remark­able library of Jew­ish books (very broad­ly defined), which were made avail­able on a lim­it­ed basis to schol­ars through­out Europe. Teplit­sky con­tex­tu­al­izes the col­lec­tion, its fate, and its users against the back­drop of the polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al his­to­ry of the Jews of Mit­teleu­ropa between the Thir­ty-Years War and the rise of Napoleon. The result is an illu­mi­nat­ing addi­tion to Jew­ish book his­to­ry, while also advanc­ing our under­stand­ing of ear­ly mod­ern Jew­ish polit­i­cal culture.