Abraham Shalom Yahuda: The Scholar, the Collector and the Collections

The story of the fascinating figure who established the National Library's collection of Arabic and Islamic works

Dr. Raquel Ukeles
Abraham Shalom Yahuda in traditional Arabic dress

The Collection, which I began to assemble some 45 years ago, was brought together from all parts of the East. They have mostly been purchased from private scholars and libraries, which belonged to old patrician or scholarly families of Cairo, Damascus, Aleppo, Baghdad, Tunis, Fes and other ancient towns of the Islamic world. Some others emanate from private mosques in larger or smaller cities in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia, Turkey, Persia, Morocco, India and other parts of the East, including the Yemen in South Arabia, Adana and Ankara in Asia Minor. Only a very small part was acquired in Europe from private collections or at auctions.

Abraham Shalom Yehuda


Abraham Shalom Yahuda (1877-1951) was a polymath scholar, public intellectual, and bibliophile. Yahuda was born in Jerusalem to a wealthy and distinguished Jewish family of mixed Sephardic and Ashkenazic ancestry. His father, Rabbi Benjamin Ezekiel Yahuda, was from an illustrious Baghdad family. Yahuda’s mother, Rebecca Bergman, descended on her father’s side from an important rabbinic family originally from Frankfurt, Germany, and from her mother’s side from a noted Iraqi family whose ancestors claimed descent from Yosef Ben-Shoshan, a courtier of Alfonso VIII of Castile (r. 1158-1214).

A bright and precocious student, Yahuda devoted himself to study from an early age, focusing both on rabbinics (including the Hebrew Bible and its exegetical traditions, Talmud, and Jewish law), and arts and sciences. From the age of 15, he began learning European languages and literary Arabic; the Yahuda family spoke Arabic at home. When he was 16, in October 1893, he published his first monograph, Arab Antiquities (in Hebrew), on pre-Islamic Arab history and culture. A little more than a year later, in 1895, he published a scholarly translation of selected classical Arabic poetry, Nobles and Heroes of the Arabs (in Hebrew).

Abraham Shalom Yahuda, 1897, the Abraham Shalom Yahuda Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel


In 1895, Yahuda traveled to Germany to pursue academic studies in Semitics and Oriental Studies in Darmstadt, Frankfurt am Mein, and Nuremburg. He then entered the University of Strasbourg (except for one year at Heidelberg), completing his doctorate in 1904. During this time, Yahuda studied with renowned Orientalists Theodor Nöldeke, his doctoral adviser, and Ignaz Goldziher. Yahuda’s scholarly writings and personal letters suggest that he developed a close relationship with Goldziher and established a friendship with his son Karl that continued throughout Yahuda’s lifetime. After Goldziher’s death in 1921, Yahuda played a key role in securing the acquisition of Goldziher’s private library by the World Zionist Organization for the Jewish National Library in Jerusalem.

In an article dedicated to Goldziher and his library, Yahuda describes this acquisition as critical not only for the development of the Semitic languages department of the nascent Hebrew University, but also for the creation of a shared intellectual space for Arab and Jewish scholars:

And behold, such a library as this, which contains a lovely and amazing treasure of the best of Arabic literature and the finest works of Islam, may indeed become a meeting place for Arab and Jewish scholars alike. There they may sit as brothers in wisdom and friends in scholarship, and the inspiration (Shekhina) of enlightenment will impart upon our neighbors, those closest to us both genealogically and in mindset, the same spirit of tolerance, of munificence, kindheartedness, and generosity in which the Arabs excelled in ancient times, during their rule of East and West and during the most sublime generations of their intellectual achievement and culture.

The arrival of the 6,000 volumes that comprised the “Goldziher Library” in 1924 was, in fact, marked by a cross-denominational celebration that attracted the political and cultural spectrum of elite Jerusalem society, and was hailed as a meeting place for scholars from all religions and communities. The Goldziher collection served as the foundation of the National Library of Israel’s Arabic and Islam collection, which today contains close to half a million volumes.

During his student days in Germany, Yahuda became acquainted with a number of fellow students who became leading figures in the Zionist movement, including Shaul Tchernichovsky, Joseph Klausner, and others. Yahuda participated in the first four Zionist Congresses (1897-1901), and became a follower and confidante of Zionist thinker Max Nordau. Yahuda expressed a keen interest in the revival of the Hebrew language and established Hebrew language classes in Frankfurt. He also expressed an abiding concern for Jewish-Arab relations in the Land of Israel/Palestine and offered his assistance on this matter to Zionist leaders Theodor Herzl and Chaim Weizmann.

