Jewish printing in Eastern Europe began in Prague in 1513, pioneered by a group of printers led by Gershom ben Shelomoh ha-Kohen (d. 1544). The chief cities for printing in Eastern Europe during the period under discussion—between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries—included Prague, Kraków (from 1534), and Lublin (from the late 1540s); Żółkiew became an important center in the eighteenth century (actually beginning in 1692). The main book dealers after the advent of printing were the owners of print shops; until the end of the eighteenth century, the term publisher was not applicable. Very little is known about the press runs of specific books; hence, historians generally rely on the number of editions printed in trying to gauge the popularity of a work.
Jewish printing was both a local and an international enterprise. While printing houses certainly produced works for their local markets, East European Jews had access to works published elsewhere: in Italy, in Central Europe, and from the 1640s, in Amsterdam. Similarly, books published by the main East European presses were often produced for the general European market.
From Ḥokhmat Shelomoh, by Shelomoh ben Yeḥi’el Luria. (Kraków, ca. 1582) An example of an early Hebrew book printed in Poland. (YIVO)
Hebrew and Yiddish printing in Poland began in Kraków when members of the Helicz family moved there from Prague, where they had learned the craft of printing. After producing several books, they converted to Christianity but continued for a few years to print for the Jewish market, including daily and holiday prayer books. The printer Yitsḥak ben Aharon of Prostitz (d. 1612) arrived in Kraków from Italy; his family establishment, founded in 1569, would print some 200 titles during the next six decades. He had been trained in the craft in Italy and brought printing materials with him, including molds for type that had been made there. He brought a proofreader with him, Shemu’el Böhm, who had also been trained in Italy, to be his right-hand man.
The founders of Hebrew printing in Lublin in the sixteenth century were members of the family of Ḥayim Shaḥor (d. ca. 1549), who began his career in a printing house in Prague; he later issued books in several cities. Shaḥor brought type that had been fashioned in Prague to Lublin, and eventually his granddaughter’s husband, Kalonymus ben Mordekhai Yafeh (d. 1603), carried on his enterprise. Yafeh had also learned the printing trade in Prague, as had his sometime partner, the printer Eli‘ezer ben Yitsḥak (d. ca. 1588), who was appointed manager of the Shaḥor printing house in Lublin in 1557 and operated it until 1573. From there Eli‘ezer ben Yitsḥak traveled to Constantinople and then to Safed—where he established the first Hebrew printing house, which operated for a short time.
In the sixteenth century, the main Jewish printing center in the world was in Italy—especially Venice, where more than 800 books were printed. Some 200 Jewish books were printed in Kraków in the same period, while some 90 were printed in Prague—mainly daily and holiday prayer books, an area in which it competed with Italian printers—and about 80 in Lublin.
Prayer Books, the Talmud, and the Shulḥan ‘arukh
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)
Prayer books were a significant part of the total output of virtually every printing house; their sale met a continuing demand and provided a regular source of income. In every printing city in Eastern Europe a great effort was made to supply that demand—whether for prayer books in general or for collections of prayers intended for specific times in the Jewish calendar, such as seliḥot (penitential prayers) and tikunim (prayers for mystical midnight services). The demand for such works increased after the spread of the Sabbatian movement; there was also an increased demand for tikunim because, according to Lurianic Kabbalah, those who recited these prayers would be hastening redemption. The first tikunim to be printed were included in Tikune Shabat (Venice, 1596). In Kraków, this work was reprinted four times before 1666 (between 1612 and 1650); in Prague, it was reprinted five times before the spread of Sabbatianism (between 1628 and 1660) and six times between 1672 and 1692, again after the spread of that movement. Seliḥot were issued in Prague in 1668, 1675, 1678, 1680 (three editions in that year), 1681 (two editions), 1694, and 1698.
The spread of Sabbatianism and the increase in demand for literature that strengthened the penitential movement among Jews also led to the printing in Prague of other collections of tikunim, including Tikun keri’ah le-khol yom (1666), Tikun ‘erev rosh ḥodesh (1666), Tikun amen (1668, 1688), Tikun keriyat shema‘ ba-lailah (1615, 1668), Tikun Shavu‘ot ve-Hosha‘na’ Rabah (1675), and Tikun ha-shulḥan (1678); in Kraków, the Yiddish Tikune teshuvah: Erets ha-Tsevi was printed in at least two editions in 1666.
