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The Second Rabbinic Bible, Venice, 1525: The Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division Celebrates an Important New Acquisition

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(The following is a blogpost by Ann Brener, Hebraic Specialist, African and Middle Eastern Division.)

I will arise now and go about the streets and in the broad ways I will seek
him whom my soul loves; I sought him but I found him not. The
watchmen that go round the city found me, to whom I said: Have you
seen him whom my soul loves? Scarce had I passed from them when I
found him whom my soul loves; I held him and would not let him go till
I had brought him into my mother’s house . . .
(Song of Songs 3: 2-4)


Sometime before 1525, a Jewish refugee from Tunisia by the name of Jacob ben Chaim ibn Adonijah made his way to Venice, and with a few well-chosen references to these famous lines from the biblical Song of Songs turned a publishing venture into a narrative of love and longing:

I was dwelling quietly in my house, and flourishing in my abode, prosecuting diligently my studies at Tunis, which is on the borders of ancient Carthage, when Fate removed me to the West and afterwards brought me to the famous city of Venice. And after about three months of sufferings . . . I said to myself, I will arise now, and go about the streets and in the broad ways. As I was wandering quietly, behold God sent a highly distinguished and pious Christian of the name of Daniel Bomberg to meet me . . .  He brought me into his printing house and showed me through his establishment, saying to me, “Turn in, abide with me . . . I want thee to revise the books which I print, correct the mistakes, purify the style, and examine the works till they are as refined silver and as purified gold” (Ginsburg, p. 38).

Title page from a printed Hebrew Bible, in Hebrew.
Figure 1. Second Rabbinic Bible. Venice: Daniel Bomberg, 1525, Vols. I-IV. Shown here is the title page of Vol. I, headed by the words “The New Gate of the Lord” in order to distinguish this edition from the First Rabbinic Bible of 1517, where these now famous gates appeared for the first time in Hebrew printing. Hebraic Section, Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division. Photo by Shawn Miller/Library of Congress. Note: Privacy and publicity rights for individuals depicted may apply.

It was an auspicious meeting. Ibn Adonijah was dreaming about a monumental new edition of the Hebrew Bible, and Daniel Bomberg was the renowned Hebrew printer of Venice, or rather of La Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia, then a great maritime power and the most important center of printing in the world. No wonder, then, that in his Preface to the great Hebrew Bible he helped bring to press in 1525, Ibn Adonijah framed that first meeting with Bomberg in terms of the biblical love tryst from the Song of Songs. Only, in a twist of the biblical narrative, it is not in his “mother’s house” that the meeting culminates but rather in Bomberg’s “printing house” – thus setting the stage for the magnificent Bible to come.

*    *    *

The Hebrew Bible printed by Daniel Bomberg in Venice, 1525, and which we know today as the Second Rabbinic Bible, is without question one of the milestones of printing history. This is the Bible which preserved for all time the ancient legacy of the Masorah, the great mass of rabbinic tradition that safeguarded the sacred Hebrew text through the millennia. But as the name implies, it was not the first rabbinic Bible ever printed. The First Rabbinic Bible, printed by Daniel Bomberg himself in 1517, had been problematic from the start. It was edited, for one thing, by a Jewish convert to Christianity, Felix Pratensis, and this did little to recommend it to the Jewish book-buying public. Nor did the Latin dedication to Pope Leo X do much to improve matters. More important, the marginal notes prepared by Pratensis were deemed wholly inadequate; one famous scholar of the day, Elia Levita, sniffed that “[Pratensis] did not know his right hand from his left,” and sternly bade his readers pay no attention to “the false remarks printed in the margins.” Thus, when Ibn Adonijah explained to Daniel Bomberg the importance of the Masorah, Bomberg was ripe for a new edition. In fact, by the time Ibn Adonijah finished explaining, Bomberg was “like a bear bereft of its young,” so eager was he to begin. In an amusing turn of the tables, we now hear Bomberg demanding of Ibn Adonijah:

Gird up thy loins now like a man for I want to publish the twenty-four sacred books, provided they carry the commentaries, the Aramaic translations, the Masorah magna and the Masorah parva, the Keri ve-Ketiv and the Ketiv ve-lo Keri ; full and defective spelling, and all the glosses of the Scribes (Ginsburg, p. 40).

Ibn Adonijah describes the enormous scope of the work he now undertook and which only Bomberg’s generous funding (“gold taken from his own purse”) made possible: the search for manuscripts on which to base the Masoretic text, the collation of fragments, the ceaseless scrutiny of commentaries and traditions. But it was a magnificent achievement, and towards the end of his Preface, Ibn Adonijah wrote:

Behold, I have exerted all my might and strength to collate and arrange the Masorah with all possible improvements, in order that it will shine pure and bright and show its splendor to the nations and princes, for indeed it is beautiful to look at (Ginsburg, pp. 83-84).

