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The Book of the People of the Book: Hebrew Press Returns to the Holy Land

As we have noted, Hebrew printing in the Holy Land began in Safed in 1577. Six books and a few years later it came to an end. The end of the sixteenth century saw the decline of the flourishing Jewish community of that city of scholars and mystics. in the last decades of the eighteenth century and the first of the nineteenth, a small migration of some disciples of the Baal Shem Tov and some followers of the Gaon of Vilna restored to this Galilean city some of its earlier spiritual luster. Among those who arrived in their wake was one Israel Bak who came in 1831. In his native city, Berdichev in the Ukraine, he had published some thirty books; and now, in Safed, he reestablished publishing in the Holy Land.

First off the press, in 1832, was a Sefardi prayer book, the first Hebrew book printed in the Holy Land after a hiatus of 245 years. The publisher notes on the title page that the book contains some of the Kavanot (mystical statements of intentions of worship) of Safed's greatest luminary, Isaac Luria, and further assures that all of the workers engaged in this holy endeavour are pious Jews, and that prayers recited from a book printed in this holy city would be most efficacious. This was followed in 1833 by the Book of Leviticus, with the commentaries of Rashi and Hayim Joseph David Azulai, a favorite of Sefardi Jews. No traces remain of either Genesis or Exodus, if indeed they were ever published, but it is possible that they were destroyed during the peasant revolt against Muhammad Ali in 1834, in which Bak's press was destroyed and Bak himself was wounded. More likely only Leviticus was published, the first of a projected five-volume edition of the Pentateuch, because it was the custom to begin instruction of the Humash in the schools not with Genesis but with Leviticus. The school year began in the spring, when the Book of Leviticus was being read in the synagogue, and it made good sense to synchronize Bible study in the school with Bible reading in the synagogue.

After a hiatus of 246 years, Israel Bak reestablished the Hebrew press in Eretz Yisrael, and he, like his predecessor, chose the city of Safed. His first published work, in 1832, was a Sefardi prayer book, the second, the Book of Leviticus, the first printing of a book of the Bible in the Holy Land. The title page describes the contents and the enterprise:

The Book of Leviticus, the third of the Five Books of the Torah with the commentary of Rashi, Ba'al ha-Turim (Jacob ben Asher), Siftei Hahamim (the Lips of the Wise) and ... on the Haftarot and the Five Scrolls by the illustrious godly man, Hayim Yosef David Azulai ... printed by the eminent and wise Israel Bak ... of Berditchev. Here in Upper Galilee, in the holy city, Safed ... under the sovereignty of the noble Mohammed Ali Basha (1833) (Hebraic Section, Library of Congress Photo)

Bak turned to agriculture but continued printing, even after the earthquake of 1837 devastated his shop. The Druze revolt in 1838 destroyed both his farm and press, and Bak departed for Jerusalem where, in 1841, he once again established his press, the first Hebrew press in Jerusalem.

Among the many early Jerusalem imprints, the Library contains a fine copy of the rare Sefer Hatakanot ... (The Book of Ordinances and Enactments and Customs ... of the Holy City, Jerusalem), 1842. It was the second book printed there, but was the first in importance as the single most valuable source book for Jewish religious and communal life in that city. For thirty-three years, Bak continued to print books in Jerusalem, some 130 volumes in all, but he never completed the Pentateuch edition he had launched in Safed in 1833.

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