In addition, there was increased demand for books of tkhines (supplications) in Yiddish. In Prague during the sixteenth century, for example, collections of tkhines were published in 1586 and 1590 and, in the seventeenth century, in 1650, 1660, 1674, 1682, and 1688. These books were written for women, and women were prominent among their authors.
The strengthening of Jewish printing in Poland in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, along with the increase in the purchasing power of readers, is reflected in the number of editions that appeared of the Babylonian Talmud. In Poland it was first printed in Lublin in the years 1559–1576; an edition was begun in Kraków in about 1578, but not completed. Another, complete, edition was printed in Kraków in the years 1602–1605, in the printing house of the Prostitz family, and still another edition was issued in Lublin between 1617 and 1639. In Prague, however, the effort to print the entire Babylonian Talmud was begun only in 1728, in the Bak family printing house. During this entire period, individual tractates of the Talmud were printed to be studied in yeshivas and houses of study.
Title page of Keli yakar (Żółkiew: Aharon and Gershon Segal, 1763). An example of a title page that boasts the use of “Amsterdam” fonts, although it was printed in Żółkiew. (Gross Family Collection)
A signal event in Jewish cultural and religious history was the publication in Kraków in 1578–1580 of the edition of the Shulḥan ‘arukh by Yosef Karo, with the glosses of Mosheh Isserles. This was a crucial development in the movement to publish halakhic traditions previously limited to manuscripts preserved in yeshivas and by rabbis and their students. Subsequent editions of the Shulḥan ‘arukh also included commentaries, often by Polish rabbis. In this connection it is important to note the printings, in Kraków in the seventeenth century, of the medieval halakhic code Arba‘ah turim by Ya‘akov ben Asher. The entire work was printed in 1614–1616, and again in 1631–1640. An earlier, perhaps complete, edition had been issued in 1538 by the Helicz printing house.
Printing in Poland declined in the second half of the seventeenth century. Indeed, Kraków and Lublin never recovered, and for decades thereafter the Jews of Poland bought books that were printed in Prague, Amsterdam, or Italy, primarily Venice. Authors from Poland went to Amsterdam and Prague to have their books printed, and experienced printers, typesetters, and journeymen moved west, especially to Amsterdam.
Beginning in 1692 and until the end of the eighteenth century, Żółkiew was the only place in Poland–Lithuania where Jewish books were printed. The press was founded by an Amsterdam printer, Uri ben Aharon Fayvesh (1625–1715), under royal license and with the support of the Council of Four Lands. The Fayvesh family and its branches printed works in virtually every genre. This house is noteworthy also for the (obvious) subterfuge that was common on its title pages, where it was noted that a work was printed in “Amsterdam” (in large letters) fonts at Żółkiew (in much smaller letters). (See image at left.)
Legal, Ethical, and Midrashic Literature
From the beginnings of printing until the end of the eighteenth century, the main demand, other than for prayer books, was for books on halakhah, particularly “professional” literature such as Sheḥitot u-vedikot (Slaughtering and Examining; first published under that title in Mantua, 1556), by Ya‘akov Weil. In Prague alone this text was printed 11 times in the seventeenth century, and from 1640 to 1863 it was produced in 83 editions, in several different cities; it was required reading for those training to be ritual slaughterers. In addition to the Shulḥan ‘arukh, another noteworthy publication was the 10-part Levush malkhut by Mordekhai ben Avraham Yafeh. He first published the parts separately, and then produced a comprehensive edition with an important introduction, in Prague beginning in 1609.
