My ancestors’ magnificent Mahzor, why its sale will benefit culture as a whole

By Gadi Luzzatto Voghera*

And so, the famous “Mahzor Luzzatto” was sold on auction, for the considerable sum of 8,307,000 US dollars. First of all, it must be said that Sotheby’s auction house does things just right. Anyone wishing to understand what it is about can read the highly accurate data sheet of the volume, a true masterpiece written by competent scholars.
This fundamental prayer text had ended up in the hands of Samuel David Luzzatto, my grandfather’s great-grandfather, who was particularly interested, among other things, in the development of the Jewish liturgy over the centuries. He probably used it when he was asked to take care of the preface and the edition of the first printing of the German rite Jewish prayers translated with a facing text in Italian. It was the era of the patents of tolerance (actually a few decades later) and the translation of the ritual was considered fundamental. It was also the time when young Jewish scholars from half of Europe discovered lost texts and manuscripts in libraries, and the market for these volumes was one of the main activities on which the scholars of science of Judaism were dedicated, the Wissenschaft des Judentums.
If you study the letters of Shadal (precisely Samuel David Luzzatto) or Moritz Steinschneider or Moisè Soave or many others, half the time it turns out that this was the activity they dedicated themselves to. Did they do it to get rich? Not a chance (otherwise my family and I would be more than well off; we’re talking about eight million dollars, damn it. Instead, Shadal’s son gave up his father’s library here and there for little money). They owned these texts, studied them, often published them in print, and the sales were an integral part of the cultural process of critical rediscovery of the sources of Jewish tradition. A fundamental work, without which we would know infinitely less today than the literary production of medieval Judaism was.
The 2021 collector of Hebrew manuscripts responds partially to a different anthropology. Meanwhile, he is very wealthy. Not always – albeit with the due and known exceptions – he is knowledgeable as to understand in depth the object he is buying and manages the sale following not only a cultural interest (which is not lacking in any case) but probably also dynamics similar to those that govern the art market. In the specific case of the Mahzor Luzzatto, the buyer turns (I don’t know whether willingly or not) into a generous benefactor of culture. By spending that astronomical sum on a manuscript of which literally everything is known, he actually contributed to the functioning for many years of a fundamental institution of European Judaism such as the library of the Alliance Israélite Universelle.
In all cases, it is a virtuous exchange. The collector is pleased to have enriched his collection and the library suddenly finds itself with a solid financial base. Culture as a whole gains from it.
This is why I find the complaint of those who say that France “lost” the Mahzor Luzzatto quite senseless. First of all, that volume is not from France, but culturally belongs to the whole world and – if you really want to be meticulous – to European Judaism. But anyways no one has lost anything, because that manuscript will fortunately be preserved well by those who, in due course, will find a way to relocate it elsewhere, selling it or donating it (we hope) to some institution that will be able to offer it for consultation to the public.

*Director of the CDEC Foundation