In a 1477 book of Hebrew commentary on the Psalms, the printer notes with wonder that the words “shine like sapphires in the eyes of all who see them.” He also remarks on the extraordinary capacity of the printing press to produce “300 copies all at once,” allowing Jews to preserve their faith “for all generations.” Early print books in Hebrew like this are rare, with only some 170 titles known to exist. Thirty-seven reside in the Library of Congress; as Ann Brenner notes in the Library’s blog, they—and one printer’s poem in particular—reflect a wondrous marriage of the ancient and new.
It was apparently a case of love at first sight. How else to describe those first encounters between the earliest Hebrew printers and that newfangled technology that was spreading across Europe? Already in the first dated Hebrew book, printed in Italy in 1475, the printer expressed passionate wonder over the new invention, and he was not alone. In Spain, in Portugal, in Italy, Hebrew printers took to the new technology with enthusiasm, turning out classics of the Jewish bookshelf one after another: rabbinic law codes and responsa; prayer books; translations of Arabic philosophy; belles lettres; even the entire Hebrew Bible itself, complete with commentaries and Aramaic translation.
As we move through the digital age, it might be difficult for us to appreciate just what the printing press meant to those first Hebrew printers. Yet they were just as excited and moved by the new technology as we are by the technology in our own day and age, and just as alive to its transformative powers.
The invention of printing caught the Jewish people at a critical moment in history. Spanish Jewry, once the most important Jewish community in the world, was crumbling under the pressures of the Reconquista and, from 1478, from the terrors of the Inquisition. Entire Jewish communities were in flight; Hebrew texts were going up in flames. And now, here was an invention that could produce multiple copies all at once and, by doing so, ensure the survival of Jewish teachings and perhaps of Judaism itself.