Tag Archives: Jewish Books

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: Rabbi Zlotowitz and Rabbi Scherman

The ArtScroll Revolution 

Rabbi Meir Zlotowitz

Meir Yakov Zlotowitz (1943-2017) was born in New York to Orthodox Jewish immigrants from Poland. He showed an affinity for art from a young age, and after graduating from yeshiva (and receiving his rabbinic ordination), he co-founded ArtScroll Studios. Originally, the company produced artfully-decorated pamphlets, posters, ketubot, and scrolls. In 1975, a close friend of Rabbi Zlotowitz passed away shortly before Purim. The rabbi decided to honour his friend by composing a new translation and commentary on Megillat Esther within the shloshim, the first 30-day period of mourning. Rabbi Zlotowitz worked day and night for 30 days, barely eating or sleeping at all. When he was done, he produced a beautifully-designed and intellectually in-depth edition of the Book of Esther. It was an instant hit, and quickly sold 20,000 copies. The success of the publication made Rabbi Zlotowitz realize he could do the same for other Jewish holy texts. He went in search of a partner who could work with him, and found the perfect person:

Rabbi Nosson Scherman

Nosson Scherman (b. 1935) was born in New Jersey to a traditional family and originally attended public school. He went to a Jewish after-school program and was inspired to go to yeshiva several years later. Scherman became a rabbi, first worked as a school teacher, and then became principal of Yeshiva Karlin Stolin. He wrote the introduction to Rabbi Zlotowitz’s Megillat Esther, then joined him full time at ArtScroll. The partners had little money and set up the Mesorah Heritage Foundation to help finance their work. Under their leadership and wisdom, ArtScroll has produced over 700 titles and some 2000 volumes, including possibly the world’s most popular Chumash, and the entire Talmud (a whopping 73-tome set). This Talmud was the product of over 70 scholars working together from all over the world, and for many it is the go-to version of Talmud today. It has allowed thousands of regular people to learn and love the Talmud, in clear English and with insightful commentaries. ArtScroll has been credited with revolutionizing Jewish study, and with helping to facilitate the massive baal teshuva movement in recent decades, inspiring the return of countless Jews to their faith and traditions. Despite being in his 80s, Scherman continues to helm ArtScroll, producing ever more beautiful and enlightening Jewish books.

Purim Begins Tonight! Chag Sameach!

15 Purim Facts Every Jew Should Know

Words of the Week

It’s amazing how much you can accomplish when you don’t care who gets the credit.
– Gertrude Elion