Ohio sues to stop rare book sales at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost is seeking an injunction to prevent the sale of copies of the Talmud and other ancient books at the Klau Library at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, arguing that the scholarship would be terminated if the material fell into private hands.

The five-story Cincinnati Klau Library contains a rare book and manuscript collection that includes biblical codices, illuminated manuscripts, common documents, legal documents, scholarly tracts, and incunabula, or printed books and pamphlets from before 1500. The library began at the request of Yost for a temporary restraining order, in 1875 with 130 donated items and now has more than 600,000. It is considered a top collection of Hebraica in the country and the world.

Hebrew Union College, one of the nation’s leading Reform Jewish schools, has halted and scaled back programs at its flagship Cincinnati campus to adapt to declining enrollment. Cincinnati is the birthplace of Reform Judaism in North America.

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College officials have spoken with auction house Sotheby’s about the possible sale of the items, Yost said. Some of the 14,000 items in the Rare Book Room could be worth millions.

“These sacred texts are priceless artifacts – religious and cultural treasures,” said Yost, a Republican who is running for governor in 2026. “Their sale would not only betray the trust of donors, but could also violate the legal restrictions placed on the gifts.”

Specifically, the sale of the books could breach the fiduciary duties of the Hebrew Union board to the library’s public beneficiaries. The sales proceeds of the books that may be sold must be used to purchase other objects for the collection. Using the sale proceeds to reduce university debt, which Yost says the school may be planning to do, could constitute an illegal use of assets expressly donated to finance the fundraising.

“A library without its most valuable artifacts and texts is like a body without a soul,” he said. “We are committed to ensuring that these irreplaceable items remain available to the public and are cared for as donors intended.”

Cleveland.com/The Plain Dealer asked a college spokeswoman for a response to Yost’s request.

According to recent reports from WCPO, the school said there are no plans to sell the collection. But the school’s library director resigned in February amid pressure to sell rare books. And two Jewish history scholars told the Cincinnati TV station that they were concerned about the library’s future.

Laura Hancock covers state government and politics for The Plain Dealer and cleveland.com.