Upper portion of a page from a commentary on Rashi by Rabbi Eliyahu Mizraḥi (1450–1526), published by Yitsḥak ben Aharon Prostitz (Kraków, 1595). (Gross Family Collection)
In the area of biblical commentary, the most noteworthy phenomenon was the publication of supercommentaries on the commentary of Rashi. Among roughly 20 such works published before the end of the seventeenth century were Gur aryeh by Yehudah Leib ben Betsal’el (Maharal; Prague, 1578; though published only once in this period, it influenced a number of subsequent works of this kind); Devek tov by Shim‘on ben Yitsḥak ha-Levi Aschenburg (Kraków, 1590, 1593, 1616; Lublin, 1607); and Imre shefer by Natan Note ben Shelomoh Spira (Shapira) of Grodno (Lublin, 1597). Numerous other works of biblical commentary were published in Prague in the first two decades of the seventeenth century, including Levush ha-orah, by Mordekhai ben Avraham Yafeh (1604); Kitsur mizraḥi (Matnot ‘oni), by Yitsḥak ben Naftali ha-Kohen of Ostróg (1604–1608); Yeri‘ot Shelomoh, by Shelomoh Luria (1609); Ho’il Mosheh, by Mosheh ben Avraham Mat (1611); Be’ur ‘al Rashi (Sefer neḥmad u-ve’ur yafeh), by Yosef ben Mosheh of Kremenets (1614); and, slightly later, Tsedah la-derekh by Yisakhar Ber ben Yisra’el Eilenburg (1623–1624). An original and influential homiletical Bible commentary from this period is Keli yakar by Efrayim Shelomoh ben Aharon of Luntshits (Lublin, 1602; Prague, 1608; Żółkiew, 1763, 1799).
Works published in Eastern Europe in the field of Midrash, aside from the reprinting of texts and commentaries first published elsewhere, included Perush le-midrash rabah ‘al ha-megilot and Perush ‘al midrash rabah ‘al ha-Torah, both by Naftali Herts ben Menaḥem of Lwów, and both published in Kraków by Prostitz in 1569. The even more influential work Midrash rabah ‘im perush matnot kehunah by Yisakhar Ber of Szczebrzeszyn was also published in Kraków (1587–1588, 1608–1609, 1634) and Prague (1624).
Ethical works (sifrut musar) in Hebrew and Yiddish also have a place in the history of Jewish printing. Such works, in their various subgenres, were particularly popular in Eastern Europe, accounting for roughly 14 percent of works printed there, versus 7 percent overall in Europe. At first, in the sixteenth century, works that were already widely circulated in manuscript were printed. For example, Orḥot ḥayim by Asher ben Yeḥi’el—a short collection of recommended practices—was issued in print in Prague in 1504, and at least seven additional times during the sixteenth century, including in Lublin in 1572; there was another printing in Prague in 1612. It was printed in a Yiddish version by the Helicz brothers in Kraków in 1535, and another Yiddish translation, by Yom Tov Lipmann Heller, was published in a Prague edition in 1626. Orḥot tsadikim was printed in Prague in 1581 and in Kraków in 1582. Sefer ḥasidim was printed in Kraków in 1581 and 1693. Sefer ha-yashar, attributed to several rabbis, was printed in Kraków in 1586 and in Prague in 1588 and 1609.
Midrash Shemu’el (Venice, 1579) by Shemu’el Uceda, a disciple of Yitsḥak Luria, was printed in Kraków in 1585 and 1594. This was an important anthology of commentaries on the Pirke avot (Ethics of the Fathers) that retained its popularity—being reprinted, for example, in Żółkiew in 1764 and 1783. Among other commentaries on Pirke avot by authors from Eastern Europe printed in the sixteenth century were Ḥesed Avraham, by Avraham ben Shabetai Sheftel Horowitz (Lublin, 1577; Kraków, 1602), and Derekh ḥayim, by Yehudah Leib ben Betsal’el (Kraków, 1589). As with other works by Maharal, this commentary was not reprinted for many generations, and a second edition did not appear until the nineteenth century (Kraków, 1839).
Printer’s mark of Kalonimos ben Mordekhai Yafeh and Sons, Lublin, 1604–1628. (Jewish National and University Library)
Two other notable ethical works were Kad ha-kemaḥ by Baḥya ben Asher, first printed in Constantinople in 1515 and then in Lublin in 1596 (this book was not reprinted in Eastern Europe until 1814, in Ostróg), and Ḥovot ha-levavot by Baḥya ibn Pekuda’, first printed in Naples in 1490 and subsequently in Kraków in 1594 and 1670. A comprehensive kabbalistic ethical work, which later became the most popular one, especially among Hasidim, was Reshit ḥokhmah by Eliyahu de Vidas (Kraków, 1593).
