“You won’t need to see a rabbi.”

This exhibition marks the 500th anniversary of the printing of the first Hebrew book in Bohemia and Moravia. The title is a quote from the heading of a Yiddish translation of Song of Songs in a glossary to the Hebrew Bible that was published in Prague in 1604 by the teacher, translator and editor Moses Sertels. Even then it was used by the author as an advertising slogan for his book, suggesting that it might be a substitute for teacher-rabbis who were often inaccessible. This also reflected a trend that the expansion of the printed book was bolstering – i.e., the democratization of access to knowledge and, in connection with this, the gradual secularization of society in which the authority of the religious scholar was slowly losing its importance.

The scope of this exhibition will not get us as far as that. In the 16th and 17th centuries – its prime focus – the vast majority of books were of a purely religious content. Apart from a few exceptions, Jewish printers in Prague printed only prayer books and bibles during roughly the first 50 years in particular. In terms of typographic design and decoration, their earliest books follow the scribal traditions and the form of late medieval Hebrew manuscripts. In this period, which saw the rise of humanism and denominational freedom, however, Jewish printers also intensively collaborated with their Christian colleagues. Considering the long lifespan of decorative borders and illustration plates, Christian woodcutters were still influencing the external form of Prague Hebrew books decades later. This collaboration ended with the onset of the Catholic Counter-Reformation, which also affected the Prague Jewish Town in the second wave of struggles for the religious unification of the Bohemian lands. It was only resumed by the Enlightenment publishers at the end of the 18th century. Also, printers who appeared at the beginning of the 17th century – the Schedel brothers, Bak and Heida – brought with them Italian-styled types and decorations.

As for the content, however, the books that were published in Prague – and also in Prostějov at the beginning of the 17th century – remained firmly within the Jewish tradition and scholarship; here, the influence of the surrounding world was far less evident. Original works by contemporary authors, tractates and sermons by local rabbinical authorities, and minor works by lay scholars (including women) began to appear in print from the end of the 16th century. With regards to ideas and genres, the most diverse period for Hebrew printing in Prague occurred – predictably – during the reigns of Rudolf II and Matthias von Habsburg, when its importance went beyond the local level. Prague saw the publication not only of works on grammar and lexicography and practical arithmetic textbooks, but also the famous Gans chronicle of Jewish and general history, as well as occasional works of philosophy. Around 1600, books in Yiddish – the mother tongue of the local Jews – also began to be systematically published in Prague. The libraries of ordinary people contained Yiddish translations and paraphrases of the Bible, prayers and ethics manuals, legends, religious poetry and secular adventure and love stories. High literature in Hebrew – Talmudic commentaries and halakhic treatises – however continued to remain accessible only to scholars.

In 1629, the secular authorities closed down the Jewish printing houses – the Katz and the Bak printing shops – in Prague for nearly 30 years as a result of a denunciation. Kabbalistic literature was the only one of the new genres that survived until their reopening; for the most part, only the most basic of liturgical texts and ritual manuals were subsequently allowed to be printed. Another denunciation in 1669 led to the introduction of a new censorship system (1672) which restricted Jewish publishers until the latter half of the 18th century. Despite this bleak development, Hebrew printing in Prague was an important cultural phenomenon that is part of the Jewish and general history of the Bohemian lands. Prague Jewish printing houses were the first to open in Central Europe and produced masterpieces of Hebrew typography. In the best of times, moreover – and most importantly – they responded in a lively way to the intellectual and spiritual needs of readers, whose knowledge they also expanded in new directions.

The exhibition was kindly supported by: Prague City Hall, Ministry of Culture of the Czech Republic, Prague 1 Municipal District, Jewish Community in Prague Foundation, Jewish Museum in Prague Foundation, René Braginsky and Jaromír Šourek.

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