Isaac Prostitz and Hebrew printing in Moravia
Three towns in Moravia stand out within the history of Hebrew printing in Moravia – Prostějov, Brno and Mikulov. Compared to Bohemia, where Hebrew printing houses operated virtually continuously from the second decade of the 16th century all the way up to the 1930s (though only in Prague), Hebrew printing in Moravia was discontinuous (Prostějov 1602-1605, Brno 1754-1803, Mikulov 1765-1767, 1785). Until the middle of the 18th century, when a Hebrew printing house was established by Franz Josef Neumann in Brno (and operated, for a couple of years, also in Mikulov), the relatively populous Moravian Jewish community was dependent on the import of Hebrew books from locations near and far.
The first Moravian Hebrew books were printed in Prostějov in the first decade of the 17th century in the workshop of the printer Isaac ben Aaron of Prostitz (c. 1530/40–1612). After spending several years in Italy and Poland, this native of Prostějov, whose name is associated primarily with the famous Hebrew printing press in Krakow (in operation between 1569 and 1628), returned to his hometown. This move was probably part of his search for a place to establish another printing house in order to enter the Moravian book market while simplifying the import of his books to Moravia. Conditions in Moravia during this period were different from those in centralised Bohemia. As the royal capital, Prague was at the centre of Bohemian events, but in the Margraviate of Moravia there was no such concentration of power and influence in one single location. Here, decisive authority rested in the hands of the local nobility, and their views and decisions determined conditions within the particular realms under their administration. As a result, in the period before the Battle of White Mountain, Moravia enjoyed greater religious freedom than Bohemia, which applied to the Jewish minority as well.
We know of four books printed in the Prostejov branch of the publishing house: Kol Simhah (1602), Hiddushe Gemara (1602 or 1605), Ein Ya’akov (1603) and Seder Tehillim (1605).
Sometime after 1606 the printing house closed down in connection with a decree by Va’ad arba aratzot (the supracommunal organization of Polish Jewish communities) prohibiting the import into Poland of printed matter from Basel and Moravian towns.
After ceasing his printing activities in Prostějov, Isaac of Prostitz returned to Krakow, where his presence is documented by Krakow customs ledgers as late as 1611. Isaac of Prostitz died “old and sated with days” in late 1612 – the date of his death on 14 Kislev 5373 is printed beneath the imprint of the 1613–1614 edition of Ein Ya’akov: […] Yitzhak drukr z“l asher ala ba-meromim zaken ve-save´a yamim ba-hodesh kislev yom 14 […] ve-nilkah le-har Ga´ash LP”K. There are some ambiguities regarding the place of his death and burial. According to the epitaph on his tomb in the old Jewish cemetery by Krakow’s Rema Synagogue, Isaac of Prostitz apparently died and was buried in Krakow. Wherever and under whatever circumstances he spent his last days, it is clear that Isaac of Prostitz succeeded in the endeavours that he so frequently expressed a desire for on the title pages of his books: To print countless books and to disseminate the Torah among the sons of Israel.
Note: For the purpose of this study we visited Krakow (in June 2012) and with the kind help of Mr. Leszek Hondó were able to find Isaac’s tombstone, No. 285 of the 2nd section (II. kwartera) of the cemetery.
The tomb is not of entirely standard appearance, the frontal and the rear stones may not be a part of the original tomb and may have been added at some later stage, e.g. during the reconstruction of the cemetery which took place in 1959 (see Hondó 1999: 32). The tomb does not appear in older inventories of the epitaphs of the cemetery (Zunz, Ir ha-tzedek, Lwow, 1874; Friedberg, Luhot zikkaron, Frankfurt am Main 1904) or in the newer inventories (Hondó 1999). We were able to transcribe the epitaph on one of the side slabs in the form of a trapezium with dimensions of 142 x 98 x 60 cm, the second slab was almost illegible. From the legible text it however ensues that this is genuinely an epitaph of the printer Isaac of Prostitz.
Friedberg however, has Prostějov as Prostitz’s place of death according to the hazkarot (book of memorial prayers) of the funeral brotherhood in Krakow. The source has unfortunately been missing since 1945, for a partial transcript see Wettstein 1904: 280, n. 3. If Freiberg quotes precisely, it was explicitly stated here that “a message came” of Isaac’s death, and the date of his funeral was given as Sunday 15 Kislev 5373. The Hebrew record ends with the note “ve-sham helkat mehokek safun”, “and there is hidden the printer’s share” (Deut. 33:21 (in its original biblical context mehokek means “lawgiver”, here however it has to be read as “printer”). “There” could hardly refer to Krakow, where the record was written, and logically should be attributed to distant Prostějov. The ambiguity may have been also a result of a wish to quote the Holy Scripture literally, even if misleadingly in the given context.
פה נטמן] יצחק בן הרר אהרון]
מפרוסטיץ נתבקש (?) למעלה איש
מחוקק לזה חושק ׃ מת…
נקרא יצחק ׃ היה איש זקן
רבים ספרים מאורים כשפרים
בלי טעות ומחק ׃ כצב …
… ותפארתו לא מש חסדו
© Andrea Jelínková, Knihovna Akademie věd ČR, Praha