Books of ethical proverbs, parables, and sayings were very popular. Among them was Beḥinat ‘olam by Yeda‘yah ben Avraham Bedersi (ha-Penini), first printed in Mantua in 1474: eight editions appeared in the sixteenth century, three of which were printed in Eastern Europe—in Kraków in 1591, Lublin in 1597, and Prague in 1598. In Yiddish, there was Sefer ha-gan by Yitsḥak ben El‘azar (Kraków, late sixteenth century); a second edition was printed in Prague in 1599 together with Sefer ha-derakhah by Yoḥanan Luria. The latter work had been printed separately in Prague in 1597.
Ethical literature embraces the category of hanhagot, recommended practices, and these include the subgenre of ethical wills. The first ethical will to be printed in Eastern Europe was that of Yehudah he-Hasid (Kraków, 1580). Of books of hanhagot,Tomer Devorah by Mosheh Cordovero was printed in Venice (1585) and Constantinople (1592) and then in Prague (1621). Mar’eh Kohen by Yisakhar Ber of Szczebrzeszyn was printed for the first time in Kraków in 1589; this text describes practices culled from the Zohar. The last of this genre to be mentioned here is Hilkhot de‘ot by Maimonides (Kraków, 1595): instructions and guidance for preserving physical and mental health, which Maimonides placed in the first volume of his halakhic code, the Mishneh Torah.
Abbreviated versions of ethical works—such as Kitsur ha-Abarvan’el ‘al Avot ve-‘al Hagadah shel Pesaḥ (Lublin, 1604) and Totsa’ot ḥayim, a short version of Reshit ḥokhmah by the author himself (Kraków, 1590, 1610; Prague, 1657)—were also popular. Another condensation was Sefer musar by Yehudah Kaletz (Kraków, 1598), an abbreviated version of the comprehensive ethical anthology Menorat ha-ma’or by Yisra’el al-Nakawa, which was not published until the twentieth century. On the other hand, books of sermons (derush) seldom appeared in more than one edition in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Overall, there was little demand for homiletic literature before the end of the 1600s.
The first works of ethical literature in the Yiddish language were printed in the 1530s. Among such sixteenth-century ethical works were Den muser un hanhogeh (Orḥot ḥayim), published together with Ka‘arat ha-kesef (Kraków, 1535); and Sefer ha-gan by Yitsḥak ben El‘azar (Kraków, late 16th century). A number of ethical works intended for female audiences were also published in Kraków at that time, including Seder noshim (1541) and Seder mitsves noshim (1577, 1585). The Brantshpigl, by Mosheh ben Ḥanokh Altschul (Kraków, 1596; Prague, 1610, 1650), was the first Yiddish work to contain a collection and translation of about 50 passages and stories from the Zohar.
Title page of a Yiddish version of the New Testament published by Paul Helicz, Kraków, 1540. (Jagiellonian Library, Kraków)
The popular Yiddish book Minhagim, by Shim‘on Gintsburg, is an ethical work close to the literature of halakhah and belongs in that category as well. Many editions of this book were published, some in Eastern Europe; it was printed in Prague in 1610, 1655, 1665 (with illustrations), and 1682 (also with illustrations). The illustrations demonstrate the objects used in fulfilling the commandments, and the text functioned as an instructional manual for young people and children. The related Hebrew book Sefer minhagim (or Minhagim mi-kol ha-shanah), by Yitsḥak Tirna (Tyrnau), was also printed in many editions, often as an appendix to a prayer book: in Lublin in 1570 and 1581; in Kraków in 1578, 1592, 1597, and 1617; and in Prague in 1606, 1610, 1626, 1648, 1683, 1694, and 1697—and probably in other, now lost editions.
Yiddish literature had begun to appear in print in the 1530s in Kraków. By the end of the sixteenth century, 45 titles in multiple genres had been printed in Poland alone; more were published in Central Europe and in the Italian territories. Prague was the most important center for the printing of books in Yiddish, with more than 100 printings; beginning in the 1640s, Amsterdam started to compete with Prague in that field, and about 100 Yiddish books were printed there by the end of that century. The high point of Jewish printing in Prague, led by the firm founded by Ya‘akov Bak in 1605 and operated by his descendants until the last decades of the eighteenth century, was during the seventeenth century, when almost 550 books were printed as Polish printing centers fell into eclipse.
