Gersonites – Katzes

Gershom ben Solomon

Printer’s device of Gershom ben Solomon Kohen first used in the Pentateuch 1514-1518, reprinted in 1530. JMP, call no. 2.361, fol. [1b]

Gershom Kohen pops up among Prague Jewish printers in 1514 as one of the partners in the Zemirot . Among the partners named in the colophon of books printed in 1514–1522, his name is always listed first, likely because of the size of his financial contribution to the edition as well as his aggressiveness. According to Heřman, Gershom’s name is documented in Prague as early as 1509 when he was a tax collector. His relatives lived in České Budějovice: Mordecai-Markwart and Bezalel-Tzolel are listed in the sources among the victims of those burned at the stake in 1505 and 1506. Other branches of the family settled in Krakow. We have no proof that would confirm the legend of the Gershom family’s Italian origins. Gershom owned a house in Prague in 1517, adding an extension in 1522. In 1521, his wife, Května (Tzemah), paid 30 silver Groschen to her mother, Eva, for another house, purchased for herself and their children. On 10 April 1527, Gershom obtained from King Ferdinand an exclusive, and surely handsomely paid for lifelong privilege to print Hebrew books in Bohemia, and from this date to the end of the 16th century nearly no one else but he and his family printed Hebrew and Yiddish books in Prague. The family printing house that he founded operated independently until the latter half of the 18th century, save some temporary and forced closures. In the printer’s devices and colophons its owners call themselves members of “mishpahat ha-Gershuni” (the Gershon family), or with the name Kohen or Katz (from the abbreviated Hebrew Kohen Tzedek, “righteous priest,” used to indicate descent from the Kohanim, the priestly caste of the Temple whose origins are traced back to Aaron). In the earlier secondary literature the name Gersonite is commonly found after the name of the

Opening page of Leviticus in the 1530 Pentateuch. The border was used in Pavel Severin’s Czech Bible just a year before. JMP, call no. 2.361, fol. [110b].

founding father of the family business. Part of the family later took the surname Poppers.

According to the tax records of 1540 (1528) Gershom Kohen was one of the poorer taxpayers. This, however, is belied by the fact that he actively participated in the consortium’s costly publishing enterprise. For Zemirot and Humash, on which the consortium began working in 1514, the year Gershom joined them, new types in several sizes were cast and woodblocks comissioned for the incipits as well as illustrations, borders, printer’s devices, and emblems of the Prague towns, all surely very expensive. Compared to the exquisite design of these books, Prague Christian book printing of this period was far less opulent, and a parallel can be found only in the work of Pavel Severin, with whom Gershom later collaborated. Gershom’s position relative to his partners – financial backers and practicing printers – who contributed to the publication of Humash is easily determined by the fact that located on the first page of the Book of Genesis is his printer’s device and no other is found in the book (compared to the “egalitarian” printers’ device of consortium members in 1512).  Even such a prominent position was not enough for the ambitious Gershom, and the consortium disbanded after publishing three more books: a Siddur in 1515 and one in 1519, and a Mahzor in 1522. The Yotzerot and Haggadah from 1526 were printed by Gershom and his brother, Gronem, alone. In 1529, the sons who were then coming of age gradually began to enter the family business. Selihot of 1529 was printed by “Solomon and his brother Mordecai at the request of Gershom,” but in editions from 1529 and 1530 |15–16| the names of the brothers are given in reverse order: Mordecai then Solomon. In 1534 another brother’s name appears alongside theirs, Moses, and in 1541 the name Judah first appears. The only son that is not named in any of the books is Benjamin. In the 1530s, the family brought out a re-edition of the Humash and several prayer books.

We do not know if Gershom should be the one credited with elevating Prague book printing to the high aesthetic level scholars have ascribed to it. He was not the only important printer in Prague – from the beginning Hayyim Shahor was his equal, and he was eventually forced by Gershom’s actions to leave the city and the kingdom if he wanted to pursue his profession, a situation that also confronted the other members of the consortium. Gershom’s success was a result of his greater financial means and his overweening ambition, and this is gleaned from both the design of his books and all the steps he took, which we are able to trace today. Regardless, Gershom certainly deserves credit for initiating the creation of the most beautiful book in Hebrew printed in Prague and the oldest surviving fully-illustrated Passover Haggadah.

