יום שני ט"ו בתשרי תש"פ 14/10/2019
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In Books

The printing press of Daniel Bomberg

A short while after the invention of the printing press by Johannes Guttenberg, a veritable revolution occurred with the new ability to disseminate sifrei kodesh widely in the Torah world. Jewish publishing houses were founded in Spain and Italy, and sifrei kodesh gradually became items available to the masses. Among the first Jewish publishing houses were the publishing companies of the Soncino and Pava families – these two publishing companies printed hundreds of different sifrei kodesh, and as such, contributed immensely to the spreading of Torah knowledge. An additional publishing house gained fame which operated concurrently with these two others – that of the Christian Daniel Bomberg.

Johannes Guttenberg

Daniel Bomberg was a Christian printer who first began to involve himself in the world of publishing towards the end of the fifteenth century of the common era. Bomberg was born in the city of Antwerp, Belgium, and appears to have learned the printing trade there from his father. Later he went to reside in Venice, where he established a printing press, and one of the topics he focused on was that of Jewish religious books. Bomberg agreed to set up the department dealing with Jewish sefarim after being persuaded by his close friend, the apostate Jew Felix Francis, that there was a need for such a publishing house. Obviously Bomberg’s intentions were not holy – his goal was not the dissemination of Torah but rather the possible financial gain. However, despite this, he did earn for himself the merit of disseminating Torah by means of the many sefarim that emerged from his printing presses.

Since Bomberg was a non-Jew, he was unfamiliar with the Hebrew language, and therefore he hired Christians who were experts in the Hebrew language to help with the printing and with corrections, as well as apostate Jews who still remembered the learning of their youth. In addition, Bomberg had many Jewish workers – at the height of his business’ success, more than two hundred Jews were employed at his publishing house. At one point, Harav Eliyahu Bachur was the head of the Hebrew printing department, who was a renowned expert in Hebrew grammar and language.

In the year 5277 the first two Jewish sefarim rolled off Bomberg’s printing press. The first of these was a Sefer Torah divided into five sections without any additions or commentaries. The second sefer was a Chumash with the commentary of Rashi and Targum Onkelos, together with the Haftaros and the Five Megillos. This edition of the Chumash was the basis for the Mikraos Gedolos which came later; the Five Books of the Torah with many commentaries printed alongside the text of the Torah itself.

Around a year after these two editions came out, Bomberg’s press published the first edition of a Mikraos Gedolos which was arranged by Felix Francis, which incorporated additional commentaries to that of Rashi. At the end of the first volume of this edition, Daniel Bomberg wrote that; “From my youth I have been fascinated with the world, and my soul was disturbed at its lack of wisdom and its youth, and I loved to seek knowledge, all the days of my life, until it was natural for me to consult with my spirit and increase my wisdom, to pursue knowledge and enlighten my days that have passed, to save me from the mud of ignorance, of laziness, and of idleness – and when I considered the matter well, the limited nature of my worth, since the Torah of Hashem is pure and revitalises the soul – and only in the Torah is there a true judgement, to enlighten men’s minds, with all manner of completion and wisdom which all accept as true. And I loved this wisdom with which Hashem endowed me, and I sought out great sages to enable me to print this work, in a complete and upright form, Torah, Prophets and Writings, twenty-four they are, with the best of their commentaries, to provide what my soul had been lacking, to enable her to delve within the Scriptures, and also to enable all others who seek the word of Hashem to consult it.” Another edition of Mikraos Gedolos was published approximately ten years later and became the accepted version of Mikraos Gedolos until modern times.

Several years before Daniel Bomberg established his printing press, the Soncino family had already printed several masechtos of the Talmud Bavli, but a complete set of volumes had yet to be published, owing to the opposition of the Church, which argued that the Talmud contained words of incitement against Christianity. In approximately the year 5280 Bomberg succeeded in receiving permission from the Pope to print the entire Talmud Bavli, and during the ensuing three years, up until the year 5283, all the masechtos of the Talmid Bavli were printed by Bomberg, along with commentaries on the words of the Amora’im. This edition of the Talmud Bavli was subsequently accepted as the standard format for printing the Gemara, with the same arrangement of the Talmud and its commentaries.

