Tag Archives: Italy

Jews of the Week: Abraham Garton & Gershom Soncino

The First Jewish Printers

Abraham Garton (c. 1450-1510) was born in Spain and moved with his family to Calabria, Italy sometime before the Spanish Expulsion of 1492 (which took place on Tisha b’Av). Little is known of his life. Inspired by Johannes Gutenberg, who produced the first printed book in Europe in 1439, Garton established his own printing press to produce Jewish books. His first publication was the Torah commentary of the great Rashi, produced in 1475. In order to avoid using the holy script of the Torah itself, and to be able to fit more letters on a page, Garton decided to use a special cursive Hebrew font previously developed by Sephardic rabbis. This went on to become the standard font for printing the commentary of Rashi on the Torah and Talmud, as well as the commentaries of other sages, and is referred to as “Rashi script” – even though Rashi himself never used it!

Rashi script, originally developed by Sephardic rabbis in Spain (top) compared to regular Hebrew script (bottom).

Emblem of the Soncino family and printing press

Several years later, Yehoshua Shlomo (the son of Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants to Italy) established a Hebrew printing press in the town of Soncino, and later in Naples. He undertook the publication of the entire Talmud, starting with the first tractate, Berakhot, in 1483. The work was taken over by his nephew, Gershom Girolamo Soncino (c. 1460-1533). A scholar in his own right, Gershom was fluent in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. In addition to the Talmud, he published books of Torah and the Megillot, as well as various rabbinic texts. He traveled all over Europe to find manuscripts that he could publish. He also produced non-Jewish books, and became famous among Italians for the high quality of his work. All in all, he produced some 200 works, and was the first to use illustrations in a Hebrew book. Soncino later established printing presses in other cities, the last in Constantinople, where he lived out the remainder of his life. He became wealthy, and used his funds to assist Sephardic Jews following the 1492 Expulsion from Spain, and the Portuguese Expulsion in 1497. The Soncino family printed Jewish books until 1557, playing a key role in the wide-spread dissemination of Jewish wisdom, and opening up the study of Jewish texts to the masses. Soncino Press was reestablished in London in the late 19th century, and continues to publish Jewish books today.

How to Observe Judaism in Outer Space  

Words of the Week

Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.
– George Bernard Shaw

Jews of the Week: Amschel, Salomon, and Kalman von Rothschild

In honour of Jew of the Week’s 7th birthday this November, we will feature a month-long series on the most famous (and sometimes infamous) Jewish family of all time: the Rothschilds. This is part two of five. Click here to see part one.

The eldest son of Mayer Rothschild was Amschel Rothschild (1773-1855). He continued his father’s business in Frankfurt, and was made a baron in 1817 (becoming “Von Rothschild”). He was the most religious of the brothers, and tremendously helped poor Eastern European Jews, who nicknamed him “the pious Rothschild”. Unfortunately, he died childless, so his Frankfurt branch was taken over by siblings and nephews. The branch was permanently shut down in 1901. Mayer’s second son was Salomon Rothschild (1774-1855), head of the Vienna branch. He played a huge role in Austria’s history, sparking its industrial revolution, igniting the Austrian economy, and financing massive public projects, including Austria’s first railway network. In honour of this, Emperor Francis made him a baron in 1822 (making him Salomon von Rothschild). Ironically, he was still not an Austrian citizen, which Jews were barred from! It was only twenty years later that he was officially made Austria’s first Jewish citizen, paving the way for equal rights for all Jews. Unfortunately, just a few years later, a wave of anti-Semitic riots broke out in Austria, with Rothschild being its main target. He had to hand over his bank, and fled to Paris. Many of the precious artworks that he collected he donated to the Louvre. The Vienna branch of the bank would ultimately be put to an end by the Nazis (having already suffered a devastating blow during the 1929 stock market crash). The Naples branch went under even earlier, during the Italian Reunification. It was founded by Kalman “Carl” Rothschild (1788-1855), the fourth son. He transformed his bank into the dominant financier in Italy, and was also made a baron. One of his clients was the Vatican Bank, and witnesses were shocked that Kalman never kissed the Pope’s feet, which everyone – even kings – had to do in those days when meeting the Pope. Kalman died in the same year as his oldest brothers, perhaps from grief after his wife and son tragically passed away as well. The remaining two sons, in London and Paris, would become the most influential Rothschilds by far, establishing institutions that continue to operate until this day. Their life and achievements will be explored next week. Click here to go to Part Three.

Words of the Week

The Rothschilds are the wonders of modern banking… we see the descendants of Judah, after a persecution of two thousand years, peering above kings, rising higher than emperors, and holding a whole continent in the hollow of their hands…
– Niles’ Weekly Register, Volume 49 (1836)

Rothschild Coat of Arms. Among the interesting symbols is a Star of David at the top left, and a hand holding five arrows, representing the five Rothschild sons, based on Psalm 127: “Like arrows in the hand of a warrior, so are the children of one’s youth.” At the centre of the logo is a red shield (for “Rothschild”) with an image of the “Judenhut”, a hat that Jews were forced to wear in Europe to distinguish them from others.