The first book printed in Prague was in 1512 was a siddur, a prayer book for weekdays and the Sabbath services, a fundamental and most used Jewish religious text. The printing consortium evidently decided to publish the siddur based on its utility. This became the overriding consideration for Prague printers: as they were working for a limited local or somewhat broader Central European clientele, they decided to print based on need and guaranteed sales. In the earliest phase, this meant prayer books and biblical texts as well as basic, practical guides to Halakha. Other types of texts only gradually began to be published in Prague after readers had first been introduced and accustomed to the printed book, to the greater accessibility of books, and also that it was possible to purchase them (not just copy them, as Jewish readers in particular were in the habit of doing even after printed books became common). For that matter, the publisher himself first had to understand how the printing press could lower costs for the entire
bookmaking process and thereby expand his clientele. In the case of prayer books, other factors came into play: synagogue liturgy, particularly during the earliest period, differed between localities and regions, and the Hebrew books put out by the Italian printers of the day could not cover this area. Prague printers thus supplied communities in Bohemia, Moravia, Poland, and Austria with prayer books according to the local (Eastern Ashkenazic) rites, and sometimes the volumes would have prayers added at the end (or only their correct order) following the rites of other communities. One example is the edition of Selihot from 1535, which is supplemented by the liturgy common to Frankfurt am Main, and Selihotfrom 1608 printed specifically for Poznań Jews.
The first printing consortium comprised six men, the most prominent of whom was Isaiah ben Asher ha-Levi Horowitz, given as Munka Hořovský in the sources, who was from one of the more affluent families in Jewish Town, and judging by the colophons of other editions, was along with Jekuthiel ben Isaac Dan the enterprise’s main financial backer. Isaiah ben Asher came from a family who had – to the dismay of many – such a privileged position in the community it was virtually “beyond the law.” Nevertheless, this family did produce quite a few genuinely important scholars and rabbis. We encounter him and Jekuthiel twice more, and not exactly in a favorable light. What roles the other consortium members had is not entirely clear, as all six were called “printers”, mehokakim (from the Hebrew root HKK, “to engrave”). Mordecai ben Eliezer and Meir ben David are identified as sofer (scribe) and kotev tefillin (scribe of phylacteries), and as professionals they were in a position to design the fonts to be cast for the book. In his printer’s device, Meir has the appellation Mikhtam le-David (Psalm of David) from Psalm 16. The word mikhtam indicates a type of psalm or melody, but here it is an acronym of his name and profession: Meir Kotev Tefillin u-Mezuzot, that is, Meir, Scribe of Phylacteries and Mezuzahs. Meir was a practicing printer, not just a publisher, as was Solomon ben Samuel ha-Levi. Both were operating as independent book printers still in the 1520s. Shemariah ben David and Mordecai ben Eliezer are documented only in this single book and nothing more about them is known. The printers’ names are given in a full-page woodcut printers’ device printed on the verso of the penultimate page, and the relative size of each’s contribution could be surmised from the position of the individual partners in the image. As has already been mentioned, the book contained the liturgy for weekdays and Sabbath services, the Passover Haggadah, the Pirke Avot, and several other texts. The lengthy colophon, written in rhyme, gives the date and place of publication: “in the eve of 25 Kislev 273 (3 December 1512) in the glorious city of Prague, the jewel of the land.”
The first consortium no longer met as originally constituted, and in the following completely preserved edition, Seder Zemirot u-Birkat ha-Mazon (1514, Zemirot, for short), containing Grace after Meals and Sabbath hymns, we find only new names, besides Meir ben David. Gershom ben Solomon ha-Kohen appears here for the first time, as does the financial backer Meir ben Jacob ha-Levi Epstein, originally from Germany, and, lastly, Hayyim ben David Shahor (“Black,” or “Černý” in Czech). The group was later joined by Solomon ben Samuel ha-Levi, known from the 1512 Siddur, and between 1515 and 1522 they published another four books together. At first the group relied on outside sources of capital, but this proved to be quite an unreliable undertaking, telling proof of which are the various versions of the colophon in the extant copies of the 1515 siddur, some having an empty space in place of the removed names of the backers. The typesetting of the Siddur most likely began later than preparatory work for the publication of Humashin 1514–1518 (comprising the holy Five Books of Moses, portions from Prophets, and the commentary of Rashi), but ultimately was published a full three years earlier.
We learn the reasons from reading the tosefet (lit. “addendum”) printed at the end of the Book of Exodus in the Humash, where these backers are baldly accused of having impeded the work of the printers. Here we can read that work on the book was begun in June 1514, but had to be halted soon after when Isaiah ben Asher ha-Levi Horowitz and Jekuthiel ben Isaac Dan, known as Zalman Bumsla, or their assigned representatives, did not abide by the contract stipulating the book’s financing they were to provide. First Jekuthiel, having moved to Russia, assigned his son-in-law, Samuel ben David Gumpels, to act in his stead. Neither he nor Isaiah Horowitz honored their commitment and work was held up for more than two years. When Isaiah Horowitz died some time in early 1516 his son, Zalman, should have replaced him, but he refused to assume his father’s commitment. On the new month of Tammuz 5277 (20 or 21 June 1517) the printers therefore decided to continue with the work at their own expense. At this moment, however, unnamed but evidently Jewish adversaries – perhaps Zalman Hořovský and Samuel Gumpels Son themselves – informed the officials of their work, and only after they had received permission to print were they able to complete work on the edition. The undated supplement could come from the end of 1517. According to the ending colophon from January 1518, fol. [274a], the printers eventually did receive a financial contribution from Samuel Gumpels, but nothing at all from Zalman Hořovský.
From these rather intriguing texts we learn other things as well. For example, the publishing of books was subject to an unspecified authorization process that printers at first were not observing. Also mentioned here is the burning of books of “our Law”, the shortage of copies of it and the resultant neglect of Torah study in Prague, which led the printers to publish an edition of the Pentateuch and other books. We do not know if this is merely a topos or a reference to an actual case of book burning in Prague. The fact that financing was withheld and limited affected the book’s appearance in its typography and decoration: while the first two books (Genesis and Exodus) were furnished with two surely costly decorative woodblocks, the remaining books were decorated only with xylographed incipits. After this experience the consortium decided it best to rely on its own resources. Together they published two more titles, in 1519 a re-edition of Siddur and in 1522 the first volume of Mahzor, the liturgy for the High Holidays and Sukkot |6-7|, after which this third great consortium dissolved. The second volume of liturgy for the Festivals was not published until three years later, in 1525, by Meir ben David and Hayyim Shahor alone. All decorative elements were in Gershom’s hands, which meant the printers had to procure new borders (one of which is re-used) and printing blocks for the incipits. Either by himself or, morelikely, again with Hayyim Shahor, Meir first published in 1526 a now lost siddur, and then together they published a volume of Sabbath hymns, Yotzerot |9-10|, which was a direct competitor to another edition of the same text published by Gershom Kohen only a few months later and which might have prompted his move to acquire exclusive privilege for printing Hebrew books in Bohemia. The last who tried to compete with the Gersonites was Solomon ben Samuel ha-Levi and his son Jacob. Their edition of the siddur, decorated with a new border with the emblem of the Prague Old Town, was completed on 9 April 1527, merely a day before the royal privilege was granted to Gershom that effectively put an end to the free competition between Prague Jewish printers. In addition to the Gersonites, we later only hear about Meir ben David, who in 1529 was hired by them to oversee the typesetting of their new edition of Mahzor.