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All That’s Fit to Print

The Gemara in Bava Metzia 29 offers a surprising insight about books.聽 After a Mishnah that discusses the proper care of lost objects, the Gemara asks what is to be done if a lost pair of Tefillin is found and the finder needs Tefillin. The answer is that one should put them on immediately and set aside money for the owner to get other ones. The Gemara contrasts that to the law about books, where one is limited in their use, for fear that they will be harmed and asks why there is a difference. The answer? Tefillin can easily be obtained, books are rare and hard to replace!

鈥淎baye said: Phylacteries are available at the house of bar 岣vu, [where they are produced in large quantities,] but scrolls are not available鈥 (Bava Metzia 29b)

In our world, where street libraries proliferate and books are left out on the curb, this is a strange pronouncement. For us, it is the Tefillin that are the rare and expensive (and sometimes sentimental) item, books are commonplace. But in the time of the Gemara, books were hard to find. They had to be copied painstakingly by hand, requiring time and money (see here). Most people had very few manuscripts or books. Learning was oral or communal. Remember the story about Rabbi Hiyya and how he would teach six students who would then teach the others:

Rabbi 岣yya said to Rabbi 岣nina: . . . And I go to a town that has no teachers of children in it and I write the five books of the Torah for five children. And I teach the six orders of the Mishna to six children. To each and every one of these children I say: Teach your order to your friends.鈥 (Ketubot 103b)

Books were so valuable that there is a debate in halacha about whether one must lend out her books. The Gemara in Ketubot offers high praise for book lenders:

鈥溾橶ealth and riches are in his house, and his charity endures forever鈥 (Psalms 112:3) . . . This is one who writes scrolls of the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings, and lends them to others.鈥 (Ketubot 50a)

But the rabbis disagreed over whether one really is obligated to do so. Rabbenu Tam argued that lending books is not just praiseworthy but an obligation, so that others could study, but not everyone agreed with him. Scholars would collect books over the course of a lifetime. A famous peripatetic scholar named Judah Leon Mosconi in the 14th century amassed a library of one hundred and fifty books that were catalogued and sold after his death and that was considered an enormous collection.

The world of books turned upside down in the middle of the 15th century when the printing press and movable type were invented. Johannes Gutenberg in Germany (and perhaps others, around the same time) created individual metal pieces for letters. They could be assembled quickly and then covered in ink and 鈥減ressed鈥 to create books. Before that, printing was only of woodblocks or other large designs. Gutenberg鈥檚 innovation meant that instead of a few pages being written carefully every day by a scribe or forty pages hand printed, thirty-six hundred pages could be printed a day! By the year 1500, twenty million books had been printed, by 1600 over two hundred million.

TentotwoData from: Buringh, Eltjo; van Zanden, Jan Luiten: “Charting the 鈥淩ise of the West鈥: Manuscripts and Printed Books in Europe, A Long-Term Perspective from the Sixth through Eighteenth Centuries”, The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 69, No. 2 (2009), pp.聽409鈥445 (417, table 2), CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

The printing press has rightfully been called one of the greatest innovations of the past millennium. It meant that books went from being rare, expensive items owned by the elite to cheap and easy to acquire items that could be found in every home. While this revolution was important all over the Western world, it held particular power among the Jews, the people of the book. Jewish printing presses (in conjunction with Christian owners, since Jews did not have the rights to print on their own) opened almost as soon as Gutenberg鈥檚 invention came out. As Jews were blocked from joining German printing guilds, some left for Italy where the rules were (slightly) more relaxed. One of the most prominent of the Jewish printing families was the Soncino dynasty, who took their name from the Italian town where they settled.

Soncino printer’s mark

Gershom Soncino, 1483, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Israel Nathan began the printing dynasty with his son Joshua Solomon and published the first Bible in Hebrew as well as the first tractates of the Talmud that use the layout we are familiar with today, with Rashi and Tosafot on the margins of the page. In the introduction to one of the Soncino volumes, the printers explain what they are doing.

鈥淢any try to find the word of God and cannot because they cannot afford to buy books and so cannot enter the portals of wisdom. . .so he [Israel Nathan] called his son and instructed him to build an empire and raise up wisdom by printing books with two purposes: to quickly make many books so the land will be filled with knowledge, and to make them less expensive than hand-written books. . .鈥

Soncino laid the groundwork for the Jewish printing world but it was his non-Jewish competitor, Daniel Bomberg, who really brought the Talmud to the masses. He saw the potential in the Jewish market, and working with Jews as well as Jewish converts to Christianity, he printed two works that had an enormous impact on the Jewish world. One was the Chumash, the Pentateuch, with commentaries, called Mikraot Gedolot, a format which is still used today. His innovation there was to add in chapters and verses. Until then, Jews only divided the books by their portions (parsha) and not by chapters, which were taken from the Christian Bible.

In the 1520s, Bomberg printed a set that would have even greater impact: the entire Talmud. He used Soncino鈥檚 layout but added page numbers which had never existed till then. This pagination is one which we still use today:

Bomberg Talmud

Daniel Bomberg, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

But if we want to see the Gemara that we are familiar with, we need to go forward more than three hundred years to 1863. Here a heroine enters our story. Jewish women were very active in the printing business; in fact Avraham Yaari lists one hundred and eighty six women (including Christians) who were involved in the printing business from its earliest days until the 1920s. The most famous Jewish woman printer was the Widow Romm, otherwise known as Devorah Harkavy Romm. The Romm family press was run by her husband and his brothers in mid-nineteenth century Vilna. When David Romm died, Devorah took over, naming the press the Widow and Brothers Romm printing press. The Widow Romm was known throughout Jewish intellectual circles. She published sacred and secular Hebrew books but she is most famous for what is today known as the Vilna Shas, the layout of the Gemara that all daf yomi learners are familiar with:

Public domain

Did the Widow Romm learn Gemara herself? I would venture to say no but her innovation and entrepreneurship are still with us today. Long live the printed word!

Shulie Mishkin

Shulie Mishkin made Aliyah from New York with a Master's degree in Jewish History from Columbia University. After completing the Ministry of Tourism guide course in 1997, she began guiding professionally and has since taught and guided all ages, from toddlers to retirees. Her tours provide a complete picture of the land of Israel and Jewish heritage, with a strong reliance on sources ranging from the Bible to 19th century travelers' reports. Alongside her regular guide work, she teaches "tour and text" courses in the Jerusalem institutions of Pardes and Matan as wel as the Women's Bet Midrash in Efrat and provides tours for special needs students in the 鈥淒arkaynu鈥 program. Shulie lives in Alon Shvut with her husband Jonathan and their five kids. Shulie Mishkin is now doing virtual tours online. Check out the options at
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