Women of Italy
In the making of the Jewish book, women have played a role as
publishers, printers, patrons, and writers.
The first woman involved in printing Hebrew books was
Estellina, the wife of the physician Abraham Conat, who introduced Hebrew
printing in Mantua and published six Hebrew books there in 1474-77. A printing
press had been established in that cultured city in 1471 and others followed. As
David W. Amram writes in his The Makers of Hebrew Books in Italy:
At one of these presses Conat caught the inspiration to print
Hebrew books, and communicated it to his worthy helpmeet, Estellina. She printed
on her own account. . . "Investigation of the World" by Jedaiah
Bedersi and in the colophon she writes, "I Estellina, wife of my master my
husband, the honored Rabbi Abraham Conat, may he be blessed with children and
may his days be prolonged, Amen! wrote this book, 'Investigation of the
World"' . . . She "wrote" the book, as her husband said,
"with many pens without the aid of a miracle," for the art had not yet
invented the word "printing" by which to define itself.
It seems clear that she had a hand in the printing and
proofreading, both of which the word "wrote" connotes. It is most
fitting that the Mantua of the Gonzagas, rulers who were patrons of the arts, be
the place where a Jewish woman entered into Hebrew bookmaking. The Jews of that
city were the most integrated into the general culture of any contemporary
Jewish community, women as well as men. "The libraries of the women of
Mantua," Shlomo Simonsohn writes in his History of the Jews in the Duchy
of Mantua, "testify to their enlightenment and their literary
interests." The Library of Congress has a fine copy of one of the volumes
produced by the Conats, the Commentary of Rabbi Levi Ben Gershon on the
Among the earliest of Hebrew books is this commentary on the
Pentateuch by Levi ben Gerson (Gersonides), printed by Abraham Conat in Mantua,
c. 1476. Abraham's wife, Estellina, apparently participated in the publication
of the books issued by her husband and thus becomes the first of a notable list
of women involved in the printing and publication of Hebrew books. We see here
the end of Genesis.
Peirush ha-Ralbag 'al ha-Torah (Commentary of Gersonides
on the Pentateuch), Mantua, c. 1476.
Rare Book and Special Collections Division.
Estellina had a hand in the actual production of books. Dona
Reyna Nasi, a century and more later, was purely the patron publisher. Her
mother was one of the most remarkable women of her time, Dona Grazia Mendes,
whose wealth and diplomatic acuity had enabled her to transfer both family and
fortune from Christian countries in Europe, where a Marrano past threatened
their security, to the relatively safe Ottoman Empire.
Dona Reyna was wife to her cousin, Don Joseph Nasi, who rose
in that empire to become Duke of Naxos. Nevertheless, upon Joseph's death in
1579, the sultan expropriated much of the widow's wealth except for the 90,000
dinars stipulated in her ketubah (marriage contract). With this inheritance,
Dona Reyna established a Hebrew press, first in her palatial residence in
Belvedere, then in Kuru Tschechme, a suburb of Constantinople. Of the books
printed in the first press, the Library has a copy of Torat Moshe (c.
1593-1595), the commentary on the Pentateuch by Moses Alsheikh, "a resident
of Upper Galilee."
After the death of her husband, Don Joseph Nasi, Duke of
Naxos, the widow Dona Reyna established a Hebrew press in her home in Belvedere
which she continued in Kuru Tschechme, a suburb of Constantinople. Shown is the
title page of Iggeret Shmuel, a commentary on the Book of Ruth by Samuel di
Uzeda, which states: "Printed in the publishing house and with the type
font of the noble lady of noble lineage, Reyna, widow of the Duke and Prince in
Israel Don Yosef Nasi by Joseph ben Isaac Ascaloni."
Samuel di Uzeda, Iggeret Shmuel, Kuru Tschechme, 1597.
A commentary on the Book of Ruth by Samuel di Uzeda, Iggeret
Shmuel, the first book published by Dona Reyna's relocated press in Kuro
Tschechme in 1597, is in the Library's Hebraic Section. It is fitting that a
book about the biblical Ruth, a woman convert to Judaism, is published by Reyna,
a woman who returned to Judaism from an apostasy imposed on her by her
ancestors. The title page acclaims the patron-publisher: "Printed in the
house and with the type of the Crowned Lady, crown of descent and excellency
Reyna (may she be blessed of women!), widow of the Duke, Prince and Noble in
Israel, Don Joseph Nasi of Blessed Memory."
The tractate Shekalim of the Palestinian Talmud, with
the commentary of Elijah, the Gaon of Vilna, prepared for the press by his
student and disciple Israel ben Shmuel of Shklov, "now a resident of Upper
Galilee [Safed]," and published with the "generous monetary aid of the
noted philanthropist Bluma, daughter of Mordecai, and her sons."
Masekhet Shekalim, Minsk, 1812. Hebraic Section.
More than two centuries later another woman patron, also a
widow, Bluma daughter of Mordecai, widow of Eli ben Shalom, published a book in
Minsk, Russia, in 1812. It is a commentary on the tractate Shekalim of the
Palestinian Talmud, whose editor, Israel ben Shmuel of Shklov, is a resident of
the Palestinian "Upper Galilee," i.e., the city of Safed. Like Dona
Reyna, Bluma used a portion of her inheritance to become a patron of the Hebrew
book, but unlike Dona Reyna, Bluma was a humble woman, unknown to history,
except for this one act of pious philanthropy, which gained her some small
measure of immortality.
Sources: Abraham J. Karp, From
the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress,
(DC: Library of Congress,