Gershom came into competition with Hayyim Shahor one more time when in 1540 he printed the first dated non-liturgical and non-biblical text to be published in Prague, Tur Orah Hayyim, one of the four-part codex Arba’ah Turim of Jacob ben Asher |22|, which contains the laws on prayer and synagogue liturgy for Sabbath and the Festivals. On 1 May 1541, Gershom with his sons Moses and Judah published a practical pocket siddur, his last book. In September of that year Emperor Ferdinand banished the Jews from Bohemia. Everyone originally had to leave the kingdom by 11 November of the year, but we encounter Gershom Kohen in 1542 – as “Žid [= the Jew] Heřman” – among those holding a geleitbrief, a letter of safe conduct, giving select (wealthy) individuals and their families the opportunity to stay temporarily in Prague after the deadline had passed so they could arrange their financial affairs and those of others expelled. Gershom is last documented – as Heřman Impressor – in an extension of the geleitbrief from 20 January 1544; in the geleitbrief from 1 March 1545, the name “Zalmon (= Solomon) son of Heřman” appears instead. At some point between these two dates Gershom died, and he must have been at least around 60 at the time.

Jerusalem Temple. Woodcut first used in Torat ha-olah, 1569, by Mordecai ben Gershom and his sons. JMP, sg. 29.703.

Gershom’s Sons

Son Solomon, who took his father’s place among those protected from expulsion by a letter of safe conduct, was at this time on his second wife, who was named Nytl (he had purchased a house with his first wife, Rachel, in 1538). The mother of his first wife and children “Abraham, Samuhel, Izak, Cypriana, Sendl, Juda, and Jutl the Cook” shared the domicile. In April of 1546 he bought out the shares of his brothers, Benjamin and Judah, in a house they owned together, and not long after, in the year 307 (1546/47), he died.    Solomon’s untimely death still does not explain why after his father’s death the renewed printing privilege, dated 19 November 1545, was issued neither to him or to Mordecai as the eldest brothers, but to the third in line “Moses son of Hermann.” Paradoxically, this privilege could be used for the rest of his life in Prague and in the Kingdom of Bohemia, while the other Jewish inhabitants still had the threat of expulsion hanging over them. Maybe the older brothers were more focused on the sale of books (see Mordecai’s sales trip to Frankfurt) and not the black drudgery in the printing shop. Moses, on the other hand, had just published around 1540 entirely on his own a four-leaf edition of Jacob Weil’s rules on ritual slaughter (along with the Orah Hayyim, these editions were exceptional in terms of content for the work the printing house was turning out at that time. As we know from “The Description of Prague Jews,” in June of 1546 the Moses household comprised his wife Belah, his son Hermann, and his brother Judah, the maidservant Leah, and the cook Hendl. Other than his work on several more editions, we know nothing more about him except that he bought a house in 1556 and died before 1566. The fourth brother, Judah, printed only in 1541 (with Moses) and in 1556 (with Mordecai and Moses), and he later focused entirely on communal affairs. We repeatedly encounter his name in the source materials on the elections to the community’s Elders. For 1574, for example, he is listed as “Judah Impressor, or Bookmaker.” At the end of his life, ailing, he likely took as his second name that of his older and long-dead brother, Moses (in whose house he had lived as a young man), and so we read in his epitaph – where his service to the community is prominently mentioned, not his work as a printer – his name as Moses Judah. He died on 7 Tishrei 394 (3 October 1593). The adoption of his brother’s name has created such confusion among bibliographers even Moses Marx doubts his existence. Even in those uncertain times, lasting to the very end of Ferdinand I’s reign, the brothers brought out several prayer books: Mahzor (1549–1550); Selihot (1551); Siddur and Haggadah (1556).

