Collection: MS Roth: Cecil Roth Collection

Archive Collection icon Archive Collection: Cecil Roth Collection


Title: Cecil Roth Collection

Level: Collection 

Classmark: MS Roth

Date: 1200-1999

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Throughout his life Roth collected both books and manuscripts, and art objects. The former were acquired by Leeds University Library, largely in 1961, while the art collection passed to the Beth Tzedec Synagogue Museum in Toronto, Canada. Users of this handlist should note that the scrolls of Esther listed in Roth’s own catalogue as 508-515, 522-525, and 528, and nearly all the marriage contracts etc. forming his section numbered 801-850 are now to be found in Toronto, not Leeds, since Dr Roth deemed them to be art objects, rather than literary works. However, several marriage contracts, evidently not sent to Toronto, do exist in the Leeds collection, namely, one that may correspond with Roth’s item 848, and a few others that are held in a box of miscellaneous uncatalogued manuscripts collected by him.

The handlist is based on the ‘Catalogue of Manuscripts in the Roth Collection’, contributed by Cecil Roth himself to the Alexander Marx Jubilee Volume (New York, 1950), where it forms pp. 503-35. Roth’s own introduction is reproduced below, even though his final paragraph no longer accurately reflects the nature of the handlist. Whereas Roth devoted only a few lines to each manuscript, and necessarily listed only those manuscripts in his possession at the time of writing, this revised handlist (i) expands the entry for each manuscript in the original list by giving considerably more information about its physical characteristics and somewhat fuller information about its contents; and (ii) includes entries for the thirty-nine additional manuscripts listed by Cecil Roth as having been acquired between 1950 and his death in 1970.

As Roth describes in his introduction, the collection is broadly classified by subject, with sequences of numbers allotted to each. The thirty-nine additional manuscripts were given numbers within these sequences, probably by Roth, as appropriate, but these numbers are somewhat irregular. Seeing that they do not appear together, they have been distinguished in the handlist by a preceding asterisk; but for ease of reference they comprise the following: 71-75, 77-82, 127, 270, 279-286, 290-291, 324, 423-425, 532, 734-739, and 741-745. Roth published an Addendum to his 1950 catalogue in his 1972 bibliographical work, Studies in Books and Booklore: Essays in Jewish Bibliography and Allied Subjects (published posthumously by Gregg International), in which he supplies identifications for six of these additional manuscripts, namely, 71-74, 127, and 270, plus two which are assumed to be in Toronto, namely, 531 and 851. He left few notes about the other additional items, so that less precise identifications of the latter have been possible, particularly of the most obscure ‘miscellaneous’ items in the 700s. A box of other uncatalogued manuscripts associated with Dr Roth’s collection, also miscellaneous, yielded a number of further items which are worthy of note here, namely; (i) a group of eight further historical manuscripts associated with the Penzance Jewish Community which may have been intended to receive the missing additional numbers 271-278; (ii) a group of several further Genizah manuscripts acquired by Dr Roth (according to a note written in his hand) in Jerusalem in 1959; (iii) several further marriage or divorce documents; (iv) two further Hebrew liturgical or homiletical manuscripts; (v) a Hebrew work entitled ספר ידותבן משה ; and (vi) another Hebrew work devoted to .חידושי תוה

Six numbered manuscripts listed as part of Roth’s original collection were not present on the shelves when the revision of this handlist was undertaken. It is hoped that they will re-emerge, but they are indicated here by the note [Not found, 2005]. They comprise the following: 242, 244, 255a, 412, 702, and 727. The last four manuscripts in this missing list were not present on the shelves at a previous inspection, and the Curator of the Beth Tzedec Museum in Toronto, Canada, has not been able to trace them in the collection held there.

The main work of revising Dr Roth’s original catalogue having now been completed, the present handlist is being issued as an interim measure. The Library is expecting to receive further specialist assistance from the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts at the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem (which holds microfilms of the great majority of Dr Roth’s manuscripts), and it is hoped to issue a revised edition of the handlist in due course.

Leeds University Library is greatly indebted to Mr Malcolm C. Davis, formerly Assistant Librarian, for his dedicated work (in retirement) in expanding Cecil Roth’s original catalogue. His Catalogue of the Pre-1850 Books in the Cecil Roth Collection was published by the Library in 1994.

Cecil Roth’s Own Introduction

As stated above, the following introduction was contributed by Roth to the Alexander Marx Jubilee Volume (1950). It is of considerable interest in revealing both his motivating drive in acquiring the manuscripts and the widely differing and surprising provenances of many of them.

