Title page of Merkeves hamishne (Kraków: Helicz, 1534-1535), the earliest Yiddish book published by the first Hebrew printing press in Poland. (Jewish National and University Library, Jerusalem)

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Book Design and Illustration

The tradition of design and illustration in East European Hebrew and Yiddish printing is connected to the history of itinerant families of printers who wandered in Central and Eastern Europe, transporting their typographical knowledge. Their skills usually originated in the cradle of Jewish printing in northern Italy. The development of book design followed different trajectories in Prague and in printing centers farther east, although both were clearly influenced by the earlier, chiefly Italian, patterns. Prague ultimately was the location of five presses owned by families of Jewish printers.

Jewish Printing in Prague

The first Hebrew printing press in Prague was established in 1512 by a group that included the sofer setam (Torah scribe) Me’ir ben David, Shelomoh ben Shemu’el ha-Levi, Mordekhai Sofer, and the brothers Eli‘ezer and Shemaryah ben David. It is possible that some members of this group, especially Me’ir ben David, learned the printing trade in Italy. In their initial year of operation, they published their first Hebrew book, Tefilah mi-kol ha-shanah minhag Polin (Prayers for the Entire Year: Polish Custom). This text was followed two years later with Zemirot u-virkat ha-mazon (Hymns and Grace after Meals), illustrated with woodcuts; the latter volume shows clear signs of Italian influence. In 1514, Gershom ben Shelomoh ha-Kohen, Ḥayim ben David Shaḥor, and Me’ir ben Ya‘akov ha-Levi joined the press; members of all three families later reached PolandLithuania.

Between 1514 and 1518, the collectively managed press published the Pentateuch with Rashi’s commentary in typography characteristic of Italian presses. This enterprise was this press’s final work, as Gershom ha-Kohen and his brother Grunem then worked independently, choosing as their central project a large-format illustrated Passover Haggadah that appeared in 1526. Ḥayim Shaḥor, who participated for a time in its production, later left to work in other locations, traveling as far as Lublin.

The Kohen brothers’ Haggadah is the second-known illustrated European version of the text. Containing more than 60 woodcuts, it was apparently prepared mainly by Shaḥor. Its pleasing balance and harmony achieved in the layout of double pages has led many to account the volume as a masterpiece; it was reprinted several times in the twentieth century. After Gershom ha-Kohen died in 1544, the press continued to operate under his family’s ownership until the eighteenth century. The typographical capability of his presses contributed to the high level of design in Prague, and his methods were next carried out by printers who reached Poland, including the Helicz brothers.

Woodcuts depicting Mordekhai, Haman, and jesters, from Akta Ester mit Akhashverosh (Prague: Sons of Yehudah Bak, 1720). Among the illustrated Yiddish books published in Prague were purim-shpiln (Purim plays), whose woodcuts were often made from existing plates that had been used in earlier publications. For instance, the illustrations of Mordekhai and the jesters appeared earlier in Seder birkat ha-mazon (Grace after Meals), printed by the same publishers in 1708. In purim-shpiln, the custom was to print stage directions in oysyes meruboes (square Hebrew characters) and the text in meshit (cursive Yiddish characters). (Avidov Lipsker)

Presses in Prague continued to issue Haggadahs. An example, produced in 1590 by the sons of Gershom ha-Kohen—Betsal’el and Shelomoh—contains woodcut illustrations and is printed in two types of characters—square type for Hebrew, and cursive (called tsur, after the influential early Yiddish work Tsene-[u]rene; the style is also known as vaybertaytsh, meshit, or mashit) for Yiddish-language laws and explanations. The quality of the Prague Haggadahs has been compared to those of presses from Venice and Amsterdam. (See image at left.)

Two presses became prominent in the early seventeenth century: those of Mosheh ben Betsal’el Kats and Avraham ben Mosheh Shidel. In 1604, Shidel printed the Yiddish-language Yekhezkl bukh and Yirmie bukh. The same press also issued ethical works in Yiddish, including Der tsukht shpigl (Mirror of Grace; 1614). The typographical design of these “books of customs” continued a Venetian tradition. An example, Sefer minhagim by Yitsḥak Isaak Tirna, was printed by Mosheh ben Betsal’el Kats in 1626 and was reprinted in 1648.