Mordecai ben Gershom and his son Bezalel,
Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague

Mordecai ben Gershom and Sons

We do not know which of the brothers were involved with the printing of the 1566 Siddur, extant only as a fragment and a unicum. The next colophon we have available is from 1569 and it mentions already only Mordecai and his sons (the eldest, Pesah, had already been employed by his father and uncles to work on the Siddur of 1556). Nevertheless, we know of no privilege Mordecai would have petitioned for and received, and as suggested by a third extant license from 1598, none likely existed. The succession here is clearly recorded among the documents as well as their holders: it is issued for the brothers “Šalamoun and Yzak” (Solomon and Isaac) the heirs of the deceased “Mojžiš, son of the Jew Heřman.” The long period of time that Mordecai and his sons printed without a privilege can only be explained by the laxness of the authorities and, that the Gersonites themselves did not consider it necessary to apply for a new privilege after Mose’s death, that is until the time serious competition began to appear in Prague. Moreover, Solomon and Isaac ultimately did not print in Prague, or at least no editions of theirs have survived. In 1600, Isaac tried to expand into Moravia, but we do not know with what success. The source materials show that the designation impressor or knihař (bookmaker, bookbinder) evolved into the family name, which in no way implies that everyone in the family was actually a book printer. Not only Gershom’s five sons, but his grandsons as well, who confusingly often had the same first names, might have assumed this appellation for themselves. This is the root of Zikmund Winter’s evident displeasure at the muddied familial relationships and the number of Jewish impressors in the sources. For example, which Samuel Impressor was it who in 1610 rode through Prague on horseback with a rapier, and a rifle even, “as if he were a Christian”?

The one who actually did work as a printer after 1566 was Mordecai ben Gershom, about whom we have a more complete picture than his brothers thanks to the surviving sources. Mordecai (Markvart or Marek in Czech) was also known as Mordecai Tzemah, and he was born around 1510. In 1574, he is called “Markwart Impressor the Old.” “Marx Judenbuchdrucker von Prag” is the only Prague Jewish printer documented among the visitors to the Easter Book Fair in Frankfurt (in 1535). He obtained a geleitbrief in 1546, which protected him from being expelled, and his wife Lacha (correct is Nucha) and his children “Pesah, Jabl (a corruption of Bezalel), Heřman, and Mariana (Miriam), a servant girl named Sara, and Jakub the Orphan” appear alongside his name in “The Description of Prague Jews.” From 1558 Mordecai was involved in a dispute with his son-in-law, Miriam’s husband, who with the help of paid witnesses had accused his wife of infidelity. The case was first brought before a biased rabbinical court in Prague, and then later before a rabbinical tribunal in Krakow presided over by Rabbi Moses Isserles, one of the day’s greatest Ashkenazic authorities on Halakha. He concluded that the wife was innocent. The whole affair had more to do with the husband going against his father-in-law than marital infidelity, as the two had already had financial disputes in the past. According to a comment of his son, Solomon, added to the year 319 (1559) in Gans’ chronicle Tzemah David, around the same time Mordecai was one of the main shtadlanim, which today we would call a lobbyist, who tried to persuade the emperor to revoke his edict on banishing all the Jews from Bohemia. Mordecai “risked his life to undertake a journey to Italy, all the way to Rome, and to bring the Emperor the Pope’s consent that he [i.e. the Emperor] be released from his oath, and his words with grace from the Almighty bore fruit, and the Emperor heeded him and showed us compassion […]” He is among the first in 1564 to sign the charter of the newly established Burial Society, and even later his name appears among the elected representatives of the Jewish community. If all the information we have of him is taken together, the picture that emerges is of someone who is not just an enterprising, well-traveled merchant but was also a selfless man, using his privileged status for the common good.

