The design and decoration of books

Pentateuch, 1530, opening page of Deuteronomy. JMP, call no. 2.361.

 The earliest Prague Hebrew printed works are often praised for their beauty, to which a generous design, elegant typeface and calligraphic opening words cut in wood, full-page borders, frames and illustrations and other decorative material make a considerable contribution. Through the design of the pages, the division of the text and the choice of typeface, the earliestPrague Hebrew books are clearly a continuation of manuscript models – if not of a particular book, then of its ideal form as it would have been created at the beginning of the 16th century by a professional Hebrew scribe. As we saw, in some cases we can assume a printed model as well. The attention given to the design was motivated not only by aesthetics. It was closely connected with the content of the books – often sacred liturgical and biblical texts set in large folio format – where all the above-named elements have at the same time their practical function: the broad margins leave room for comments, in the absence of headings the decorated borders and prominent, strikingly modelled opening words mark the beginning of a new section, from whose content again emerges the choice of the size and kind of type. The design of the few published halakhic and other works is simpler and more sparing, but even so in the Orah Hayyim, 1540, and Torat ha-Olah, 1569, is generous compared with later printed works.

 The visual form of Prague Hebrew books excelled for several decades, starting from the earliest surviving editions, when seen in contrast with the subsequent, much less creative period. Decorative elements are used in various ways; sometimes they are purely ornamental, at other times they have a symbolic content, and in three cases – in the Zemirot, 1514, and the Haggadah, 1526 and 1556 – there are illustrations to the text. Most of this material was newly commissioned by the Jewish patrons; only a small part was represented by re-used woodblocks, most probably originally Christian, such as the borders in the editions of 1525, 1526 and 1536.

 The first, purely ornamental type appears in decorative woodcut letters and in frames and borders. Their woodcutters most often use motifs from the general iconographic repertoire of the time (wild men, mermaids, putti, unicorns, etc.) and for the most part architectural design (portals, columns) and vegetal ornament. Sometimes they turn to biblical motifs which are essentially Jewish in content, although not frequently used in Jewish iconography, sometimes hardly at all: David and Goliath, the Judgement of Solomon, Samson holding the gates of Gaza, Judith with the head of Holofernes in the 1526 Haggadah, Samson’s fight with the lion in the Siddur1566. These figures have no

Mahzor, first part, 1529. JMP, inv. no. 178.825, border with Adam and Eve and Judith and Samson, first used in the 1526 Haggadah.

connection with the content of the text they frame.  The demi-figure of Moses with the Tables of the Law stands on the boundary of purely ornamental and symbolic. It is composed into the borders of 1535 and 1566 probably by a Christian woodcutter on a specific commission (in the 17th century Moses with his brother Aaron became the most typical figures on the title pages of Hebrew books, their “patrons”). […]

 Where and how do the visual elements in the books come into their own? The earliest Prague Hebrew books do not have a title page. In the Zemirot, which is the first complete surviving edition, the beginning of the text is emphasised only by a woodcut frame for an opening word set in emphasised font. As early as in the subsequent Humash, the first page is decorated by a woodcut frame which at least partially fulfils the function of a title page. The printer’s device of the main associate, Gershom ben Solomon Kohen, is placed in a prominent position on the upper edge, while at the bottom we have a hint as to what will later develop into an imprint. The same edition is provided with yet another quasi-title page on the first page of the Book of Exodus, the second book of the Pentateuch. The motifs placed here – the symbols of two of the Prague towns, the Old Town and the Jewish Town – create a pendant to the printer’s device in the Book of Genesis and together create a kind of pictorial imprint. The date of publication appears however only in the colophon at the end of the book.

 The Mahzor of 1522 was the first publication to be furnished with a proper title page. Apart from the names of the printers given only in the colophon, it contains all the relevant information set around the emblem of the Prague Old Town: “Prayer for High Holidays and [the Festival] of Tabernacles. Printed here in the Holy community Prague [in the year] »I will heal their backsliding« of the lesser count (Hosea 14:5; the chronogram equals [5]282, i.e. 1522). […]  The fact that some editions do not have a title page does not mean that they were without decoration. After the break-up of the association, the printers of the Mahzor,1525, did not have access to the same material as in the preceding editions and thus had recourse to the Severin border with the coat of arms of two Lutheran families which was first printed in the homilies of Petr Chelčický (1522). Two completely new architectural borders with the symbols of the Prague Old Town and Jewish Town were also commissioned, evidently designed on the Severin model. Here, full-page borders indicate the beginning of important sections which were also emphasised in manuscripts as well, and could be placed anywhere in the book according to need. Also used in this way are the frame and the borders in the Haggadah, 1526, in the Siddur,1527 (a new original border with the symbol of the Prague Old Town, documented only once), in the Mahzor, 1533–1534 and elsewhere. They can also be placed at the end of the text, for example in the Humash, 1530, where the colophon is set into the border with playing putti and the Old Town emblem (used for the first time in the Mahzor, 1529), or in the Selihot, 1535, whose colophon is framed by the above mentioned border with the “horned” Moses, symbols of the Levites and the emblem of the Prague Old Town, used again five years later on the title page of Orah Hayyim, 1540.