From the second half of the seventeenth century, the numbers of Yiddish books printed in Prague rose considerably, and included reprints of works from Italy. Titles include the Bove-bukh by Elye Bokher, issued by the Bak press in 1660. Bak’s press functioned as well in the beginning of the eighteenth century; his sons referred to themselves in title pages as the “bene [the sons of] Yehudah Bak.” The custom of notation was also apparent in the title pages of Mosheh Kats’s press, whose descendants listed themselves as the “nekhde [the grandsons of] Mosheh Kats.”

Prague’s presses published modern prose as well. The first edition of Boḥen tsadik (Examiner of a Tsadik), a satiric composition about the conduct of Hasidim by Yosef Perl, was printed by Mosheh Landau in 1838. His press also published scientific and general philosophical books, and may be considered an important agent in the dissemination of the Haskalah in Central and Eastern Europe. In addition, the Pascheles publishing house played an especially important role in offering Yiddish and Hebrew literature to German speakers, as Wolf Pascheles’s books were printed in a mixture of languages, filling a bridging role among these linguistic cultures.

Early Jewish Printing in Poland

The first period of Hebrew and Yiddish printing in Poland, 1534–1648, was centered in Kraków and Lublin and developed against the background of flourishing centers of rabbinic scholarship. The presses in those two cities published several hundred books in Hebrew and about 60 books in Yiddish between 1534 and 1648, when gzeyres takh vetat (the Khmel’nyts’kyi uprising, 1648–1649) brought Jewish printing in Poland–Lithuania virtually to a halt.

Title page of Sha`are Dura by Yitsḥak ben Me'ir of Düren (Kraków: Helicz, 1534), the earliest Hebrew book published by the first Hebrew printing press in Poland. (Jewish National and University Library, Jerusalem)

The typography of printing in Kraków and Lublin reflected practices current in the major centers of printing in Europe, mainly Prague and Venice, at the beginning of the sixteenth century. The first printers in Kraków were the brothers Shemu’el, Asher, and Elyakim Helicz (sons of Ḥayim Helicz), who had learned the printing trade in Prague and in 1534 established the first Hebrew printing press in Poland. Their first Hebrew book, Sha‘are Dura (Gates of Düren) by Yitsḥak ben Me’ir of Düren, a thirteenth-century Ashkenazic rabbi, was published in 1534 with a finely decorated title page. It deals with the laws of family purity and of kashrut. The Helicz brothers’ first Yiddish book, Merkevet ha-mishneh (1534/35?), is a Hebrew–Yiddish biblical concordance and glossary; its second edition was called Sefer shel Reb Anshl (Reb Anshl’s Book; 1584), after its author.

The title page of Sha‘are Dura (see image, right) reflects a high level of typographical design, with Hebrew type in square-letter style and script. The type was cast by the brothers based on that of Gershom ha-Kohen’s printing press in Prague. The book has 45 pages in quarto size, and the frame on the title page is fashioned as pillars of plants supporting a rectangular gable, in which two putti play a flute and drum; in the center is a winged angel within an arc. The first page of Merkevet ha-mishneh (the title page has not been preserved) is designed in a style characteristic of the early Renaissance, as a composition of four shields of “heroes,” which are attached by stylized wreaths of stalks and flowers: the upper shield symbolizes the Duchy of Lithuania; that on the right, the Duchy of Milan; that on the left, the eagle of the Polish monarchy; and within the bottom shield, the symbol of the three towers of Kraków. This was the Helicz brothers’ printer’s mark. (See display image, top right.)

After the brothers’ conversion to Christianity in 1537, they printed a Yiddish translation of the New Testament in 1540. As was customary with Yiddish books from then until the end of the eighteenth century, it was printed in a font known as meshit or mashkit, while the Hebrew was printed in a square type known as oysyes meruboes (see image below, left). This typographical combination, transferred to Poland from printing centers of Italy and Western Europe, persisted for approximately 300 years.

