The Hebrew Book in Early Modern Italy (Jewish Culture and Contexts)

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9780812243529: The Hebrew Book in Early Modern Italy (Jewish Culture and Contexts)

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.

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About the Author:

Joseph R. Hacker is Professor Emeritus of Jewish History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Adam Shear is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Pittsburgh.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction
Book History and the Hebrew Book in Italy
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 zemah 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.

The available evidence suggests that Jews adopted the new technology very quickly. According to surveys of fifteenth-century book production based on the holdings of major public libraries, at least twenty thousand—and perhaps as many as thirty thousand—editions (in all languages) were printed in the first sixty years of printing. Although Hebrew printed books were not a numerically significant factor in those numbers, they emerged early in the history of the new technology. The first Hebrew printed books appeared in the 1470s, and the latest research on Hebrew incunabula reveals approximately 140 certain editions of Hebrew works (and perhaps several more than that) printed between circa 1470 and 1501. The Hebrew printing industry expanded rapidly over the next fifty years, and between 1501 and 1550 more than 1,350 books were printed. Surveying a vast array of bibliographies and library catalogs, Anat Gueta counts some 5,630 editions of Hebrew books in the period from 1540 to 1639. This includes neither Yiddish works nor other works in vernaculars using Hebrew type nor the large number of Christian Hebraist works, mainly in Latin but containing some Hebrew type. The numbers increased even more dramatically in the later seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, so much so that Zeev Gries has argued that sixteenth-century Hebrew production should be viewed as a relatively minor activity.

Regardless of absolute numbers, however, when we look at perceptions and behavior, it seems that during the second quarter of the sixteenth century Jews in Europe and the Ottoman Empire came to see print as the preferred method for publishing a book; at this time we can also identify the first major cultural effects of the print medium. However, the fact that print came to be seen as the major medium of publication did not mean—as has been pointed out repeatedly in the last several years—that manuscript production ceased or that manuscripts ceased to be an important part of Jewish cultural life. Manuscript production of certain texts used for liturgical purposes (especially the Torah scroll and the Five Scrolls) continued apace. And although printing opened up ownership of ritual and liturgical texts to a wider audience, Jews who came into possession of manuscript prayer books or Passover Haggadot tended to save them. Lavishly illustrated manuscripts of the Passover Haggadah became a new luxury item in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, especially in Northern Europe. Intellectuals continued to produce manuscripts of other scholars' texts for their own use (this is done right up to the invention of the photocopier), and quite obviously committed their own thoughts to writing (right up to the invention of the typewriter). The absence of Hebrew printing presses in some of the major cultural centers of Sephardi and MizrahiJewry until the nineteenth century was also a factor in the continuing production of manuscripts. North African Jews—as well as Iraqi, Persian, Egyptian, Palestinian, Syrian, and Yemenite Jews—were largely dependent on Italian and Ottoman Hebrew presses and their output. Presumably, however, these imports did not fully satisfy the demand for books, and scribal activity continued to flourish in these lands (especially in Yemen). In addition, some authors in these areas who managed to print their books in the Ottoman Empire or in Italy also produced manuscript copies of their work even after it was printed. Indeed, Collette Sirat points out that some thirty thousand of the seventy thousand Hebrew manuscripts now extant can be dated to the period after the invention of print. The fact that a high percentage of extant manuscripts are postmedieval may partly reflect the disappearance of many medieval manuscripts—either through use or destruction—but it does testify to the ongoing production of handwritten materials after the emergence of print.

Despite the continuing production of manuscripts, the evidence tells us a story of print displacing manuscript production, even in the late fifteenth century. According to Mordechai Glatzer, "from the forty years prior to 1490 to those after 1490 there was a dramatic decline of almost 50 percent in the number of copied Hebrew manuscripts." Some of those manuscripts are now appearing as fragments in bookbindings and as wrappers for files in many European libraries and archives. This so-called European genizah is generating many new insights for medievalists, but research projects on this genizah are also yielding important information for book historians looking at the early modern period. By examining the dates that books were bound and investigating the materials wrapped with Hebrew manuscript folio sheets, Mauro Perani suggests that the middle of the sixteenth century saw a major wave of Italian Jews parting—or being parted—from their manuscripts. The change of attitude toward manuscripts and the turn to the printed book is also attested by the data accumulated from the libraries of Mantuan Jews in the late sixteenth century. The work of Shlomo Simonsohn and Shifra Baruchson on the household libraries of Mantuan Jews in the 1590s suggests that they kept very few manuscripts and that most of the printed books they owned were printed in the second half of the sixteenth century. A comparison of these inventories to earlier ones of books from the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries reveals a major shift from manuscript to printed-book ownership during the sixteenth century.

We also find virtually no objection to the new technology among rabbinic authorities, although there was some debate at the margins about what kinds of ritual and legal instruments could be printed and about the ritual status of printed material. Indeed, some rabbis interpreted biblical verses as providing evidence for the existence of printing in Jewish antiquity—offering the ultimate legitimization in the mindset of a traditional society. While rabbis proscribed the use of printed books for certain liturgical functions (the reading of the weekly Pentateuchal pericope in the Sabbath service, for example), they readily accepted and even praised the new technology as a vehicle for the dissemination of knowledge.