Abraham Shalom Yahuda, London, 1910, the Abraham Shalom Yahuda Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel


In 1905, Yahuda completed his doctorate, a pioneering study on the 11th century Andalusian Jewish thinker, Bahya ibn Pakuda. His interest in manuscripts can already be detected at this early stage: his dissertation was devoted to a general study of Ibn Pakuda’s Duties of the Heart and a critical edition of the first chapter. In 1912, he published a critical edition of the entire treatise. Yahuda then began teaching as a lecturer at the Berlin Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums (Higher Institute for Jewish Studies), a position he held until 1914. In 1915, he was appointed the first-ever professor of Judaic studies at the University of Madrid, where he taught courses on Jewish history and literature and Arab culture. Yahuda developed warm relations with the Spanish king Alfonso XIII (r. 1886-1931), and was an active member of the academic societies both in Madrid and Toledo, as well as in Lisbon. During his time in Spain, Yahuda collected extensive archival material on Jewish history in Spain and published numerous articles on related subjects.

In 1920, Yahuda travelled to Jerusalem after receiving an invitation from the Hebrew University’s founding committee to join the new faculty and teach Bible studies and Arabic language and literature. However, he left Jerusalem just a few months later in early 1921, bitterly disappointed both by the lack of reception to his ideas about a shared Arab-Jewish culture and future and having his university appointment effectively rescinded. Yahuda returned to his residence in London and, in June of that year, married Ethel Judes, originally of South Africa.

During the ensuing twenty years, Yahuda turned his attention to scholarship, public lecturing in England, travelling, and manuscript collecting. His set of monographs — Die Sprache des Pentateuch in ihren Beziehungen zum Aegyptischen (1929); The Language of the Pentateuch in Its Relation to Egyptian (1933); and a popular English edition, The Accuracy of the Bible, (1934) — caused an international debate. Yahuda argued there that the ancient Egyptian language strongly influenced the Egypt-related narratives in the Torah, such as Joseph and the Exodus; this argument presumed that the Torah was composed around the time of the biblical Exodus from Egypt, nearly in line with traditional Jewish chronology. While his thesis was rejected by biblical critics and other Orientalists, Yahuda maintained his position. Throughout this time, he also continued his attempts to aid Jewish communities in Europe and the Middle East and to improve relations between Jews and Arabs in Palestine. His letters express his strong opposition to the intercommunal policies of the Zionist Organization in general, and with those of Chaim Weizmann in particular.

Abraham Shalom Yahuda, Madrid, 1916, the Abraham Shalom Yahuda Archive, the Pritzker Family National Photography Collection at the National Library of Israel


In 1942, Yahuda immigrated to the United States and received an appointment as visiting professor at the New School for Social Research in New York. In 1946, he published Hebrew and Arab (in Hebrew, Ever ve-‘Arav), an anthology of scholarly articles and personal recollections that spanned his career. He died in 1951 and was survived by his wife Ethel.

Yahuda was a prolific and wide-ranging intellect who did not shy away from public debate. He published fifteen monographs and scores of scholarly articles in German, Hebrew, Arabic, Spanish, English, and French. In addition to the subjects mentioned above, he published extensively on medieval biblical exegesis; Hebrew poetry; Jewish philosophy under Islam; Qur’an and Hadith interpretation; and contemporary political affairs. His personal papers, now housed at the National Library of Israel, reflect the breadth and depth of his intellectual life. It includes correspondence with some of the great European intellectual and cultural minds of his day, such as Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Thomas Mann, Stefan Zweig, Max Liebermann, Hermann Struck, and John Maynard Keynes, as well as British, Jewish, and Arab leaders in Mandatory Palestine.


Yahuda as Manuscript Collector

Yahuda’s manuscript collecting activities were preceded and augmented by those of his older brother, Isaac Ezekiel Yahuda (1863-1941). Isaac Yahuda was himself a well-respected scholar of Semitic languages and of Islam. He first became a dealer in Oriental manuscripts in Darmstadt, Germany, in 1904. He then took up residence in Cairo in 1906, where, until 1920, he engaged both in scholarship and in selling Islamic books and manuscripts through his store, located near al-Azhar University. Abraham Yahuda, who likely collected manuscripts as a hobby beforehand, began to collect more systematically during the 1920s.

Yahuda’s letters describe his method of carefully selecting manuscripts from the libraries of renowned Islamic scholars and of his continuing search for unique or autograph copies. In a letter to his friend and client, the Irish-American collector Chester Beatty, from July 13, 1928, Yahuda writes:

I have now a nice little collection of very valuable and rare old MSS. by famous authors, which I picked from among three collections I bought at Damascus, The Lebanon and Cairo, and which have again been selected from three old libraries which belonged to famous scholars of the 15th & 16th centuries and remained in the hands of their families up to now.

