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First Judaica & Judaic Firsts: Lisbon’s First Book

The year 1476, which saw the beginning of the final suppression of the Jews of Spain, to culminate in their expulsion from the kingdom in 1492, also saw the publication of the first Hebrew book in that country, Rashi's commentary on the Torah, printed in Guadalajara by Solomon ibn Alkabez. The Golden Age of the Jews in Spain had long since lost its glitter, but cultural creativity, now given expression through the newest of cultural tools, the printing press, continued to add to the life of the spirit. in Montalban, Toledo, Zamora and Hijar, as well as in Guadalajara, books of the Bible, volumes of the Talmud, editions of the Codes, and devotional works were published and have survived. it is presumed that as many works as survived perished without trace or memory. The Library's monument of that daring spiritual enterprise is a fine copy in handsome cursive type of a volume of the Code of Law of Jacob ben Asher (1270(?)-1340), Tur Yoreh Deah, published in Hijar in 1487, five years before the Expulsion.

The Library also has a copy of the Book of Judges published in Leiria, Portugal, in 1494, three years before the expulsion of all Jews from that kingdom. Printing had been introduced to Portugal in 1487 by the publication of the Pentateuch with the Onkeles Aramaic translation by Don Samuel Porteiro, in the southern Portuguese town of Faro. This was followed by an edition of the Talmud, of which only shreds of twenty-two tractates remain, the Inquisition having ordered their destruction. The first book printed in Lisbon was a Hebrew book: the Commentary on the Pentateuch of Moses ben Nahman (Nachmanides) (1194-1270), published by Eliezer Toledano in 1489. The Library's fine copy of this work is yet another of its distinguished Judaic firsts.

The Library also owns a copy of Lisbon's second Hebrew book, published about a half year after the first. Abudarham, a commentary on the prayers, was written in 1340 in Seville by David ben Yosef Abudarham because, he explains, "the customs connected to prayer vary from country to country, and most people neither know the correct ritual nor understand its meaning."

The first book printed in any language in Portugal's capital city, Lisbon, was a Hebrew book, the Commentary on the Pentateuch by Moses ben Nahman (Nachmanides). it was published by Eliezer Toledano in 1489, only three years before the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and only eight years before their expulsion from Portugal. The volume is open to the beginning of the commentary on Ba-Midbar, the Book of Numbers. The Library also has a copy of Lisbon's second Hebrew book, Abudarham, a commentary on the Hebrew liturgy. (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).