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THE BEGINNINGS OF HEBREW PRINTING

Printing in Hebrew began c. 1469, when three Jewish printers established a press in Rome. During the relatively tolerant papacy of Sixtus IV (b. 1414, Pope 1471–1484), other Hebrew presses were set up in Mantua, Ferrara, Bologna, and Soncino. From c. 1485 onward, however, ecclesiastical and civic intolerance throughout most of Italy made printing in Hebrew impossible for several generations. Similarly, all Jewish printers were expelled from Spain in 1492 and Portugal in 1497. Although refugees from Spain established a short-lived press in Constantinople in 1493, the only safe haven for Hebrew printing throughout the last decades of the fifteenth century was Naples.

Moses ben Jacob of Coucy (fl. 13th century).
Sefer Miẓvot Gadol.
[Soncino]: Gershom ben Moses Soncino, 15 Tevet 5249 [19 December 1488].

Moses ben Jacob of Coucy was one of four rabbis called to defend the Talmud in a famous public disputation with Christian theologians at Paris in 1240. In response to the burning of all manuscripts of the Talmud, ordered by Louis IX in 1242 and later supported by Pope Innocent IV, the rabbi compiled the Sefer Miẓvot Gadol (“Great Book of Precepts”), which expounds upon the 365 prescriptions and 248 commandments of Mosaic Law. Completed in 1250, it clarified each precept with citations from the Talmudic and rabbinic traditions, and long remained one of the essential texts for any Jewish library.

The rare first edition of the Sefer Miẓvot Gadol came from an anonymous Italian press c. 1475; Bridwell Library’s fragment of 94 leaves from the second edition of 1488 includes most of the book’s second part, consisting of the positive commandments. Published at Soncino in the Duchy of Milan, it was the first book printed by Gershom ben Moses Soncino, the best-known member of a family that included several important early Hebrew printers. After all Jews were expelled from the duchy in 1490-92, Gershom became an itinerant printer in several other parts of Italy and the Ottoman Empire. He died at Constantinople in 1533, having printed at least one hundred editions in Hebrew.