Reprinted with permission from Eli Barnavi’s A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People, published by Schocken Books.
The appearance of the printing press in Europe [in the mid-1500’s] coincided with a major turning point in Jewish history. Two great centers of medieval Jewish culture–in the Iberian Peninsula and in German cities–were wiped out by expulsions. New centers were emerging in their place: in northern Italy, Bohemia, Moravia, and Poland for Ashkenazi Jewry; in central Italy and in commercial cities in western Europe and the Ottoman Empire for Sephardi Jewry.
The printed letter arrived at precisely the right time, as the classification and organization of the enormous literary corpus inherited from the Middle Ages was becoming an urgent task. The medieval canon of texts was primarily based on local traditions; now this was changed and a new canon was created, based on the printed word. Furthermore, the Hebrew printing press increased the Hebrew readership, transforming the composition of the intellectual elite. In short, as in non‑Jewish society, printing caused a major revolution which was social as well as intellectual.
Conceptually, the Hebrew incunabula (“cradle books,” printed in the fifteenth century) still reflected the era of manuscripts. Early books were printed with no title page or pagination, and in small editions. The majority consisted of books needed for daily use, such as prayer books for various rites, collections of religious precepts, Talmud tractates, and biblical commentaries–above all, Rashi’s commentary. The latter, a monumental work by the eleventh‑century erudite scholar from Troyes, became the principal textbook for Torah study throughout the Jewish world, and was printed in at least six editions before 1500.
Hebrew printing shops mushroomed within a very short time. Italy was the earliest and largest center of Hebrew book production, supplying intellectual nourishment to the entire diaspora. Istanbul and Salonika, where refugees from Spain established the first Hebrew presses in the Ottoman world, and Prague, Cracow, and Lublin in Ashkenaz, produced works intended mainly for local consumption. In addition to religious handbooks, the printing press in each of these places issued a wide variety of works which reflected the local tastes of the time.
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