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 Historical Geography of Jewish Printing

Within forty years of the invention of printing in the mid-fifteenth century, Hebrew books were produced using this new technology. Through the second half of the fifteenth century, Hebrew printing was restricted mainly to the Italian and Iberian peninsulas, where some 180 Hebrew titles were issued. While Hebrew printing ceased in Spain and Portugal after the expulsion of the Jews in 1492, it quickly spread to the Ottoman Empire, North Africa, and Central and Eastern Europe. By the end of the sixteenth century, Hebrew printed books were being produced throughout most of the Jewish world.


In many ways, the history of Hebrew printing is the history of the printers themselves, both Jewish and non-Jewish. Many of these early printers distinguished their work by using special devices or emblems which served as their individual marks. The first Hebrew book with a printer's mark dates from 1487. These trademarks were an adaptation of a practice used by medieval artisans and building owners to identify their handiwork or mark their property. In Hebrew books, as in others, printers continued to use these devices or emblems as their trademarks down to the nineteenth century.

The Soncino Family
  The Soncinos, named for a town in Italy in which they were active, founded one of the most dynamic printing houses of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, establishing presses from Italy to Egypt and Turkey. In Italy in 1484, Joshua Solomon Soncino (d.1493) issued the first work from the press, Tractate Berakhot of the Babylonian Talmud. Soncino placed commentaries on the page alongside the text of the Talmud, creating what would become the standard format for all Talmud editions. Joshua Solomon's nephew, Gershom ben Moses (d.1534), emerged as one of the most skillful and prolific printers of his period. Between 1489 and 1534, Gershom Soncino printed over one hundred volumes which appeared not only in Hebrew, but also in Greek, Latin, and Italian. As a result of the constantly-shifting political situation, Soncino and his press wandered throughout Italy and eventually left for the Ottoman Empire, where he established a printing press in Salonika in 1527 and another in Istanbul in 1530. After his death, his son continued his printing endeavors in Turkey, and his grandson, Gershom (d.1562), established the last Soncino press in Egypt in 1557.
Daniel Bomberg (d. 1549 or 1553)   Bomberg was one of the first Christian printers of Hebrew books and one of the most influential of all Hebrew printers. Born and raised in Antwerp, Bomberg settled in Venice where he established his printing press. Bomberg was the first to publish Mikraot Gedolot, the Bible with the rabbinic commentaries that served as a model for many future editions. As a result of the success of this publication, he printed two complete editions of the Talmud. Bomberg's pagination of the Talmud has become standard. His placement of commentaries surrounding the text, following the work of Joshua Solomon Soncino, has also become canonical. This format has influenced the appearance of many other types of Jewish literature as well. Although Bomberg's fortunes appear to have declined as a result of competition, his successors, nevertheless, lauded him for his distinctive style.
Gershom ben Solomon Kohen (d.1544)

  In 1514, Kohen joined a consortium of four craftsmen and two backers in Prague to form the first Hebrew printing press in Eastern or Central Europe. Kohen appears to have played a particularly important role in this group: on the cover page of the Prague printing of the Pentateuch there was an ornamental representation of hands held in the position for the priestly blessing, a symbol of membership in the priestly class (of which Kohen was a member). After this consortium split up in 1522, Kohen and his brother established their own press, at which they produced the earliest printed Haggadah with illustrations in 1526. That same year, Kohen secured monopoly rights for Hebrew printing in Bohemia. Producing more prayer books, Talmudic works and Pentateuchs than the Prague community could absorb, the Kohen family distributed their publications throughout Eastern Europe.
Paulus Fagius (1504-1549)

  Fagius is one of the prime examples of the important role played by Christians interested in Hebrew and Judaica for the spread of Hebrew printing. Born in the Palatinate, Fagius was a professor of Hebrew at Strasbourg and later at Cambridge. More importantly, he established a Hebrew press in Isny, Bavaria, where he appointed his former Hebrew teacher, Elijah Levita, as supervisor. The inscription on Fagius's printer's mark declares, "Every good tree gives forth good fruit." The Fagius printing press spread Hebrew books throughout the Rhineland. In addition to the publication of various Hebrew books, the major contribution of Fagius's press was the publication of numerous Hebrew texts with a Latin translation and commentary. Fagius began the republication of Me'ir Nativ, a Biblical concordance, which was completed after his departure for England by the well-known Christian Hebraist, Johannes Reuchlin (1455-1522).
The Proops Family

  Solomon Proops (active 1704-1734) and his sons Joseph, Jacob, and Abraham were the most important Ashkenazi printers in Amsterdam in the eighteenth century, and their family business survived until 1849, specializing in liturgical works. Under Solomon Proops in 1730, the press issued the first sales catalog of a Hebrew publisher. Their printer's mark also indicates priestly origin.
The Bloch-Frankl Family   This family dominated Sulzbach printing from the end of the seventeenth century to the middle of the nineteenth century. Beginning with Moses Bloch, his son-in-law Aaron Frankl, and Aaron's son Meshullam Zalman (active 1721-1764), the press specialized in relatively inexpensive popular works, especially liturgy. The Bloch-Frankls engaged in a bitter competition with the Proops family during the eighteenth century which culminated in an unsuccessful legal attempt by the Proops to shut down the Sulzbach press.
Bibliography:   Posner, Raphael and Israel Ta-Shema, eds. The Hebrew Book: An Historical Survey. Jerusalem: Keter, 1975.
    Yaari, Abraham. Hebrew Printers' Marks: From the Beginnings of Hebrew University Press Association, 1943.

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