Example of oysyes meruboes (square Hebrew characters) and meshit (cursive Yiddish characters) on a page from Muser un hanhoge by Asher ben Yeḥi’el (Kraków: Helicz, 1535–1536). (Jewish National and University Library)

The European style established by the Helicz brothers, that is to say the combination of the typographical traditions of Prague and Italy, continued to develop even after their own press ceased to function in 1540. In 1569, Yitsḥak ben Aharon of Prostitz (Prossnitz; Prostějov) established a new press in Kraków. He had learned the profession from the printer Giovanni Griffo and acquired his equipment from Giorgio di Cavalli’s printing press in Venice, transferring printing letters and woodcuts for the title pages of his books. The latter are rich with Renaissance and Baroque motifs of putti, intertwined plants and leaves, and twisted trimmings as exemplified in the title pages of the books Torat ha-ḥatat (1569) and Tur yoreh de‘ah (1614). (See image below, right.)

This typographical openness to mythological images, widespread in Renaissance drawing and architecture, is extremely surprising in light of the fact that these were books of halakhah intended for yeshiva students. This phenomenon can be partly attributed to the cultural climate of the time, and to the urban landscape of Kraków, heavily influenced by Italian architects.

In 1591, Yitsḥak Prostitz redesigned his equipment, preparing a new plate for the books’ title pages, decorated with angels carrying bouquets of roses. He also adopted a new printer’s mark that pictured a deer, captioned Temurat Yitsḥak. In the same year, Prostitz printed a supercommentary by Shim‘on Ashenburg (Aschenberg) on Rashi’s commentary on the Bible, Devek tov, which included explanatory drawings. The printing press, run by Yitsḥak’s sons, remained active until 1628, at which point Menaḥem Meisels, who had learned the trade in Lublin, renovated the equipment, cast a new square type and new Rashi letters, and composed a different frame for the books’ title pages: pillars now appeared on both sides, surrounding a double-headed Polish eagle, with the emblem of the city of Kraków at the bottom. With this new typographical equipment, he could also print illustrated books. Meisels and his son-in-law Yehudah Leib were active between 1630 and 1670.

Ornate title page of Tur yoreh de‘ah by Ya‘akov ben Asher (Kraków: Yitsḥak ben Aharon of Prostitz, 1614). (Jewish National and University Library)

In Lublin, the heirs of the Shaḥor family (Ḥayim, his son Yitsḥak, and son-in-law Yosef ben Yakar), wandering printers from Bohemia, began their activity in 1547, and remained active until approximately 1555. The Shaḥor family depended on typographical material—letters and title page plates—imported from Prague, and printed approximately five books, among them the tractate Shavu‘ot (1569), the first volume in the grand enterprise of printing the complete Talmud in Lublin. With the improvement of their printing equipment, particularly the casting of new letters in 1571, the Shaḥor press became one of the leading competitors with Kraków.

Following the death of the Shaḥor heirs in 1573, the press was managed by others, among them Kalonimos ben Mordekhai Yafeh (also Yaffe or Jaffe) and his sons, including the well-known printer Tsevi Hirsh Yafeh (see image below). Their most important enterprise was an edition of the Talmud that included a new design of the title letters of the tractates, which combined motifs of Italian printing. The printing of the Lublin Talmud began in 1616; completed in 1639, it was the first complete printing of the Talmud in Eastern Europe. The Zohar was also printed in Lublin in one volume, in square type Hebrew letters following the printing design of the Cremona press, in 1623.

Printer’s mark of Kalonimos ben Mordekhai Yafeh and Sons, Lublin, 1604–1628. (Jewish National and University Library)

Book Design in the Late Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries

After an interruption of 50 years following gzeyres takh vetat, the establishment of a press in Żółkiew in 1692 may be considered the point of departure for a renewal of publishing in Polish lands, and the Russian prohibition of Jewish printing in 1836 may be considered its end point. In this period, one finds few significant typographic or aesthetic achievements in East European printing, even though the quantitative momentum of Jewish printing at the time was substantial. The Żółkiew presses had a near-monopoly on printing in Polish lands that lasted until 1768.