For some time past, my friend Alexander Marx, greatest of Hebrew bibliographers of our day, has been urging me to publish a catalogue of my modest collection of manuscripts. In comparison with the remarkable Library that he has built up at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America - greatest quantitatively, and almost qualitatively, among the Hebrew collections of the world today - my few acquisitions must appear trivial. But a Septuagenarian's wish is law: and it is a pleasure as well as an honour for me to be able to comply with his behest in connexion with this happy celebration.

A few words on the genesis of my collection, in accordance with precedent, will not be out of place. The collector is born, not made : but there can be no doubt that my magpie tendencies were encouraged and enhanced by early intercourse with those two superb bibliophiles, Elkan Adler and Moses Gaster, whose names were a legend in the environment in which I grew up. (My friendship with David Sassoon came later.) At an early age I found romance in the word `Manuscript', drama in the mere thought of the circumstances in which a codex had been written and studied, and music in the place-names associated with bygone Jewish rites and rituals, which always exercised a peculiar fascination on me. I can still recall the imbecilic joy with which I greeted my first authentic manuscript -- a copy of the Carpentras Mahzor, acquired on my first visit there in 1922 - and my pride when Elkan Adler himself came round (with vainly gaping pockets) to inspect my finds. But it is never more true than in the case of the book-collector to say that `l'appetit vient en mangeant'. Since then, I have had the good fortune to travel widely, and I regard it now as a cardinal principle that, from the point of view of the book-collector, there is no such thing as an unlikely spot. The manner in which Hebrew MSS. travel is indeed amazing. I have acquired an Avignon MS. in Florence, a Corfu ritual in Cairo, a Cochin prayer-book in New York, an Indian Ketubah in Bloomsbury, a Spanish manuscript in Johannesburg, and a Greek one in, of all places, Greek-sounding Minneapolis (Min.). Moreover, contrary to what one might imagine, it is not a rich man's hobby: more important than unlimited resources are presence of mind and quickness of realisation, coupled of course with unquenchable optimism. On the other hand, a number of my best MSS. were acquired in exchange for printed books, especially in the course of the last few years. Eheu fugaces, Postume!

My collection is classified in accordance with a rudimentary system which allows the opportunity for reasonable expansion without disturbing the arrangement into subjects:

1-100 Liturgy.
101-200 Poetry and Belles Lettres.
201-300 History and Historical Material.
301-400 Halakha, Midrash, and Rabbinical Literature.
401-500 Philosophy, Polemic and Cabbala.
501-600 Bible and Exegesis.
601-700 Karaite and Samaritan Literature.
701-800 Miscellaneous.
801-900 Ketuboth.

It is possible, without exceeding the space available to me to give here only a summary account of my manuscripts - more a handlist than a catalogue - notwithstanding the fact that greater prominence is inevitably allotted thereby to miscellaneous trivialities than to substantial MSS. of consistent value. It is to be hoped that nevertheless this will suffice to indicate approximately the scope of the collection, and may stimulate other workers in this field to make their treasures known to the world of scholarship in a similar fashion, even though they cannot have the good fortune to do so under such auspices.

Further information on some of the items in the Roth Collection can be found in:

'Hebraica and Judaica from the Cecil Roth Collection', Eva Frojmovic and Frank Felsenstein, 1997

'Roth Collection Pre-1850 books', compiled by Malcom D. Davis, 1994.

Copies of both can be accessed in the Special Collections Reading room.

Administrative or biographical history

Cecil Roth (1899-1970) was a British Jewish historian. He was editor in chief of Encyclopedia Judaica from 1965 until his death.

Dr Cecil Roth (1899-1970), the Jewish historian, was born on 5 March 1899 in Dalston, London, the youngest of the four sons of Joseph and Etty Roth. Educated at the City of London School, he saw active service in France in 1918 and then read history at Merton College, Oxford, obtaining a first class degree in modern history in 1922, and a DPhil in 1924; his thesis was published in 1925 as The Last Florentine Republic. In 1928 he married Irene Rosalind Davis. They had no children. Roth soon turned to Jewish studies, his interest from childhood, when he had a traditional religious education and learned Hebrew from the Cairo Genizah scholar Jacob Mann. He supported himself by freelance writing until in 1939 he received a specially created readership in post-biblical Jewish studies at the University of Oxford, where he taught until his retirement in 1964. He then settled in Israel and divided his last years between New York, where he was visiting professor at Queens’ College in City University and Stern College, and Jerusalem. He died in Jerusalem on 21 June 1970. Roth’s literary output was immense, ranging from definitive histories of the Jews both globally and in several particular countries, to bibliographical works, studies of painting, scholarly research, notably on the Dead Sea scrolls, and biographical works. But his crowning achievement was the editorship of the Encyclopaedia Judaica, which appeared in the year of his death.

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