David Oppenheim(er) – a man and his library
Some time around 1688 David Oppenheim, scarcely yet 25 years old, made a list of all the books he had gathered in his library. In his foreword to this catalogue, he expressed his ambition to own a copy of every Jewish book. His self-confident formulation “to make books endlessly” takes up a text from the biblical Book of Qohelet(12,12): “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is a weariness of the flesh” – for Oppenheim the opposite was evidently the case.
David Oppenheim (or Oppenheimer) was born in 1664 in Worms. His parents, Abraham Oppenheim and Blümle, daughter of David Wohl, vorsteher of the Frankfurt community, lived in the house known as “Zur Kanne”, one of the finest residences in Worms’s Judengasse. The family had roots in Worms and Frankfurt, two communities rich in tradition and with many economic, cultural and marital ties. In both cities, they belonged to the influential class of Jewish patricians.
While David’s father, Abraham zur Kanne, lived almost his entire life in Worms, his two brothers used the opportunities open to well-funded and intrepid Jewish merchants in the decades after the Thirty Years’ War and became court factors (business agents), Moses Oppenheim at the court of the Palatine Elector in Heidelberg and Samuel Oppenheimer, the best known and most successful “court Jew” of his age, at the imperial court in Vienna.
The house "Zur Kanne" where David Oppenheim grew up (© privat)
The Free City of Worms itself had been economically and politically weakened by the long years of war, and many of its citizens, both Christian and Jewish, were impoverished. In 1666 a severe outbreak of plague claimed more than 130 lives in the Judengasse alone. But the city’s reputation as a center of rabbinic learning and a fount of ancient tradition and legend remained unbroken. This seems to have made a deep impression on the young David Oppenheim, even if little is known of his childhood. His earliest education in Worms was at the house of the famous Rabbi Jair Hayyim Bacharach, with whom he later, as a student in Metz under Rabbi Gershon Ulif Aschkenazi, as well as in Friedberg and Landsberg (now Gorzów Wielkopolski in Poland), maintained a close and friendly correspondence.
A network of marital relationships connected the Oppenheims in the 17th century with upper class Jewish families in many parts of Germany. An excellent match was also found for David, in the person of Gnendel, daughter of Leffmann Behrens, court factor of the Prince Elector of Hanover. The couple married in 1682. Now at last David could afford to pursue to the full his passion for the written word.
Gifts, acquisitions, and a spectacular find
The catalogue mentioned above contained the titles of some 460 works collected by David Oppenheim between 1681 and 1688, and also provided information about the price, provenience and prior ownership of the books. Many of these had been bought – some directly from their authors – others were wedding (or other occasional) gifts. As well as individual volumes, Oppenheim bought whole libraries, for example from the widows of rabbinic scholars; and he had many manuscripts copied.
Relations with his birthplace remained particularly fruitful: David Oppenheim acquired many rare volumes there, and – with the help of Sanwil Sofer, scribe of the Worms community and son-in-law of Juspa Schammes, author of the famous Wormser Wundergeschichten (Wondrous Tales from the City of Worms) – he made what was probably his most spectacular find. In a shul (either yeshiva or synagogue) attic he found a pile of old, discarded manuscripts, many of them already rotting, exposed to the rain, or attacked by insects. The place was evidently a geniza, a depository for religious writings no longer usable for cultic purposes. Among the manuscripts was a unique commentary on the Pentateuch by Rashbam (Samuel ben Meir of Troyes), grandson of Rashi, the most famous Jewish scholar of the Middle Ages. Oppenheim described the circumstances of his find in the preface to the first printed edition of this commentary in 1705.
Throughout his life David Oppenheim maintained close links with Worms. He was deeply saddened by the burning of the city in 1689 in the course of the Nine Years’ War, especially by the destruction of the Judengasse with its venerable old synagogue. Around that time he took up rabbinical appointments in the eastern reaches of the Holy Roman Empire: in 1690 as Rabbi of Moravia in Nikolsburg (today Mikulov), in 1703 as Chief Rabbi of Prague, and later as Rabbi of Bohemia.
Part of Oppenheim’s library: Rashi’s famous commentary on the Pentateuch in an edition of 1408 (©Bodleian Library MS. Oppenheim 35, Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford)
From Worms to Hanover: a library relocates
For all its prestige, the appointment in Prague had one great disadvantage: Oppenheim had to leave his library behind. He justifiably feared that Jesuit censorship would not pass it by on account of its age and status. So in 1703 he installed his books and manuscripts in the house of his father-in-law, Leffmann Behrens, in Hanover, where he could still consult it on his lengthy stays in that city. He is said to have carried a catalogue of its contents with him on all his travels. In Hanover, his son Josef took care of the library, which soon became known among Jewish and Christian scholars alike as a fount of knowledge, as well as a civic treasure.
Hannover, Bergstrasse 8: Presumed residence of Leffmann Behrens, later Municipal House of the Jewish Community (© Historisches Museum Hannover)
David Oppenheim died in Prague in 1736, where his remains lie in the old Jewish cemetery. His son died a mere three years later, leaving the library orphaned: no one, now, would care for and maintain it systematically. Only much later, when Josef’s daughter Gnendel, who had inherited the library, fell on bad times, did a new chapter in its history open. Decades of attempts to sell the books read today like a thriller: despite its scholarly reputation, despite a letter of recommendation from Moses Mendelssohn himself, no one in Germany, Jew or Christian, wanted to buy it. Finally, for the sum of 9000 thaler (£2080) it was sold to a buyer in England, and in the summer of 1829 thirty-four packing cases containing some 4500 printed books and almost a thousand manuscripts were delivered to the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford.
Whether this was a happy end or a fiasco was debated with some passion by contemporary as well as later researchers, for in the following century few scholars found their way to Oxford to sample the riches of the Oppenheim hoard. One thing, however, is certain: the sale saved the library from being plundered, destroyed, or cast to the winds by the Nazis. So it remains in the twenty-first century what it always was: a treasury of promises still to be explored.
Ursula Reuter is head of Germania Judaica – Cologne’s library for the history of German Jewry.
Joshua Teplitsky: Prince of the Press. How One Collector Built History’s Most Enduring and Remarkable Jewish Library (New Haven: Yale University Press 2019) – provides a fascinating and up-to-date insight into the use and meaning of Early Modern libraries, particularly David Oppenheim’s
Gregor Pelger: Wissenschaft des Judentums und englische Bibliotheken. Zur Geschichte historischer Philologie im 19. Jahrhundert (Berlin: Metropol 2010) – pp. 106-121 give a concise and interesting account of the history of the Oppenheim library
Rebecca Abrams, César Merchán-Hamann (eds.): Jewish Treasures from Oxford Libraries (Oxford: Bodleian Library 2020) – a richly illustrated book for readers both casual and intense; see especially: Joshua Teplitsky, ‘The Oppenheim Collection’ (pp. 183-205)
Fritz Reuter: Warmaisa. 1000 Jahre Juden in Worms (Frankfurt: Jüdischer Verlag, third edition 1987) – an account of the Jewish history of the City of Worms
© Title image: public domain