Tag Archives: Jewish Printers

Jews of the Week: Israel and Nisan Bak

Israel’s First Printers – and Farmers

Page from a Zohar printed by Bak in Jerusalem

Israel Bak (1797-1874) was born in Berdichev, Ukraine to a Hasidic family of printers. He took over the business at the age of 18, and over the next seven years printed thirty books. Unfortunately, the family printing press was shut down, and over the next decade Bak unsuccessfully tried to rebuild the business. In 1831, he made aliyah and settled in Tzfat. He established a new printing press, and Jewish books began to be printed in Tzfat again for the first time since the 1600s, when the previous printing press was shut down. Meanwhile, Bak also purchased a plot of land near Mt. Meron and started the first Jewish agricultural colony. Some credit him as being the first modern Jewish farmer in Israel. It was he that inspired (former Jew of the Week) Sir Moses Montefiore to start investing in more Jewish settlement and agricultural development of the Holy Land—a seminal event upon which the later Zionist movement was built. Sadly, Bak lost everything in the Tzfat earthquake of 1837 and the Druze Revolt of 1838. He relocated with his family to Jerusalem, there establishing the holy city’s first-ever printing press. From there he printed 130 books, as well as the second Hebrew newspaper in Israel’s history, Havatzelet.

Kirya Ne’emana in 1925

After he passed away, his son Nisan Bak (1815-1889) took over the printing business. Nisan sold the press in 1883, deciding to focus all of his efforts on rebuilding Jewish life in the Holy Land. Back in 1843, he had prevented the Russians from purchasing a coveted plot of land near the Western Wall where they intended to build a church and monastery. He was able to procure vast sums of money (with the help of the Ruzhiner Rebbe) to secure the area for the Jews, and there built the illustrious Tiferet Israel Synagogue (also known as Beit Knesset Nisan Bak, and the Hurva, “Ruin”, because it was destroyed by the Arabs in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948, before being rebuilt and reopened in 2010). In 1875, Bak founded one of the first modern Jewish towns in Israel, just outside Jerusalem’s walls, called Kirya Ne’emana. He built 30 homes for the Hasidic community, and distributed the remaining plots to large numbers of Iraqi, Syrian, and Persian Jews. In 1884, he co-founded (with his brother-in-law, Israel Dov Frumkin) the Ezrat Niddahim Society to stop Christian missionaries from targeting Jews. The society also established a Yemenite Jewish quarter in Jerusalem, and raised funds to support and educate Jerusalem’s impoverished.

Top left: the Hurva Synagogue in 1930; bottom left: the ruins in 1967; right: the Hurva today (photo credit: Chesdovi). Sir Moses Montefiore paid for much of the early construction. More than half of the money came from the wealthy Iraqi-Jewish family of Ezekiel Reuben. The synagogue was completed in 1864 and originally called Beit Yakov in honour of Edmond James (Yakov) de Rothschild. It was considered the most beautiful building in Jerusalem, and nicknamed “the glory of the Old City”.

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Words of the Week

I see Israel, and never mind saying it, as one of the great outposts of democracy in the world, and a marvelous example of what can be done, how desert land almost can be transformed into an oasis of brotherhood and democracy. Peace for Israel means security and that security must be a reality.
– Martin Luther King, Jr.

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.

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Words of the Week

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