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The Talmud: Early Editions

For the Jews, the Talmud was not a book of doctrine...but a compendium of laws. At the heart of Judaism is its legal tradition, the Talmud being its indispensable handbook. Compendia of laws are indispensable to a community facing religious suppression and/or exile. It is, therefore, noteworthy but not surprising to find that individual volumes of the Talmud appeared first in Spain, a community in extremis, rather than in Italy, the seat of Hebrew printing. Before Joshua Solomon Soncino printed tractate Berakhot in Soncino, Italy, in 1484 (the first book printed by a member of the Soncino family), more than half a dozen tractates were published in Guadalajara or Toledo in Spain. Such printing continued in Portugal. Remnants of more than twenty tractates printed on the Iberian peninsula, text with the commentary of Rashi, are extant. Joshua Solomon was joined by his nephew Gershon in publishing incunabula editions of books of the Talmud, but it has often been remarked that, in comparison to other Hebrew books (most of lesser religious importance), few books of the Talmud were published in the early days of Hebrew printing. Discretion seemed to have been the better part of valor. When in 1508 Gershom Soncino resumed printing the Talmud in Pesaro the volumes bear evidence of self-censorship. The Library has a copy of the volume which Gershom Soncino printed first, the first book of the Talmud printed in the sixteenth century, tractate Yebamot, Pesaro, 1508. The text is accompanied by the commentary of Rashi and of the tosaphists, as well as Maimonides’s commentary on the Mishnah.

The countour of the printed page of the Talmud was fashioned by the Soncinos: the text, an island surrounded by the commentary of Rashi and that of the Tosaphists, the former on the inner margin, the later at the outer, as can be seen on page 50A of Tractate Yebamot published by Gershom Soncino, Pesaro, 1508 (left). The first edition of the entire Talmud, Venice 1520 (right), adopted but slightly altered the scheme of the Soncinos. The configureation of the page and its contents became standard for all subsequent editions (Hebraic Section, Library of Congress Photo).

Publishing of the Talmud on a grand scale began a dozen years later in Venice at the press of Daniel Bomberg, who, having received the approval of Pope Leo X, published the complete Talmud in 1520-23. This editio princeps of the Talmud set the form which has been followed by editions of the Talmud to the present: the number and composition of the pages, a section of the Mishnah text followed by its Gemara, the commentary of Rashi on the inner margin, and that of the tosaphists on the outer. The Rashi commentary is a brief, precise explanation of the text &151; the text being in Aramaic and without vowel points or punctuation. The tosaphoth are longer, more involved discussions of the legal implications of the text, begun by Rashi's disciples-his two grandsons, Jacob Tam and Samuel ben Meir being among the leaders-and carried on in the schools in France and Germany in the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries. The tosaphoth, which began as commentary on the commentary of Rashi, spawned other commentaries, so that a current edition of the Talmud would contain some two dozen major and more than one hundred minor commentaries. The uniformity of the pages in all published editions was a double boon. It was of great practical usefulness to Talmud scholars, for it made for easy, standard reference citation; and it served as a symbol of the unity of the Jewish people, which Talmud studies enhanced. While the contents of the Talmud made for uniformity through law, its form made for an at homeness with every edition, be it of Venice, Constantinople, krakow, Lublin, Amsterdam, Frankfort, Warsaw, or Vilna.

The Library has volumes from all four Venice editions and a copy of the editio princeps of the Palestinian Talmud, published by Bomberg in 1523. The Venice editions were the handiwork of a German Jewish printer who had settled in Padua, Israel Adelkind. Bomberg brought him to Venice to supervise his Hebrew press. it was he who designed the pages which became the standard. Adelkind also managed the printing establishment of Tobias Foa in Sabionetta, where he oversaw the printing of a projected edition of the Talmud begun in 1553 but never completed. What brought this project to an end was the tragic fate that befell a previously successful undertaking of Adelkind's, a truly magnificent edition of the Talmud printed in the Hebrew publishing house of Marco Antonio Giustiniani.

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