Wednesday, August 1, 2018

People of the (Printed) Book

Johannes Gutenberg, credited as the developer of the printing press, published the Gutenberg Bible in 1445. The printing technology transformed the way people learned. International literacy and access to knowledge exploded in a way the world had never seen.

The “People of the Book” also saw an opportunity to spread Jewish knowledge and joined in the new printing endeavor. In 1483, Joshua Soncino established a printing press in Soncino, Italy (60 KM east of Milan) and published the first tractate of the Talmud (Berachot) a year later, which included the commentaries of Rashi and the Ba'alei Tosafot. This print house also claims to have produced the first printed Hebrew Bible with vowels. Publishing the Talmud on a larger scale, while maintaining the Soncino’s layout of the Talmudic text surrounded by the commentaries, was accomplished at the Venetian press of the non-Jewish printer, Daniel Bomberg, beginning in 1520.

Five years after Soncino established a printing press in Italy, Joseph Caro was born in Spain. His family migrated through Turkey, and Caro eventually ended up in Safed, in northern Israel. He became an expert both in mysticism and halacha (Jewish law). In 1522, Rabbi Caro began writing a major halachic work which aimed to codify Jewish law based on the three great halachic works that preceded his own, namely, the codes of Rabbi Isaac Alfasi (1013-1103) of Morocco, Rabbi Moses Maimonides (1135-1204) of Egypt, and Rabbi Asher ben Yehiel (1250-1327) of both Germany and Spain. Rabbi Caro’s commentary on the Arba Turim of Rabbi Jacob ben Asher (1269-1343) ultimately became the Shulchan Aruch (prepared table), an authoritative work on Jewish law especially for Sephardic Jews. On the 2nd of Elul 1555, due to the presence of a printing press in Safed, Rabbi Caro’s monumental work was printed and disseminated to the entire Jewish world. This allowed Rabbi Moshe Isserlis (1530-1572) of Kracow, Poland, to publish the Ma’pah (table cloth), which added emendations to the Shulchan Aruch, noting the differences in law and custom for Ashkenazic Jews.

Due to the historical and cultural consensus around the Shulchan Aruch/Mapah, and the fact that it was the first major halachic work written after the development of the printing press, it became the authoritative work on Jewish law.

A few years later, on the 20th of Av, 1558 (corresponding to August 4), the Zohar was printed for the first time.


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