In terms of typography, the Żółkiew presses were influenced by developments in Amsterdam, then the center of Hebrew printing in Europe. Uri Shraga Fayvesh (also Feibush or Phoebus) brought typographical equipment from Amsterdam to Żółkiew and reprinted title pages that had been used for books printed in the Dutch capital. One example is a drawing of Moses and Aaron on both sides of the biblical tablets, with the Ten Commandments appearing at the center. From 1800 on, East European folkloric motifs were in widespread use on title pages, with raised names in wood cuts indicating the place of printing (first in black then later in red), as opposed to an emphasis on the name of the printer. However, the custom of appending a detailed list of the staff and proofreaders in the colophon remained in practice. The elaborate frames of the title pages gradually became less common, and in their place isolated motifs of a jug, a pot of flowers, or a small window gable adorned with plants now appeared, especially in the printing presses of Russia. Such motifs reflected common ornaments on the windows of Jewish homes in small cities. Each printing press slightly altered the square and round frames of the first word of the book, or the frames containing the location names of the printing presses. In 1836, a censorship statute was passed and subsequently, a stamp often depicting the imperial eagle, was imprinted on the title page of every book issued by a Jewish printing press. Inasmuch as the decree also pertained to books already under Russian auspices, these stamps are also found on books printed before 1836.

Typographical innovations in the scores of printing presses across Belorussia, Ukraine, Lithuania, and Poland that arose beginning in the latter decades of the eighteenth century were few. Due to the high price of paper in Russia, books were printed on a paste of paper scraps (a technique utilized until the mid-nineteenth century in the preparation of paper containing a small amount of plant fibers), the tears in which were at times patched. However, two printing presses that achieved a certain splendor with their printed books are noteworthy: the Korzec (Korets) printing presses, the first of which was established by Tsevi Hirsh Margoliot in 1776, and which were active until 1853; and the Slavuta (Slavita) printing presses that were established by Mosheh Shapira in 1791, which functioned until 1836.

Title page of Sefer Zohar (Slavuta: Mosheh Shapira, 1815). (YIVO)

From its initial years, the Slavuta press issued books of extremely high quality, including the Zohar in quarto size on blue paper such as that used in the finer printing presses in Italy, mainly in Venice and Cremona (see image at right). The paper was also thicker than usual and the printing clearer. It was to this printing press that Shneur Zalman of Liady submitted his Tanya (1797), even though the Szkłów (Shklov) printing press in the region of Mogilev, the house that produced the second edition of the Tanya, was closer to his home. Slavuta also published the Babylonian Talmud three times in high-quality editions.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the printing of popular books in Yiddish increased: these included Sefer minhagim (The Book of Customs) the Tsene-rene, and the Yosipon. These books were printed with illustrations made from crude woodcuts copied from copper engravings that had originated in Christian printing presses of the early sixteenth century. This practice had begun in 1692, mainly in the Tsene-rene editions (see image below). The artistic achievement of these imprints was very poor and did not approach the achievements in the art of woodcuts found, for example, in the Haggadahs of Prague and Venice from the sixteenth century, or in the Venice editions of Sefer minhagim issued in 1601. Generally, the Polish printings of Haggadahs are not noteworthy for their typographical adornments or their special illustrations in comparison to those published in Italy, Central Europe, or the West, particularly Amsterdam.

“This is the angel coming to Hagar.” Woodcut illustration from Tsene-rene (Lvov: Verlag v. B. L. N., 1872). (Gross Family Collection)

