Tag Archives: Rashi

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

Jew of the Week: Rashi

Illustration of Rashi from 1539

Illustration of Rashi from 1539

Shlomo Itzchaki (1040-1105) was born in Troyes, France, the only child of a rabbi. He began his Torah studies at age 5 under the tutelage of his father. At 17, he married and moved to Worms, Germany to study at the yeshiva of Rabbi Yakar. He later studied under several other rabbis, including his uncle, and the chief rabbi of Mainz. At 25, now himself a rabbi, Itzchaki returned to Troyes and was invited to serve on the town’s rabbinical court. Soon after, he took over as the head of the court, and the central authority on Jewish religious and legal matters. By 30, Rabbi Itzchaki had opened a yeshiva, which went on to become a centre of Torah study for countless Jews. Undoubtedly, the Rabbi is most famous for his profound commentaries on the Bible and Talmud. These are included in just about every publication of the Bible and Talmud since the 1500’s. In these texts, he is referred to simply as “Rashi”, an acronym of his initials. Rashi’s commentary on the Five Books of Moses alone inspired over 300 future commentaries. Even the Christian world studied his texts (here, Rashi was sometimes referred to by his Latinized name, Isaacides). In fact, many Christian commentaries on the Bible are based on Rashi’s texts. One of the more famous ones, that of the monk Nicolas de Lyre, was so heavily drawn from Rashi that de Lyre was nicknamed “Rashi’s ape”. Nonetheless, it was de Lyre’s commentary that inspired Martin Luther, the father of Protestant Christianity, and Luther used this text to produce his famous translation of the Bible. In addition to his commentaries, roughly 300 of Rashi’s other legal texts exist today. These texts are studied by linguistic scholars, too, who are looking to better understand both Hebrew and medieval French. According to tradition, Rashi also worked as a winemaker to support himself financially. He had three daughters who were scholars in their own right, with some suggesting that they completed a number of his unfinished commentaries, and possibly even donned tefillin. Rashi’s grandsons were some of the biggest rabbis of the following generation, including Rashbam and Rabbeinu Tam. Recently, an ancient map was discovered showing the location of Rashi’s grave. It happens to be under a public square in Troyes. A monument now stands over the site.

Words of the Week

The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist, but at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.
– Nobel Prize-winning physicist Werner Heisenberg