Only when a new ruler ascended the throne were the Jews of Bohemia able to rid themselves of two decades of uncertainty (they were under threat of a new wave of expulsions from 1557), and when Emperor Maximilian definitively allowed the Jews to remain in Bohemia in 1567, it ushered in an era in which Prague Jewish book printing also flourished. This was evident in the very first book put out in the new atmosphere prevailing the city: Torat ha-Olah (1569), a treatise on the Temple in Jerusalem and the sacrifices there by Rabbi Moses Isserles. The book is exceptional both in the printer’s work – it is the first printed book in Prague of an original text from a living author – and for the great care with which it was produced, typeset, and decorated with a vignette, or rather an illustration with the Temple in Jerusalem and title border with Mordecai’s face gazing at us. All of Mordecai’s sons are named in the colophon at the end: Pesah, Bezalel, Gershom Israel, Solomon, and Samuel. Given who the author was, and it was certainly known in Prague that it was he who had cleared the name of Mordecai’s daughter, one cannot but have the impression that this beautiful book is a special token of gratitude to the author while at the same time a proud gesture by the printer to make clear that he and his family have come through all their past ordeals victorious. After all, the author states in the colophon that the book has been published “in a time when the priests (kohanim) have been triumphant” and expresses his hope that they will be “spared from the power of mockers.”  Though the very next year, 1570, either Mordecai or one of his employees contributed to the typesetting of a Hebrew grammar book by Fortius Hortensius, almost another ten years passed before Prague book printing reached a tempo to match that of the 1520s. The year 1578 saw the publication of Gur Aryeh (with a handsome new Renaissance border), a supercommentary on Rashi’s commentary on the Torah by the Ashkenazic scholar Judah Loew ben Bezalel (the Maharal), but besides this, the only substantial editions printed for a long period of time were of liturgical texts. The other books printed in Prague until the 1590s were rather slim quarto editions, which for the most part were popular books on Jewish ethics: Orhot Tzaddikim (1581) and Mishle Hakhamim (1585), and, exceptionally, the kabbalistic text Menorat Zahav Tahor (1581), which was not published by the Gersonites but by Samuel bar Reuven Dreksler (otherwise a compositor) in Mordecai’s printing house. During this period, local luminaries or those

Moses ben Israel Isserles (1520 – 1572), Torat ha-Olah, 1569. JMP, call no. 29.703, fols. 69b–70a.

with ties to Prague – specifically the Maharal and Isaac Hayyut – began to avail themselves of printing as a way to disseminate their teachings, also through the sermons that were published shortly after being delivered. [...] By the end of the 1580s most of the work published was evidently at the behest of Mordecai’s sons, who had come to replace their aging father: Bezalel, Solomon, and Gershom Israel. The imprints usually have the following: “printed in the house of the leader, the venerable, distinguished, esteemed master and teacher Mordecai […]” Mordecai died in the year 352 (1591|92). His gravestone is shared with his son, Bezalel, who died before him as the book Sam Hayyim was being printed (completed on the festival of Shavuot 350, i.e., summer 1590). His brother, Solomon, printed a moving elegy upon his death in Tehinnah of the same year.


Gersonite printer’s device used by Gershom ben Joseph Bezalel Katz in Keli Hemda, 1610.
JMP, call no. 33.985, title page.

