The People Before the Book: The Great Medieval Jewish Manuscript Collections of England

Tour highlights: London, British Library, British Museum, Cambridge, Cambridge University Library, Oxford, Bodleian Library, Sheldonian Theatre, Blenheim Palace and so much more! 

The Jews are the People of the Book.  “The Book” – that is, the Torah, the other books of the Bible, the Talmud, and much more – contain Judaism’s foundational stories, beliefs, and practices.  But what of the stories of the actual book itself – the manuscripts written on everything from papyrus to vellum, in scroll form and in codex form – contained in the great libraries of the world?  They tell a whole other set of stories of the Jewish people.  And the greatest concentration of these precious treasures are to be found in the library archives in London, Oxford, and Cambridge.

How and why is this the case?  In large part, we have Henry VIII to thank!  During the height of his break from the Church in Rome, King Henry established the Regius Professorship of Hebrew at Cambridge in 1540 and then the parallel chair at Oxford in 1546.  Hebrew studies has remained at the center of British academic life ever since.

The break from Rome also fostered a return to Old Testament roots, so that the English have had a singular obsession with the Bible ever since.  As witness thereto, note that the King James Version of the Bible (1611) is the only official Bible translation sponsored by royal privilege in the history of Europe.

The study of Hebrew, moreover, requires Hebrew books and manuscripts, and hence all three major libraries in England acquired extensive collections through the centuries.  Two shining examples of this development, relevant to Oxford in particular, are represented by the efforts of Thomas Bodley and Benjamin Kennicott.

In 1603, Bodley established the University library in Oxford, now named for him as the Bodleian, to which he bequeathed his sizable collection of Hebrew manuscripts.  In the 1760’s, Kennicott toured Europe in search of Bible manuscripts in particular, many of which he purchased and brought back to Oxford – including the crown jewel of all such volumes known today as simply the Kennicott Bible.

At a later time, and perhaps most famously, Solomon Schechter brought back approximately 193,000 medieval documents from the Cairo Genizah to Cambridge in 1896.  And all the while the British Library in London collected inestimable Hebrew manuscripts.

Join us for a ‘behind the scenes’ tour of these historical gems with expert scholar Gary Rendsburg, Distinguished Professor of Jewish Studies and holder of the Blanche and Irving Laurie Chair in Jewish History at Rutgers University.  Gary’s main fields of expertise are the Bible, the world of ancient Israel, the history of the Hebrew language, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the medieval manuscript tradition.  He has spent significant periods of time living in England, writing, conducting research, and lecturing throughout the country.  He is passionate about expanding access to these treasures and helping people understand what we may learn from the manuscripts.

In Gary’s knowledgeable hands, we are thrilled to open up these archives to you, to thereby introduce you to a whole new way of looking at Jewish history.

In order to give you the rare opportunity to go behind the scenes and see librarians and conservationists at work, this study tour is limited to 18 participants.


JEWISH EXPLORATIONS is a collaboration between the Philadelphia-based Gil Travel Group, a leader in travel to destinations around the world for over 40 years and Adult Jewish Learning Programs. JEWISH EXPLORATIONS study tours are led by outstanding Judaic Studies scholars whose depth and breadth of knowledge in their chosen fields of expertise is unparalleled. Our programs are designed to be intimate learning opportunities and are limited to no more than 25 participants.  From archaeological sites in Israel to world renowned manuscript collections in England and from the deep South in the United States to the winding alleyways in La Juderia in Spain, JEWISH EXPLORATIONS give you a deeper understanding of the sweep of Jewish civilization around the globe and throughout the span of history.