• Image page from a Mikraot Gedolot, namely: Shemot/Exodus 13:4-8 | Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Christian who printed back to front

Tal Hartuv - 4 October 2022

The invention of the printing press in the 15th century changed the world forever. Its inventor was the German bookmaker, Johannes Gutenberg. He made books all the rage. From the reading of books came the furthering of society and Europe was brought out of the dark ages. Gutenberg was an innovator. Not only did he print pamphlets and calendars, he also printed the “Gutenberg Bible.” It was the very first book ever printed.

“The “Gutenberg Bible” was the very first book ever printed”

In a Christian dominated Europe, the Jewish people were not afforded the same rights as the Gentiles. For hundreds of years, Jews had been confined to particular areas of towns. Jews had to wear a “Jewish hat,” Jews had been barred from trading guilds. Jews had been shamed, and all because – as the saying went – “The Jews killed Christ.”

But despite the denial of equal opportunities for Jews, they were the most educated community in all of Europe. Even more surprisingly, the People of the Book given a boost by a Christian book maker. Belgium-born Daniel Bomberg was a devout Christian, and life-time frowned-upon friend of the Jewish people. As a young man, he moved to Venice where he started a printing press. It was there that he met Felix Pratensis. The meeting would change his life and the life of Jews in Europe. Felix was a Jewish-born Augustinian Catholic friar.

In Europe, books were becoming common place but printing Jewish books wasn’t so easy. Jews needed a license from the Church to print. Even when Daniel requested the license he was initially turned down. Astute and street smart, he understood that money talks.

Discarding the legalities and paperwork, Daniel offered the church officials enormous sums of money. And before he could blink, he was granted a ten-year license to print Hebrew books. An entrepreneur, he knew he needed the right people so he got to work immediately by once again bribing Venice officials. This time he paid for a permit to hire “four well-instructed Jewish men.” The Jewish community in Venice had to wear yellow hats. Daniel managed to get them permits to wear black caps like non-Jewish workers.

In 1517, Daniel and his friends printed the first edition of a Rabbinic Bible “Mikraot Gdolot.” Four volumes, it was made up of the Five Books of Moses with accompanying commentaries. The editing was overseen by the Jewish convert Felix Pratensis. Far from perfect, this first edition had numerous errors. Mistakes were fixed and the next editions got better and better.

Daniel’s Hebrew books were the first to have chapter and verse numbers. Although this division of Scripture had appeared in the Christian world three hundred years earlier, Jewish people had not adopted the chapter and verse numbers as part of the Bible itself. Daniel didn’t stop at the Bible. He also wanted to print the tens of volumes that make up the Talmud. For millennia, every Talmud was written by hand. It could take years to complete the entire work.

“Daniel Bomberg’s Hebrew books were the first to have chapter and verse numbers”

Getting approval from the Vatican to print the Hebrew Bible was one thing, but printing the Talmud was another thing entirely. The Talmud had been burned throughout Christian Europe, and was viewed by many Christians as “the work of the devil.” But Daniel Bomberg was never deterred. He wisely cultivated his relationship with prominent Christians and even the Vatican itself. Before long not only did he receive approval from the Pope to print the Talmud, the Pope signed the first edition!

In the book of Psalms, printed years after Daniel’s death, is a dedication that expresses the gratitude of the Jewish community to their Christian friend. The book is lovingly inscribed with the words, “Daniel Bomberg, whose name is known in the gates of justice was great among the Christians.”

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