Tag Archives: Sephardic Jews

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: Abraham Jonas

The Man Who Made Lincoln President

Abraham Jonas (1801-1864) was born in England to a religious Jewish family. He moved with his brothers to Cincinnati in 1819, and they were the first Jewish family to journey west to the new frontier beyond the Allegheny Mountains. They were also the founders of the first synagogue in Ohio, Congregation B’nai Israel. Jonas married Lucy Seixas, the daughter of Gershom Mendes Seixas, the first rabbi born in America. After she passed away, he relocated to Kentucky, remarried, and opened a general store. Having been involved with the Freemasons back in Cincinnati, Jonas opened a new Masonic Lodge in Kentucky. He became its master in 1832. Around the same time, he was elected to the Kentucky State Legislature and served a four year term. After this, Jonas moved to Illinois and opened a new general store, as well as a carriage business, before going to study law. He and his brothers started a newspaper, and built another synagogue, Congregation B’nai Abraham. (Jonas’ law office was a room inside the synagogue.) In 1840, Jonas established Illinois’ Grand Masonic Lodge and was elected its Grand Master. Two years later, he joined the Illinois State Legislature, and there met Abraham Lincoln. The two became very close friends. When their Whig Party fell apart, both Abrahams were among the co-founders of the new Republican Party. It was Jonas who later inspired Lincoln to run for president, and campaigned on his behalf. Jonas was a noted abolitionist, and vehemently opposed the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act which allowed slavery in new Western states. In fact, Jonas chaired the committee which organized the now-famous Lincoln-Douglas Debates, where Abraham Lincoln made his case against slavery. In 1858, when leaders of the Republican Party were deciding whom to nominate as their next candidate for president, Henry Asbury suggest Lincoln, whom the others rejected immediately. At this point, Jonas spoke up and turned the tables. Still, at the party’s Illinois convention in May 1860, it seemed clear that William Seward would be nominated. Jonas stepped in yet again, and ensured Lincoln’s nomination. Less than a year later, Lincoln was president. He appointed Jonas as the postmaster of Quincy, Illinois. Jonas continued to support and advice Lincoln until his last days. Of Jonas’ five sons, two fought with the Confederate Army, which grieved him greatly. He fell terribly ill in the midst of the Civil War. As he lay on his death bed in 1864, his son Charles was captured and imprisoned. President Lincoln wrote a personal order to release Charles so that he could be alongside his father. Jonas died that same day. He played a critical role in ensuring the survival of Jewish life in America. He was also a key founding member of the Republican Party, and there is little doubt that without him Abraham Lincoln (who has been voted America’s greatest president by both citizens and political scientists) would have never become president. Not surprisingly, Jonas is the only person that Lincoln ever described as “one of my most valued friends”.

Was Abraham Lincoln Jewish?

Lincoln and the Jews: 10 Fascinating Facts

Words of the Week

The American Jewish community is wonderful. While you cannot tell them to do anything, you can teach them to do everything.
– The Lubavitcher Rebbe, to Herman Wouk