Jerusalem Men Charged With Stealing Rare Judaic Books

Two men used false documents to steal 18th century books from the Israel National Library according to the indictment submitted to Jerusalem Magistrate's Court.

Two Jerusalem men have been charged with stealing rare, ancient Judaic books, estimated to be worth tens of thousands of dollars, from the Israel National Library.

Yisrael Pinto, 26, and Yekutiel Barkman, 23, used false documents to steal 18th century books, according to the indictment submitted to Jerusalem Magistrate's Court about two weeks ago. The thefts took place in May 2009.

Bookshelves in the National Library
Alex Levac

According to authorities, the pair walked into the Gershom Shalom Hall in the Jerusalem library, where the Judaism and kabbala books are kept, and asked to study a book. Due to the rarity and value of some of the books in the hall, recommendations are required to study them on the premises.

The two are charged with presenting false recommendations from Torah research institutes and false personal recommendations from senior officials in these institutes. Prosecutors say they asked to study "Meor Einayim" ("Light of the Eyes" ), a book by Rabbi Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl, published in 1798 and valued at tens of thousands of dollars. Some time after receiving the tome, however, the defendants allegedly returned a different book with a similar catalog number, and took "Meor Einayim" out of the library.

Rabbi Nachum, who founded the Chernobyl Hasidic dynasty, was a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, founder of the Hasidic movement. "Meor Einayim," a collection of his teachings, is known as one of the major Hasidic works.

According to the indictment, one week after the first incident, the two returned to the library and asked for a different Hasidic classic, "Kedushas Levi," by Hasidic leader Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev. The book, also published in 1798, is a commentary on numerous Jewish laws and religious books, arranged according to the weekly Torah portion. Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev (1740-1809 ), also known as the Berditchever, was one of the main disciples of the Maggid of Mezritch.

His book is also valued at tens of thousands of dollars and was kept in the library's rare book closet. This time authorities say the defendants returned the original book's cover to the librarians, but had inserted another book into the cover.

"They used a false document in order to receive objects ... and stole objects of scientific and historic value," the indictment says.

It is unclear when the library's management discovered the theft and filed a complaint to police. Pinto and Barkman were arrested after police say they identified the two in the footage from the library's security cameras. But the stolen books have not been retrieved and are believed to have been sold.

The defendants are charged with grave forgery, using a false document, fraud and theft.

Officials in the National Library said large sums of money have been invested over the past two years in renovating the library and improving security in order to prevent book thefts.