The Fourth Generation of Gersonites

Not long after Mordecai’s death the family business was taken over by the fourth generation of Gersonites: his grandsons the brothers Gershom and Moses, sons of Bezalel Katz. Gershom ben Bezalel Katz first printed with his father in 1589 the Maharal’s sermon for the Sabbath before Passover and by himself the travelogue Sibuv R. Petahiah in 1595. The book relates the travels of Rabbi Petahiah of Regensburg (end of 12th century) to the Holy Land and is one of the first departures into non-religious publishing in Prague. The book had such success it was published five years later in Yiddish translation with the subtitle Di um ringlung rabenu Pesahyah ha-hosid mi-Regenshpurg. In the 1590s, Gershom printed the Maharal’s Netivot Olam (1595–1596) and two classic Sephardic writers, Nahmanides and Jonah Gerondi (both in 1595). After taking a long break he printed again at the turn of the 17th century, bringing out Prague’s first female author, Rebecca Tiktiner’s Meneket Rivkah, and a handsome edition of emendations to Rashi’s Commentary to the Torah, Yosef Daat by Joseph Issachar Miklis (both in 1609). He also published two volumes of another contemporary author, Issachar Baer ben Moses Petahiah of Kremnitz: Yesh Sekhar, Halakhic law excerpted from the Zohar (with his son Bezalel), and Pithe Yah, based on Cordovero’s Pardes Rimonim (both in 1609). Iggeret ha-Vikuah, a defense of the study of philosophy by Shem Tov ibn Falaquera, was published jointly with Judah Loeb Schedel in 1610. For the costly publication of Keli Hemdah, an extensive commentary to the Torah by Samuel Laniado (1610) he had to partner with Moses Utitz, Abraham Heida, and Gershon ben Solomon Poppers Katz. He is listed along with his son, Mordecai, as a compositor in the Wolfenbüttel copy of Mahzor, which his brother Moses published in 1619–1620 (the colophon to the second volume was completed on 17 Tevet 380 (24 December 1619), and based on the colophon to Ot Emet he was still alive in 1624. His publications are distinguished by their characteristically attractive, rounded, highly legible Rashi typeface. The oblong woodblock with the printer’s device borne by two angels was printed for the first time in Keli Hemdah (1610) and was still used in the 1620s by Gershom’s brother Moses.

In the 1590s a new phenomenon is documented for the first time in Prague: printing with an incomplete imprint, mostly absent the name of the printer (e.g., Ha-pedut ve-ha-Purkan 1595). It appears that these editions were likely brought out by one of the compositors, Moses ben Katriel Weisswasser, who is the only one mentioned by name in Kuntres Yekar Erekh (c.1595), Shulhan Arba (1595), or Mahzor (1596–1597). When Moses Weisswasser earlier in 1590–1594 printed in Mantua, he gave himself the title “printer [mehokek] from Prague,” but in the Prague editions he only used the more modest “typesetter.” In “his” edition of the Mahzor no Gersonite printing materials are used (e.g., woodblocks for borders and frames), to which he certainly would not have had access. It is also possible that between Gershom and Moses, who as far as we know never worked on a book together, there had been some dispute whereby one was not allowed to use any of the other’s printing materials, and this was actually Gershom’s edition.

Tombstone of Moses ben Joseph Bezalel Katz,
Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague

Moses ben Joseph Bezalel Katz

 The materials accumulated over the years in the family printing house – types and all woodblocks for borders and incipits – were used by Moses ben Joseph Bezalel for his editions. He printed for the first time in 1592–1594 with is uncle, Solomon, the famous chronicle Tzemah David (1592) by the first Ashkenazic polyhistorian David Gans, the Maharal’s sermons on the Torah (1593), and Pesak al-Agunah, which likewise cites the Maharal (1594). By the end of the century, Moses was printing on his own, and did so continuously until the end of the 1620s, and then occasionally, as in 1635 with Tefillah shel Rosh Hodesh and in 1648 with Minhagim. If the life of his grandfather Mordecai was marked by a gradual ascendancy, and despite having to endure difficult periods in his personal and public life, he, as far as we are able to judge, in the end enjoyed respect and success, his grandson Moses’s long career took the opposite trajectory. From the 1590s to the 1620s his business prospered in an era that witnessed a boom in Prague publishing and the greatest intellectual flourishing yet in the Prague ghetto. At the end of the 1620s, at the threshold of old age it could be said, his business was undermined by the events connected to the affair involving Rabbi Yom Tov Lipmann Heller in 1629–1630, or, to be more precise, associated with the political infighting taking place in the ghetto. As a result, he not only lost almost all of his printing equipment and materials – as substantiated by later editions produced by the family printing house after it was reconstituted – but also his trade, and for a time he might very well have lost his freedom, too. In 1636 he lost his wife, Malkah, and in 1639 some family members were taken by the plague. Moses survived his wife by more than twenty years, during which time, almost to the very end of his life, he was prohibited, with certain exceptions, from printing Hebrew books in Prague. He died on first day of Shevat 419 (25 January 1659).