Judaica Online Exhibitions

Penn Library Exhibitions

Printers Mark by Van Bashuysen
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 Fonts and Formats of Jewish Printing

In addition to being shaped by the various personalities involved in early printing, the format of the Hebrew printed page was also informed by the fact that the printing press allowed sacred texts to appear for the first time on the same page with their commentaries. Throughout the centuries, Jews have commented on their sacred texts and these interpretations have played a critical role in the transmission of Jewish tradition. Despite their central role in transmitting Jewish culture, commentaries were never considered as canonical text. Consequently, they were often produced as separate reference works to be used when studying sacred texts. With the advent of printing, it became more common for commentaries to be printed alongside the sacred texts instead of separately. To differentiate between the central text, most commonly the Bible, Mishnah or Talmud, and their commentaries, printers used different typefaces. The two typefaces used most often by the printers to differentiate between the text and its commentary were derived from the Hebrew manuscript tradition: the square typeface, based on the Assyrian (ashuri) typeface used for Hebrew letters in the Torah scroll, and the more rounded typeface based on the Spanish cursive style for writing Hebrew. At one point, both these typefaces were used for both the central text and the commentary. Over time, however, printers developed a convention for the utilization of these typefaces so that the reader would be able to distinguish the central text from the commentary in any work: the square typeface became exclusively associated with the sacred text while the rounded typeface was used for commentaries.
Typefaces were not only used to differentiate between texts and commentaries but also became the common way for printers to distinguish among different languages. It was not uncommon for Jews to speak two languages, such as Yiddish and Hebrew, and their "internal bilingualism" was reflected in their printed texts. The production of bilingual Yiddish and Hebrew books offers a fascinating study of how printers adapted the typefaces they had traditionally used to differentiate between text and commentary to also differentiate between two languages. In the manuscript tradition, the letters for both Hebrew and Yiddish were shaped in a rounded style which contrasted with the square Assyrian script of the Torah scroll. With the advent of printing, however, Hebrew passages were conveyed exclusively through square type, while portions in other languages, such as Yiddish, were printed using special letters similar to the old style of rounded written ones
The many uses of these typefaces are reflected in the terms used to describe these typefaces throughout the centuries. In the fifteenth century, the typeface which bore striking resemblance to written letters was termed masheyt; after printers started using it for commentaries, it became known as "Rashi script." Then, when the "Rashi" typeface was adapted to convey Yiddish quotes in the production of Yiddish texts for women, it became known as vabertaytsh, literally meaning "women's Yiddish translation."

Assyrian: Square Typeface   

Vabertaytsh: Yiddish
Cursive Typeface

Masheyt: Cursive Typeface
["Rashi Script"]

Items on Display:    

Figure 1
Med Res (48 Kb)
High Res (217 Kb)

  1. Levi ben Gershom (Gersonides).
Perush `al ha-Torah.
Mantua: Abraham Konat, 1474.
Figure 1

Written between 1329 and 1338 by the Provengal exegete, philosopher and mathematician, Levi ben Gershom (d. 1344), this commentary was printed by Abraham Konat in 1474. Konat used the more rounded cursive letters, common in the Hebrew written manuscript tradition, for the printing of this biblical interpretation. This typeface would later emerge as the characteristic typeface for all commentaries

Figure 2
Med Res (48 Kb)
High Res (217 Kb)
  2. Bahya ben Asher.
Sefer R[abbenu] Bahya... la-Torah.
Naples: Azriel Gunzenhauser, 1492.
Figure 2

This commentary on the Pentateuch was composed in 1291 by the exegete and kabbalist, Bahya ben Asher (d. 1340). This work uses the square Assyrian type, commonly found in the Torah scroll and later used exclusively for sacred texts. In addition to the printer's use of the square type, this work is also distinctive in its elaboration and illustrations on the first page.
    3. Talmud Bavli.
Printed Fragments, Morocco and Portugal. Fifteenth Century.
[Facsimile edition: S'ridei Bavli: Fragments from Spanish and Portuguese
Incunabula and Sixteenth Century Printings of the Babylonian Talmud
H. Dimitrovsky, ed.
New York: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1979.]

These reproductions of early printed Talmud pages demonstrate how under unfavorable conditions, early printing did not always utilize divergent typefaces to differentiate between commentary and text. Rather, printers in this early periodespecially after the expulsion from Spainused whatever typefaces were available to them. The fragment from Portugal used the Assyrian square type both for the sacred text of the Talmud and for the surrounding commentary. The Talmud page from Fez, which is an excerpt from Tractate Rosh Hashannah, dealing with the Jewish New Year, uses the Spanish cursive style typeface for both the commentary and the sacred text.
    4. Torah Nevi'im u-Ketuvim: 'im ha-Targum ve-'im perush Radak.
Four volumes.
Venice: Daniel Bomberg, 1517.

Including both an Aramaic translation and the commentary of Rabbi David Kimhi (Radak, ca.1160-ca.1235), this edition of the Hebrew Bible was published by the famous Christian printer Daniel Bomberg in 1517. The Biblical text and the Aramaic translation were printed in square script with vocalization, while the commentary at the bottom of the page is printed in an adaptation of Spanish semi-cursive script, now popularly called "Rashi script." The script is given this name today (although not at the time) because it is the typeface used by Bomberg for the commentary of the famous eleventh-century exegete, Rashi (Rabbi Solomon Yitzhaki, 1040-1105), in his editions of the Bible and the Talmud a few years later. Since then, "Rashi script" has become an often-used typeface for commentaries and marginalia in Hebrew books.
    5. Torah, Nevi'im u-Ketuvim.
Translated into Yiddish by Y. Vasehausen.
Amsterdam: Immanuel Athias, 1679.

This Bible, published by the famed Amsterdam Athias family, was one of the first verse by verse translations of the Bible into Yiddish. While it contains no commentaries, it is set in a typeface similar to the "Rashi script." The reason for this is that the work is composed in Yiddish, and not in the "holy" language of Hebrew. Adapting the distinct typefaces used to differentiate between sacred text and commentary, printers also differentiated between Hebrew and Yiddish.

Figure 3
Med Res (31 Kb)
High Res (310 Kb)
  6. Seder Tekhinot u-Vakashot.
Sulzbach, 1730.
Figure 3.

In addition to including the standard corpus of Ashkenazic prayers, this German eighteenth-century prayer book also dedicates its final section to various Yiddish devotional prayers, commonly known as tkhines, from the Hebrew word (tekhinot) meaning supplications. While the Yiddish tkhines were considered semi-sacred, the freer style and use of the Yiddish language distinguished the tkhine from the traditional Hebrew prayer. In this edition, each tkhine is first presented in Hebrew, the "Holy Tongue," and then is translated below into Yiddish. The differentiation between the Hebrew and Yiddish prayer is conveyed through the use of the square typeface for Hebrew and the rounded typeface for Yiddish. On this page, we have various prayers a mother would recite on behalf of her children. It is interesting to note that the prayer in the middle of the left side, which requests that it should be God's will that each son and daughter be able to find a suitable match, is not followed by a literal Yiddish translation of the Hebrew verse. Rather, the Yiddish translation incorporates the Jewish legend that God ordains for each child a match while they are still residing in their mother's womb and urges each mother to pray that her child's match be revealed.
    Posner, Raphael and Israel Ta-Shema, eds. The Hebrew Book: An Historical Survey. Jerusalem: Keter, 1975.
    Weinreich, Max. History of the Yiddish Language. S. Noble, trans. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980.

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