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Jewish World Review
First printed Torah commentary
Rabbi Yonason Goldson
Judaism's most famous commentary begins revelation of the Oral Tradition
When Biography.com presented its list of the 100 most influential people of the last
millennium, their selection for the Number 1 position was as predictable as it was
appropriate. It's a sad footnote to history that Johan Gutenberg possessed far more
mechanical ability than business sense and died penniless, failing to capitalize
upon his own innovation. Nevertheless, his popularization of movable type that led
to the explosion of information and made possible the Renaissance can hardly be
disputed as the most significant cultural event in contemporary World History.
Its contribution to Jewish society is equally indisputable.
Movable type first appeared as early as 1041, when Chinese printers fashioned
interchangeable clay pieces to replace the clumsy plates that preceded them. It was
not Gutenberg's invention, therefore, but rather his inspiration to apply the
centuries-old technology in Europe, where the Chinese system had either gone
unnoticed or been ignored. Gutenberg completed his printing press, equipped with
wooden or cast metal type pieces, in 1440. His best known creation, the Gutenberg
Bible, began rolling off the presses on September 30, 1452.
It took little time for Jewish publishers to recognize the opportunity offered by
the printing revolution. Scarcely 20 years after Gutenberg's Bible appeared, two
Jewish presses on opposite ends of the Italian peninsula labored unknown to one
another to prepare the first Torah manuscripts for mass production. On the tenth
of Adar 5235 (17 February 1475) Abraham ben Garton published the first volume of
Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) on the Five Books of Moses in the southern town of
Reggio di Calabria. Nearly four centuries after Rashi's passing, the most important
commentary in the history of the Jewish nation became available to the masses. And,
as if he had been brought into the world for no other purpose, its ground-breaking
publisher vanished from history by the end of that very year.
That same year, in July, Meshullam Cuzi published the influential codification of
Jewish law, Arba'a Turim, in the northern village of Piove di Sacco. Italy rapidly
acquired a near-monopoly on Jewish printing and, by 1834, the famous Gershom Soncino
had produced over 100 different Hebrew works. Many interpreted this explosion of
Hebrew publishing as the fulfillment of the prophecy that Torah would become "an
inheritance for the community of Jacob" (Deut. 33:4) and that "the earth shall be
filled with the knowledge of G-d" (Isaiah 11:9).
Within a year of the first popular editions, the Jewish press had expanded to Spain,
soon after to Lisbon, to Fez and, by the beginning of the next century, as far as
Constantinople. The printing industry became known to many as the labor of Heaven.
In 1520, the first printed volumes of the Talmud appeared, published, ironically, by
a non-Jew, a Flemish merchant whose passion for Hebrew texts helped Venice become
the center of Jewish publishing, a distinction it retained into the 18th century.
Partnerships between Jews and gentiles accelerated competition and spurred on the
In 1550, Rabbi Meir Katzenellenbogen produced the first printed edition of
Maimonides's Mishne Torah, the first codification of Jewish law. The original
release of Mishne Torah in 1185 had ignited a ferocious controversy, in part from
Maimonides's decision to omit his sources, but more fundamentally from an
ideological debate concerning the authority of contemporary scholars to restructure
the talmudic presentation of the Oral Tradition. Would not such a codification
encourage the uneducated to take the awesome responsibility of interpreting Torah
law into their own hands? Would it not erode the authority of qualified Torah
As controversial as the Mishne Torah may have been, Maimonides succeeded at the very
least in breaking the taboo against reformatting the Oral Law. Other Torah
luminaries followed with codifications of their own, and the Arba'a Turim (as
mentioned above) became the second Torah volume to receive wide circulation thanks
to Gutenberg's method. But the most dramatic transition came when Rabbi Yosef Karo,
after the success of his commentary on the Arba'a Turim, went on to publish his own
codification of Jewish Law on the second of Elul 1564. By then, it was an idea whose
time had finally come.
Although he was Sephardi, Rabbi Karo's legal major opus, Shulchan Aruch, gained
almost universal adulation even among Ashkenazim, and ran through nine reprintings
in its first 33 years, becoming the first compendium of Jewish law accepted as
authoritative throughout the entire Jewish world. From that point forward, Jewish
law would advance not merely through the written word, but through the printed word
As indisputable as Gutenberg's influence on the written word has been, history came
very close to taking an entirely different path.
In 1444, a decade before Gutenberg, a French goldsmith named Procopius Waldvogel,
from the southern city of Avignon, entered into partnership with a Jew named Davin
de Caderousse. Having heard of Gutenberg's experiments in printing as he traveled
through Germany, or perhaps conceiving the innovation of movable type on his own,
Procopius sought an alliance that would bring his inspiration to reality. Davin, a
dyer by profession, contributed his knowledge of dyes and mechanical devices, while
Procopius fashioned the 27 letters of the Hebrew alphabet, cast in iron. In a
contract that remains intact to this day, Davin certified that he had, on 26 August
1446, received the agreed upon materials to implement the craft of "artificial
It remains uncertain whether Davin envisioned an actual printing press or more of an
archaic typewriter. Either way, as the Jews of Avignon were quite active in the book
trade as binders, parchment procurers, and merchandisers already, Davin seems to
have been eager to capitalize upon a promising new technology.
The business venture, however, was not destined to succeed. Neither Davin nor
Procipius seems to have been satisfied with the contribution of the other, and their
quarrel culminated not merely in the liquidation of their partnership but in a
lawsuit, wherein the court ordered Davin to return Procopius's typeset and forbade
him to disseminate his craft within 30 miles of Avignon.
Whether any Jewish publications actually made it into print from Davin's press
remains unknown. But it's difficult not to imagine how, had events taken a slightly
different course, it might have been a Jew instead of Gutenberg whom we honor for
having given the printed word to the world.
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JWR contributor Rabbi Yonason Goldson teaches at Block Yeshiva High School in St. Louis. Comment by clicking here.
Yahrtzeit of Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch
End of the Great Flood
First Day of Creation
Reprise at Sinai
Tu B'Av: Repentance and the foundations of love
Sin of the Golden Calf: Understanding the how and why and resulting Divine punishment
The day the sun stood still
Nemirov massacres and the Chmielnicki uprising
Independent Judea under Shimon HaMaccabee
The Great Revolt begins
Dedication of new walls of Jerusalem
© 2006, Rabbi Yonason Goldson