Yahuda also acquired manuscripts through associates. In another letter to Beatty, dated May 15, 1929, Yahuda describes his ability to cover broad regions of the Islamic world:

I have also succeeded in getting the right men, men of personal authority and knowledge in books to go to Yemen and Irak [sic], and am negotiating with a scholar to persuade him to go to Asia Minor or Morocco. The first result of the Irak excursion is the purchase of two collections coming from two very old libraries in Baghdad and Nedjef [sic] respectively. There are very important books among them, some unique copies as well as some autograph copies of famous authors of the 6th and 7th centuries A.H. and many other books of fundamental importance in different fields of knowledge.

These vignettes echo Yahuda’s more comprehensive description, cited above, of the myriad sources of his collection from across the Islamic world. Throughout his travels, Yahuda developed a singular reputation as a collector both for his profound erudition in the content of the manuscripts and for his uncanny ability to identify valuable material.

An early Qur’an, dated to 905 CE, the Abraham Shalom Yahuda Collection at the National Library of Israel


The Yahuda Collections
Besides being an avid manuscript collector, Yahuda also sold large parts of his and his brother’s collections to eminent institutions and collectors. Yahuda sold manuscripts to the British Museum for over three decades. His connections with the British Museum also led to other clients. In 1926, Edward Edwards, who purchased 200 manuscripts from Yahuda for the British Museum in the early 1920s, facilitated Yahuda’s sale (on behalf of his brother) of 265 additional manuscripts to the University of Michigan. In addition, Yahuda sold numerous illuminated manuscripts to Chester Beatty. Between 1940 and 1942, he sold his collection of Islamic medical manuscripts to the U.S. Armed Forces Medical Library (now called the National Library of Medicine). And then, in 1942, Yahuda sold the majority of his collection (5,321 manuscripts) to Robert and John Garrett on behalf of Princeton University. The Princeton scholar of Semitic literature, Professor Phillip Hitti, described this collection as “reputedly the largest and most valuable collection of Arabic manuscripts in private possession.”

Taken from the Revision of Ibn al-Haytham’s Book of Optics by Kamal al-Din al-Farisi, dated to 1511 CE, the Abraham Shalom Yahuda Collection at the National Library of Israel


History of the Yahuda Collection at the National Library of Israel
Beginning in 1949, Abraham and Ethel Yahuda began planning to move to Israel and explored the possibility of setting up an Arab-Jewish research center in Jerusalem based on Yahuda’s collections. By 1951, Yahuda indicated his interest to house his collection at the Jewish National and University Library. In a letter dated August 9, 1951, only weeks before his death, Yahuda informed the head of the JNUL, Dr. Curt Wormann, that his collection was packed at a warehouse near their home in New Haven and ready for shipping instructions. Following Yahuda’s sudden death, Ethel Yahuda carried on cataloguing the collection in preparation for its transfer to Jerusalem. During a visit to Israel in 1953, she publicly announced her intention to donate the collection to the JNUL at a luncheon in her honor with Hebrew University officials and Israel’s then President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi. However, when she died in 1955, she had not yet completed her cataloguing work and, more significantly, had neglected to include a provision for the donation to the Hebrew University JNUL in her will. One of the executors of the estate, Abraham Yahuda’s nephew, objected to the donation. The case was contested in the Connecticut court, and the state Supreme Court finally ruled in favor of the Hebrew University in 1966. The Yahuda Collection finally arrived at the Library in 1967.

A beautiful Iranian manuscript of Layla and Majnun from 1602 CE, the Abraham Shalom Yahuda Collection at the National Library of Israel


The Yahuda Collection, including his private collection of manuscripts, rare books, scholarly literature, and personal papers, is undoubtedly one of the most valuable and significant bequests ever received by the National Library of Israel (which was known as the Jewish National and University Library [JNUL] of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem from 1925-2011). It comprises some 1,400 manuscripts, including 1,186 manuscripts in the Arabic script (primarily in Arabic, with 350 in Persian and 250 in Ottoman Turkish). The collection dates from the third/ninth through the thirteenth/nineteenth centuries. It includes compositions from Spain and North Africa to Central and South Asia, and encompasses all the major Islamic religious fields, as well as the study of language and literature, and science, medicine, and mathematics.

The collection also includes 240 manuscripts in Hebrew script and fifty manuscripts in Roman script, including a number of beautifully illuminated copies of the Book of Hours. In addition to manuscripts, the Yahuda collection also includes a number of incunabula and many other rare printed editions. Among the more remarkable non-Islamic items is the vast archive of Isaac Newton’s theological writings including 7,500 pages, purchased by Yahuda after they were auctioned at Sotheby’s in 1936. Another unique collection comprises 1,100 documents from the period of Napoleon’s rule in Egypt, some signed by his own hand. Finally, the Collection encompasses Yahuda’s vast archive of approximately 3,000 letters, which provides a clear window into the complex and fascinating life of Yahuda himself.

You can browse through many of the Arabic manuscripts in the Abraham Shalom Yahuda Collection at the National Library of Israel, here.


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