 Emblems of the towns and of the kingdom

Pentateuch, 1530, last folio, woodcut border with putti and mermaids supporting a shield with the emblem of Prague Old Town.

Town and regional emblems and printers’ devices provide visual information about the place of origin and the originators of the book. The custom of placing the Prague Old Town emblem – together with the specific woodblocks – in their editions was adopted by the Jewish printers from the practice of their Christian colleagues, for whom this was a way of expressing local patriotism. The Jewish printers were certainly led by the same reasons – sometimes they refer directly in their books to “the famous city of Prague, mother in Israel”. We find the municipal symbol in borders and frames (Humash, 1514–1518, Mahzor, 1522 and other) and independently on the title or the last page (Siddur, 1512, Mahzor, 1522 and 1533–1534; Selihot, 1529 and other). It seems that it became an inherent a part of the Prague printed book; such a consistently held practice is not known among Jewish printers elsewhere. Could it be that to place the emblem also expressed the fact that the book was permitted to be printed by the municipal authorities? In several editions the Magen David (literally the Shield of David), the hexagram, appears together with the emblem of the Prague Old Town. It has generally been a symbol of Judaism since the Antiquity, but coupled with the Old Town emblem we can, in the first period of Prague Hebrew book printing, understand it as a symbol of the Prague Jewish Town or the Jewish community – even without the Jewish hat, which sits in it in the woodblock printed on the first page of Exodus in the edition of the Humash,15141518. 

 We find in the Prague publications, as well as the municipal symbols, a double-queued lion, the symbol of the Kingdom of Bohemia. It appears for the first time in the Haggadah, 1526, inserted into a border with Adam and Eve and Samson and Judith as a counterpart to the printer’s device of Gershom Kohen placed on the upper bar of the second full-page frame. The printer did not yet have the licence for printing Hebrew books in the Kingdom of Bohemia in his hands, and did not gain it until April 1527, but the insertion of the symbol indicates his ambition or expectation of acquiring it soon. We can understand the lion as the emblem of the ruler who awarded the printer the licence to print.

 Printer’s device

 Another symbol which could at this time be found anywhere in the book, was the printer’s device, the trademark of the printer. In the Siddur, 1512, it can be found on the next to last page before the colophon and is common to the whole six-member consortium of printers. It enfolds several Jewish iconographic motifs in one: the Magen David as the framework of the composition, a pitcher with a towel (a tallit?) as a symbol of the Levites (i.e. Isaiah Horowitz and Solomon ben Samuel) and symbolic animals, a lion (for Mordecai ben Eliezer, Shemaria ben David) and a deer (for Yekutiel ben Isaac Dan), which express affiliation to the tribes of Judah and Dan respectively. The points of the crowned hexagram are filled with the faces of green men. 

Printer’s mark of the Gersonites, inscribed keter kehunah (crown of priesthood) and mishpahat ha-gershuni (Gersonite family) from the end of the 16th century. JMP, sg. 4.778, fol. [20b].

 In Prague, only the Gersonites family had its own printer’s device from 1514 to 1602; their symbol consists of two hands with fingers spread in priestly blessing placed most often on a shield supported by wild men or angels. For the most part they are inserted into the decorative frames and borders.

A portrait of a printer

 This 1569 folio border is, after Gershom’s commissions, the first border created for a specific printer, ordered for Mordecai ben Gershom. We can read his Hebrew name on two shields with a printer’s device supported by two lions. Above them, hanging on chains, are the winged heads of cherubim; the rest of the border is decorated with non-Jewish motifs; that is, with the exception of the portal as such, which, as clearly the most frequent decorative motif of the title page of the Hebrew book, lasted far into the 18th and in Eastern Europe even into the late 19th century. However, this border is absolutely exceptional. In the lower edge of the border there is a face, probably idealised, but quite clearly a portrait of Mordecai ben Gershom Katz. It is, for its time and in the lands of Bohemia, a unique portrait of a printer placed in a title border. Moreover a deep bond of gratitude tied the printer to the author of the work and thus perhaps the edition and its design also have a clear extra-literary dimension. It is not until 1590 that we have another quarto portrait border documented, from which a similar face of a man in a beret with a moustache and goatee beard looks at us. It is probable that all four borders documented for the first time in 1566 (without portrait), 1569 and 1590 (with portrait) originated at the same time and quite certainly in the workshop of one woodcutter. Except for the border with Samson, they were all still used in the first two decades of the seventeenth century, the quarto border with Moses still in the 1690s.

Meir ben Baruch of Rothenburg: She‘elot u-Teshuvot. Prague: Moses ben Joseph Bezalel Katz, 1608. JMP, sg. 5.064, title page. Border with the portrait of Mordecai ben Gershom first documented in Torat ha-Olah, 1569.


