The Ets Haim - Livraria Montezinos Library

Ets Haim is the oldest active Jewish library in the world. It was established in 1616 as part of the Talmud Torah school, and has occupied its current premises in the marvelous complex of the Portuguese Jewish Synagogue in Amsterdam since 1675. The library, which consists of some 600 manuscripts and 23,000 printed works, possesses a large, rich collection relating to Jewish life in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries, and as such it has been a core part of Amsterdam’s cultural heritage for almost 400 years.

Interior of Ets Haim Library, January 2014 (photo Peter Lange)

From the Iberian peninsula to Amsterdam

As a result of the inquisition on the Iberian peninsula many Jews who were forcefully converted to Christianity (conversos) fled to cities such as Antwerp and Amsterdam in the course of the 16th century.

At the end of the 16th century the first conversos settled in Amsterdam. They were conscious of the Jewish background. Here in Amsterdam they were given the possibility of learning about their long-forgotten Jewish customs and traditions and to rediscover their Jewish identity.

Initially the Ets Haim (“Tree of Life”) Library started out as part of the Talmud Torah school founded by the first Portuguese Jewish congregation in Amsterdam in 1616. There was a great demand for education and the school’s curriculum was very broad.

The school’s library is part of the current collection of Ets Haim and shows that besides religious education, there was a vast array of interest for different subjects. The collection also shows how important the Iberian identity was to the community while embracing Amsterdam as their home.

Prent van Jacobus Buys, 1784 (Collectie JHM, M000055
"Marriage of Portuguese Jews". Print by Jacobus Buys, 1784 (JHM Collection, M000055)

Written evidence of the Sephardic worldview, history, ideals and education is concentrated in the Ets Haim library. The manuscript collection contains a lot of currently unpublished material such as commentaries of the Bible, essays, sermons, poetry and historic literature as well as liturgical works and music. Many of these were written or copied by teachers, students and alumni of Ets Haim. The printed works show the development of a free Jewish printing press in Amsterdam. The quality, especially that of Hebrew printing became world famous and a global trademark.

It is important to note not all works which were printed were also distributed among the larger public. An important examples are those texts to “strengthen the Jewish faith”. In order to prevent these texts from being seen as polemics against Christianity, these texts circulated internally as handwritten manuscripts, but were not printed, stemming from the idea that those who respect other will be treated with respect. The board of the Portuguese Jewish Community supervised which books would be printed.

In 1889, librarian David Montezinos gifted his personal collection of manuscripts, books and prints to Ets Haim, under the condition these would be publically accessible at least two days a week. Since then, the collection of Ets Haim has consisted of two parts: the books from the Ets Haim school and David Montezino’s private collection, hence the name: Ets Haim library – Livraria Montezinos.

The War Years and Postwar Concerns

The Second World War brutally disrupted the process of handing down knowledge and traditions. The collection’s manuscripts and books were transported to Germany, from where most of them were returned, albeit somewhat damaged, in 1946. In the first few decades after the war, Ets Haim lacked the financial resources needed for the proper preservation of the building and its collection. In the 1970s, the library’s very survival was jeopardized by the deteriorating storage conditions in the historic building and a shortage of funds and personnel. In 1978 the governors of Ets Haim made a decision: for safety’s sake they transferred the core collection (all 560 manuscripts and over 2,800 rare and precious early printed works) on long-term loan to the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem.

F0099a: heropening Ets Haim 1947
Group portrait on the occasion of Ets Haim's reopening in 1947 (collection Portugese Synagogue, F0099a)

The Conservation and Reunification of the Collection

In consultation with services including the Government Department for the Conservation of Historic Buildings and Sites, a detailed policy plan was drawn up in 1996–1997 for the renovation of Ets Haim on the basis of sound principles, restoring the library to its former glory while making it as accessible as possible to an international public of students, teachers, and researchers. The set criteria for the responsible management and use of the collections imposed some radical improvements, designed to achieve good storage conditions, followed by the sound conservation and restoration of the collections and their accessibility to the public.

