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National Library News
October 1995
Vol. 27, no. 10

A Gift of Books from Holy Blossom Temple

by Cheryl Jaffee, Curator, Jacob M. Lowy Collection

In August 1994 a letter was sent to Mrs. Diana Goodman, then President of Toronto's Holy Blossom Temple, acknowledging with thanks a gift of bibles, prayer books and works of religious law which had recently been donated by the Temple to the Jacob M. Lowy Collection at the National Library of Canada. The thirty-five Hebrew volumes, published between 1698 and 1913, had been stored in the Temple as long as anyone could remember. Perhaps records had not been made at the time of the transfer, or they may have been lost since, but by 1994 the origins of the books were no longer known.

I examined the earlier, heavily inscribed volumes in an effort to learn more of their provenance. At what point did these books find their way into Holy Blossom Temple during its nearly 140-year history? Founded as an Orthodox synagogue in 1856, Holy Blossom moved into premises first on Richmond Street and later on Bond Street. Early in the 1920s the Congregation affiliated with the Reform movement of Judaism, and in 1938 relocated to its present site on Bathurst Street. A very significant part of Canadian Jewish history has been played out in the Temple, and the books were an increasingly intriguing element in that history.

An initial survey of the gift had yielded the following information: eighty percent of the titles were printed in the German-speaking regions of Central Europe; there were items from Lunéville (Lorraine) in the west, Prague and Vienna to the east, in addition to books from Carlsruhe, Sulzbach, Fürth, Offenbach and Frankfurt am Main among other German cities. The sheepskin leather of the heavy folio volumes covered beechwood boards which bore the remnants of metal clasps. A 1792 collection of penitential prayers from Carlsruhe was bound in delicately toned leaf-patterned paste papers. The endpapers of numerous other volumes were inscribed in cursive Hebrew script, occasionally interspersed with German in Hebrew or Latin characters. The endpapers of a festival prayer book printed in Homburg vor der Höhe in 1737 were patterned in olive green and muted yellow geometric shapes. Still another volume of psalms and prayers from Offenbach, 1826, had endpapers of a deep bright blue colour. Very few of the original elements of these books had been altered.

A dated inscription, possibly the earliest, is written with square decorated Hebrew letters in brown ink, within a 1732 printing of Magine Erets. In translation, it reads:

This book belongs to the eminent Rav Leb Biblis/
Today the 4th day of the intermediate days of Sukkot [Feast of Tabernacles] 526 [1766]/
From myself the young Zalman [son of ?] Rav Leb of Biblis may he live a long and good life/

hebrew.gif Hebrew inscription.

Of note is the adaptation of the geographic name Biblis to a surname in the first line and later, in the third line, its designation as the geographic home. Biblis is a small Rhineland village less than 10 kilometres from historic Worms. This region is the cradle of Ashkenazi Jewry. The Ashkenazi religious and cultural tradition originated among German Jews and is generally applied to Jews of non-Iberian European origin. Documentary sources point to the settlement of Jews in Worms by the end of the tenth century. The Rhineland, with its three Jewish centres of Speyer, Worms and Mainz, is a source of the earliest surviving Ashkenazi illuminated manuscripts. The great eleventh-century scholar, Rashi of Troyes, travelled to Worms to find teachers, later bringing to France the learning of Ashkenaz.

Adjacent to the Hebrew inscription in Magine Erets is a German inscription which reads:

[Dieses] Buch gehört dem Ehrw. Mayntzischen/
Schutz Juden Löw Salmon von Biebliss

This can be translated as:

[This?] book belongs to the eminent
protected Jew of Mainz Löw Salmon von Biebliss

german.gif German inscription.

The Schutzjuden comprised a small class of privileged Jews who held letters of protection outlining their commercial, religious and residential rights.

The family to which these books belonged, then, resided in the heart of Ashkenaz. Other inscriptions found within numerous early volumes were also in the hand of Zalman, son of Leb of Biblis. Later inscriptions relate to the Fraenckel or Fränckel family of Biblis, most notably Moses Fränckel, who, in 1831-1832, claimed ownership of a Pentateuch printed in Lunéville. It is tempting to speculate that Zalman was related to Moses Fränckel, and that, upon the death of Zalman, ownership of the family's books was passed on within the Fränckel family.

It is through the Fränckel family, in the end, that we are led directly back to Holy Blossom Temple, and to Leo Frankel, the president who served his congregation between 1908 and 1928. Leo Frankel was born in Biblis in 1864 and immigrated to Canada in 1881. He is remembered in the Dedication Souvenir to Commemorate the Opening of the New Holy Blossom Temple on Bathurst Street in 1938 as "one of the most progressive and active leaders, not only of Holy Blossom Congregation, but in all communal affairs, Jewish and non-Jewish, and the high standing of this congregation amongst all classes of Toronto's population is largely due to his labor and devotion on its behalf." He died in 1933, when the Temple was still in its Bond Street premises. Perhaps when he died his family placed the old books in the Temple. If so, the books made the journey to the new building in 1938, where they remained until their rediscovery in 1993 by Carole Payne, the Temple librarian.

Throughout the past year many volumes have been treated by a skilled conservator. Pages have been brushed clean of debris and paper tears have been mended. It is now possible to read the inscriptions and text without causing further damage to weakened papers and bindings. The bindings themselves have been strengthened and handsome linen enclosures protect the more fragile volumes. The genealogical investigation has scarcely begun, but it is now possible.

These books, artifacts of Canadian Jewish history, have found an appropriate home among the other volumes of old and rare Hebraica in the Jacob M. Lowy Collection. Again, I would like to express my gratitude to those individuals at Holy Blossom Temple, contemporary and past, who made possible this gift.