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Overview: Impact of Printing


The introduction of moveable type and the printing press to Europe in the mid-fifteenth century revolutionized the way knowledge was transmitted and had a profound, if not quite immediate, impact on both Jewish and Christian culture. Although books remained expensive commodities and literacy remained low throughout the early modern period, the printing press allowed for a more rapid dissemination of knowledge, and allowed greater popular access to books.

Earlier, in the medieval period, when books were produced on very expensive parchment or vellum, a scribe (or group of scribes) could produce only one copy of a book at a time. It required about 170 calves or 300 sheepskins to produce an average manuscript of the entire Christian Bible. In an efficient, “factory-like” scriptorium it took, in one case, 45 scribes and 22 months to complete the copying of 200 books. Even when paper was introduced to Europe in the twelfth century, thereby lowering the price of the material and making it possible for students to copy works by themselves, the task of copying remained vexingly time-consuming. In contrast, by 1500, with the spread of the printing press, over six million books are estimated to have been printed in Europe, and it took only 15 days to disseminate Luther’s pamphlets throughout the Holy Roman Empire.

Very shortly after Christian jewelers introduced moveable type and printing presses to Europe, Jews established their own. The first dated Hebrew book produced by a press was an edition of Rashi’s commentary on the Torah, published in 1475 in Reggio di Calabria by Abraham ben Yizhak ben Garton. However, several Hebrew books were apparently published in Rome a few years earlier; the bibliographer Yeshayahu Vinograd dates them to 1469. By 1500, according to Vinograd, over 200 Hebrew titles had been published.

In the fifteenth century, Jewish printing was mostly centered in Italy and the Iberian Peninsula. The Expulsion of the Jews from Spain and the forced conversion of the Jews in Portugal ended Jewish printing in the Iberian Peninsula. But Sephardic printers continued their work in the places where they resettled (see section above), in the Ottoman Empire or in Italian cities. During the sixteenth century, Hebrew presses were established in eastern Europe, including the famous printing house of Gershon Bak in Prague (1514) and the short-lived printing house of the Helicz brothers in Cracow (1534).

One of the most famous early printers were the Soncinos, a family of printers from Italy, who in the fifteenth century published a number of important halakhic texts, including tractates of the Talmud and Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah. The first work published by the Soncino press was Tractate Berakhot of the Babylonian Talmud, in 1483/4. The formatting of the Soncino edition established the layout of all subsequent printed editions of the Babylonian Talmud. Later on, the Soncinos established presses beyond Italy, in the Ottoman Empire (Salonika and Istanbul) and Egypt.

In sixteenth-century Italy, with the Counter-Reformation, Christian authorities placed severe restrictions on Jewish printing. Hebrew books might be printed, with newly imposed censorship, but only Christian printers were permitted to operate Hebrew presses. Perhaps the most famous of the the Christian Hebrew printers was Daniel Bomberg in Venice, who is most noted for introducing the pagination of the Talmud that has been used in virtually every subsequent edition. Bomberg’s edition of the Mikraot Gedolot, the Hebrew Bible with rabbinic commentaries, also became a model for future editions. Bomberg also famously printed two full editions of the Babylonian Talmud. There were also active Hebrew presses in Ferrara, Modena, Padua, and Livorno.

The Impact of Printing

Printing contributed to the dissemination of ideas both in the languages of the learned elites and the vernacular. But the new technology raised questions about the content and accuracy of works printed. When Joshua Soncino published the tractate Hullin of the Talmud in 1489, he called readers’ attention to potential errors- “If you find some errors in this book, do not be astonished until you consult other manuscripts, because in the four manuscripts that I had before me I found it this way, and if you find a book in distant lands without the errors I have mentioned, let us know….” He then acknowledged that there were some passages with which he took the liberty of deciding which version was correct. At times, however, Soncino could not decide between different versions, and published different versions side-by-side (for example in his Tractate Beitsah, published in 1484). Soncino’s decisions illustrate the role of printers as editors and shapers of the texts.

Printing also raised halakhic questions about the format – for example, whether or not texts printed on paper were as sacred as those traditionally written by scribes on parchment. A sixteenth-century Polish rabbi, Benjamin Slonik ( 1619), was asked whether printed Bibles had the same sanctity as Bibles written by scribes. In his responsum he compared printing to engraving on the tablets, and ruled that such Bibles had equal sanctity (see his responsa 99 and 100).

Like their Christian counterparts, some rabbis expressed strong reservations about the dissemination of knowledge through printing. They feared that halakhah and kabbalah, unfiltered by rabbinic instruction, would be misunderstood if made widely accessible. Some also feared that halakhah would become overly rigidified, because it would not be mediated by the discussion and debate that accompanied its creation and transmission in rabbinic circles. In any case, printing did have an enormous impact on the dissemination of kabbalah, as well as on the standardization of halakhah and liturgy.

The new technology also allowed for the printing of Jewish books in the vernacular. The first books in Yiddish were published in 1530s in Cracow, by the Helicz brothers. Soon some rabbis, including Benjamin Slonik, used the new technology to publish manuals and halakhic guides for both women and men. Slonik’s Seder mitsvot ha-nashim (Cracow, 1577) became one of the most popular Yiddish manuals for Jewish women, and dealt with the specific commandments of hallah, niddah, and the lighting of the candles for which women were responsible. It was issued in multiple Yiddish editions, published across Europe, and was quickly adapted into Italian for Italian Jewish women (1616). Vernacular books printed in the early modern period also included adaptations of the biblical and midrashic stories for the education and the entertainment of those unable to understand Hebrew, for example, Elijah Levita’s Bovo Bukh (or Bovo Mayseh, 1541). Vernacular printing also played an important role in the Portuguese-Jewish diaspora, as a means of providing Jewish texts to ex-conversos who knew no Hebrew (see below).

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