Mahzor. Prague: Gershom ben Solomon ha-Kohen with his sons Mordecai and Solomon, 1529. JMP, inv. no. 178.825, detail.

People and paratexts

We learn from the colophons how the people responsible for the earliest Prague editions perceived their work. The basic motifs of these texts are pride in the work carried out, awareness of its importance, pious humility, and hope in the early coming of the Messiah. Sometimes the printers give way to feelings of bitterness or of joy in their triumph when they are forced to overcome various obstacles in the work, as for example in the colophons of the Humash, 1514–1518, and the Siddur, 1519. The colophon of the Torat ha-Olah, 1569, likewise has a pronounced personal note. Elsewhere the printers describe what led them to the decision to publish the book, especially knowledge of the fact that the lack of books is an obstacle in practising the Torah, and ascribe to themselves predictably appropriate merits for the “sacred work” they perform. The texts of the colophons are often long and flowery, put together from excerpts from biblical verses and are themselves rhymed. Sometimes however they do not so much describe the current situation as take on the tone and content of paratexts printed previously, and for this reason the facts are really the only relevant information here: the name of the printers, the date and place of completion, and the definition of the content of the printed work.

In the earliest editions only the names of the printers or publishers are mentioned, not the staff of the printing house, who however must have been operating at that time: the typesetters, proof-readers and other professions. In this regard the previously mentioned Meir ben David, “one of the first printers”, had an exceptional position in the Mahzor, 1529. He was summoned by Gershom Kohen, who had been instigated by the spirit of God to publish the second edition of the festive prayers. And Meir rose up “like a brother when one is in need”, watching over the publication and setting each foreign word with new pictures “which were [in nothing] reminiscent of the first” (i.e. the border and illustrations from the Haggadah, 1526), and “completed every omission and deficit”. It was clearly the same printer who first printed in 1514–1522 in the consortium with Gershom, and after its break-up, in 1525 and 1526 in partnership with Hayyim Shahor. The phrase le-hativ hasdo ha-aharon min ha-rishon (“to act, this last time, even more kindly than at the beginning”), if we understand it properly, can be Gershom’s appreciation of Meir’s good will in rising above former quarrels. The next staff member we know of after Meir is “Samuel bar Reuben [Dreksler] printer known as Samuel Compositor, a German from the Holy community of Frankfurt am Main”, whose name appears at the end of the book Torat ha-Olah, 1569 /32/. Samuel Dreksler later acted as the publisher of the Menorat zahav tahor, which was printed in 1581 “in the house of Mordecai ben Gershom Katz”; for the most part however he remained a typesetter, for example of the Maharal’s sermon in 1583.

The edition of Orah Hayyim from the four-part Arba’ah Turim by Jacob ben Asher, 1540, was prepared by the then Prague rabbi Abraham ben Avigdor (d. 1542) who provided the emendations, references, and his own glosses. At the end of the book the Rabbi describes his own work, and apologises for possible mistakes since “it cannot be otherwise in the printer’s work. Nevertheless, this work is more exact than any written by pen, whether new or old, likewise than everything that was printed before, and everyone who buys it will have joy in his purchase.” Rabbi Abraham is the first Prague rabbi known to us to have entered a publishing enterprise not just as an author but also as an editor. A little later the same year, all the Arba’ah Turim with his corrections were published by Hayyim Shahor in Augsburg and edited by his son in law Joseph ben Yakar. From 1549 to 1550 the Gersonides family published both parts of the Mahzor with a commentary whose author is likewise Rabbi Abraham (which is not mentioned until what is, although the first part, in fact the second in order of publication). The proof-reader of the edition and the author of the laudation for the printers was Menahem ben Moses Israel.

In 1566 an edition of the siddur came out provided with brief homiletic and ethical expositions and explanations concerning the rite (nusah) printed on the margins of the pages . The commentator – or rather, compiler – refers in the exposition to medieval Sephardic and Ashkenazic authorities, including Rabbi Avigdor of blessed memory (Kara?), Meir of Rothenburg, “rabbi Barukh [ben Samuel of Mainz?] in the name of Rabbi Judah Chasid”. According to the title page the edition prepared “according to the custom of Rabbi Isaac Tyrna” contained as well as the siddur, also the yotzerot and the Shir ha-yihud. Unfortunately we do not know any more about the edition and its editor as the only known copy has survived just as a fragment.