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)

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Prostitz Family

Printers active in Kraków in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Yitsḥak ben Aharon of Prostitz (Yid., more properly Prostits; d. 1612) was born in Prossnitz (Prostějov) and apparently learned the printing craft in Venice. There he became acquainted with the editor and scholar Shemu’el Böhm (d. 1588), whom Prostitz persuaded to join in establishing a Hebrew printing house in Kraków. Though Böhm’s function was listed on title pages as magihah (proofreader), in the sixteenth century the work of the magihah also included helping to choose, prepare, and print manuscripts. The press bought its types, printing ornaments, and other implements in Venice. In an effort to compete with the great Italian printing houses, Kraków’s rabbis in 1590 encouraged Polish rabbis to use Prostitz rather than Italian printers; alternatively, they ruled that if a Polish rabbi choose to publish in Italy, his sales in Poland would be delayed.

In 1568, Yitsḥak received a license from King Sigismund Augustus of Poland to print Hebrew books, among them the Talmud; the license also prohibited competition from other printers for 50 years. Prostitz and Böhm began their ambitious project by producing the first volume of the Shulḥan ‘arukh, the authoritative halakhic code by Yosef Karo with commentary by Mosheh Isserles. In November 1569, the printing house was forced to shut down for a year, having been falsely accused of printing defamatory materials. After work resumed in 1571, the business was operated by Prostitz’s sons Aharon Mosheh and Yehoshu‘a Yisakhar. The Prostitz family controlled the enterprise until 1626, when creditors seized it. The printing house published a total of 273 books.

Prostitz’s most significant project was its edition of the Talmud, produced between 1602 and 1605. Declaring their intentions on the title page, the printers claimed that this version was set according to an edition issued by the Justinian printing house in Venice in 1546–1547. In fact, though, the Prostitz rendering followed a Basel edition from 1578–1581, a version flawed by Christian censorship. Consequently, Manoaḥ Hendel ben Shemaryahu condemned the Prostitz version in his work Ḥokhmat Manoaḥ, published in Prague in 1612.

The Prostitz family enterprise was the most important in Poland from the mid-sixteenth century to the mid-eighteenth century. As did other major printers, Prostitz issued prayer books for daily and maḥzorim for holiday use, for these were widely handled and quickly wore out. It also printed Bibles for heder study. In addition to the Talmud, works on halakhah included the first four editions of Torat ha-ḥatat by Isserles (between 1570 and 1600), the popular Sheḥitot u-vedikot by Ya‘akov Weil (seven editions between 1577 and 1605), and Sefer minhagim by Yitsḥak Eisik Tyrnau (six printings between 1577 and 1612).

Prostitz also turned out texts by Isserles’ celebrated students at the Kraków yeshiva, including Yisakhar Ber of Szczebrzeszyn’s Matnot kehunah (1587, 1608), with the commentary of Midrash rabah on the Torah and the five megilot; and part of Mordekhai Yafeh’s series Levush ha-malkhut (1598–1599). Among works of ethical literature were Shemu’el Uceda’s Midrash Shemu’el (1585, 1594), the most important and most widely printed anthology of commentaries on Pirke avot; as well as another anthology on that tractate, Minḥah ḥadashah, compiled by Yeḥi’el Mikhl Moravchik of Poland (1576, 1590), who also financed an edition of the tractate Shekalim (1587). After the publication of Midrash Shemu’el, however, interest in Minḥah ḥadashah waned.

Prostitz excelled in printing ethical works, and indeed initiated a new literary genre of abbreviated texts of that sort in the late sixteenth century. Editions included the widely circulated Ḥovot ha-levavot by Baḥya ibn Pakuda’ (1593); Tsava’at Yehudah he-Ḥasid (1580); and Mar’eh kohen by Yisakhar Ber of Szczebrzeszyn (1589), which was the first book of conduct literature drawn from the Zohar. Prostitz also printed MaimonidesHilkhot de‘ot (1595), taken from his Sefer ha-mada‘. Other abbreviated texts included Totsa’ot ḥayim by Eliyahu de Vidas (1590), a shortened version of his Reshit ḥokhmah, the lengthy version of which was printed there in 1593. Other abbreviated ethical works were Sefer musar by Yehudah Kaletz (1598), a version of Yisra’el ibn al-Nakawa’s Menorat ha-ma’or, which was an abridged version of a vast text that circulated in manuscript form until 1931.

Among the earliest Yiddish printings were Prostitz’s editions of ethical works in that language. These included Yitsḥak ben El‘azar’s Sefer ha-gan (1579); the anonymously written bilingual edition Orḥot tsadikim (1582); and Mosheh ben Ḥanokh Altschul’s Brantshpigl (1582, 1597), which became a popular ethical work containing some 50 stories translated and adapted from the Zohar. Prostitz also issued the Yiddish-language Tsene-rene by Ya‘akov ben Yitsḥak of Janów (1618), a text that grew to be the most widely circulated popular interpretation of the Bible for generations.

Prostitz’s contributions in the area of kabbalistic literature (a marginal phenomenon in the sixteenth century) included Me’ir ibn Gabai’s Derekh emunah (1577), ‘Avodat ha-kodesh (1577), and Tola‘at Ya‘akov (1581), and Mosheh Cordovero’s Pardes rimonim (1592). An edition of kabbalistic sermons, Sefer ha-mefo’ar by the former converso Shelomoh Molkho, was printed in 1570 and 1598.

Suggested Reading

Majer Bałaban, Toldot ha-yehudim be-Krakov ve-Kazimeiz, 1304–1868, vol. 1 (Jerusalem, 2003), pp. 382–385; Bernhard (Ḥayim Dov) Friedberg, Toldot ha-defus ha-‘ivri be-Polanyah (Tel Aviv, 1950), pp. 4–27; Zeev Gries, Sifrut ha-hanhagot: Toldoteha u-mekomah be-ḥaye ḥaside R. Yisra’el Ba‘al Shem-Tov (Jerusalem, 1989), pp. 38, 45–70; Zeev Gries, “Ha-Defus ke-emtsa‘i kesher ben kehilot Yisra’el ba-tekufah ha-semukhah le-gerush mi-Sefarad: Hakdamot le-‘iyun ve-diyun,” Da‘at 28 (Winter 1992): 11–12; Zeev Gries, The Book in the Jewish World, 1700–1900, trans. Jeffrey M. Green (Oxford, 2007), pp. 69–90; Marvin J. Heller, Printing the Talmud: A History of the Earliest Printed Editions of the Talmud (Brooklyn, N.Y., 1992), pp. 367–396; Raphael Nathan Nata Rabbinovicz, Ma’amar ‘al hadpasat ha-Talmud: Toldot hadpasat ha-Talmud (Jerusalem, 1951/52), pp. 79, 85, 225.



Translated from Hebrew by Jeffrey Green