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First Judaica & Judaic Firsts: First Book in the Holy Land

Another wandering printer seeking asylum produced another first, the first book printed in the Holy Land. In 1573 Eliezer ben Isaac Ashkenazi of Prague, a printer of Hebrew books in Lublin, set out for the Holy Land. After three years plying his trade in Constantinople, he arrived in Safed. in the sixteenth century, Safed was one of the most spiritually creative Jewish cities in the world. The site of a great revival of mysticism through the brief but electrifying presence there of Isaac Luria (the Ari) (1534-1572), it was also the home of Joseph Caro (1488-1575), author of the authoritative code of Jewish law, the Shulhan Aruch. These were but two of a large group of scholars whose influence throughout the Jewish world gave Safed a place of centrality in Jewish spiritual life and culture.

A goodly number of its residents were Jewish exiles from Spain and Portugal, or the children of exiles, who brought to the community manufacturing and commercial skills as well as culture. The town seemed an ideal place for a Hebrew printing establishment and the Ashkenazi of Prague quickly found a namesake-Abraham ben Isaac Ashkenazi, whom he had met in Constantinople-to provide funds for his venture. They felt sure that Jews the world over would want holy books printed in the Holy Land, but only six books appeared, three in 1577-1580 and three more in 1587, all by Safed authors.

The first of these was Lekah Tov (1577), a commentary on the Book of Esther, by Yom Tov Zahalon (1559-after 1638), who later served as emissary for the community of Safed to Italy, Holland, Egypt, and Turkey. In his introduction he expresses his delight in the founding of a press in this Holy City of the Holy Land and urges authors to have their works printed there. But he urged to no avail. Even the very large type in which the name of the city was set on the title page of the second book published did not help. For two hundred and forty-five years after this valiant attempt, no Hebrew book was published in the Holy Land until 1832, when Israel Bak (1797-1874) established a Hebrew press once more in Safed. Again only six books were published there, before he reestablished his printing house in Jerusalem in 1841.

Eliezer ben Isaac Ashkenazi of Prague, an itinerant printer of Hebrew books, arrived in Safed in 1576, after plying his trade in Lublin and Constantinople, and there set up his press, which issued six books, all by Safed authors. The first, published in 1577, Lekah Tov, a commentary on the Book of Esther by Yom Tov, Zahalon, is also the first book printed in the Land of Israel. The volume's final page bears a woodcut of the Holy Temple—a copy of the printer's mark used by Marco Giustiniani in Venice 1545-52—with the legend "Great will be the glory of this house...Saith the Lord of Hosts" (Haggai, 2:9). The colophon states that the volume was completed on the fourth day of Tishri 5338 (1577). (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).