In July 1998 Ets Haim’s collections finally acquired a secure place on the list attached by the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science to the Conservation of Cultural Heritage Act. Between 1998 and 2000, Ets Haim was completely upgraded to meet present-day requirements, with financial support from the government and a number of funds. The building was insulated, the roof repaired, the cellar refloored, and the bookcases restored in their original design. In addition, equipment was installed to ensure adequate security and climate control. In 2000, the part of the library’s collection that had been placed for safe keeping in the National Library of Israel was returned.

In the meanwhile, the collection of manuscripts is digitally accessible and can be consulted form cover to cover. The cataloguing of printed works shall be completed in the coming years. Those which have been catalogued can be found on WorldCat.

The collection of Ets Haim can be consulted by appointment for (academic) research. Interested public can participate in a guided tour or book a private tour.

Curator Heide Warncke and Researcher in Ets Haim. Photo: Monique Kooijmans
Curator Heide Warncke and Researcher in Ets Haim . Photo: Monique Kooijmans

Composition of the Collection

The library has occupied premises within the monumental complex of the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam uninterruptedly since the complex was built in 1675. In 1889 the then librarian  David Montezinos opened up his personal collection of manuscripts, books and prints to the public, under certain conditions, for at least two days a week. Since then it has been known as the Ets Haim Library–Livraria Montezinos.

The collection contains some 600 manuscripts (from 1282 to the 20th century) and approximately 30,000 printed works (from 1474 to the present day) in 20,000 volumes, about 65 per cent of which are printed in Hebrew. The printed books include six Hebrew incunabula (early printed books), about 450 unique Hebrew texts, about 400 unique and rare Spanish and Portuguese printed works, and 750 texts printed for specific occasions. Ets Haim also possesses some 450 prints and scores for children’s and men’s choirs.

Bookcase in Ets Haim Library. Photograph: Pauline Prior, c. 2001. JHM Collection, F900670
Bookcase in Ets Haim Library. Photograph: Pauline Prior, c. 2001. JHM Collection, F900670

The collection reflects the 17th-century humanist ideal: the documentation of all areas of human knowledge, wisdom, and endeavor. All Jewish standard works are available in multiple editions: Bible editions, exegetic, hermeneutic, homiletic, legal and didactic works, as well as a number of Christian editions. The library possesses works in many other languages besides Hebrew and Aramaic, including Latin and Greek, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, French, German, English, Yiddish, and Ladino. Its large liturgical collection includes virtually all Jewish prayer books printed in the Netherlands. The diversity in rituals and customs, as recorded in international publications, is extremely well documented in the collections.

The history of the (Jewish) printing press is well documented: from Eastern Europe to the American continent, from Northern Europe to Africa, from Portugal via the Levant to Cochin and Calcutta. The rich diversity of manners of bookbinding – materials and technique – are paired with wonderful documentation of the history of typography and graphic design. History, language and literature, rhetoric, calligraphy, lexicography, medicine and mysticism and economy all find their place.

Interior of the Ets Haim Library, c. 1955. Photograph: Boris Kowadlo, ⓒ Nederlands Fotomuseum Rotterdam, JHM Collection, F001754.

Ambitions for the 21st century

The year 2012 saw the launch of an ambitious project: creating a catalogue of the library’s printed books and digitizing its manuscripts.

The cataloguing of the complete collection of printed works, some 30,000 titles, will take several years to complete. The books are entered into the national shared cataloguing system (GGC) under their Hebrew titles. International readers can find the titles using WorldCat, the world’s most comprehensive database of information about library collections.

The manuscript collection of Ets Haim–Livraria Montezinos has been digitized over the past few years and it is now available online. Explore 600 years of Jewish history by browsing through unique digitized manuscripts in Hebrew, Spanish, Portuguese, and Dutch on the specially developed website

De handschriften werden in de bibliotheek gescand door Ardon Bar-Hama. Foto: Peter Lange, 2012
The manuscripts were scanned in the library by Ardon Bar-Hama. Photograph: Peter Lange, 2012. JHM Collection, F901070​​​​

Ets Haim can only be visited by appointment. Because of the large number of requests or visiting, if you want to make a research appointment, join a guided tour or book a private tour please let us know at least two weeks before you intend to visit.

Deze site is ook beschikbaar in het Nederlands