The imprinting of isolated letters or
words on clay or other soft materials was an ancient practice. The letters
were engraved in stone or some other hard material in a reverse position
and order, so that the impression would come out in the right direction.
In Mesopotamia many cylinder-seals were found carrying script and pictures
as well. The Chinese were perhaps the first to print from woodblocks. The
earliest known printed paper scroll from China dates from 868. In the 11th
century, movable clay types were produced in China. Printing of cards and
pictures of saints from woodblocks started in Europe in 1370. They were
sometimes accompanied by inscriptions. In Strassburg in ca. 1440, Johann
Gensfleisch, otherwise known as Gutenberg (ca. 1397-1468), who came from
Mainz, invented a press for the printing of movable types. In 1445 he
printed alphabetic charts and abridgements from Donatus’ Grammar, and in
1455/6 he printed the Bible with movable types in Mainz. The first dated
printed book was the Catholicon with a colophon of 1460 declaring that
Gutenberg was the inventor of printing. After 1470, printing was already
practiced in several cities in Europe. The printers were also the
publishers and booksellers. They ordered letter-types from designers and
engravers. The first prints resembled manuscripts and the types were
designed to resemble the handwritten letter-forms.
The exact date when Hebrew printing
began is not known, as many of the early printed books are not dated. The
earliest information we have about metallic Hebrew types is from Avignon:
in 1444, a goldsmith named Prokopp Waldvogel from Prague taught the Jew
Davin (Davinius? David?) de Caderousse the practice of printing Hebrew
types. Hebrew printing apparently began in Italy. The first printer of
books with Hebrew letters was probably Abraham, son of Solomon Conat of
Mantua, who had formerly been a copyist of books. His early books were not
dated. He printed books with square letters in the Ashkenazi script-style
and semi-cursive letters in the Italian script-style. There are scholars
who argue that the first printed Hebrew books were not those produced by
Conat but books printed in Rome with square Ashkenazi letters (fig. 122),
but there is no decisive evidence of that. At any rate, Hebrew printing
began about 1470. The first dated Hebrew printed book was Rashi’s
commentary to the Pentateuch printed in Reggio di Calabria in 1475 by
Abraham son of Garton (fig. 123).
the seventies of the 15th century, Italy became the main centre of book
printing. At that period, a group of Jewish printers also began their
activity there. The types were first designed on the basis of Ashkenazi
letter-signs, and later the Sephardi script-style prevailed but was influenced
by the Ashkenazi forms (fig. 124). This is reflected mainly in the ‘thickening’
of the horizontal strokes, which was later to become a prominent feature
of Ashkenazi Hebrew types, and has remained so until today. In the early
stages of Hebrew printing, various types were designed on the basis of
different script-styles used in manuscripts.
As mentioned above, Rashi’s commentary
on the Pentateuch was printed with types imitating the semi-cursive
Sephardi letter-signs. In Spain and Portugal print also imitated
manuscripts in Sephardi square and semi-cursive scripts. In 1492, the
expulsion of the Jews from Spain stopped the activity of Hebrew printers
there. In Italy, which was the main centre of incunabula, types were cast
on the basis of square and semi-cursive Sephardi script-styles.
An early Hebrew text with vowelization
signs is Rabbi David Kimhi’s commentary to the book of Psalms printed in
Bologna in 1477. In that same year, a commentary on Job by Rabbi Levi ben
Gershom and Jacob ben Asher’s Tur
Yoreh De‘ah were printed in Ferrara in the press of Abraham ben
Hayyim. From 1487 onwards, the first page was decorated, and it eventually
became the title page. In the first 27 years of printing, Hebrew books
were printed in 12 printing houses in various cities of Italy. The most
famous printers of Hebrew books at that time were Abraham Conat (mentioned
above), Meshullam Cusi, Joseph Gunzenhauser and his son ‘Azriel, and the
Ashkenazi printers Yehoshu‘a, Solomon and Gershom in Soncino near Milan.
The Soncino family printed the first complete Bible in 1488. In 1491 the
most beautiful edition of the printed Bible came out in Naples, with
vowelization and accentuation marks. Gershom Soncino continued to print
Hebrew books after 1500 (from 1503 onwasrds; from 1498 to 1503 no Hebrew
book was published, probably because of the difficult times).
