Jewish Printing

The social and intellectual changes brought about by the advent of the printing press.

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It was in sixteenth‑century Venice, therefore, that the classical Jewish library was established. By flooding the market with enormous quantities of low-­priced books (particularly the Pentateuch and prayer books) for the general public, Italian printers secured the capital necessary for the production of expensive editions for which there was less of a demand. The Jewish book market was thus considerably enlarged and its products standardized.

Moreover, this mass production of Hebrew books for daily religious use resulted in a social transformation similar to that which was accomplished in Christian society by the translation of the Bible into vernacular languages: it made the Scriptures accessible to all, enabled everyone to understand the prayers and follow the reading of the Torah in the synagogue, thus becoming an active participant. For the middle and lower classes, this constituted a veritable revolution.

In the second half of the seventeenth century, the center of Jewish printing moved to northwestern Europe in accordance with the general European economy. Amsterdam, a commercial metropolis and a meeting place for Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jewry, replaced Venice as the major center of Hebrew printing. But soon other centers began to emerge in Germany: in Frankfort on the Oder, Frankfort on the Main, Berlin, Hamburg, and other cities. The decline of the printing industry in eastern Europe caused by the Thirty Years' War and the massacres of 1648‑1649 brought experienced workers to these new establishments as well as many a Jewish author in search of a publisher.

In the west as in the east, printing in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was less important to the literary elite who had done quite well in the era of the manuscript, than to the second‑rank intelligentsia. Itinerant preachers, half‑learned teachers, and pen‑pushers of all kinds, were intoxicated by the printing revolution. The massive output of works composed by men who despite modest intellectual abilities, were enthusiastic, imaginative, and creative, gave birth to new literary genres which radically trans­formed Jewish culture.

This article is reprinted with permission from A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People edited by Eli Barnavi and published by Schocken Books. © 1992 by Hachette Litterature..

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Eli Barnavi is the Director of the Morris Curiel Center for International Studies and a Professor of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University