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.