Book Excerpt



New Castle, DE: Oak Knoll Press, 2002. 4to. cloth, dust jacket. 365 pages. First edition, second printing. From the very scarce first printing in English done in Israel. This work is one of the most definitive books written on the origin and development of the Hebrew Script. Breaking through almost all fences within which Hebrew paleography has been confined, this work starts at the beginning, forges through the Second Temple period, and deals with all..... READ MORE

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Chapter Three:

Printed Hebrew Script

A.  The Beginnings

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).

In 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 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 letters.

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.