A Book Lover Caresses His Sefarim
My collection of the earliest printed Hebrew book has a special mission and message for us. The books represent the earliest printings of Hebrew books, mainly printed during a period when the Church, through pope after pope, tried to eradicate Judaism by destroying our literature. They knew that without Jewish education Judaism could not exist. In order to throttle its continuation, the supply of sacred books had to be abolished. This was done by papal bulae calling for the total confiscation of Hebrew books and confining them to flames. Starting in 1243 in Paris, generation after generation of popes have attempted this diabolical scheme of cultural genocide.
It is therefore a near miracle that regardless of these restrictions and prohibitions, Jews risked everything to replenish the ravaged and pilloried treasures. Whenever a load of a few thousand Hebrew manuscripts was consigned to the flames by the ferocious Church, diligent, pious Jewish scribes rushed to replace them -- often at great personal risk. The editions printed during these horrible papal reigns are therefore especially precious to me, since they demonstrate better than any other human manifestation the rebellion and resilience of the Jewish spirit in resisting any attempt to destroy us. Such destruction throughout history has often taken physical form: auto-de-fes during the Inquisition; massacres during the Crusades; forced conversions; impossible living conditions in cramped ghettos; or in our times, through gassings and cremations. Yet our physical and spiritual survival, our comeback in even greater strength than before, is the greatest testimony to our abiding faith and to the supernatural assistance of the Almighty, who guides our history.
A large part of the library represents printings made during the so-called Renaissance period. It is this period that produced the most hateful, ferocious anti-Semites among the popes, who knew no limit to their obsession with destroying Hebrew books. Among them, Pope Clement VIII (1592-1605) and Paul IV (1555-1559) were probably the history’s greatest haters of Jews, and their edicts directed against Hebrew books are therefore the most extreme. Yet, it is during their reign in the end of the 16th century that many of the Hebrew books in this catalogue were printed -- a real miracle and great testimony to Jewish self-sacrifice for our heritage and religion. These heroes of our culture deserve the homage that my library bestows, for they brought about the victory of Judaism over Christianity. My library shows how the Church failed in its diabolical efforts to snuff out Judaism. It is paradoxical that the Vatican today spreads the fable that the Renaissance popes, including Clement VIII, were "lovers of Hebrew books" and therefore collected them for the Vatican Library. Anyone reading the bull with its detailed instruction for the total eradication of Hebrew books, whether in the possession of Jews or non-Jews, and the severe punishment for anyone maintaining such books, knows that his bull makes a mockery of the Vatican claim.
From among 42 incunabula in our family library printed before 1500, Sefer Ha-Iqarim (Sorcino 1485) is unique in that the ink of the censor has faded away sufficiently to show what it was he tried to shield from our impressionable eyes. The most interesting censored section is a description of the mid-summer and mid-winter (Christmas) holidays, which Josef Albo ascribes to ancient pagan rites that the Christians adopted. As a Scandinavian born in Sweden, I can testify to this conclusion. Mid-summer is celebrated throughout Scandinavia with dances and songs to the sun, while Christmas still bears the pagan name "Jul" (Yule in English).
Kol Bo (Italy 1490) contains a section taken from the Tashbatz of R. Meir mi-Rothenburg. The book contains many other works and follows the pattern of some manuscripts of the time, which combine various works in one volume. It reminds me of one of my most cherished manuscripts, dated 1313, containing not only a machzor, which constitutes half of the manuscript, but also a large variety of works ranging from R. Nachshon Gaon to the contemporaries of R. Meir of Rothenburg. Thus, it contains the Tashbatz with several hundred paragraphs that I published in a study for Mekitze Nirdamim.
I was of course thrilled to discover parts of the Tashbatz inside the Kol Bo, too, but I soon found that it was a reduced version with only some 60 paragraphs.
I am particularly proud of the incunabula of works of Maimonides in my library, since our Foundation is deeply involved in research on hundreds of manuscript fragments of his Mishneh Torah, mainly from Yemen but also from Spain. This work has been going on for several years and consists of comparing these many fragments from the Middle Ages with our known printed editions and listing all the variants. My son, Jamie,z"l, was deeply interested in the works of Maimonides and had already published as an undergraduate student a study on Love of G-d and Fear of G-d in Maimonide’s writings. We placed a memorial to the tombstone of David ha-Naggid, the grandson of Maimonides. (I recovered this tombstone in Cairo, which had been stolen from Tiberias in 1932.))
When it comes to the prints of 231 books between 1500 and before 1600, I find it extremely rewarding to study some of the colophons and other notations reflecting on the lives and feelings of the printers’ proofreaders or patrons as well as the owners.
The Arba Turim (Augsburg, 1541) bears a notation that it belonged at one time to the "chaste and beautiful widow, Leah, the daughter of Moshe."
The book, Meturgeman (Isny, 1541), related in the colophon how the printer felt the urgency to complete the printing of the book, since he felt he was getting older and older, with his eyesight diminishing. Hence, he feared that he would soon be unable to continue his work. He wished to end his days in his native Venice together with his aging wife. "I will not move my feet from her any more. May she close my eyes, and I will close her eyes. Only death will divide us from one another."
In the colophon to the book Shaarey Dura (Basel 1599), the printer expresses his hope that anyone seeing the printed book "will put forth gold from their pockets ... not only for the price of the book but even double the value in price."
