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Judaica Online Exhibitions
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From Written to Printed Text:
The Transmission of Jewish Tradition

An Exhibition of Books and Manuscripts
from the Library of the
Center for Judaic Studies

The Word of God: The Hebrew Bible

As the central text for both Judaism and Christianity, the Hebrew Bible was the Jewish book best-known to Christians. Although the Talmud and its commentaries were primary texts for Jewish higher education, the Bible was studied and learned by Jews in a wide variety of contexts: elementary and adult education, the weekly reading of a portion of the Pentateuch and of the Prophets in the synagogue, and sermons preached in the synagogue.
The first physical manifestation of the text of the Hebrew Bible was on scrolls, and the Torah scroll containing the first five books remains in use for the weekly synagogue reading. Although the codex did not come into general use by Jews until the ninth century, well after the rest of the western world had adopted it, the use of the codex for non-ritual purposes soon became standard. The oldest biblical manuscripts now extant date from the end of the ninth century, and the first complete text that we have dates from the beginning of the eleventh. The copying of Bibles continued by Jews throughout the Middle Ages, and illuminated versions began to appear in the mid-thirteenth century in Northern Europe, Spain, and Italy. The iconography in these works often incorporated motifs from rabbinic commentaries.
In studying the Bible, Jews followed Christians in adding their comments to the text in margins. At first, these marginalia were added in a haphazard manner and were difficult to read for those who came later. By the thirteenth century, the format of these marginal commentsthe "gloss"had been standardized and an aesthetically pleasing layout had been developed among Christians. Likewise, Jewish scribes in the Middle Ages began to produce Bible manuscripts with marginal commentaries. Printing was immediately recognized as a way to disseminate scripture and commentaries and the format of a central text and marginal glosses was adapted to the new technology. The first printed Hebrew biblical text was an edition of the Psalms, printed in Bologna in 1477. In 1482, the first complete Pentateuch was printed in the same city along with the Aramaic translation (Targum Onkelos) and the commentary of Rashi, the eleventh-century French exegete.
Items on Display:


Printed -- Figure 14 -- Manuscript
Medium Res (22 Kb)
High Resolution (276 Kb)


Printed -- Figure 14 -- Manuscript
Medium Res (23 Kb)
High Resolution (276 Kb)

1. Torah and Haftarot.
Manuscript on parchment with interwoven printed leaves.
Spain. Thirteenth Century.
Figure 14.

This manuscript containing the five books of Moses as well as the weekly readings from the Prophets was produced in Spain in the thirteenth century. Shortly before the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, six pages from a printed Hebrew Bible were interleaved in 1488. The printer of that edition, Eliezer Alantansi, used a typeface based on the same regional script used in the manuscript. A cursory glance may not be enough to distinguish the printed page on the top from the manuscript page on the bottom

Figure 15
Med Res (31 Kb)
High Res (295 Kb)
2. Torah, Nevi'im, Ketuvim.
Brescia: Gershom Soncino, 1494.
Figure 15.

In 1488, the first complete Hebrew Bible was printed by Joshua Soncino and his nephews, Moses and Gershom. As with other works published by the Soncino family, this Bible, published by Gershom, was printed without commentary. Six years later, the present small-size edition, without decoration, was published. These portable editions proved very popular, and one copy even found its way to Saxony, where it was used by Martin Luther in making his German translation of the Bible.


Figure 16
Med Res (41 Kb)
High Res (314 Kb)
3. Moses bar Nahman (Nahmanides).
Hidushe ha-Torah.
Lisbon: Eliezer Toledano, 1489.
Figure 16.

This edition of the exegesis of Nahmanides (ca.1195-ca.1270) is one of the first printed commentaries to the Torah. The biblical text is not included with the commentarythe reader would have had to make reference to another book for the text of the Bible. The typeface is an adaptation of Spanish rabbinic script. The only decoration in the book occurs on the title page and on the first pages of the different books of the Torah, as seen here at the beginning of the book of Numbers. Rubrication, the encasing of initial letters or words within a floral design, was a common technique.


Figure 17
Med Res (38 Kb)
High Res (310 Kb)
4. Biblia Rabbinica.
Venice: Daniel Bomberg, 1524.
Figure 17.

At the same time that the 1517 edition with David Kimhi's commentary (shown earlier) was being printed, Bomberg and his assistants were also publishing what was to become one of the most famous of Hebrew printed Bibles. In 1516-1517, the first edition of Bomberg's Biblia Rabbinica (Mikraot Gedolot) was published with the commentaries of Rashi (1040-1105) and Abraham Ibn Ezra (1092-1167) on the Torah; Rashi, Kimhi, and Gersonides (1288-1344) on the Early Prophets, and Rashi and Eliezer of Mainz (12th century) on the Later Prophets, in addition to the Aramaic translation. The placement of commentators from different periods and different locales (including Muslim Spain, Provence, Northern France, and the Rhineland) on the same page was a novel development in the history of Jewish books and in the transmission of Jewish learning.

Bomberg printed this work with a Christian audience in mind; he included an approbation by Pope Leo X and prominently featured the name of the editor, a Jewish convert to Christianity. Shown here is the second edition of 1524-5the "Jewish" version. This version included prefaces by two prominent Italian Jews, Joseph Sarfati (d.1527), a physician, poet, and philosopher whose father had been Pope Julius II's personal physician, and Jacob ibn Adoniyahu, a rabbi who served as a text editor for Bomberg. Also included is a list of the weekly Torah readings. The usefulness of this work for scholarly study of the Bible was recognized quickly and this format became popular with later adaptations including additional commentataries. The popular image of the commentary swallowing up the text can be seen here in this page showing the beginning of the ten commandments.

5. Biblia Latina cum Glossa Ordinaria Walafridi Strabonic aliorumque et interlineari Anselmi Laudenensis.
Strassburg: Adolf Rusch, not after 1480.
(Special Collections, University of Pennsylvania Library)

In the twelfth century, patristic and post-patristic Christian commentary on the Bible was collected and redacted into an integrated work, the Glossa Ordinaria, which served as a standard reference text for Christian scholars. This copy of the editio princeps by Rusch, a paper merchant who became an early entreprenuer in the printing industry, is a reminder that the format of central text and surrounding commentary was not limited to Jewish scribes and printers.


Figure 18
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High Res (271 Kb)
6. Psalterium, Hebreum, Grecu[m], Arabicu[m], & Chaldeu[m].
Genoa: Petrus Paulus Porrus, 1516.
Figure 18.

Although some bilingual Bibles were produced by medieval scribes, print made possible the inclusion of many languages on one page. These masterpieces of scholarship were produced by and intended for Christian scholars with humanistic interests. In this early example, produced by Petrus Paulus Porrus, the Psalms are printed in Hebrew, in a literal Latin translation, in the Vulgate translation, in the Greek of the Septuagint, in Arabic, in Aramaic translation, and in a Latin translation of the Aramaic. Included as well is a Latin commentary.

Bibliography: Beit-Arie, Malachi. Hebrew Manuscripts of East and West. London, 1992.
Smalley, Beryl. The Study of the Bible in the Middle Ages. Oxford, 1983.
"The Bible." in R. Posner and I. Ta-Shma, eds. The Hebrew Book. Jerusalem, 1975

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