Jacob Bak and his sons

The beginnings of the Bak family as printers of Hebrew books in Prague is rife with real disagreements and bibliographic muddle. The first documented edition that lists the founder of the enterprise, Jacob ben Gershon, as the printer was the first and second volumes (1605 and 1606) of the Yiddish translation of the Yotzerot hymns. Nevertheless, the sources – some of which are still unpublished – indicate that the Italian Bak family already had a connection to Prague by the time Leopold Zunz erroneously located them here. The family used two surnames, sometimes independently of one another, sometimes together, and in the colophons we can read: “through Jacob ben Gershon z”l Wahl man [from] B”K and in his house.” “Bak” is mostly found written with an abbreviated mark (Bet”Kuf), supposedly meaning bene kedoshim (lit. “children of martyrs”). But this is inconsistent with the form ish B”K that Jacob at times used and should mean – analogous to other usage – “man from [place] B”K.” The name “Wahl” (i.e., Vlach, “Italian”) points to the family’s Italian origins, and Jacob would have begun using it only when the family relocated to Bohemia.

Mahzor. Helek Sheni. Prague: Judah ben Jacob Bak, 1661. JMP, sg. 5.872, title page.

Jacob ben Gershon was born around 1573 apparently in Venice. In Italy we find documentation of his namesake Jacob ben Gershon Bak, about two generations older, who with his brother Samuel figured in an inheritance dispute litigated some time before 1553. Like his father, Gershon ben Moses, Jacob was to apprentice as a printer in Venice, though the origin of this information is unclear. What is certain is that he participated in the publication of several Hebrew books in Italy. His career began in Verona as a publisher of a Yiddish romance in verse, Paris un Viene (Verona, Francesco dalle Donne 1594). He later republished it in Prague (c.1605–1615), as he did the midrashic work Tanhuma, which he first published in Verona in 1595 and for a second time in Prague in 1613. Jacob moved from Verona to Venice, and in 1597 he published another Yiddish romance, Mayse Briyo ve-Zimro, at the printing house of Giovanni de Gara. The publisher is literally listed in the book as Jacob bar Gershon B”K Wahl residing in Prague. His last two editions published in Italy were printed at Daniel Zanetti’s: Midrash Tana Devei Eliyahu in 1598 (first edition from an “old manuscript”), and the Maharal’s theological text Tif’eret Yisrael a year later, which, according to Friedberg, brought Jacob to Prague.

Shem Tov ben Joseph ibn Falaquera: Tzori ha-Yagon. Prague: Jacob ben Gershon Bak, 1612. JMP, sg. 13.214, title page.

So Jacob lived in Prague in 1597 at the latest, returning to Italy only on business. The first book he printed in Prague was the aforementioned Yotzerot, published (first and second volumes) in 1605 and 1506, and their appearance was rather low-grade compared to what was being produced in Italy and even books printed locally. The third volume (1606) looks much different, and it might be a stretch to consider this a single edition as Jacob is not listed here and the bellicose tone of the title-page text claims both author and publisher rights, even retrospectively on the first two volumes, for the Schedel brothers and their father Moses, the translator of the text. Jacob’s name reappears only in the imprint of the last, fourth volume (1606/07). The emphatic formulation of the imprint indicates a dispute that had plagued the enterprise from the outset: a disagreement arose between the partners – Jacob on one side and the Schedel brothers and father on the other – during the publication process. The last two volumes are set in a different Yiddish typeface, and their title pages are furnished with column borders that the Schedels had already used in their first edition from 1602. It seems the disagreement was settled as the title page lists both the Schedel brothers (as publishers) and Jacob Bak (as printer), and the design employed typographical elements from both.

Jacob no longer collaborated with the Schedel brothers on other books, even though he clearly needed capital. He partnered with Jacob Stabnitz to publish Pa’aneah Raza, a commentary to the Torah, in 1607. Stabnitz was someone who was active in the business of book printing for a long time but his ambitions remained unfulfilled. For the publication of Selihot le-Yom Sheni be-Adar, Midrash Shokher Tov, and maybe even Tanhuma (all in 1613) he collaborated with the compositor Judah ben Alexander Kohen, known as Loeb Setzer. The woodblock with the Czech heraldic lion and the inscription gur aryeh yehuda (Gen. 49:9, “Judah is a lion’s whelp”) was even impressed in the edition Hckhmat Manoah by the compositor as his printer’s device, though this was not the usual practice. In autumn 1611, Jacob received a commission from the Jewish community to publish its new regulations (Takkanot) adopted in the month of Tishri 372.

