Compiled around 400 CE in the Galilee, the Jerusalem Talmud was for the most part superseded by its Babylonian counterpart, compiled about a century later. Since it was less studied and less copied, there is much more uncertainty about the text itself—a problem that still dogs scholars today. These problems weighed on the mind of the scribe Rabbi Yeḥiel ben Yekutiel when he completed a manuscript of the Jerusalem Talmud in 1289, as he makes clear in the colophon, or scribe’s note. Yakov Meir observes:
This monumental manuscript, written in beautiful Italian Hebrew script on 674 leaves of parchment, is monumental only to our eyes that have been educated in the age of print. In the eyes of the scribe who copied it, this manuscript wasn’t monumental at all. It was but a corrupted copy of the Jerusalem Talmud, full of errors and mistakes. It is only one stage in a chain of erroneously transmitted links of the ancient talmudic text. Rabbi Yeḥiel thought about himself as being very far from the origin of the text, all he could do was try to correct a few apparent errors, but he would never be able to create a copy of the book “itself.”
In the 16th century, Daniel Bomberg—a Christian who was the most important publisher of Judaica in the early age of the printing press—would use this manuscript as the basis for the first-ever printed version of the Jerusalem Talmud. Mayer observes that with the advent of the printed book, rabbinic literature changed its attitude toward the significance of sacred books as physical objects:
I [compared] Jewish reactions to the burning of the Talmud in 13th-century Paris with the responses to the early-modern burning of the Talmud in various Italian cities in the mid-16th century. In the first case, manuscripts were set on fire, and in the latter, printed volumes. I found it puzzling that the medieval mourners emphasized the national insult, the economic loss, and their wrath, but never mentioned a loss of knowledge. . . . But in the early modern world, a different tone is heard from the people whose books were destroyed. In the eyes of this early modern generation, the loss of these printed books does equal a loss of knowledge.
How strange that in a period when copies of the Talmud were easier to produce and more numerous than ever, they should be concerned about how they would study now that the books were being burnt! . . . In medieval times the material manuscript was considered a temporary materialization, a mere imperfect shadow, of a perfect metaphysical text. Therefore, destroying the material manuscript, while upsetting, could not harm the metaphysical text. In the early modern world, on the other hand, a considerable effort was invested in creating a book that would be as close as possible to the “true” metaphysical text.