Title page of Mistere Pariz (Paris Mysteries), translated by Kalman Schulman (Vilna: Romm Press, 1858). This Hebrew translation of Eugène Sue’s Mystères de Paris enjoyed great popularity and was reprinted many times. (YIVO)

Find more information about

at the Center for Jewish History:

NOTE: you will be redirected
to the Web site for the

Romm Family

Family of printers and publishers in Vilna. The Romm family’s printing house, the largest in Eastern Europe in the nineteenth century, operated continuously for more than 120 years. In the central period of its activity, beginning at the end of the 1860s, the printing house underwent a process of modernization—overseen by Shemu’el Shraga Feigenzohn, a rabbi, entrepreneur, and administrator—that was a key to its success. Feigenzohn directed the firm for two decades beginning in 1867; he also wrote a history of the Romm printing house under the pseudonym Shafan ha-Sofer.

The founder of the Romm family printing house was Barukh ben Yosef, who began work as a printer in Ozery, near Grodno. In 1799, he established a printing house in Vilna, meanwhile continuing to work with partners (including one named Simḥah Zimel) in Grodno. Barukh’s son, Menaḥem Mann Romm (Mann), oversaw the work in Vilna, enlisting an expert typefounder, Lipman Mets, who created type exclusively for the press, creating a form known as “Vilna type.” Mann also became the exclusive printer for the Russian authorities in Vilna, which involved his printing, among other things, Christian prayer books, in which his name appeared on the title page as Manis Romm.

In 1834, Mann and Simḥah Zimel decided to print the Babylonian Talmud (together with the Tosefta’ and Alfasi’s code). They hired as editor the scholar Betsal’el Katz, whose name appeared only in the last tractate to be printed, Ḥulin. Their publication of the Talmud led to a controversy with members of the Shapira family in Slavuta, who argued that the Romm house had trespassed on their rights and that they had been harmed economically, since their own edition of the Talmud had not yet been completely distributed.

In 1836, Tsar Nicholas I ordered the closing of all Jewish printing houses except for one in Vilna and another in Zhitomir. For 5,000 rubles, the Romm family obtained the right to continue as the only Hebrew printers in Vilna. Subsequently, Menaḥem Mann and Simḥah Zimel issued a proclamation in May 1837, reassuring subscribers to the Talmud and other works (including ‘En Ya‘akov and the Shulḥan ‘arukh) of their commitment to the printing of these books. But in 1841, before their edition of the Talmud was completed, the printing house burned down. A year later, Menaḥem Mann died; his son Yosef Re’uven (d. 1858) succeeded him and continued to work with Simḥah Zimel. The Polish government, however, forbade the import of books, including from Lithuania, a factor that led to a loss of subscribers; at the same time, government censorship became a major imposition. The censors, mainly converts from Judaism, sabotaged the text of the Talmud mercilessly, reducing its marketability. At the same time, editions of the Talmud were being printed in Prague (1839–1846), Czernowitz (1840–1849), and Vienna (1840–1849). Simḥah Zimel died in 1845, and Yosef Re’uven completed the publication of the Talmud in 1854.

Title page of Masekhet Shavu'ot, a tractate of the Babylonian Talmud (Vilna: Widow and Brothers Romm, 1883). (YIVO)

When Yosef Re’uven died, his eldest son, David (1825–1860), inherited the business, though the title pages continued to use the phrase “In the Printing Shop of Yosef Re’uven Romm.” In 1858, publication of a new edition of the Talmud was begun by the Shapira family in Zhitomir; a year later, David Romm also began publication of an edition of the Talmud. The Zhitomir edition was completed in 1864; the Romm edition in 1866. Sales of the latter proceeded slowly. After David’s death, his widow, Devorah (d. 1903), began to manage the company, assisted at first by her scholarly father, Yosef Betsal’el Harkavy (d. 1864). The company’s income was divided among Devorah, who received 40 percent, and David’s brothers, Ḥayim Ya‘akov and Menaḥem Gavri’el, who each received 30 percent. (Menaḥem also took over the Russian-language printing business when the Russian authorities demanded the separation of the Russian and Hebrew printing operations, for purposes of taxation and so that the government could more easily control the number of books published.) From 1871, the title pages of books published by the company carried the words “The Printing House of the Widow and the Brothers Romm” (see image at left).

