Monday, March 5, 2012

The Most Important Hebrew Book Ever Published

by Stephen J. Gertz

"The educated man knows, indeed, from his knowledge of history that the art of Gutenberg saw its inception with a Latin Bible in the middle of the XVth century. Yet what layman knows when the original text appeared for the first time? Not even the bibliophile knows; although a non-Jewish expert, Count Giacomo Manzoni, asserts in his enthusiasm for the book that the first edition of the Hebrew Bible is the most precious book on earth" (Lazarus Goldschmidt).

Ask most people who printed the first Bible and Gutenberg's name will be recalled. Ask them when and they may answer the mid-15th century.

Ask the average person when the first edition of the Pentateuch,  the first five chapters of the Old Testament otherwise known as the Torah or the five books of Moses, in the original Hebrew was first published and you'll draw a blank.

The first printed edition of the Torah in Hebrew, the Bologna Pentateuch, was published on 5 Adar 1, 5242 by the Jewish calendar, January 25, 1482 by the Gregorian.

Not incidentally and who knew, January 25, by biblical calculation, is accepted as Moses' birthday.

Published in Bologna by Abraham ben Hayyim 'the Dyer' of Pesaro, it is considered to be the most important Hebrew printed book ever published. Many Jewish scholars assert that this first edition of the Hebrew bible is the most  precious book on Earth.

The original print run is unknown but only thirty-six copies have survived; the book is rarer than the Gutenberg bible, of which there are forty-eight extant copies, only twenty-one of which are complete.

Of the thirty-six surviving copies of the Bologna Pentateuch the majority, twenty-seven, are printed on vellum (animal skin). The remaining ten copies are on paper, and of those ten copies only three are complete; the others lack leaves. For the number of vellum copies to exceed that for paper copies is an unusual phenomenon. Usually it’s the other way around, with vellum copies in the minority as a special printing. It has been suggested that this reflected the publisher’s desire to honor the text, too holy to be  printed on paper as sifrei Torah (handwritten scrolls).

Another noteworthy feature is that it’s the first Hebrew book with printed vowels, and cantilation signs for the  cantor to vocalize the text. This was a major innovation and challenge to the printer

Further, it’s the first Hebrew edition in which the Biblical text has been combined with commentary and a paraphrase in Aramaic, the commentary above and below the text in long lines, the Aramaic paraphrase, Targum Onkelos, in a column at the outer edge of the page.

This was another innovation. The commentaries on the Torah by Rashi (Solomon ben Isaac), the foremost biblical commentator of the Middle Ages, first appeared in print at Rome, 1470; all Hebrew commentaries were printed separately within the first few years of printing. But printers soon realized that it would be easier to combine texts and commentaries on one page through the flexible medium of composing type. This answered the educational need for texts and commentaries in one volume,  conveniently arranged and formatted.

Publisher Abraham ben Hayyim appears to have begun as a textile printer and bookbinder at Pesaro. In Bologna, working for Joseph Caravita, he showed remarkable skill, being the first printer to find a solution for the difficult technical problem of adding vowels and cantilation signs to the unvocalised biblical text. An earlier attempt, in a folio edition of the Hebrew Psalms, printed by a consortium of printers in 1477, somewhere in northern Italy, was abandoned after a few pages. 

By 1488 Abraham ben Hayyim was a master printer for the famous Soncino family. It appears that it was the famous font designer and cutter, Francesco Griffo da Bologna (c. 1450-1518) ,who solved the problem of integrating vowel and cantilation signs. Griffo, who later worked for the Soncinos, cut all the characters used by Aldus Manutius at Venice, and it seems likely that Abraham ben Hayyim knew Griffo and may have introduced him to the Soncinos, the distinguished Jewish family of Italian printers.

This is, as you might imagine, an exceptionally rare book. Only one copy has come to auction since ABPC began to index auction records in 1923.

It sold at Christie's in 1998 for £370,000 (including premium), slightly less than $600,000.

[BIBLE, in Hebrew -- PENTATEUCH]. Humash ve-Targum u-ferush Rashi. With Aramaic paraphrase (Targum Onkelos) and commentary by Rashi. Edited by Joseph Hayyim ben Aaron Strasbourg Zarfati for Joseph ben Abraham Caravita. Bologna: Abraham ben Hayyim 'the Dyer' of Pesaro, 5 Adar I, [5]242 [January 25, 1482].

EDITIO PRINCEPS, the first printed Hebrew Edition. This copy with leaves varying between 297 x 180 mm and 275 x 180 mm, and containing 212 leaves (of 220, lacking 1/1-4 (Genesis 1:1 - 4:26), 10/5-9 [fols. 82-85] (Exodus 25:12 - 28:5), 14/1 [f. 103] (beginning of Leviticus) and 28/4-6 [ff. 218-220] (including the colophon and the final blank). Leaf 8/7 [f. 69] bound after leaf 9/2 [f. 72]. The biblical text of fols 1-4 and f. 103 has been supplied on unwatermarked paper in an early Hebrew hand, imitating more or less the printed Italian square types of the book and providing no clue as to its derivation.

Two columns. Vocalised biblical text with cantilation signs in one column, surrounded by Rashi's commentary (in long lines) at upper and lower part of the page and by the paraphrase (in a narrow column) at the outer side next to the biblical text. No foliation, signatures or catchwords. Headlines. To reach even lines in the biblical text, one or sometimes two anticipating letters were used at the end of the lines, in the commentary and paraphrase the same design (up to three letters) and abbreviated words were made use of.

Darlow & Moule 5072; Oates 2482; Goff Heb-18; Proctor 6557; Hain 12568; Goldstein 20; Rossi 7; Steinschneider 2; Ginsburg pp.794-802

Images courtesy of Christie's, with our thanks.

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