||Volumes 1 & 2, and the index of the Catalogue of the Hebrew and Samaritan Manuscripts in the British Museum. The history of the Hebrew collection of manuscripts and printed books is rooted in the British Museum foundation collections. The libraries of Sir Hans Sloane, Sir John Cotton, and Robert Harley, the First Earl of Oxford which had been acquired by the British Museum in the 18th century, contained important Hebrew manuscripts some of which finely illuminated. The Sloane library yielded some thirteen Hebrew manuscripts, the most notable of which being a 14th century translation of Aristotle's Historia Animalum by Samuel ha-Levi Abulafia and the handsomely illustrated Leipnik Haggadah, dated Altona 1740. The most significant contribution of Hebrew manuscripts derived from Robert Harley's collection and consisted of 130 manuscripts. Outstanding among those were the lavishly illuminated two volume copy of Maimonides' Mishneh Torah completed at Lisbon, 1471-72, a beautiful 13th century Biblical Italian codex in two volumes and a large Sephardic Bible from the 14th century known as the Harley Catalan Bible.
The following decades witnessed a steady expansion of the Hebrew manuscripts collection. This resulted partly from the dispersal of libraries owned by English aristocratic families as for instance that of the Duke of Sussex, King George IV's brother, but also from the judicious acquisition policies pursued by some of the Museum Keepers in charge of manuscripts, particularly Josiah Forshall and Sir Frederic Madden. Their major contribution was the purchase in 1839 of the elegant manuscript known as the North French Miscellany copied around 1280, and of the famed Ashkenazi and Barcelona Haggadot, which were added to the collection in 1843. By the mid-nineteenth century the Hebrew manuscript collection totaled about 300 manuscripts, half of which were biblical codices.
The breakthrough in the development of the Hebrew manuscript collection occurred in 1865 when the Museum acquired the library of the Italian bibliophile Joseph Almanzi comprising 332 fine manuscripts covering all fields of Hebrew literature. One of the jewels in the Almanzi collection is undoubtedly the exquisite Golden Haggadah copied and illuminated in Catalonia in the 14th century.
The contents of the collection was further shaped by two important developments, namely the acquisition between 1877-1882 of nearly 300 mostly Karaite and Yemenite manuscripts and the addition in 1925 or 1300 manuscripts from the library of Moses Gaster, who, for many years acted as the Hakham of the Sephardi and Portuguese community in England. His collection was rich in Samaritan works as well as Hebrew biblical, midrashic and cabalistic manuscripts.
Today, the British Library holds one of the most representative Hebrew manuscripts collections in the world numbering some 3,000 volumes and about 10,000 fragments deriving from the Cairo Genizah.
Besides manuscripts the collection boasts valuable printed book holdings numbering some 80,000 volumes. They too came into the possession of the British Museum at various stages after its foundation. At its inception in 1759, the Museum owned a single Hebrew work among its 500,000 printed volumes. This was the first edition of the Bomberg Talmud printed in Venice 1520-1523, from the library of King George II. That same year a gift of 180 books of great significance was offered to the Museum by Solomon Da Costa Athias, a merchant broker from Amsterdam who had lived in London for many years. A turning point occurred when the book collection of Michael of Hamburg - 4,420 volumes embracing all fields of Jewish learning - were purchased by the Museum in 1848. Subsequent acquisitions have included both religious and secular works leading to further expansion of the collection. Among the printed book material the most significant category are the Hebrew incunables (i.e. books that were printed before 1500), numbering over 100 works. In the collection there is also a fine assortment of 16th century imprints, and many unique examples testifying to Hebrew printing activities over the centuries in many parts of the globe.
Most of the manuscripts and printed books have been recorded in scholarly catalogues, copies of which are placed on open access in the Oriental Reading Room.