Alexander II rescinded the limitations on Hebrew printing in 1862: in exchange for an annual tax of 20 rubles for every manual printing press, the industry was open to all. (For rapid, steam-driven presses, the price was 120 rubles for a small press, 240 for a large one.) Three former Romm employees thereupon opened their own, rival press in Vilna together with Shemu’el Fuenn. Fuenn wanted to print Haskalah literature, but the production of daily and holiday prayer books—in direct competition with the Romms—proved more lucrative. In response, the Romm house, which was on a firm financial footing, lowered the prices of their books almost to their cost. Thus, the price of the prayer book Korban Mosheh was reduced from 2.5 rubles to 0.5 rubles. Romm also began to print Haskalah books, but these generally had poor sales.

Competition with rival printers in Vilna, however, did less harm to the Romm firm than an internal rivalry that broke out in 1866 between the brothers and Devorah. Eventually the business was divided among them, and it dwindled considerably in importance. Devorah turned to Feigenzohn in 1867 and asked him to take over management of the firm. He worked to resolve the differences among the owners and simultaneously to overhaul and modernize the technologies and procedures. Feigenzohn introduced stereotype printing, the process by which pages are cast in sheets of lead, making it possible to preserve editions of books and reprint them rapidly if demand arose without having to set the text in type again. He traveled to Berlin to buy the new machinery and hired professionals to operate it. A six-week strike by typesetters, alarmed at the prospect of losing their jobs, was resolved by means of an increase in their salary.

Feigenzohn also worked to overcome the obstacles posed by the censor—at that time, the convert Iakov Brafman—by providing him with a regular “salary,” in exchange for which Brafman would examine every book intended for publication before it was printed. Feigenzohn introduced the policy of proofreading material three times to ensure the accuracy of the texts. Books were redesigned to attract buyers, and a policy of acquiring exclusive rights to publication was put in place.

Feigenzohn directed the project of what came to be known as the Vilna Talmud, a production characterized by scrupulous proofreading and the addition of many variant readings and commentaries. At his behest, manuscripts held by various libraries were copied in order to add early, previously unpublished commentaries to the new edition. At the height of its production, more than 100 printers and 14 learned proofreaders were involved in the project.

There was a substantial response to the appeal for subscribers in the fall of 1879. Demand for the new edition was so great that 22,000 copies of the first volume were sold in the first year (1880). Sales were hindered by pogroms in southern Russia the next year and by fires that damaged the plant and books in the warehouses. A decline in the number of subscribers and sales ensued, but there were still 13,000 subscribers when the final volume was printed in 1886.

Menaḥem Gavri’el transferred management of the Russian-language press to outside administrators in 1901. When the new managers gave printing materials to revolutionaries, the authorities became aware of the practice. Badly frightened, Menaḥem Gavri’el sold the Russian part of the business for a pittance.

After Feigenzohn left the printing house in 1888, it had gone into a period of decline, producing just a single new edition, the prayer book Kolbo (1895). Subsequently, Feigenzohn resumed management of the firm in 1903, the year of Devorah’s death. At the time of his return, the printing house held thousands of folio pages of the most important canonical works in stereotype, 15 presses were still in operation, and the firm held the rights to print classics of Jewish literature. What it lacked was capital.

A small investment came from Bentsiyon Aharonovitsh, who financed the printing of several orders of the Mishnah, but more than his assistance was needed. At a meeting of Jewish leaders in Saint Petersburg, the rebbe of the Lubavitch Hasidic movement, Shalom Dov Ber Shneerson, horrified at the prospect of the closure of the Romm house, persuaded Baron David Gintsburg to rescue the shop, and Gintsburg invested 75,000 rubles. Feigenzohn paid the debts of the firm, but additional backing dissolved when Gintsburg died in 1910. World War I caused a further decline in the firm’s fortunes, and it passed into the hands of its creditors, who operated it until 1940.