Bomberg printed three editions of the Talmud Bavli, and also printed the Talmud Yerushalmi in its entirety. Thus he was the first person to ever publish both of the Talmuds in their entirety. At the end of maseches Megillah which was printed in his publishing house, the editor praised Daniel Bomberg, writing the following; “He exerted himself tremendously to achieve all that he has done, and he dedicated his own money and wealth and sent for a variety of experts, fetching them with the swift riders of Achashveirosh, whose efforts are evident in all these scrolls, in order to achieve this magnificent work.”

The Jews of Venice themselves also contributed to Bomberg’s enterprise, and although he was not of their faith, nevertheless, he earned himself the title ‘Chief Printer’. Bomberg for his part endeavoured to endear himself to the Jewish community, and he was lenient in demanding the repayment of loans he had granted to Jews - and he also sought to employ a large number of Jews in his business. In addition, talmidei chachomim who had their works published by Bomberg greatly valued his press; these are the words of the author of the ‘Mikneh Avraham,’ in the introduction to his sefer; “He is a Christian, and he fears Hashem, although he is not called by the name ‘Yisrael.’ And so I presented my entire work to him… and he printed it, and he learned the Hebrew language in order to glorify it, and his deeds are wonderful and enlightening, bringing wisdom to all.”

Despite the great affection felt towards him by many Jews, others begrudged him his success, and the owners of other printing presses such as the Soncino family accused him of stealing the handwritten manuscripts he worked with, copying them and then printing them as if they were his own property. At one point, Gershon Soncino was even forced to flee Italy in order to save his life, due to the bitter feud that had erupted between the Soncino family and Daniel Bomberg.

Talmud Bavli   

On the 13th of Iyar in the year 5310, Pope Julius the Third decreed that the Talmud be burned. Despite the propagation of the decree, it was not enforced, until a feud between two publishing houses changed the picture. Aside from Bomberg’s publishing house, there were many other European presses in operation that printed Jewish sefarim and were owned by Christians. Two of these were the publishing house of Aloizi Bragdin and that of Marco Antonio Justinian. Bragdin had published the ‘Mishneh Torah’, the ‘Yad Chazakah’ of the Rambam with the commentary of Rabi Meir of Padua and his son Shmuel; his competitor Justinian then made an unauthorised copy of his edition.

Following this occurrence, a feud broke out between these two publishing houses, which was eventually brought before the Pope, by their mutual consent. Bragdin’s representatives then brought a libel before the Pope, saying that the Talmud Bavli that had been printed by Justinian contained in it incitement against Christianity, and therefore it was advisable to prevent its dissemination. As a result of this libel, the Church decided to enforce the decree of burning of the Talmud, and in the month of Cheshvan, the burning of holy sefarim commenced all over Italy. In Rome, Bologna, Venice, Ancona, Ferrara, Ravina, Mantua and many other cities, precious sets of the Talmud were consigned to the flames, and both Jews and Christians alike were henceforth forbidden to have the Talmud in their possession. Only the sefarim of the printer Daniel Bomberg were spared and not burned. During this period, Bomberg’s press was headed by a man by the name of Johann Ramlinus. When the enforcement of the decree commence, Johann did not sit on his laurels, but hurried to the Pope to present him with the original letter Bomberg had received from the Pope, which granted him permission to print the Talmud. Therefore, since his sefarim had been printed with an official license, they were spared from the flames, but nevertheless, it remained forbidden to distribute them and they were locked into storage rooms for many years.
At one point during the sixteenth century of the common era, Bomberg stopped publishing sefarim for unknown reasons, and there are those who assert that he returned to his native Belgium.

(Motty Meringer)