Yiddish literature was the means by which the Bible was brought close to Jewish readers’ hearts. Biblical translations and poetic renditions of biblical texts in Yiddish, though mostly composed elsewhere, were quite often published in Eastern Europe: for example, Samuel (Shmuel-bukh; Kraków, 1578, 1593); Kings (Mlokhim-bukh; Kraków, 1582), and the Song of Songs (Kraków, 1579, 1589, 1599). Among biblical works published in Prague in the seventeenth century were Jeremiah (Yirmie-bukh; 1602), Proverbs (1602), Kings (1607), and Daniel (Daniel-bukh; 1609, 1673, 1675); editions of the Psalms were published in Prague, in 1600, 1661, 1681, and 1688.
Title page of Seder tefilot ke-minhag ashkenaz u-polin (Order of the Prayers According to the Custom of Germany and Poland), by Rabbi Ya‘akov ben Yitsḥak Ashkenazi of Janów (Amsterdam, 1751). This book, first published in 1590, was written especially for women and included the complete text of the Tsene-rene, a popular Yiddish adaptation and paraphrase of the Pentateuch, haftarot, and megilot. (YIVO)
Ya‘akov ben Yitsḥak of Janów, the author of the most influential and popular of all Yiddish books, the Tsene-rene (which treats the weekly readings from the Torah, the accompanying passages from the Prophets, and the five Scrolls), also wrote the oft-reprinted Sefer ha-magid, a translation of the Hebrew Bible (except for the Pentateuch) printed alongside the Hebrew text, together with a paraphrase of Rashi’s commentary. It was first published in Lublin in three volumes (1622–1627) and was reprinted in Prague by the Bak firm in 1675 and again in 1692.
The late eighteenth century was marked by the publication of Yiddish literature by such authors as Moyshe Markuze, Menaḥem Mendel Lefin, and Eli‘ezer Paver (d. 1812)—whose rewritten Yiddish version of the collection of homilies and stories Mayse-bukh was published under the title Sefer ha-pela’ot oder gerimte geshikhte. First published in 1802, it was reprinted more than 20 times in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Examination of the history of Jewish printing in Eastern Europe shows clearly that until the middle of the eighteenth century, interest in kabbalistic doctrines within the community at large was limited. In the sixteenth century in Prague, only Menorat zahav tahor by Shelomoh Luria (Prague, 1581, 1669; Kraków, 1585, 1595) was printed. This is a kabbalistic commentary on Psalm 16, describing the menorah in the Temple, and is often written in the form of a branched candelabrum and used as a mandala for meditation.
Title page of Sefer Zohar (Slavuta: Mosheh Shapira, 1815). (YIVO)
More books of Kabbalah were printed in the sixteenth century in Kraków. Among them were works by Me’ir ibn Gabai: Derekh emunah (1557); ‘Avodat ha-kodesh, which he wrote in the same year; and Tola‘at Ya‘akov (1581); the last contains a commentary on the secrets of prayer. Other kabbalistic books printed in Kraków were Pardes rimonim by Mosheh Cordovero (1592) and two editions of Sefer ha-mefo’ar by Shelomoh Molkho (1570, 1598). Fourteen works of Kabbalah were printed there during the seventeenth century, including Sha‘are orah by Yosef Gikatilla (1600) and Zohar ḥadash (1603), as well as a series of tikunim. Four kabbalistic books were published in Lublin in the sixteenth century; the most important was Levush even yekarah (1594) by Mordekhai Yafeh, a supercommentary on Menaḥem Recanati’s (kabbalistic) commentary on the Pentateuch that formed one of the three parts of Yafeh’s Levush or yekarot.