The importance of the Romm press in the cultural history of the nineteenth century cannot be overstated. During its existence, the Romm printing house published more than 1,400 books in both Hebrew and, to a lesser extent, Yiddish, in a variety of literary genres. Books devoted to Kabbalah and halakhah appeared alongside the novels of Avraham Mapu and the stories of Ayzik Meyer Dik. Romm published Yitsḥak Ber Levinzon’s prolegomenon, Igeret ha-besorah (1824), to his extended program for the reform of Jewry, Te‘udah be-Yisra’el (1827, 1856). ‘Azaryah dei Rossi’s sixteenth-century translation into Hebrew of the Letter of Aristeas (Greek, second century BCE) was printed in 1818 and entitled Haderat zekenim. Translations from world literature into Hebrew and Yiddish soon followed. The first of these was a translation of the journal of a seventeenth-century Dutch traveler to the Far East, W. Bontekoe, into Hebrew, apparently by Menaḥem Mendel Lefin, Oniyah so‘arah (1823), published together with a translation of one of Joachim Heinrich Campe’s works, Masa‘ot ha-yam, by Mordekhai Aharon Gintsburg. The latter’s translation of Campe’s Masa‘ Kolumbus was published the same year, but the name of the publisher did not appear on the title page. A year later, Romm published Gintsburg’s Yiddish translation of the same work.

Romm published Sefer ha-berit by Pinḥas Eliyahu Hurwitz (1765–1821) in 1818. This was an idiosyncratic, encyclopedic work combining philosophical and kabbalistic topics with reports on scientific discoveries. It was an important source of scientific information for many readers who knew only Hebrew and Yiddish. Much farther from normative literature was the introduction to algebra, Mosde ḥokhmah by the maskil Ḥayim Zelig Słonimski (1834). Much of the Haskalah literature failed to find a wide market, often remaining unsold.

The Romm house continued to print rabbinic literature alongside works calling for reform. Several collections of the teachings of Eliyahu, the Gaon of Vilna, were printed as well as a number of editions of Ḥaye adam (1810, 1819, 1834), the popular halakhic work by Avraham Danzig. All this was in addition to canonical works such as the Talmud and the Shulḥan ‘arukh, prayer books, and Pentateuchs.

Romm printed some Yiddish books as well, including Eli‘ezer Paver’s Gdulas Yoysef, which they reprinted several times (1817, 1822, 1833). Tkhines were published in Tikun shelosh mishmarot (1833). A complete list of Romm publications would reflect well the trends and cultural developments of East European Jewry in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Suggested Reading

Samuel Shraga Feigensohn, “Le-Toldot Defus Rom,” in Yahadut Lita, vol. 1, pp. 268–302 (Tel Aviv, 1960); Bernhard (Ḥayim Dov) Friedberg, Toldot ha-defus ha-‘ivri be-Polanyah (Tel Aviv, 1950), pp. 99, 125–131; Zeev Gries, Ha-Sefer ke-sokhen tarbut ba-shanim 460–660 (1700–1900) (Tel Aviv, 2002), pp. 117–126, 133–134, 179–180, also in English as The Book in the Jewish World, 1700–1900 (Oxford, 2007), pp. 113–123, 129–130, 173; Pinḥas Kahn, “‘Al devar ha-defus shel Rom be-Vilnah,” Kiryat sefer 10 (1933–1934): 249–250; Pinḥas Kahn, “Le-Korot Bet ha-Defus shel Rom be-Vilnah,” Kiryat sefer 12 (1935–1936): 109–115; Ḥayim Lieberman, “‘Al defus ha-‘almanah veha-aḥim Rom,” Kiryat Sefer 34 (1959): 527–528; Raphael Nathan Neta Rabbinovicz, Ma’amar ‘al hadpasat ha-Talmud; Toldot hadpasat ha-Talmud (Jerusalem, 1951/52), pp. 134–135, 156–180, 223–245, 250.



Translated from Hebrew by Jeffrey Green