British Library loses Ramban document

By Marcus Dysch, March 26, 2009

A 454-year-old edition of a book written by the 12th-century scholar, philosopher and rabbi, Moses ben Maimon — better known as Maimonides or the Rambam — is among 9,000 items missing from the British Library.

A library spokesman said the book, Letter on Astrology, is unlikely to have been stolen. Instead, it is thought to be missing somewhere in the 650km of storage shelves within the central London library. The library, which was formerly housed in the British Museum, moved to its new St Pancras base in 1998. The manuscript’s loss is believed to predate the move.

The manuscript — a 1555 edition of one of Maimonides’s best-known works — has not been seen since 1977. Its financial value is not known, though Daniel Kestenbaum of Kestenbaum’s the New York auction house, which specializes in Judaica, including books and rare manuscripts, said the book had come up for sale twice in the past 12 years: “There was an incomplete copy in poor condition sold in 1996 and a much more handsome copy that sold for $2,600 in 2006.”

The library spokesman said rigorous procedures were in place to stop works disappearing, but that “human error” could not be ruled out.

Maimonides was born in Cordoba, Spain, in 1135 and later lived in Egypt, practising as a rabbi and physician. He completed a renowned commentary on the Mishnah in 1168.

Daniel Davies of the Taylor-Schechter Genizah Research Unit at Cambridge University, where Hebrew and Arabic manuscripts from the medieval world are studied, said Letter on Astrology was a highly respected work.

“Maimonides wrote it in 1194, so this piece from 1555 is likely to be a copy. It’s an extremely important text. Doubts had been raised about its authenticity, but it’s generally accepted that Maimonides did create it,” he explained.

“It was written as a response to queries sent to him from the south of France — probably from Marseilles — on astrology, and has become an extremely popular source of his writings. It’s a very well-known expression of some of his critical ideas and has been translated into many European languages because it’s so popular,” added Mr Davies.

Mr Kestenbaum believes the missing book was printed in Cologne in 1555: “In it, Maimonides energetically opposes the study and practice of astrology, a system he rejects as being anti-intellectual and inauthentic.”

Also missing from the library’s collection of 150 million items is a 1939 “luxury edition” of Mein Kampf, produced to celebrate Hitler’s 50th birthday.

Last updated: 5:01pm, March 26 2009