The Nineteenth-Century Shift toward Modernity

The shift toward modernity in the quality of printing began in 1803 with the creation of the press founded in Vilna by Menaḥem Mann Romm. And in the final third of the nineteenth century, modernization of Hebrew printing was apparent with technical innovations in the printing industry for the arrangement and the casting of monotype letters and linotype lines introduced between 1883 and 1885. The production of paper, which until then had been made by hand, was mechanized (from 1799 in France and from 1803 in England) and refined in 1846 when paper began being produced from cellulose solutions. It is possible that these circumstances informed one of the grandest typographical projects that the Jewish press in Eastern Europe undertook: the printing of the Romm Babylonian Talmud in folio format, under the auspices of Shemu’el Shraga Feigenzohn (Shafan ha-Sofer) between 1880 and 1886. In accordance with the level of its complexity and its scope (comparison of manuscript versions, additions to the text and its interpreters, predetermined pagination, strict proof-reading, and the casting of new Italian-Spanish square letters), the Vilna printing of the Babylonian Talmud was one of the most impressive typographical productions, not only in the book culture of East European Jewry, but in the general European book culture as well. This edition was accepted as canonical throughout Europe and America.

Before World War I, three large modern publishing houses were prominent: Moriah and Omanut in Odessa, and Stybel in Warsaw and Moscow. Each produced dozens of quality books, many of which included colorful illustrations. An additional factor that hastened the modernization of the typographical processes had to do with the strengthening of ties between European and Jewish artists. There were also closer ties between Hebrew and Yiddish culture, and between the artists of expressionism in Poland and constructivism in Russia. Outstanding examples of this symbiosis include the art academy in Vitebsk associated with Marc Chagall, and the participation of artists such as El Lissitzky, who had worked earlier with Kazimir Malevich. Chagall and El Lissitzky later designed Yiddish poetry books. The Yiddish avant-garde illustrated press in Poland—which issued the journals Albatros, edited by Uri Tsevi Grinberg (see image below); Ringen, edited by Michał Weichert; and Yung-yidish, edited by Moyshe Broderzon and Marek Szwarc—and in Russia Eygns, edited by Dovid Bergelson, also became central agents for the penetration of novel typographical ideas, especially in the design of modern editions of Yiddish poetry. Books thus evolved from the product of a printing press held by a professional family of printers, satisfying the needs of a scholarly community, into products of an artistic elite often organized in ideological groupings.

Albatros 2 (1922), Warsaw. Illustration by Marek Szwarc. (YIVO)

Such avant-garde groups became prominent in Poland and Russia: the Kultur-lige was active from 1918 in Kiev, and was associated with other groups that appeared in subsequent years in Białystok, Warsaw, and Vilna. Among its important participants were the poet Dovid Hofshteyn, Der Nister (Pinkhes Kahanovitsh), and the artists Yisakhar Ber Rybak, Natan Al’tman, and Yosef Tshaykov (Iosif Chaikov). The books of the Kultur-lige are distinguished by their typographical adornment, their constructivist illustrations, and a new selection of letters often specifically designed for different books. Especially noteworthy is the scholarly illustrated and adorned book by Maks Erik, Di geshikhte fun der yidisher literatur (The History of Yiddish Literature), issued in Warsaw in 1928. Book covers issued by this press were illustrated by avant-garde artists active outside the Kultur-lige, including Chagall and El Lissitzky. In the same manner in which the Russian avant-garde (initiated by Malevich) turned to Russian folklore, the Jewish avant-garde turned to visual and verbal images of shtetl folklore and reinterpreted them in partially abstract graphic designs, in the spirit of the art school in Vitebsk. Especially remarkable typographical achievements in this field are Chagall’s design of Dovid Hofshteyn’s book of poetry Troyer (Sorrow; 1922) (see image below, left) and El Lissitzky’s design of the literary adaptation of Moyshe Broderzon’s Sikhes kholin (Idle Chatter; 1917) in the form of a scroll, as well as El Lissitzky’s version of the Passover song “Khad gadye” (see image below, right).

