Reading room

We have already mentioned what a journey it would take to get to the originals of the early Prague Hebrew books, often preserved in only one or two copies. Today, however, thanks to the new technologies, we can leaf through many of them on-line. Here we have collected just a few interesting links; many other Prague printed Hebrew books may be found in the Digitale Sammlungen of the Goethe University in Frankurt am Main at www.hebrewbooks.org, in the digital library of the National Library in Jerusalem. Let us begin, somewhat illogically, with a manuscript:

o Bible with Rashi’s commentary, Prague 1489, Mendel Gottesman Library, Yeshiva University, New York

A continuity exists between late medieval manuscripts and the earliest printed books: similarities may be observed in the choice of script/type, layout and organization of pages, e.g. placement of the canonical text and the commentary, treatment of decorative opening words and headings, absence of title pages etc. The second oldest Hebrew manuscript known to have originated in Prague was copied by Matitiah ben Jonah of Laun (Louny) in the house of Israel bar Pinhas of Prague. It was completed in summer 1489 and shortly after illuminated in the workshop of the Christian artist Valentin Noh of Jindřichův Hradec (personal communication of Pavel Brodský, National Museum, Prague). In 1985 it was donated to the Mendel Gottesman Library of the Yeshiva University, New York and today it may be viewed on-line in the Yeshiva University digital library. It is interesting to compare it with the Prague Humash from 1514–1518. Enter here.

 o Siddur 1519, National Library of Israel, Jerusalem

The 1519 re-edition of the 1515 Siddur (prayers for the weekdays and the Sabbath and other occasions) is almost identical with its model. On the border of the first printed page ([1b]) the woodcutter placed the magen david, an ancient symbol of Judaism and, in the Prague context, a counterpart of the emblem of the Prague Old Town. The two symbols sometimes appear together, as on the opening page of the Exodus in the 1514–1518 Pentateuch. Otherwise, the typesetting is highly similar of the handwritten Hebrew prayer book of the preceding period, in its layout, use and distribution of decorative opening words etc. Enter here.

 o Haggadah 1526, Royal Library, Copenhagen

The illustrated Prague Haggadah from 1526 is considered to be one of the most beautiful Hebrew books ever printed. As the recent identification of Petr Voit (Strahov Library of the Royal Canonry of Premonstratensians, Prague) has shown, several woodcutters were commissioned to prepare its decor and illustrations, all of which are known to have worked on other, Christian, commissions. Apart of two figurative borders with biblical figures taken directly from Christian art and one purely decorative frame, the artists had to cope with motifs which were most probably foreign or unknown to them to illustrate specific customs and tradition connected with the ritual of Seder Pesah and the content of the Haggadah. The book is typeset in an elegant, large square type of local Ashkenazic style. One of the complete copies is kept at the Royal Library in Copenhagen, another at the Braginsky Collection in Zurich.

o Haggadah 1530-1540, formerly in the collection of Lazarus Goldschmidt, Royal Library, Copenhagen

The “strange” variant of the Prague Haggadah of 1526 originally in the possession of Lazarus Goldschmidt (1871–1950) is today kept in the Royal Library in Copenhagen. The previous owner – an eminent Jewish scholar, translator of the Talmud into German and collector –  devoted an independent study to the dating of the fragment and dated it to roughly 1520. We have re-dated it recently to c.1530–1540, based on the following: the figurative background of the ornamented letters is removed as compared with the 1526 variant; Yiddish type used for the commentary is a sign of a more advanced phase of development of Hebrew typography (in the 1526 edition, small square type is used) and, finally, watermarks in the shape of the Prague Old Town emblem, as found here, we were able to find otherwise among Prague Hebraica dating from years 1530–1540. Check the intriguing Lazarus Goldschmidt’s unicum here.

  o 1592 David Gans, Tzemah David, National Library of Israel

The chronicle by David Gans is the first historiography work by an Ashkenazic scholar. Moreover, the author deals not only with the Jewish history, but ventures out of the ghetto towards the general history and even acknowledges to have used Christian sources. As he says in the introduction, he wrote his work for “lay­men with little education (ba’ale batim ketanim) and young students”, not for scholars. Gans was also an amateur of astronomy and geography; he described his visits of Tycho Brahe and his observatory in Nehmad ve-Na’im. From another work of his, entitled Magen David (1612), the printer, Moses Katz, printed only the introduction as it was not sure how the conservative Ashkenazic society would welcome a work dealing with secular sciences. For Tzemah David, enter here.

  o 1621 Siddur, Tehillim, Ma‘amadot, Research Library at Olomouc

A rare book printed at the very beginning of the Thirty Years Was survived in the library of the former Jesuit College in Olomouc. From the pocket edition of one of the Prague printers, only the Psalms (Tehillim) were known until recently, the rest was identified only during this project. The Olomouc Library holds other valuable Hebrew books and manuscripts, testifying to the interest the Jesuits took in the subject of Hebrew and Jewish studies (their motifs left aside): e.g. a copy of Issur ve-hetter from 1534, one of the earliest Hebrew books printed in Krakow, an autograph manuscript by Sebastian Munster etc. Here is Heida’s book, misarranged during the digitization (to be corrected in the near future).