Jacob Joshua Falk was home studying Talmud when a nearby gunpowder factory exploded. Trapped beneath debris with no escape route in sight, the 22-year-old Pole made a vow to God: if saved, he would study Talmud diligently. He immediately spied a clearing and crawled out of the rubble only to find that his entire family had been killed.
Falk kept to the vow he made that day in 1702 and completed "Penei Yehoshua" (the Face of Joshua), a three-volume commentary on the Talmud, today considered one of the most important of latter-day talmudic scholarship. Although Falk never reached the level of fame commentators like Maimonides or Rashi, devotees say his commentary is a must-read for anyone seriously studying Talmud.
But now Falk has posthumously reached a new level of renown in Jewish scholarship circles. At Sotheby's two-day auction of Hebrew manuscripts last week, a letter signed by Falk sold for $72,000, more than four times the catalogue estimate of $10,000-$15,000, and a signed responsa collection by Falk's grandfather sold for $288,000, more than eight times the catalogue estimate of $25,000-35,000.
The record-breaking Falk artifacts were two of 433 manuscript lots sold at the "Important Hebrew Manuscripts From the Montefiore Endowment" auction at Sotheby's in New York on Oct. 27. This large auction indicated the price -- literally -- that people would pay for a tangible connection to rabbis past. The sales also set a new standard for the value of famous religious scholarship, bolstering a little-known market that commodifies artifacts of religious scholars of centuries past.
"It has never happened before that a collection of 400 manuscripts comes up for sale," Goldman said, noting that in the last three decades he's only seen a few dozen up for sale. "Here it is 400 manuscripts -- it is like never before; there are very important manuscripts [in the collection]."
The letter and the book lacked the elements that most valuable manuscripts contain: they were neither illustrated nor illuminated, and didn't contain unpublished or particularly important thoughts. But they were autographed. And it was the signatures that caused the frenzied bidding wars.
"These [autographs] don't come up on the market every day," said Yosef Goldman, an ultra-Orthodox book dealer from Brooklyn who spent more than $200,000 at the auction, buying some items for himself and others for an unidentified client in Los Angeles.
"The autograph has nothing to do with the importance of the book, but it [provides] a feeling that people can associate with," he said. "They make it easier to identify with the rabbi."
Goldman was one of the many ultra-Orthdox book dealers who flocked to Manhattan last week from cities as far as B'nai Brak, Buenos Aires and Antwerp for the auction. It was, as Goldman said, "the sale of a lifetime," both for its size and for its contents. Some of the 433 manuscripts dated back to the 13th century. Some had never been published; others were the only existing copy. Of the lots, 313 sold for almost $8 million, the highest total ever for a sale of Hebrew manuscripts.
The Modern Orthodox English contingent of the Montefiore endowment trustees sat primly in reserved seats at the back of the demurely decorated auction room, watching the action unfold between the ultra-Orthodox book dealers and the officious Sotheby's staff.
The dealers wore long black or pinstriped sartuks (frock coats), dinner-plate sized velvet yarmulkes or high-topped velvet fedoras; their faces were framed by straggly beards and thick peyot, or side locks. They spoke to each other in Polish-accented Yiddish, comparing catalogue notes, commenting sarcastically that one item or another was a "graiyzer metzieh" (a big bargain). Occasionally, a cell phone rang, playing a Chasidic melody.
"They all seem to know each other to a terrifying extent," said James Stourton, deputy chairman of Sotheby's Europe, who orchestrated the sale of the manuscripts.
"[The scene] is all pretty strange to the three trustees," he said. "They keep saying how exotic they find it all."
Although the dealers say that not all of their clients are ultra-Orthodox -- there were representatives from university and city libraries at the auction buying some of the lots -- most clients are ultra-Orthdox, people whose interest in the items is spurred by their knowledge of the texts themselves and their love of Torah.
"In this line, it is mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews," said a dealer from Israel who called himself Tuporovich. "Others don't even know how to read Hebrew."
"This is something that represents Torah, and people love this. They recognize the builders of Torah, and they want something important [that connects to them]," said Rabbi Erman, a Bnai Brak dealer who spent $16,800 on a 15th-century parchment manuscript of the Shaarei Dura, a text on the laws of forbidden food and menstruating women, and $9,600 on a 17th-century paper manuscript of the Yotzerot, liturgical poems inserted in the benedictions preceding and following the Shema.
The manuscripts were primarily academic rather and originated from Europe and North Africa. They ranged the gamut of halachic, kabbalistic, liturgical, biblical, cultural, talmudic and epistolary texts from the 13th to the 19th centuries. In general, the manuscripts contributed to the understanding of the traditions, culture and practices of Jews in those places and times.
There was a 14th-century parchment copy of the Abraham Abulafia's (1240-1291) Hayyei Ha-Olam Haba (The Life of the World to Come), listed at $25,000-$35,000, which contains explanations of the 72-letter name of God and claims to help man receive prophetic powers. The manuscript was written in a Hebrew calligraphy in black and red ink, and came complete with 16 pages of circular diagrams for meditation. It sold for $72,000.
A 15th-century Swiss Yom Kippur machzor, written in a serif-laden Hebrew script that had black-ink illustrations of the High Priest's service on Yom Kippur was listed at $60,000-80,000 and sold for $153,600.
Sotheby's even offered a lot containing 139 pages of letters and writings by and about Shabbetai Tzvi, the infamous 17th-century false messiah. It sold for $19,200, below the $20,000-35,000 estimate -- perhaps indicating that only the artifacts of the pious sell well.
All the manuscripts came to New York from England. In 1869, Sir Moses Montefiore had founded the Judith Lady Montefiore College in memory of his wife, and had sanctioned the purchase of a collection of Hebrew manuscripts as part of the college's endowment.
Born in 1784, Montefiore was the leading Anglo Jewish personality of the 19th century. Not only was he wealthy and philanthropic, but he exemplified the type of modern Jew who could engage with royalty and aristocrats without ever diluting his religious convictions or practices. When Queen Victoria invited him to dine in Buckingham Palace, he sent his butler ahead with a package of kosher meat so he would have something to eat. He also traveled the world lobbying for Jewish causes, for example, protesting blood libels in Syria, and building Jewish settlements in Palestine.
"He had an infectious belief in God," said Rabbi Abraham Levy, trustee of the Montefiore Endowment, at a reception at Sotheby's the night before the auction. "He served God not only as a Jew, but also as an Englishman. The synthesis of cultures, that was so common during the golden age of Spain [900-1200 C.E.] ... was something that he was very proud of."
The Montefiore Trustees are selling the manuscripts because they want to turn their attention from the preservation of old parchments and papers to living examples of Torah. The proceeds from the sale are going to establish a Kollel -- a Torah learning center -- in England for university-educated Modern Orthodox married couples, who will embody the synthesis of cultures that Montefiore himself practiced.
"It is our duty as trustees to obey the instructions left by Sir Moses Montefiore," said Lucien Gubbay, chairman of the trustees of the Montefiore Endowment of Ramsgate. "He didn't leave the money to produce a collection of manuscripts. He left the money to advance higher education."
"We are very sad to break up the collection, but we felt it wasn't morally right to hang onto them," he said. "But we should turn them into what the testator would have wished ... religious leaders for the next generation."