Troyer (Sorrow), by Dovid Hofshteyn (Kiev: Kultur-lige, 1922). Designed by Marc Chagall. (© 2006 Artists Rights Society [ARS], New York / ADAGP, Paris. Print courtesy of YIVO)

As an epilogue to this grand chapter of achievements in modern book design in Eastern Europe, it is worth mentioning the Jewish author and artist Bruno Schulz and artist Artur Szyk. Although Schulz did not produce a book in Hebrew or Yiddish, his illustrated volume of Polish stories, Sklepy cynamonowe (Cinnamon Shops; 1933), is rich in visual images of Jews. The book constitutes a typographical achievement in its own right. Just before the outbreak of World War II, Artur Szyk completed his illustrated Passover Haggadah (Jerusalem, 1936). Between 1930 and 1936 Szyk designed separate and distinctive typography for every page of the Haggadah and dozens of illustrations. His typography reflects the tradition of illuminated Jewish and Christian manuscripts as well as oriental traditions. Moreover, the illustrations clearly reflect the turbulent time in which Szyk drew them. According to Cecil Roth, who edited the work, this Haggadah should be considered the greatest work of a Jewish illuminator since the sixteenth century.

Finally, it is also worth mentioning Efrayim Mosheh Lilien (also born in Drohobycz), who was active in Central Europe but received his artistic education in Kraków. His visual images—especially his description of the proletarian Jew—are to a large extent East European.

Four Sons, from a Haggadah produced by Mosheh Leib ben Volf, Trebitsch, Moravia, 1716-1717. Ink, oil on parchment. The illustrations are based on engravings found in the printed Amsterdam Haggadah of 1712. (HUC Ms. 444.1, Second Cincinnati Haggadah. Klau Library, Cincinnati, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion)

Suggested Reading

David Assaf, “‘Olam ha-sefer veha-dafus ,” in Polin: Perakim be-toldot yehude Mizraḥ-Eropah ve-tarbutam, vol. 3, units 5–6, pp. 74–100 (Tel Aviv, 1990); Yoav Elstein, “Bou Litkon: A Bibliography of Hasidic Literature in Alphabetical, Chronological, and Genealogical Order,” in Ma’aseh Sippur: Studies in Jewish Narrative, ed. Avidov Lipsker Rella Kushelevsky, pp. 447–536 (Ramat Gan, Isr., 2006); Samuel Shraga Feigensohn, “Le-Toldot Defus Rom,” in Yahadut Lita, vol. 1, pp. 268–297 (Tel Aviv, 1959/60); Herman Frank, Yidishe tipografye un bukh oysarbetung kunst (New York, 1938); Bernhard (Ḥayim Dov) Friedberg, Toldot ha-defus ha-‘ivri be-Polanyah (Tel Aviv, 1950); Zeev Gries, Ha-Sefer ke-sokhen tarbut ba-shanim 460–660 (1700–1900) (Tel Aviv, 2002); Zeev Gries, “The Revolution in the World of Hebrew Books at the Start of the Twentieth Century,” in The Book in the Jewish World, 1700–1900, pp. 181–190 (Oxford, 2007); Abraham Meir Habermann, Ha-Sefer ha-‘ivri ba-hitpatḥuto: Mi-Simanim le-otiyot umi-megilot le-sefer (Jerusalem, 1967/68); Abraham Meir Habermann, Sha‘are sefarim ‘ivrim (Tsefat, Isr., 1969), intro. also in English; Abraham Meir Habermann, Anshe sefer ve-anshe ma‘aseh (Jerusalem, 1973/74); Hayim Liberman, Ohel Raḥel, 3 vols. (New York, 1980); Ursula Schubert and Kurt Schubert, Jüdische Buchkunst, 2 vols. (Graz, 1983–1992), also in Hebrew as Omanut-ha-sefer ha yehudit (Tel Aviv, 1994); Chone Shmeruk, Ha-Iyurim le-sifre yidish ba-me’ot ha-16–17: Ha-Tekstim, ha-temunot ve-nim‘anehem (Jerusalem, 1986), table of contents and intro. in English; Abraham Yaari, Digle madpisim ha-‘ivriyim: Me-Re’shit ha-defus ha-‘ivri ve-‘ad sof ha-me’ah ha-tesha‘-‘esreh (Jerusalem, 1943); Abraham Yaari, Meḥkere sefer (Jerusalem, 1957/58); Yitsḥak Yudlov, Digle madpisim: Ha-Mishim ve-arba‘ah digle madpisim molim u-meḥabrim ‘ivriyim (Jerusalem, 2001/02).



Translated from Hebrew by Carrie Friedman-Cohen