Judaic Treasures of the
Library of Congress:
Return to Spain
For a century and a quarter, no edition of the Mishneh
Torah appeared, and but a few of the Tur, but editions of the Shulhan Aruch proliferated.
It had become the widely accepted code, its predecessors of interest only
to students of the Jewish legal tradition. The center of Hebrew printing
had shifted from the cities of Italy, Turkey, and Poland to the
cosmopolitan city of Amsterdam. At the end of the seventeenth century,
Amsterdam's most distinguished printer of Hebrew books was Joseph Athias.
Athias had become a highly successful publisher of
books. For his splendid editions of the Hebrew Bible, he won the
approbation of his colleagues and was honored by the government. As the
century waned, Athias was coming to the end of his career and, as he must
have suspected, to the last years of his eventful life. What more fitting
way for a devout Jew to culminate a career rich in honors and
accomplishments than by crowning it with a monumental edition of the
classic work of a great Jewish scholar for whom he felt a special affinity.
Joseph Athias was born in Cordoba, Spain, in 16 3 5,
exactly 5 00 years after Maimonides's
birth there. As a young man, Athias, like Maimonides, had to flee the city
because of his loyalty to his ancestral faith. After some wandering, he
settled in Amsterdam where, as Maimonides
had done in Cairo, he attained distinction in his chosen calling. He knew
what his crowning achievement should be, an edition of the Mishneh
Torah, which would be the finest ever produced by a Hebrew press.
The most distinguished edition of the Mishneh Torah
is the Athias edition, planned and launched by Joseph Athias in 1698 and
completed by his son Immanuel in 1702. The father was born in Cordova,
Spain, in 1635, just five hundred years after the birth of Maimonides
there, and like him he had to flee persecution as a teenager. This edition,
which set standards for devotion to accuracy and aesthetics in Hebrew
bookmaking rarely equaled, has one more distinguishing characteristic-a
colophon of historic significance. it records, as we can read in the
illustration, that the father and grandfather of the publishers was burned
at the stake in the city of Cordova, "for the sanctification of God's
name," thirty-five years before the date of publication (Moses
Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Amsterdam, 1702. Hebraic Section, Library of Congress Photo).
In the last years of the century, Athias summoned the
most skillful copyists and editors available, gathered the best manuscripts
and combined them with the resources of one of the world's great presses.
Printing began in 1698, but Athias did not live to see the edition's
completion. He must have found some solace in the knowledge that his son
and partner, Immanuel, would see it through. In 1702, a most splendid
edition did appear, its size regal, its paper of the best quality, and its
Hebrew type the finest anywhere. Illustrations were finely engraved. Moses
Spitzer, the foremost authority on Hebrew typography, called this edition
the greatest achievement of Hebrew typography. it is also a model of
careful scholarship, a truly fitting monument to the greatest of medieval
The edition was not only a monument but, alas, also a
memorial. On its last printed page the colophon reads:
This great and noble edition was completed at the
instance and in the printing house of the fine young man IMMANUEL, the son
of the honored elder, JOSEPH RAPHAEL, the son of the martyr ABRAHAM ATHIAS,
who was burned at the stake for the sanctification of God's blessed name in
the city of Cordoba, on the seventeenth day of Tammuz, in the year
of creation, five thousand, four hundred and twenty-seven .*
would have mourned the fact that in the city of his birth, more than five
hundred years after his family was forced to flee from it, Abraham Athias,
a Jew in his seventy-fifth year, was forced to sacrifice his life in fealty
to his faith. Would Maimonides
then not also have rejoiced that Abraham Athias's son Joseph took the
advice Maimonides had offered
half a millennium earlier, to flee the place of persecution and take up new
and creative life in the service of his people and for the glory of God?
This, too, is Kiddush hashem, sanctification of His Holy Name.
*It is remarkable that, 175 years after
all Jews had been expelled from Spain, a descendant of a Jew who had been
forced to convert to the dominant faith still clung to the ancestral faith
with such tenacity and stubborn resolve that he chose martyrdom. And
Abraham Athias was one among many, many martyrs.
Source: Abraham J. Karp, From
the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress,
(DC: Library of Congress, 1991).