Exploring the Jewish Treasures At the Library of Congress
The library’s main reading room is one of the most beautiful places to read.
Isaw censor’s marks for the first time at the Library of Congress, home to a priceless collection of Hebrew books. I opened a 1486 edition of the a High Holidays prayer book labeled Minhag Roma, or Roman rite — printed in Italy, bound in marbled boards and featuring leather corners — and gasped at the censor’s marks, still visible in the famous Aleinu prayer, in a verse that refers to adherents of other faiths. I saw the censor’s signature; his name is still visible after all these centuries.
I don’t think I ever fully understood the idea of a government or church official censoring
until I saw it in a book that is more than 500 years old, and I have been thinking about it ever since. I’ve been thinking about the words I saw censored, like the phrase
variously translated as “wicked regime,” “unlawful rule” and “tyranny.” It’s a chilling reminder of the world’s long history of religious oppression, and a tribute to the miracle of survival of the Jewish people. And it was interesting to think about it in light of current politics, when religion, national origin and language are once again under attack around the globe.
There are 23 Hebrew or books published before 1501, in the Library of Congress’s collection in Washington, D.C. — accessible to all who fill out a small light-green book request form, like in the old days. These
include a 1469 edition of questions and answers by the Rashba (1235–1310); the questions can seem contemporary, such as the one wondering if a community should hire a