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From Sea to Shining Sea: A Trio of Firsts

"Firsts" are dear to the hearts of bibliophiles and book collectors. Three such firsts are part of the Library's Hebraic collection: the first Hebrew book, the first Yiddish book, and the first Talmudic commentary by American authors published in the United States.

The colophon of Avnei Yehoshua by Joshua Falk, New York, 1860 reads:

I give thanks that it was my good fortune to be the typesetter of this scholarly book, the first of its kind in America. Blessed be the God of Israel who surely will not deny us the Redeemer.

This commentary on the Ethics of the Fathers is the first book written in Hebrew to be published in America other than the Bible and prayer books. its author was born in Poland in 1799, arrived in America in 1858, served briefly as a rabbinic functionary in Newburgh and Poughkeepsie, New York, and became an itinerant preacher. He died in the year of the book's publication, while on a visit to a daughter in Keokuk, Iowa.

The typesetter, Naphtali ben Katriel Shmuel of Thorn, added a colophon to this commentary on the Ethics of the Fathers, Avnei Yehoshua by Joshua Falk, expressing his gratitude that it was his good fortune to set in type the first Hebrew book written and published in America. The author, an itinerant preacher, came to America in 1858, two years before its publication, and died in Keokuk, Iowa, in the year of its publication.

Joshua Falk, Avnei Yehoshua (The stones of Joshua), New York, 1860. Hebraic Section.

Jacob Zevi Sobel (1831-1913), born in Lithuania, received rabbinic ordination and taught at a yeshiva, but, turning away from orthodoxy, he went to America in 1876. A year later, he published a small volume of poems in Hebrew and Yiddish, Shir Zahav li-Khevod Yisrael ha-Zaken (A Golden Song in Honor of Israel, the Ancient), New York, 1877, which has the distinction of being both the first Yiddish book and the first book of Hebrew poems published in America. The poems, really not much more than doggerel, celebrate the Jewish people, America, and the Hebrew language. On the title page is a poem in German:

Oh say it to all,
Open and free;
A Jew I am,
And a Jew I will be!

and a poem in Yiddish (translated from the Hebrew):

Israel, the Ancient

These golden songs,
 I wrote, O brothers mine,
To prove and demonstrate
With energy and might:
The poems our people write
Are important, noble, great!

Our holy tongue,
For which we long,
Blossoming in flower
Uplifts the Jew,
With power true,
To courage, pride and power!

Sobel spent his last years in Chicago, teaching Hebrew and writing for the Hebrew and Yiddish press.

Being the first book of Hebrew poems and the first Yiddish book published in America is the double distinction of this small volume of poems by Jacob Zevi Sobol, Shir Zahav li-Khevod Yisrael ha-Zaken (A Golden Song in Honor of Israel, the Ancient), New York, 1877. The poems in Hebrew and Yiddish are poems of praise of the Jewish people, the Hebrew language, and America. The Hebrew poems, though not distinguished, do convey the intended satire and irony; the Yiddish versions are in a stilted Germanic Yiddish, which the practitioner thought cultured, but which the great writers in Yiddish inveighed against as crude and artificial.

Jacob Zevi Sobol, Shir Zahav li-Khevod Yisrael ha-Zaken, New York, 1877. Hebraic Section.

Masekhet Bikkurim min Talmud Yerushalmi (Tractate "First Fruits" of the Palestinian Talmud), Chicago, 1887 and 1890, is the first printing of a section of the Talmud in America. Published with three commentaries by Rabbi Abraham Eliezer Alperstein of Congregation Ohabei Shalom Mariapoler (Lovers of Peace of Mariapol) in Chicago, the title-page text is in an artistic frame of base and columns, topped by crowned lions supporting a majestic crown. The typography, in the classic style of Talmudic printing of text surrounded by commentary, compares favorably with the finest European typography. In the Introduction, Rabbi Alperstein commends friends in New York, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, and Montreal who made the book's publication possible, and also extols his congregation for its warmth and generosity.

Tractate Bikkurim (First Fruits) of the Palestinian Talmud, printed in Chicago in 1887 and again in 1890, is the first Talmudic tractate to be published in America. It is the distinction of Rabbi Abraham Eliezer Alperstein, the publisher and author of the commentaries which accompany the text, to be the first American Talmudic scholar to have his commentaries printed here.

Masekhet Bikkurim (Tractate First Fruits), with Commentaries by Abraham Eliezer Alperstein, Chicago, 1890. Hebraic Section.

In the second printing, the ninety-six pages remain the same, but the title page now has a brief Hebrew poetic dirge added:

Favored was I by the Lord
In days of wretched poverty,
In the country of my wandering,
In the city of my distress and disaster,
My honor was cast to the ground,
My glory violated.
Robbed of my abundance and increase,
My house lacked for food.

It was not God's doing, but the work of his formerly extolled congregants, whom he now calls, in a new Hebrew Introduction, "wild boars." There is also an errata list of no less than 258 typographical errors. Sad indeed were the scholarly rabbi's days in Chicago; his subsequent career in New York was more tranquil and prosperous.

Sources: Abraham J. Karp, From the Ends of the Earth: Judaic Treasures of the Library of Congress, (DC: Library of Congress, 1991).