Books printed before 1500 are called
incunabula. Out of 50,000 incunabula, about 175 in Hebrew characters have
survived. In the 15th century, 22 centres of Hebrew printing were active
– twelve in Italy, nine in Spain and one in Constantinople. The
following is a list of towns and cities in which Hebrew books were printed
before 1500: Rome (about 1470), Reggio di Calabria (1475), Piove di Sacco
(1475), Mantua (1476), Guadalajara (1476), Bologna (1482), Ferrara (1477),
Soncino (1483), Hijar (1485), Casalmaggiore (1486), Naples (1487), Faro
(1487), Samora (1487), Lisbon (1489), Brescia (1491), and Barco (1496).
Hebrew incunabula are located in various places throughout the world, 65
of them in the National Library in Jerusalem and about the same number in
the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati in the United States. The largest
number (about 150) are in the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY
16th century was the golden age of Hebrew printing. The earliest Hebrew
book in the 16th century was a prayerbook printed in 1503 by Gershom Soncino
in Fano, Italy. In 1527 Gershom went with his son to Salonica and Constantinople.
After Gershom’s death, his son Eli‘ezer continued printing books until
1547. Eli‘ezer’s son, Gershom, went to Egypt where he printed two books
in 1557. Through the influence of the Soncino press, types in the Sephardi
script-style were prevalent in Italy (fig. 125). In northern Italy, the
printers imitated the Ashkenazi Gothic script-style (fig. 128). The Venetian
printer Daniel Bomberg, a Christian who was to become the most important
publisher of Hebrew books, and Aldus Manutius, gradually took the place
of the Soncino printers. Daniel Bomberg came to Venice in about 1513 and
founded a press there. The first Hebrew book he printed in Venice in 1517
on the basis of manuscripts was the Pentateuch with the five scrolls and
Haftarot. In 1524/5 Bomberg printed a second edition of Miqra’ot Gedolot edited by Ya‘akov ben Hayyim, which became the authorised
text of the Bible until the end of the 19th century. The quality and the
number of Bomberg’si productions excelled those of Soncino. Bomberg was
the first person to print the entire Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds.
The layout was already fixed at the Soncino press and became the standard
form of the Talmud until today (fig. 129). Bomberg’s press existed until
1549. He printed on paper as well as parchment. Bomberg’s types, based
on those of Soncino, determined the form of the Hebrew square types for
a long time to come. The types dsigned by Guillaume le Bé of Troix (1525-1598),
one of the most famous Hebrew type-cutters (see below), were also based
on Bomberg’s types. Bomberg’s types were also used for Plantin’s Bible
printed in 1566.
From approximately 1512, Hebrew books
were also printed in Prague, among them several books in an elaborated
Ashkenazi Gothic style printed at the press of Gershom ben Solomon haKohen.
These types were later also used in Germany and Poland. In 1530, the
brothers Shmu’el, Asher and Eliyakim Helitz founded a Hebrew press in
Cracow, using types which they apparently got from Prague. From 1530
onwards, Hayyim Shahor printed Hebrew books in Ilsa, Augsburg (1533),
Ichenhausen (1544/5) and Heddernheim (1546). In 1547 he founded a Hebrew
press in Lublin. His work there was continued by his son, and his
son-in-law Joseph ben Yakar. The Ashkenazi square and semi-cursive
script-styles were gradually abandoned in favour of Sephardic styles.
Ashkenazi semi-cursive was used mainly for popular books such as Z’enna u`R’enna, as a result of which it was called ZUR
In the 16th century Hebrew books were
printed in various cities in Italy, such as Bologna, Verona, Treine,
Mantua, Sabbioneta, Padua, Ferrara, Cremona, Rome and Riva di Trento.
Until 1542, when the Inquisition was founded in Rome, the Jewish printers
enjoyed considerable liberty. Among the Jews who emigrated to Italy from
Spain and Portugal, and among the Marranos who came to Italy from Germany,
were several skilled printers.