The Machzor Rome (Bologna, 1546) contains a prayer by the printers to their public in moving words: "Unto you, members of the congregation of holy men, holy seed, we raise our voices saying, ‘Please buy our holy work at its full value, although its value is priceless. No homeowner, whether rich or poor, can afford to stay without this machzor and its commentaries because only through it can you learn true fear of G-d and the meaning of our holy men. It will be a merit in this world and the next.’"
The many works printed by Daniel Bomberg in my library are of course of special interest to students of these famous printings. Although a Christian, he lists his name in the Jewish fashion, as "Daniel ben Corniel Bomberg of Antwerp, who now lives in Venice, the great city ... and because of my love for the city, I have appointed wise and precious, artistic men for the printing in a perfect and complete manner." He dates his work by the year, according to the rule of the different Doges (Dukes of Venice), for example, "Year 16 of the Doges Leonardo Loreano the year 278, the 27th Kislev (1517)".
We can never be thankful enough to Daniel Bomberg. He invested and risked his money in printing a mass of Hebrew books at a time when Jews were not willing to do so (although this might have been the case because the Jews were afraid of the papal prohibition and confiscations). Could it be that Bomberg "fronted" for the Jews? Next, we owe thanks to him for standardizing the pagination of all tractates of the Babylonian Talmud. Unfortunately, there was no Bomberg to do the same for the Palestinian Talmud, which therefore has remained without a standard set of pages.
The lament of printers is sometimes heard about the poor quality of the texts from which they had to copy. Thus, the proofreader for Bomberg in one instance complains that although the text offered him was supposed to be flawless, he found 27 mistakes, while in the Tosefta there "was no house in which there was no dead."
Another proofreader, Racanati (Bomberg, Venice 1523), was more philosophical, "Since the purpose of man’s creation is to reach perfection, which results from the passage from the potential to the actual, in the intellectual conception, I therefore determined to proofread this work printed by Daniel Bomberg."
Some colophons demonstrate that sometimes very few copies of a work existed and that a particular work -- even the most important works in our literature -- risked being completely lost if it had not been printed at that time. For example, Sifre (Bomberg, Venice 1546) tell us: "The books Sifra and Sifrey were extremely rare and their memory was about to be extinguished, it if had not been for the prince of medical doctors, R. Yaakov Manten, the Spaniard who decided to publish from oblivion for the benefit of the public the books that were hidden in his treasure."
Three volumes of Maimonide’s Mishneh Torah printed in Venice in the 16th century are particularly important because of the running marginal notes, handwritten by the great scholars in Hebron in the 18th century. I have attempted to publish these glosses by themselves. Interestingly, these were the scholars whose names also appear on letters of introduction for emissaries traveling from Hebron to Europe and the Caribbean. I own such letters of introduction printed in Italian and Portuguese, respectively, introducing R. Hayim David Azulay on his trips abroad for the benefit of the old Hebron community. In one of these volumes, a temporary bill of divorce was written by hand and given by Benjamin ben Yaakov to his wife, Luna, to go into effect if here husband did not return from overseas in 12 months. This document reflects the hazards that the pious emissaries of Hebron undertook on their voyages for their fellow Jews.
The danger of plunder of books is also shown in some cases. Thus, in Klaley Hatalmud (Mantua 1593) the printer laments the loss of most of his library, "I bring this book to print, which remained to me as a remnant from many other books and other property that the Ishmaelites (Arabs) in Egypt consumed in their inequities, criminality and trickery."
Printers also publicized the "copy-right" protection that rabbis would give them: "The rabbis and leaders of Constantinople issued a strict rule that this book not be re-printed for 10 consecutive years. If a Christian should print it, no Jew would be permitted to buy it."
Some prints were dedicated to the king; for example, a book printed in Cracow is dedicated to King Siegmund Augustus, along with blessing for his royal reign. Other books were printed under King Siegmund III and under King Philip.
Prints from Riva de Trento are particularly dear to me because I cannot forget the breathless beauty of this little Italian town on the deep blue Lago di Garda. In 1928, when I was not even 6 years old, our family spent Pesach in Merano and took a car trip to Riva -- at that time a rare way to travel. I never forgot the cry of exhilaration that was let out at the sight of that beautiful lake. In Riva I remember the miniature mandolin made of amber that my father bought for my mother there. Only many, many years later did I learn that the cardinal in Riva had sponsored a Hebrew printing press. In fact, it was here that a work by Josef Caro was printed in his own lifetime.
An un-named later owner wrote these heart-rending words in the margin on page 67: "Woe and woe unto me. Woe unto my soul. I never thought that my home would be destroyed, and the wicked Neolog (the Hungarian term for reform) men would enter and defile my entire family. May G-d have mercy on me speedily."
Early Salonica prints are interesting in that the censor was especially ferocious in purging out not only possible Jewish references to Christianity but also Moslem reference to Ottoman rulers. Thus in Yalkut Shimoni (Salonika 1523) the censor painted over the name of the Sultan, whose name included Abdullah!
If you love your books, you can never get bored with them. Not only is the content a permanent stimulation to study, but knowledge of such details as their date, printing place, names of typesetters and proofreaders, and the personal notes of printers and owners, are an inexhaustible source of discoveries and information. No wonder that, as a book owner, you develop almost personal affinity and love for your sefarim. You often feel like caressing them, as a beloved possession. At that point you know that you are a real book lover.
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