Exhuming history: censored Jewish text brought to light by Library and Archives Canada

Once blacked out by a censor's pen, a 16th-century collection of sermons by a rabbi has been restored in its entirety by Library and Archives Canada. The sermons were written at a time when Jews were being forced to convert to Christianity or face expulsion.

'It offers a totally new understanding of the past,' says historian

Censored Jewish text restored

7 years ago
Duration 0:34
Book conservationist Manise Marston describes the procedure of restoring censored passages in the historical text.

Words that were once lost to history have been brought into the light by book conservationists at Library and Archives Canada.

The 16th-century collection of sermons were by a rabbi and philosopher who sought to keep the faith alive during a dark era of persecution and censorship, when Jews were facing possible expulsion from their homes if they did not convert to Christianity.

A redacted passage from the 16th-century religious text restored by Library and Archives Canada. (Library and Archives Canada)

It took 200 hours of meticulous restoration at the Library and Archives' Preservation Centre in Gatineau to reveal passages that had been blacked out with iron gall ink. Catholic Church censors deemed the words heretical or anti-Christian.

Although the tinge of the dark ink remains on the newly restored pages, it it now possible to read the original Hebrew text.

"It offers a totally new understanding of the past." said Leah Cohen, curator at Library and Archives Canada of the redacted words. 

"If a passage is missing you're not getting the original intent of the authors. And this way you have a way of going back, of digging back, there's kind of an archeological feel about it."

Marnise Marston, book conservator at Library and Archives Canada, worked for a year on restoring the censored passages in Akedat Yitshak, by Isaac Ben Moses Arama, printed in Venice between 1546 and 1547. (CBC News)

The bigger challenge for the conservators was to stop the pages from disintegrating, as the cheaply-made ink used by the censors to cover up the passages was actually eating away at the paper. 

"It was very, very labour intensive," said book conservator  Manise Marston. "Because it's a 3D object I had to continually move the item so I could treat the areas. Where the ink was corroded the pages were very fragile, very brittle."

The book in question is a collection of sermons by Isaac Ben Arama, a rabbi and philosopher who lived in Spain from 1420 to until 1492 until he was expelled from the country at the beginning of the Spanish Inquisition. 

'It offers a totally new understanding of the past,' said librarian and curator Leah Cohen of the Jacob M. Lowy Collection at Library and Archives Canada. (CBC News.)
"Arama had to deal with the fact that a lot of Jews were forced to hear sermons trying to convert them to persuade them to convert to Christianity so he tried to counter that by delivering sermons that elucidate principals of Judaism." said Leah Cohen.

The sermons were collected in the book Akedat Yitshak, his best known work. Library and Archives Canada came into possession of the book as bequest from Canadian industrialist Jacob M. Lowy, along with his huge collection of antique and rare Hebrew religious writings.

Today the pages of those books, including the newly restored tome, are available for scholars and the general public to peruse.