Early Hebraica and Judaica at the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research at the University of Cape Town

by Veronica Belling

With the recent renovation and upgrade of the Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research at UCT, former Jewish Studies Librarian and Alumnus Veronica Belling reflects on the rare book collection of Hebraica and Judaica now housed and displayed in the Kaplan Centre. The books will be on display until June 2019.

Hebrew was a subject of instruction at the South African College – the forerunner of the University of Cape Town – from its inception in 1829. After falling into abeyance between 1874 and 1895, it was revived in 1896 with the arrival in the Cape Colony of Reverend Alfred Philipp Bender, an M.A. graduate from the University of Cambridge, to take up the ministry of the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation. A chair was endowed at the University of Cape Town with funding from the Jewish community and in 1896 Reverend Bender became the first Professor of Hebrew at the South African College.

The Kaplan Centre holds volumes of Hebraica from the old South African College Library, that were formerly preserved in the UCT Libraries Rare Books collection. The oldest is an item of Christian Hebraica, the Bibliotheca Magna Rabbinica, a four volume bibliography of Hebrew literature, compiled by Giulio Bartoloccio (1613-1687), a Cistercian monk, and published between 1675 and 1693. Also transferred from Rare Books is a facsimile copy of the Codex Sinaiticus, one of the four extant handwritten manuscripts of the Greek bible dating back to the 4th century. (1) The Kaplan Centre later acquired a facsimile copy of the Aleppo Codex, Keter Aram Tsova – The Crown of Aleppo, a 10th century manuscript of the Hebrew bible, that was written in Tiberias and was endorsed for its accuracy by Moses Maimonides (1135-1204). (2)

UCT Libraries’ Hebraica and Judaica holdings are generally traced back to a donation of 520 pounds from Jewish students received in 1921. This collection includes books in English and German but the majority are in Hebrew. Prominent among the Hebrew books is a collection of 44 volumes from the series Bibliyotekah ha-Ivrit (Hebrew Library) that was published by the Tushiyah Press in Warsaw between 1898 and 1902. These books represent the intellectual world of the Jews during those years. They include literature, natural and social sciences, biographies, philosophy, the history of literature, translated works, and original Hebrew works. English books include the Jewish Encyclopedia published by Funk & Wagnalls in New York, 1901-1906.

The Kaplan Centre also holds a large collection of rabbinic literature that was published in Vilna (Vilnius) in Lithuania by the famous Romm Press, the largest publisher of rabbinic literature in eastern Europe before the Second World War. The books include daily and festival prayerbooks, Mishnayot (Oral Law), Talmuds, and ethical works, that were brought to South Africa by Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe. It also holds volumes of the Shulhan Aruch (Compendium of Jewish Law) by Joseph Caro (1488-1575), published in Lemberg in Poland in 1864 or 65, that were in the possession of the Malmesbury Zionist Society, as well as a set of Sefer ha-Halakhot by the 11th century rabbi Isaac Alfasi (1013-1103), published in Sulzbach in Germany.

The Centre also has several volumes that were looted by the Nazis during the Second World War that were distributed to South Africa by the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction Commission in New York in 1949. One of these is an En Ya’akov, a collection of Jewish legends that was published in Hrubieszow in Poland in 1889. It originally belonged to a Jewish Aged Home and has the stamp with the Nazi eagle on the title page.

With the establishment of the Isaac and Jessie Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research in 1980, the ambit of Judaica collection was widened with the acquisition of the multilingual collection of modern Jewish Studies from Professor Abraham Duker of the United States, the Rajak donation and many others. The Duker collection includes some early texts of the Wissenschaft des Judentum – the group of German Jewish scholars who created modern Jewish Studies – as well as the original Russian Jewish Encyclopedia, the Yevreyskaya Entsiklopediya published between 1906 and 1913.

The Centre also holds a comprehensive collection of South African Yiddish and Hebrew literature. Amongst these are two very rare early newspapers that were passed on to the Kaplan Centre by the Jewish Museum. These are Der Kriegestaphet or “The War Dispatch”, that was published daily during the South African war between 20 October and December 1899 and Der Yiddisher Advokat, a weekly newspaper that appeared between 1904 and 1914. Both were published by the Yiddishist, David Goldblatt, who together with leader of the Jewish community at the Cape, Morris Alexander, fought for Yiddish to be recognised as a European language for the purposes of immigration. (3) The collection also includes the Sefer ha-Zikhroynes – “Book of Memories” by Nehemiah Dov Baer Hoffman, the first Yiddish and Hebrew book ever published in South Africa in 1916.


1. Codex Sinaiticus Available https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Codex_Sinaiticus

2. Aleppo Codex, Available https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aleppo_Codex

3. Milton Shain, Jewry and Cape Society: the Origins and Activities of the Jewish Board of Deputies for the Cape Colony, Historical Publication Society, Cape Town, 1983.

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