The collection bears the name of Sir Moses Montefiore (1784-1885), the most famous Jew of the nineteenth century, and of the Foyle Foundation, which enabled the Centre to acquire this important library.
In 1869 Sir Moses founded the Judith Montefiore Theological College in memory of his late wife, 'to promote the study and advancement of the holy Law and general Hebrew literature'. Learned men were invited to teach at the college, the first principal of which was the eminent orientalist Louis Loewe. It is for this institution that a valuable library was accumulated, reflecting by its holdings Montefiore's strong desire to promote Jewish integration into wider society. Moses Gaster, a great collector of manuscripts and the second principal of the institution (1891-1896), increased its value significantly by acquiring for the College the library of the father of the Wissenschaft des Judentums ('Science of Judaism'), Leopold Zunz. The manuscript collection of the College – for more than 100 years deposited at the library of Jews College, now the London School of Jewish Studies, was auctioned by the Trustees of the Montefiore Endowment in 2006. In order to assure access to this valuable collection the Trustees deposited a complete set of microfiches of these manuscripts at the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies. The books, also deposited at Jews College, were acquired by the Centre.
The main emphasis in the collection is on the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century history of Jews in Europe, their fight for emancipation and integration into the wider society while retaining a Jewish identity. Over 150 titles, many of them rare nineteenth-century pamphlets originally belonging to Zunz private library, relate to the legal position of Jews in various states, covering issues such as enfranchisement, judicial autonomy and the position of Jews vis-à-vis Christian governments. The integration of Jews into wider society and their commitment to secular rulers come to light in a number of eulogies on the occasion of the enthronement or death of emperors, kings or princes.
Some 200 titles dealing with explanations of biblical law and the history of Jewish doctrine were written either by Jews to instruct Jewish communities of the time or by Christians whose interest in biblical institutions and Jewish traditions was not always for the sake of history. These often have a polemical edge, giving interesting insights into the complexity of Jewish emancipation and the struggle for Jewish identity. Publications on Jewish institutions, such as annual reports of rabbinical schools, or works concerning education in general, shed light on the organization of Jewish communities in modern Europe. Together with over fifty works by or on Moses Mendelssohn, and the oeuvre of Abraham Geiger (founder of the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums), the section on the religious and social history of Jews in modern Europe is an exceptional resource for the study of Jewish Enlightenment. There is a large section on liturgy (Spanish and German rite) in Hebrew, Yiddish and the vernacular, published in 40 locations all over Europe. A series of orders of service for special occasions such as the opening of new synagogues, thanksgivings on royal occasions or eulogies of various kinds, offer a unique source on European-Jewish history.
The library also contains a small but important collection of early works of a polemical nature, such as Martin Luther's Von den Juden und ihren Lügen (Wittenberg 1543), Raymundus Martini, Pugio fidei (Paris 1651), Johann Wagenseil's Tela ignea Satanæ (Altdorf 1681) and over 100 eighteenth- and nineteenth-century polemical treatises and pamphlets. Furthermore to be mentioned are works by famous Christian Hebraists and bibliographers such as Johannes Buxtorf (1564-1629), Johann Leusden (1624-99), John Selden (1584-1654), John Lightfoot (1602-75), Giovanni Bernardo De'Rossi (1742-1831) and Moritz Steinschneider (1816-1907). Of great importance for the comparative study of Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac and Arabic is the collection of about 200 dictionaries, grammars, concordances and language studies, showing the unmistakable influence of Sir Moses' private adviser and the first principal of the College.