 The Zemirot, 1514 |3|, the Haggadah, 1526 /12/, and the Haggadah, 1556 /29/, the only three illustrated Prague Hebrew books of the period under consideration, are well enough known; they are described and published in facsimiles (the 1526 Haggadah more than once). While the Zemirot contain only four different woodcut illustrations, most of them printed twice, the Haggadah of 1526 is richly illustrated on roughly two-thirds of its pages. As well as two figurative and one ornamental borders (one of the three being, more exactly, a frame), the fifty illustrations printed from more than thirty different illustrative woodblocks (some are re-used more than once for similar types of figures) and as well as black decorative large letters cast or cut in wood there are also woodcut letters with richly decorated backgrounds. However, as Cecil Roth emphasised, it is not so much the illustrations themselves that make this book beautiful as the perfection of the typesetting and the balanced composition of each of the two-page spreads.

 There is a thematic relationship between the illustrations of the Zemirot and the Haggadah; religious celebrations taking place in the circle of the family are illustrated in both. In the Zemirot, whose content consists of hymns sung on the Sabbath and various blessings, especially the birkat ha-mazon (Grace after Meals), we see the family sitting around a table and a man pronouncing a blessing over the wine (Kiddush). The Haggadah, which is read during the family ceremony Seder shel Pesah, has analogous scenes, only in a different context. Similar to the family at a table, we find a man searching for the hametz (leavened bread) before Pesah, a boy pouring wine for the kiddush, a man with either a matzah or the bitter herb, and so on. The illustrations in the Haggadah have a didactic and practical task, to teach those who do not know how to read and especially to hold children’s attention during the long ceremony, as is expressed in the colophon of the Haggadah of 1526: “[…] rendered in fine drawings, [to] wake the boys from their sleep and straighten the language of the elders, to make it run swiftly as the quick pen of the scribe.”

Seder Zemirot u-Birkat ha-Mazon. Prague: Gershom ben Solomon ha-Kohen, Meir ben Jacob ha-Levi Epstein, Hayyim ben David Shahor, Meir ben David, 1514. JMP, sg. 64.981, fol. [34a], second variant of the hare hunt (hares past the net).

The many-layered text of the Haggadah is however much more complicated than the content of the Zemirot. On the one hand it retells the biblical story of the slavery of the Jews in Egypt and their salvation – the constituting event of Jewish history, remembered in the Festival of Pesah (Passover) – while at the same time it contains a commentary by Talmudic scholars on that event and on the way in which it is remembered, and finally the specific ritual acts carried out before and during the family celebration. And all these layers – the biblical story (and its midrashic expansions, for example, Pharaoh bathing in the blood of the murdered infants), the Talmudic scholars and those who celebrate the festival – are illustrated in the Haggadah, including some customs originally not captured in the text (the immersion of the little finger in the cup of wine during the Kiddush). All the figures, architecture and objects in the illustrations (but not in the borders) have a more or less contemporary appearance: the men are dressed in cloaks lined with fur and their heads are covered by berets or tall caps; the towers of churches and palaces rise up behind ramparts with battlements in the Egyptian cities. We find in both books the motif of hunting hares, which actually belongs only to the context of the Haggadah: its German or Yiddish verbal description, in the pronunciation of the time – yaken haz – could serve as a mnemonic device for remembering the order of the Kiddush blessing (the initials of the names of its individual parts) as said at the beginning of the Seder when it falls at the end of a Shabbat: yayin, kiddush, ner, havdalah, zeman. In the Zemirot the motif is given another dimension. It is “animated” as in modern comics: in the first picture the hares are in front of the net, with dogs close on their trail; in the next they have happily escaped the net. The meaning of Israel’s escape from her pursuers is therefore symbolically ascribed to the motif.

 The incidence of the woodblocks with the motif of the hunt of the hares in the Zemirot 1514, outside the proper context of the scene, is one of the signs that indicates that the printed Prague illustrated Haggadah is not the first of its kind. Fragments of earlier editions and of models for the illustrations have actually been found. Moreover, the Haggadah was regularly illustrated in medieval manuscripts and it is therefore possible that the original woodblocks – that is, those that were not re-used woodblocks adopted from other contexts – were made according to some available model. Even so it is interesting to follow how the woodcutters, who with rare exceptions most probably were not Jews, rendered the specifically Jewish motifs in the depictions of the various ritual acts and customs in the Zemirot and the Haggadah. Insofar as they did not know them from their own experience, we have to suppose an intensive communication between them and the Jewish patrons who had to explain the commission to them verbally, or show them a model. We agree with A.M. Habermann and Cecil Roth that the letter shin, which turns up on some woodblocks of the Haggadah, is not the initial of the cognomen of Hayyim Shahor, and is to suggest that Hayyim was their author. As well as the reasons given above, the letter is placed in woodblocks cut evidently by two different hands, whose authors are moreover in the subsequent essay by Petr Voit definitely located in the Bohemian environment where they worked on other, non-Jewish, commissions as well. The non-Jewish identity of the woodcutters also gives a better explanation for how the scenes inspired by Christian sources came into the Jewish context. This does not just happen where scenes are apparently taken from other contexts and used secondarily (for example, the differently sized woodblock of the two men in the incipit of Barukh ha-ba), but chiefly in cases where the woodcutter transposed a typologically similar scene from Christian iconography. […]