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Jewish Public Library

Maḥzor Bene Roma
(Venice: Daniel Bomberg, 1526)

About The Printer

Daniel Bomberg (c. 1483-c.1553), van Bombergen, was the son of Cornelius, a Christian merchant whose Dutch ancestors, already extremely wealthy, emigrated to Antwerp in the early 15th century and became owners of lucrative real estate there. Cornelius expanded the family firm’s interests: one of Daniel’s brothers worked with precious stones, and Daniel and a third brother became leading figures in international trade, primarily in textiles. As Cornelius and his sons all had trade contacts in Venice, he sent Daniel there in 1515 in hopes of further enlarging the business. ​By doing so, he also laid the groundwork for the establishment of one of early modern Europe’s best known Hebrew presses.

In Venice, Felice da Prato, a Jewish apostate turned Augustinian monk considered “The Jewish Scourge”, introduced Bomberg to the idea of Hebrew printing. This was despite — or perhaps because of — da Prato’s known proselytizing and intolerance in his sermons towards unconverted Jews. Bomberg’s printing partnership with da Prato only lasted a few months, producing but a handful of books, but he also connected with members of Venice’s printing authorities. In turn, they influenced the Venetian senate to grant Bomberg, in December 1515, an exclusive 10-year Hebrew book printing licence. This made him both Venice’s first Hebrew printer and first non-Jewish printer of such books.

Daniel’s ability to finance the new press from his own resources, and those of his family and business connections, made it extremely profitable almost immediately. That, along with his exclusive licence, resulted in his press monopolizing Hebrew printing in Venice for at least 2 decades.

Until 1548, Bomberg printed 228 titles that circulated among Italian and European Jewish communities, as well as those in Egypt, Africa, and India. Producing new editions of previously published material, he also actively sought out unknown manuscripts, and edited and created new commentaries for seminal Jewish texts including the Palestinian Talmud, the Rabbinic Bible, and his soon-to-be famous Babylonian Talmud. Like many of his printer contemporaries, Daniel was also a bookseller; here too, he innovated by also selling books produced by presses in Bologna and Eastern Europe. At times, he also leased his press out to other persons.

​Primarily, Bomberg printed bibles, prayer books and halakhic (Jewish law) works. Of those, his best known was the 1st complete Babylonian Talmud (1520-1523), produced with Pope Leo X’s support. Along with the Talmud’s Mishnah and Gemara, it also included commentaries by Rashi and the Tosafists. Nearly every subsequent printed Talmud has followed Bomberg’s layout and pagination.

Bomberg’s Talmud edition was relatively uncensored, perhaps due to his being Christian. Nevertheless, it still engendered considerable controversy. Italy’s Soncino family had first printed Talmudic tractates; it claimed Bomberg had clearly copied their edition’s texts and layouts. As well, the papacy’s suspicions towards Hebrew printing increased — despite Bomberg’s cordial relations with the Church — and eventually led to Talmud burnings and bans on Hebrew printing in the 1550s. Bomberg responded to this by backdating new editions of the Talmud.

The scant biographical information available indicates Daniel returned to Antwerp in 1539 and lived there until his death, although his Venice press operated until 1548.

The JPL’s Copy

In 1526, Bomberg printed 7 titles; our library’s copy of the Maḥzor was one of them. It measures 9 x 12.5 x 8 cm, covers included; so while it easily fits into your hand’s palm, you might find it difficult to wrap your fingers around it. That makes it nearly impossible to test its portability as a carry-along prayer book — and perhaps also accounts for its current precarious state, as many contemporaneous books have held up considerably better until now than it or even other works printed but a century afterwards. However, while the book’s overall fragility precludes any detailed page-by-page search for interesting features and distinguishing characteristics, a cursory examination still reveals some fascinating details.

Its original, unadorned dark brown leather binding, along with its spine and pages are all pocked with wormholes. The spine’s leather covering – pitted, discolored and scarred – is so heavily damaged that the strings binding the pages created permanent grooves in it, and the strings and associated glue remain visible on the leather’s back and front because the leather has detached almost entirely from the pages.

The book’s front and back end pages, of similar weight and colour to its other pages, show unerased scoring.

The book also bears several traces of additions made subsequent to its printing. First, the spine bears a piece of paper with faded printed lines and a margin, both in red ink. Marked with considerable worm damage, it contains Hebrew penned handwriting noting the book’s title and its year and place of publication, followed by the handwritten English inscription “Venice 1526/Minhag, Rome” just beneath.

Upon opening the book, a small paper pocket — usually associated with library cards is inserted upside down. A small portion of such a book card is partially but firmly stuck inside the pocket; it bears a handwritten German inscription, likely bibliographical in nature. A double-folded piece of paper is attached to the book card portion. One side of this paper shows German script handwriting similar to that on the book card, again with bibliographical information, e.g. “Poppel-Katalog”. These details suggest another institution or bibliophile’s previous ownership of this copy.