In the seventeenth century, more books on Kabbalah were printed in Prague, including several by Yisakhar Ber of Kremenets, who was influenced by the kabbalistic doctrines of Mosheh Cordovero and his interpretation of the Zohar. Other books printed there included Ha-Kaneh (1610), on the kabbalistic reasons for the commandments; Kol bokhim (1621), by Avraham Galante; Tomer Devorah, by Mosheh Cordovero (1621); the Zohar (Lublin, 1623); Sefer yetsirah (1624); Yalkut Re’uveni (1660), a compendium of important teachings from kabbalistic works; and Shulḥan ‘arukh ha-Ari (1660), containing a systematic presentation of the customs of Yitsḥak Luria. Also printed in Prague were Ḥayat kaneh (1670) by Shelomoh Molkho, containing a small collection of his dreams, and Gilgule neshamot (1688), on reincarnation, by Menaḥem ‘Azaryah of Fano.
The spread of kabbalistic customs was largely due to the propaganda of the Sabbatians, who encouraged interest in kabbalistic doctrines and gave great impetus to the movement. In the eighteenth century, the city of Żółkiew became a world center for the printing of kabbalistic books. Among these were Sha‘are kedushah by Ḥayim Vital (1742, 1763); Likutim (Selections), by the Polish kabbalist Shimshon of Ostropol (1767, 1793); Ta‘ame ha-mitsvot, by Menaḥem Recanati (1770, 1771); Perush Rekanati ‘al ha-Torah (1770); and Magid mesharim, by Yosef Karo, a journal of the revelations that the author reported hearing from a divine voice (1770, 1773, 1776). Other books printed in Żółkiew were Kitsur shene luḥot ha-berit by Yeḥi’el Mikhl Epstein (1770), which treated many kabbalistic customs; Sha‘are orah by Gikatilla (1771), one of the most important basic works of Kabbalah; and Sefer ha-gilgulim, by Vital (1772). Naḥalat Tsevi by Tsevi Ḥotsh (1740, 1774; 1st ed., Frankfurt am Main, 1711) contains selections of stories and passages from the Zohar in Yiddish. Berit menuḥah (1774) is one work of Kabbalah that reached Central and Eastern Europe from the Middle East; it was first printed in Amsterdam in 1648.
Another prominent center for the printing of kabbalistic works, from 1778 on, was Korets. It was there that certain kabbalistic books arriving from the Ottoman Empire were first printed in Eastern Europe, including Sefer ha-temunah (1784) and Shoshan sodot (1784). Prei ‘ets Ḥayim (1782) belongs to the literature of Lurianic practices; other works from that body of literature, also printed in Korets, were ‘Ets ḥayim (1782), Otsrot ḥayim (1783), Mevo she‘arim (1783), Maḥberet ha-kodesh (1783), Sha‘ar ha-yiḥudim (1783), and Sefer ha-kavanot (1784). Three of the four sections of Sha‘are kedushah by Ḥayim Vital were printed in Korets in 1784. This is a kabbalistic book of ethics and recommended practices, showing the reader the way to cleave to God. In 1781, Ḥok le-Yisra’el was printed there. This book is a collection of passages selected from the canon of Jewish literature—including the Bible, Mishnah and Gemara, and passages from the Zohar—to be read and studied on a daily basis. It is an outstanding indication that the Zohar had indeed become a canonical work.
Printing in the Eighteenth Century
The virtual monopoly that Żółkiew enjoyed with respect to Jewish printing in the course of the 1700s waned in the latter decades of that century. A printing operation appeared in Oleksinets in 1760. Hebrew printers, mainly with small firms, emerged in the 1780s in such places as Luts’k, Nowy Dwór, Lwów, Mezkorov, Szkłów, Poryck, and Grodno in addition to Korets. In the 1790s, Warsaw, Vilna, Dubno, Połonne, Slavuta, and Ostróg also became centers for printing.
The total combined print run of all Jewish books printed during the sixteenth century did not exceed 2,600; in the seventeenth century, roughly 3,300 in all of Europe along with the Ottoman Empire. In the eighteenth century, the number tripled, far exceeding 9,000. Even then, however, the average number of books published per year was 90, fewer than 10 per month, and at that time, most of these publications were daily prayer books and other materials for use in religious services. Since there were several million Jews during the eighteenth century, and trade in books was international, one can compare the number of books printed then with the number printed today, in the twenty-first century, in the State of Israel. In present-day Israel, nearly 100 books are published weekly—more than the number of books published annually in Eastern Europe during the eighteenth century. The history of reading—and the impact of print on Jewish culture in particular—awaits systematic scholarly study.