Moreover, the acceptance and use of print by Jews occurred in both the Christian and Muslim worlds, although the Muslim embrace of print was limited to the Ottoman Empire for most of the early modern period. In contrast to the Christian world, where the majority culture also embraced print, printing in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish was prohibited for Muslims until the eighteenth century and in some cases until the nineteenth. Jews in the Ottoman Empire, however, printed many Hebrew books and apparently even printed in Latin characters (and probably even in Greek).

The first dated Hebrew book was Rashi's commentary on the Pentateuch (Reggio di Calabria, 1475), and the first book printed in the lifetime of its author was Judah Messer Leon's handbook of rhetoric, Sefer nofet zufim (Mantua, ca. 1475-76). Despite the early appearance of Messer Leon's book, however, almost all the known Hebrew incunabula are of classical and medieval—not contemporary—works. This is consistent with practices of the preprint era: the texts that were copied and circulated in European Jewish society in the late Middle Ages were relatively few and focused on halakhic, exegetical, and philosophical literature. In the sixteenth century, however, print became the favored medium of publication by living authors, and from the second half of the sixteenth century, the variety of texts available in the Jewish world—contemporary and noncontemporary—was greatly expanded.

Although historians have seen the rise of printing as one of the most significant events in early modern Europe, recent scholarship has raised questions about both the quantitative and qualitative impact of printing in the earliest period. Nonetheless, printing did have major effects on culture and society in the early modern period, and the presence of this new technology—and its relatively rapid embrace among early modern Jews—certainly affected many aspects of Jewish culture. However, while the history of Hebrew-character printing and printers has been documented, relatively little scholarship exists on the broader impact of print on Jewish culture, particularly during the first century of printing. Indeed, despite the rapid development of the "history of the book" in the last three decades, the history of the book in Hebrew characters remains underdeveloped. The open questions are not only those of literary and intellectual history, but also of social, cultural, and religious history. The essays in this book present a composite portrait that allows us to think about the impact of print technologies on Jewish intellectual, cultural, and social life in the early modern period, and they represent a step toward a fuller understanding of "Jewish" book history.

Assessing the Impact of Print

Scholarly debates over the impact of print have focused in recent years on questions of continuity and discontinuity: how much really changes in the material text and how quickly? A second major set of questions looks at cultural change: Did print create new audiences and new forms of literature for those audiences? Do readers react differently to texts in different formats? Boiled down, the key question is often "How much is really new?"

To answer these questions, a focus on the history of printing narrowly defined is too limiting. Likewise, looking at the reading of books as a discrete activity is also insufficient; separating the making of books from their use can have the ironic effect of obscuring the ways that the production, circulation, and use of books are themselves aspects of social, economic, and political life. A broader set of questions allows us to use the history of the book as a window on a wide range of issues in cultural, social, and intellectual history; this broader view, which has been influential since the 1970s, was pioneered in the work of scholars such as Robert Darnton, Donald F. McKenzie, and Roger Chartier. While Darnton and others pointed to the emergence of the "history of the book" as a discrete and multidisciplinary subfield at the intersections of historical, bibliographical, and literary scholarship, some of the most productive work has emerged when questions about the production and dissemination of books have been fully integrated with social and cultural history. Yet, at the same time, if we lose sight of the books—the artifacts—themselves, we also fall short of being able to see the wider picture, as a number of scholars have emphasized. When we turn our attention to Jewish culture in early modern Europe, we might look at a number of the issues addressed by book historians from the perspective of their impact on Jewish life; in each case we would ask whether the particularities of the Jewish situation made a difference and how a particular aspect of early modern print culture affected Jewish cultural and intellectual life.

One major change that print seems to have brought to the Jewish communities of Christian Europe, particularly the Jews of Italy, was greater interaction between Jews and Christians in the production and dissemination of books. The economic circumstances of print production fostered intellectual and personal interaction between Jewish and Christian scholars and artisans in ways rarely found in manuscript production. Although there were codicological practices common to Jewish and non-Jewish scribes in every place where Jews copied manuscripts, and in some cases these were the products of direct collaboration, for the most part Jewish scribes worked individually to produce manuscript books. But starting from 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. The highly solitary nature of Hebrew manuscript production, including the high incidence of medieval Hebrew manuscripts produced by scribes for personal use, also stands in stark contrast to the collaborative nature of print production.

As this Jewish-Christian collaboration almost always took place under conditions of control by Christians (for example, regulations, privileges, and requirements that Christian printers be employed by Jewish "publishers," and also censorship), its study opens up an interesting set of questions about the role that Christians played in shaping Jewish culture. Such questions are frequently investigated under the rubrics of "acculturation" and "influence" in which Jewish responses to the majority and dominant culture have been studied. But the direct involvement of Christians in the printing, editing, and censorship of Hebrew books has not been fully explored.

A focus on questions of canon allows us to examine the religious and cultural consequences of printing, for example, in the diffusion and popularization of Kabbalah. Indeed, in the Jewish case, print not only disseminated classical works but also, through the operations of editing and production in the print shop in some sense created those works—taking what had been corpora of various texts and redacting them into unitary "books," the most famous example being the Book of the Zohar. The process of redaction and the (re-)presentation of medieval texts in new material forms by printers is one that bears further study.

Changes in the public's reading habits also allow us to examine relations between high and low culture. One result of print was the emergence of a new class of readers: alongside the intellectual elite and the higher echelons of society were people of moderate income and basic education who gained access to sources of knowledge. Likewise, a new class of authors, a secondary intelligentsia of itinerant preachers and young rabbis, h...

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