The Hebrew Book in Early Modern Italy

The Hebrew Book in Early Modern Italy

The Hebrew Book in Early Modern Italy

The Hebrew Book in Early Modern Italy


The rise of printing had major effects on culture and society in the early modern period, and the presence of this new technology--and the relatively rapid embrace of it among early modern Jews--certainly had an effect on many aspects of Jewish culture. One major change that print seems to have brought to the Jewish communities of Christian Europe, particularly in Italy, was greater interaction between Jews and Christians in the production and dissemination of books.

Starting in the early sixteenth century, the locus of production for Jewish books in many places in Italy was in Christian-owned print shops, with Jews and Christians collaborating on the editorial and technical processes of book production. As this Jewish-Christian collaboration often took place under conditions of control by Christians (for example, the involvement of Christian typesetters and printers, expurgation and censorship of Hebrew texts, and state control of Hebrew printing), its study opens up an important set of questions about the role that Christians played in shaping Jewish culture.

Presenting new research by an international group of scholars, this book represents a step toward a fuller understanding of Jewish book history. Individual essays focus on a range of issues related to the production and dissemination of Hebrew books as well as their audiences. Topics include the activities of scribes and printers, the creation of new types of literature and the transformation of canonical works in the era of print, the external and internal censorship of Hebrew books, and the reading interests of Jews. An introduction summarizes the state of scholarship in the field and offers an overview of the transition from manuscript to print in this period.


Adam Shear and Joseph R. Hacker

The printing of books: began [lit. “was located”] in the city of Mainz, by
a Christian man named Johannes Gutenberg of Strasbourg, and this was
in the first year of the pious emperor, Friedrich, in the year 5200, 1440
according to the Christians. Blessed is the one who grants knowledge and
teaches wisdom to humanity. Blessed is the one who has strengthened us
in his mercy in a great technology such as this, for the benefit of all
inhabitants of the world; there is none like it. and nothing matches it
in value among all the sciences and technologies since the day that God
created man and set him in the world, including the divine sciences and
the seven liberal arts, and the other ad hoc disciplines of arts, crafts,
metalwork, construction, woodworking, stonework, and the like. Every
day, the press reveals and publicizes useful things and many devices,
through the vast numbers of books printed for workers in all fields.

—David Gans, Sefer ẓemaḥ David (1592)

At the end of the sixteenth century, looking back not only at Jewish history but also at the “history of the world,” the Prague Jewish chronicler and scientist David Gans viewed the invention of printing in moveable type as the greatest of God’s gifts. Because printing could rapidly spread knowledge of all sciences, arts, and crafts, it surpassed all these in utility. Print was thus a kind of meta-art that made possible greater wisdom in all other fields. Gans’s praise may be hyperbolic, but his testimony echoes other praises of the new technology by Jews and non-Jews throughout the early modern period.

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