Hamisha Humshe Torah, Megillot, Haftarot. Prague: Gershom ben Solomon ha-Kohen with sons Mordecai and Solomon, 1530.
JMP, sg. 2.361, opening page of Shir ha-shirim (Song of Songs).

Hebrew typefaces: the options and choices of Prague printers at the beginning of the 16th century

Hebrew typefaces have historically several forms in Europe, Italian, Ashkenazic and Sephardic. These variants reflect the diversification of Hebrew scripts as they developed in the main geo-cultural regions of the European Jewish Diaspora. In the late Middle Ages massive waves of migration mixed with the clear territorial affiliation according to which they are named. Ashkenazic scripts penetrated Italy with German Jews at the end of the 14th century and Sephardic scripts with émigrés from the Iberian Peninsula a century later, so that when the first Jewish printers Obadiah, Manasseh and Benjamin began to print in Rome c.1469 they could choose from a number of possibilities. […] The high-quality, easily legible and elegant Soncino type based on a Sephardic square and semi-cursive script in the end suppressed other competitive typefaces – Ashkenazic and Italian – from the realm of Hebrew typography. As we will see, one of the exceptions over the centuries was Prague, here as in other aspects of Jewish cultural history lying on the frontier of two worlds, West and East.

Each of the three above mentioned regional variants of Hebrew script has two functionally differentiated modes, square script and semi-cursive script. Square script is formal script: it is used for writing Hebrew and Aramaic canonical and liturgical texts (the Bible, the Talmud, prayer books), documents (wedding contracts, divorce decrees), headings, inscriptions, etc. Semi-cursive was used for non-canonical texts, for example, original authors’ treatises, commentaries, copies of existing works for the copyist’s own need, liturgical instructions in prayer books and various secular and occasional records. In the case of square script the differences between regional variants were negligible; all could be read by everyone. It was different with semi-cursive scripts which were in their style more influenced by the scripts and aesthetic of the local majority society in whose environment they were shaped. Sephardic semi-cursive at first glance looks much more like Arabic semi-cursive than the Ashkenazic, and we can suppose that a Prague Jew would not be able to read, write or typeset it without preparation. The Ashkenazic semi-cursive is, not by accident, reminiscent of the German bastarda, and the rounded shapes of Italian Hebrew semi-cursive remind one of the Italian rotunda or early Italian Humanist scripts.

The same functional division was in principle maintained in print as well. A fundamental change occurred with the adoption of the Sephardic semi-cursive variant even among the Ashkenazim, which made it possible for the two semi-cursives to specialise further. Sephardic semi-cursive in print form is most generally known as Rashi type, evidently under the influence of Soncino printed books which in the time of the incunabula introduced it for the setting of the exposition of one of the most important commentators of the Bible and the Talmud, Solomon ben Isaac, known by the Hebrew acronym Rashi (1040–1105). With the expansion of the originally Soncino typographical usage, Rashi type quite soon took over the function of semi-cursive as such – except in Prague, slightly behind the times, as we will see later – even in the Ashkenazic environment; for example, in the books printed by Hayim Shahor and the Helicz brothers in the 1530s.

Printed Ashkenazic semi-cursive can be most accurately called Yiddish type as it became at an early stage – again, in Prague somewhat later – the main type used for the setting of texts in Yiddish, the vernacular of the Ashkenazic Jews. Its other names – vaybertaytsh (women’s German), vaybershrift (women’s script) or tzenereneshrift (script of the Tzene Rene) – suggest, not absolutely precisely, that Yiddish texts were read exclusively by women (Yid. vayber, comp. German weib). Yiddish texts set in this type were printed for the first time by the Helicz brothers in Krakow (Mirkevet ha-Mishne, Krakow, c.1534); a woodcut sample had previously been published by Johannes Boeschenstain (Be-Shem Arba Otiyyot, Augsburg, 1514).

Early Hebrew typefaces do not have specific font styles that we know from Latin typefaces; individual fonts differ from each other chiefly by their size. The large square letters designed according to calligraphic models are decorative in themselves; the largest are carried out in wood either as separate letters with framing or open, or as complete words. In Prague perhaps only the typeface used in the Mahzor, 1585–1586 and the Haggadot, 1590, can be considered to be a special decorative style of the semi-cursive; the influence of contemporary humanist typefaces is apparent at first glance. A Hebrew font was made up not only of the letters of the alphabet but also of marks for vowels and cantillation marks, rafeh, and diacritic marks. The ligature of the letters alef and lamed was used either for the independent el or for elohim (God) and elsewhere. Hebrew also has a special sign for the four-letter name of God, the tetragrammaton.

We will now look at Prague around 1512. The Prague Hebrew printers took the local Ashkenazic script as the model for their typographic material. [...] The first type, the main text type (4 mm) especially, was not very neat; it appears rough and crude, and the setting is uneven. That is probably why in subsequent editions, that is, in the fragment of the surviving Selihot, c.1512– 515, and in the Zemirot, 1514, it was replaced by a new square typeface which became, metaphorically speaking, the trademark of the Prague Hebrew printing house – at first a consortium of publishers and later the Gersonides family – for almost three centuries. […]

The Yiddish type appears for the very first time (1514) in Prague in the context of Hebrew typography. For a long time, however, it was not used for setting Yiddish texts, but rather, like the semi-cursive in the system of manuscript writing, as a type hierarchically subordinate to the square type. It was used to typeset the Hebrew colophon in 1514, the Rashi commentary, and colophons in the Humash, 1514–1518, and also the only two editions of the first fifty years of Prague Hebrew book printing which do not contain any biblical or liturgical texts but are, instead, of a practical halakhic content. On the other hand, the earliest printed Yiddish text, the prayer Almekhtiger got, is in the 1526 Haggadah set in square type just as, many years later, the Yiddish prayer Tehinnah (or as pronounced in Yiddish Tehine) appended to the end of Mishle hakhamim, c.1585. The first Yiddish text known to us to have been consistently set in the Yiddish type in Prague was the 1590 parallel translation of a work on ethical behaviour, Sam Hayyim by Abraham

Va-yakem Edut be-Ya’akov, Prague, 1594. JMP, sg. 4.778, title page. Square and Yiddish type.

Ashkenazi Apotekar of Vladimir-Volynski.

The ingrained perception of the function of the Yiddish type is connected with the delayed adoption of the Rashi type, which further confirms the conservatism of the cultural environment in Prague. It is appears especially in comparison with the progressive typography of Hayyim Shahor, but is true even of the first Krakow printers about whom it is maintained (although evidently without support in the sources) that they learnt their craft in Prague. We find the first Prague attempt to set in the Rashi type only with the Siddur of 1566. On the reverse of the title page, the compositor has daringly (but with several mistakes) set a couple of lines of marginal commentary in Rashi type, only to hurriedly return to the safely known Yiddish type and never to deviate from it in this edition. Continuous text is set for the first time in Rashi type in the author’s afterword to the Torat ha-Olah, 1569. Even in the Mahzor, 1585–1586, the compositor or compositors still hesitate, or freely pass from one semi-cursive to the other. Similar difficulties in introducing new and more progressive typefaces can be observed throughout Bohemia at the end of the first half of the 16th century in Antiqua and humanist semi-cursive. […]