The Woman behind the First Printed Hebrew Prayer Book

August 12, 2021 | Yori Yalon
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The story of Hebrew printing begins in Italy in the latter part of the 15th century. Among the lesser-known pioneers of this period of Jewish publishing was Meshulam Kuzi, who produced an edition of the s’liot—penitential prayers said in the days or weeks prior to Rosh Hashanah. Yori Yalon writes:

Kuzi . . . founded a small printing business in the Italian town Piove di Sacco [and] printed his texts in stunning “Ashkenazi letters.” . . . According to the National Library of Israel, “This s’liot prayer book from around 1475 is effectively the first Hebrew prayer book ever printed.”

Another interesting aspect of the book is the role women played in its production. The curator of the National Library’s Judaica collection, Yoel Finkelman, explains that Meshulam’s wife is believed to have been active in publishing the work. “We know that Rabbi Meshulam passed away before it was published, and his widow, Devorah, completed the work,” Finkelman notes.

The pages of this copy of the book include evidence it was used by at least two other Ashkenazi women, who made notes about their husbands. On the first page appears a sentence signed “Mrs. Esther, daughter of Rabbi Asher,” which was apparently written not long after the book was published. . . . Another woman wrote her name on one of the last pages, a few hundred years later.

Nor was this Devorah the only widow with that name to play a significant role in the history of Jewish printing. Devorah Romm took over Vilna’s Romm publishing house, founded in 1799, after the death of her husband in 1860, serving as its director until her own death in 1903. During this period, the Romm press produced its renowned edition of the Talmud—whose layout has been imitated by nearly every subsequent edition, and whose pagination remains the standard way by which the work is cited.

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