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First Judaica & Judaic Firsts: The First Hebrew Book?

The crown jewel of a great Hebraic collection would, of course, be the first Hebrew book printed. For that we must go to Italy, the cradle of Hebrew printing, only Spain, Portugal, and Turkey sharing its distinction of having produced Hebrew incunabula (books printed before the end of the fifteenth century). It is generally agreed by students of Hebrew typography that a group of books known as the Rome incunabula were the first Hebrew books printed.

The Rome Incunabula, eight-perhaps nine-in number, bear no date or place of publication; however, it is widely accepted that six of these were printed between 1469 and 1472. One, the Commentary on the Pentateuch of Moses ben Nahman (Nachmanides) (1194-1270), has the names of the printers, three in number, "from Rome," but not in or of Rome. There is far stronger documentary evidence that another, a collection of Responsa by Solomon ben Adret, was published in Rome. This was established in 1896 by Rabbi David Simonsen, Chief Rabbi of Denmark and a noted bibliophile, who pointed out a reference (in a pamphlet published in Venice in 1566) to the responsa of Solomon ben Abraham Adret (Rashba) of Barcelona (c. 1235-c. 1310), published "in Rome," a reference that could fit only the Rome incunabulum bearing that name: Teshuvot She'elot ha-Rashba (The Responsa of Adret). The Library of Congress has a copy of this volume, as well as a fourteenth-century manuscript containing thirty responsa of Adret. In his definitive work on these incunabula, Moses Marx explains their "primitive" typography as an indication of their antiquity and proposes "proof" that the Commentary of Nachmanides was probably the first one printed. His point is well taken, but the type of the Adret volume looks no less primitive, being bolder and less refined. It is also slightly larger, which would argue for its earlier date, since the high cost of paper at the birth of printing would suggest that smaller type, using less paper, would be a desired later improvement. Might we then not claim that, as the only volume which is documented as being printed in Rome, the one whose typography is larger and more primitive is therefore the one that may most justifiably be called the first printed Hebrew book?

There is no agreement as to which was the first Hebrew book printed, but there is general agreement that it was one of a group printed, without place or date of publication, in Rome between 1469 and 1472. Among these is this volume of Responsa by the most prolific of respondents, the Rashba, i.e., Solomon ben Abraham Adret (c. 1235-c. 1310). Our volume is open to responsurn 265, dealing with the question: which is to be preferred, a precentor who receives remuneration (i.e., a professional cantor), or one who volunteers his services gratis? The answer: a professional engaged by the community is to be preferred, so that one unskilled in the art will not be able "to unfurl his banner" and act the role. (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).