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First Judaica & Judaic Firsts: First Book in Africa

In 1497, after a harsh campaign by king and Church to convert Portuguese Jewry to Christianity, the choice offered to Jews was apostasy or exile. Among those who chose the latter were Samuel ben Isaac Nedivot and his son Isaac, who had apparently learned printing in the publishing house of Eliezer Toledano in Lisbon. After they were able at last to reestablish themselves in Fez, Morocco, where many Spanish and Portuguese Jews had found haven, they returned to their craft because by 1515 the time and circumstances seemed propitious. The Jewish community of the city had increased to some ten thousand. The presses of the Iberian peninsula having closed down decades earlier, and those of Italy having not yet risen to eminence, the need for books was great. The father and son possessed the required skills, and in 15 16 they published their first book, an exact copy of the Abudarham which they had initially helped to produce in Lisbon in 1489, twenty-seven years earlier. The only changes are in the colophon, which now celebrates the holy labors of "the honored and pious Samuel ... and his learned and wise son Isaac, whose desire it is to produce book, beyond number for all to study and read ... may God reward them for their beneficence ... and in their days may we see redemption ... [and alluding to the contents of the published volume] then we will sing a new song in the house of God."

The printed Abudarham was the first book in any language printed on the African continent. In the introduction, the publishers complain that they encountered great difficulty in obtaining paper because the Spanish government ordered that paper not be sold to them. But they persisted and in the course of a decade were able to print fifteen books. As the Library's copy bears witness, the prayerful resolve expressed in the colophon frustrated the malevolence of the "evil empire."

The first book printed in any language on the African continent is this volume in Hebrew dealing with Hebrew liturgy. It was printed in Fez, Morocco, in 1516, and is an almost exact copy of the Abudarham published in Lisbon twenty-seven years earlier. Samuel Nedivot and his son Isaac, who had learned the craft in Portugal, found haven in Fez after the expulsion of the Jews from Portugal, and established a Hebrew press there "to produce books beyond number. . ." (Hebraic Section, Library of Congress Photo)

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