Mattityahu (Mathias) Strashun (1817-1885):
Scholar, Leader and Book Collector
The Story of Hebrew Printing
One of the most important commandments of the Jewish faith is the obligation to teach Jewish children how to read the Torah and the prayer books in Hebrew. This resulted in very high levels of literacy among the Jews throughout the generations, earning them the appellation the People of the Book.
Until the invention of the printing press in the middle of the fifteenth century, Hebrew books were very scarce, as they were produced laboriously by copying from one manuscript to another. Unlike the leaders of the Catholic Church, who tried to stop the dissemination of printed books, Rabbinic leaders were highly enthusiastic about the new technology, and considered the craft of printing Avodat ha-Kodesh [holy work]. The first Hebrew book was published in Rome in 1470fourteen years after Gutenberg printed his famous Bible. For the rest of the fifteenth century, Hebrew books were printed only in Italy and the Iberian Peninsula, where about 180 Hebrew titles, called incunabula, were issued until 1500. Jewish printers who were expelled from Spain in 1492 took the tools of their craft into the Ottoman Empire and Central Europe. The Ottoman rulers were also afraid of the spread of knowledge via printed books, and did not allow the printing of Arabic books until well into the seventeenth century. But they did tolerate Hebrew printing. By the end of the sixteenth century, Hebrew printed books were being produced throughout most of the Jewish world and were often the very first books to ever be printed in those countries.
David Amram, historian of Hebrew printing, remarked that, "The fate of Hebrew books was like the fate of their owners." Jewish books were subject to inquisitions and censorship, burnings, destruction or confiscation. For many years, Jews were not allowed to own printing presses. However, non-Jewish printers, who obtained permits to publish, hired Jewish editors and typesetters to work in what proved to be a very lucrative business.
In 1515, Daniel Bomberg, a Christian printer, moved from Antwerp to Venice and hired Jewish scholars to work in his press. Bomberg was the first to publish Mikraot Gedolot, the Hebrew Bible surrounded by several rabbinic commentaries. This served as a model for countless subsequent editions of the Tanakh. A complete set of this work is included in the Strashun collection. Bomberg also printed the first complete edition of the Babylonian Talmud, setting pagination and layout style which became the accepted standard to this day. The Venice Jewish community sent a set of this Talmud as a gift to Henry VIII of England, and this set can still be seen in the British Library. The same could not be said about volumes of the Talmud purchased by Jewish scholars. Bomberg’s printing press became very successful and soon attracted competition from other Italian printers. The rivalry resulted in denunciations, which induced the Roman Catholic Curia to issue a decree in 1554 ordering the burning of the Talmud and all other Hebrew books. Thousands of Hebrew volumes were burnt throughout Italy, causing great bereavement among Jewish scholars and a tremendous scarcity in learning texts. By 1565, Hebrew printing resumed in Venice, but the books were subject to strict censorship by the Inquisition. The Strashun collection includes many books that were inspected and signed by censors of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Hebrew printing spread to Central Europe early in the sixteenth century. Presses were established in many German towns, in Basel, Switzerland, in Prague and also reached the Polish cities of Lublin and Krakow. The Strashun collection includes books from those places. In 1629, Manasseh ben Israel established a press in Amsterdam, thus laying the foundation for a great publishing center. At the close of the seventeenth century and throughout the eighteenth century, Amsterdam was the major center of Hebrew printing. Books with Amsterdam imprints were disseminated throughout the entire Jewish world reaching even Yemen, where Jews continued to copy printed books by hand.
By 1700, and until the middle of the twentieth century, dozens of Hebrew presses were continuously active in Europe and the Mediterranean countries such as Turkey and Erets Yisra’el. The same printing presses also published works in other languages using Hebrew characters, including Yiddish and Ladino. Early works in Yiddish, aimed primarily at women and a lay audience, included the renowned Tsenerene (biblical commentary) and Nahalat Tsevi (a work of ethics). Hebrew character printing ( Hebrew Ladino and Yiddish) continued in Europe and in Germany itself even as late as 1940. The Nazi and the Communist regimes succeeded in finally obliterating all Hebrew and Yiddish presses in Europe. Today the centers for Hebrew printing are in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and New York.