Israel ben Jacob of Belzec: Yalkut Hadash. Prague: Sons of Judah Bak, 1657.
JMP, sg. 27.949, title page.

In 1612, Jacob augmented his materials by acquiring what was discarded from Christian workshops, immediately putting it to use in Hokhmat Manoah: the title page has a fragment of a border with Old Testament prophets indicated by their Latin names (also used in Tzori ha-Yagon 1612), strips with flower vases, the aforementioned woodblock with lion, and finally a full-page illustration of King David playing his psalms on a harp in a temple interior under the benevolent gaze of the Lord on a little cloud. This last block was first used by Jan Kantor Had in his Latin-Czech-German Dictionary in 1550.  We may also add to these elements a mascaron (used for Yotzerot 1605–06/07), a frieze with storks (herons?), and a putto (Yefe Nof c.1612).

Jacob’s career in Prague could not be called successful. Next to Abraham Heida’s work, his editions lacked a pronounced focus, except for a certain orientation on Yiddish books comprising liturgical texts: Yotzerot, 1605–06/07; Ma’amadot, 1610; and Kerovetz, 1615–1618, religious poetry, Gor ayn Sheyn Noyn Toyre Lid, the novel Pariz un-Viene, and a translation, or paraphrase, of the Book of Samuel, Shmuelbuch1609.

The design of Jacob’s books did not achieve the high level of the Schedel brothers, or, naturally, of the Gersonites. His purchase of used materials is evidence that he was not doing as well as he surely would have liked: during the whole of his career he did not procure a single original decorative element, and not even his types were original. His emphasised square type was just an inferior variant of the Ashkenazic nine millimeter Prague Gersonite type. The majority of the editions he printed in Prague – with the exception of re-editions of midrashim – are slim, and when he eventually did take on a more significant project, it took three years to complete (Kerovetz 1615–1618), and was published not long before his death. It is quite possible that he came to Prague after having reached an agreement with the Schedel brothers on a future business partnership, which in the end never came to fruition. As long as he operated in Italy, he had access to sufficient capital, either his own or from others, even for the more costly projects, while in Bohemia this was something he obviously lacked.

Reuben ben Hoshke Katz: Yalkut Re’uveni, 1660.
JMP, sg. 28.554, fol. 158b–159a.

Still, Jacob was nothing if not resourceful, and he seized on the occasional commission to print texts echoing current events, as was the case with the aforementioned Takkanot, 1611, or the publication of Selihot le-Yom Sheni be-Adar by Solomon Ephraim Luntschitz. These penitential prayers were compiled by the famed Prague rabbi and darshan around the year 1613, and that very same year were assigned as the community’s liturgy by consensus of the ghetto’s secular and rabbinical authorities in remembrance of the invasion of Passau troops in 1611. Jacob Bak and Loeb Setzer promptly typeset and published them over two days right before the first commemorative divine service was to be held.

Reuben ben Hoshke Katz: Yalkut Re’uveni, 1660. JMP, sg. 28.554, title page.

Berechiah ben Natronai ha-Nakdan: Mishle Shu’alim. Parabolae Vulpium. Prague: Jesuit printing office, 1661. JMP,sg. 1.399, fol. A1b-A2a.

In autumn 1618, Jacob Bak died at the young age of forty-five. His wife, Esther bat Daniel, survived him by over twenty-seven years (d. 1646). After a short interval of inactivity, the business was taken over by Jacob’s sons Joseph and Judah Bak, who during the 1620s managed to publish smaller as well as several larger works. Among the latter, the most popular were the ethical “manual” in Yiddish, Lev Tov, by Isaac ben Elyakum of Poznań (1622), and a reprint of the Yiddish translation of the Mahzor (Kerovetz 1622, 1629, and 1657). A practical handbook to calculating the calendar, Moladot Yitzhak, by Isaac Katzenellenbogen (1623) also contains guidance on the Christian calendar, including the differences between the papisten and luterin calendars (fol. 6b-7b). In 1625, they published a re-edition of Sefer Rabbot, a midrash to the Humash and the Five Scrolls with the commentary Matnot Kehunah, prepared by Joseph Bak based on the Krakow (1608–1609) and Venice editions. The prohibition on Hebrew book printing issued in 1629 impacted the Bak printing house as well, and the next edition with complete imprint does not come until 1652 – a kabbalistic work, Shikhehat Leket, containing supplemental texts to Yalkut Hadash.