On the paper’s other side, some details indicate it originated as part of a page in a Hebrew book or pamphlet. It includes the Hebrew words Hevrat Sha’are (“Society of The Gates”) in block printed type; the subsequent and now-missing text may have indicated the society’s full name and other details. Beneath these words, a portion of a rectangular bounded, fully black-inked illustration appears. It includes the cursive typeset Hebrew words Tsad tsafon (“Northern side”) inscribed and enclosed with white characters suggesting the full image was once part of a map. On the following page, another inserted paper – similar to that on the spine – contains a handwritten, penned Hebrew date of the book’s printing on both of its sides.

Absent a title page, our copy opens instead with the text proper’s first page, headed by a framed Hebrew word admonishing the reader to “Listen”. The bulk of pages, extremely fragile and brittle, show significant worm damage everywhere that make entire text sections difficult to parse. Some handwritten pages, replacing those originals completely missing, are merely tucked and not properly bound into their proper locations.

Hebrew Printing In Venice

Although the printing press was invented in Germany, and Hebrew printing in Italy first began in Reggio Calabria and Piove di Sacco in 1475, Venice quickly became the world’s preeminent centre of Hebrew printing. During the Cinquecento, i.e. 1500s, Jewish Italy experienced a cultural renaissance despite persecution, expulsion, and book burning. It centred on Hebrew printing: great historical Jewish scholars’ works became widely available as never before, and new collections and commentaries were also prepared and printed. Aside from these intellectual and spiritual motivations, financial interests also certainly drove this developing industry. Its relative lack of competition compared to the non-Jewish Italian printing sector promised entrants larger profits. Consequently even Daniel Bomberg, who founded Venice’s first printing press, vied with many Venetian Jewish tradesmen and rabbis as well as wealthy non-Jews. However, Jews could not own a press, being only permitted employment under a Christian owner’s aegis.

Many Venetian Hebrew printers soon discovered maintaining a printing press far more expensive than starting one up. Numerous small presses would appear, print a single book, and then close. Those who survived, along with several larger, longer-lived presses, also contended without copyright laws not yet envisioned or established. Frequently, competitors found other presses reprinted their publications and ignored any exclusive printing privileges. As it turned out, a major institutional force would make these internal disputes amongst Hebrew printers somewhat moot – the Catholic Church.

Until the mid-1500s, the Church noted the press’s growing power in disseminating information, but exercised fairly benign censorship attempts. However, its anxieties surrounding Hebrew printing increased, and it enacted a series of censorship laws between 1544 and 1545 significantly constraining the field. All books required submission to the Council of Ten for examination; a book not submitted could not be printed or sold; an unapproved printed book was burned, a fine levied against its printer and its author imprisoned for 1 month. Imported books were forfeited, and the importer was fined.

All this did not prevent Bomberg’s press from operating or stop others from opening – including two rival firms whose own dispute would shortly lead to the end of what could be considered Venetian Hebrew printing’s dominant era: the presses of Alvise Bragadin and Marco Antonio Giustiniani.

The dispute began in 1550, when Rabbi Meir of Padua chose Bragadin to print the 6th edition of his commentary on Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah; Giustiniani had published all previous editions. Giustiniani quickly published his own much cheaper similar edition, relegating Meir’s work to an inconspicuous appendix and disparaging its value in a preface. Rabbi Meir then accused Giustiniani of trying to put Bragadin out of business. He then convinced Krakow’s Rabbi Moses Isserles — a leading Judaic authority — to issue a ban against any Jew, on pain on excommunication, publishing books competing with Bragadin’s version until after it sold out. Isserles, unfortunately, also tried enforcing that ban upon the non-Jewish Giustiniani.

Giustiniani then appealed to the Church authorities. He bribed several apostate Jews, eager to prove their loyalty to Christianity, to testify Mishneh Torah itself merited a ban as it blasphemed and defamed their adopted faith. Bragadin countered with similar accusations, supported by similar apostate Jews, against some venerable Hebrew texts Giustiniani had published –some of which he had plagiarized from Bomberg and others’ previous editions.

In the conflict’s wake, Giustiniani closed his press in 1552. However, the opposing apostates’ ongoing zeal led them to offer up more inflammatory evidence of Jewish texts’ anti-Christianity – eventually citing the Talmud. By 1553, this resulted in Pope Julius III issuing a papal edict ordering the confiscation and burning of Talmud copies across Rome. The burnings occurred on Rosh Hashanah that year in market places and city squares. By October, Venice’s Talmuds would suffer the same fate. A year later, Bragadin went out of business; and in 1555, book confiscations and burning spread throughout Italy. That same year, Venice banned Hebrew printing completely until 1563.

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