*    *    *

Photo of the spins of four book volumes.
Figure 2. Second Rabbinic Bible. Venice: Daniel Bomberg, 1525. Volumes I-IV. Hebraic Section, Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division. Photo by Shawn Miller/Library of Congress. Note: Privacy and publicity rights for individuals depicted may apply.

One feature unique to this first edition of the Second Rabbinic Bible is the laudatory poem in praise of it, printed on the back of the title page in Volume I, just before Ibn Adonijah’s preface. That Bomberg chose to grace the opening of the book with a poem extolling the new edition comes as little surprise; such poems were all the fashion in early printed books, Hebrew and non-Hebrew alike. This poem was composed by Joseph ben Samuel Sarfati, perhaps the greatest Hebrew poet of Renaissance Italy as well as the respected physician of Pope Clement VII.

Sarfati’s encomium comes in the shape of an ode with running end-rhyme; a tribute to the enduring model of Muslim Spain. Yet it is beautifully structured in ways that go beyond the formal requirements of this tradition. For one thing, it begins and ends with the same line, envelope-fashion. The envelope-device is not unknown to Hebrew odes from medieval Spain, but here it seems particularly effective since it is mimetic of the Bible itself, which is by nature cyclical and non-ending. Then there is the elaborate acrostic spelling out the poet’s name, a device usually reserved for liturgical Hebrew poetry.

A printed page in Hebrew.
Figure 3. Poem by Joseph ben Samuel Sarfati in praise of the Second Rabbinic Bible. Library of Congress African and Middle Eastern Division. Photo by Shawn Miller/Library of Congress.
Note: Privacy and publicity rights for individuals depicted may apply.

That “the Torah speaks in the language of human beings” is an adage of old (Berakhot 31b) that here becomes true in the most literal sense: the speaker of our poem is none other than the Torah itself. This is a clever device, for it gives the praise for the new edition the ring of authority. It is one thing to praise a book’s newly cut type and the perfect alignment of its letters, as Sarfati does in lines 32-33, but when it’s the Torah that’s doing the praising – and doing so via a mischievous appropriation of a Biblical text – well, that is high praise, indeed:

The twenty-four books were printed together in types slender and square;
Letters newly cut with an iron pen: no rebel or reprobate there! (cf. Ezek. 20: 38)

But the highest praise is reserved, of course, for the Masorah, the crown jewel of this Bomberg edition (ll. 34-37). The Masorah encircles the text “like a hammered rim;” the layout of the page recalls the sacred spaces of the Temple; the commentaries are nothing less than the mitre and turban – symbols of sacred office (cf. Exodus 30: 31). Like Ibn Adonijah, who calls this edition the cornerstone of the Temple, and like the iconography on the title page itself, where we are ushered into the text via the “Gate of the Lord” (Figure 1), here, too, our poet is reimagining the text as sacred space; the very cornerstone of the Jewish people in the centuries to come. And so it was: the Second Rabbinic Bible has been the prototype for every edition of the rabbinic Bible printed since.

Learn More

Quotations from Ibn Adonijah’s Preface come from the classic English translation by Christian David Ginsburg, “Jacob Ben Chajim Ibn Adonijah’s Introduction to the Rabbinic Bible.” London: Longmans, Green, Reader, and Dyer, 1867.

Brener, Ann. “A Poem by Joseph Tzarfati for the Editio Princeps of the Rabbinic Bible” (Venice 1525),” in “Tradition, Heterodoxy, and Religious Culture in the Early Modern Period,” ed. H. Kreisel. Beer-Sheva: Ben Gurion University Press, 2007, pp. 263-285.

Ginsburg, Christian David. “Introduction to the Massoretico-Critical Edition of the Hebrew Bible.” London: Trinitarian Bible Society, 1897.

Stern, David. “The Rabbinic Bible in its Sixteenth-Century Context,” in “The Hebrew Book in Early Modern Italy,” ed. Adam Shear and Joseph Hacker. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011, pp. 76-108.

Comments (4)

  1. interesting.

  2. Absolutely fascinating. The story of Adonijah and Bomberg so beautifully described. I have been searching for more insights on the Second Rabbinic Bible and its printer and editor and lo, I found gold here in this article. Thank you so much.

  3. Thank you for this very interesting and informative article!
    I have BHK and BHS and some BHQ, but I have long used, and prefer, Bomberg / ben Hayyim, in Letteris’ edition (beloved, I understand, of Chief Rabbi Hertz) and in Ginsburg’s edition (beautifully and inexpensively printed by the Trinitarian Bible Society and The Society for Distributing Hebrew Scriptures).
    As I understand matters, the Bomberg / ben Hayyim has been, and still is, the text preferred by Jewish synagogues and individuals; but the Aleppo Codex and the Leningrad Codex are preferred for modern critical purposes. Now, in BHQ, Bomberg / ben Hayyim is being ignored, thus passing over the Masoretic variants collected by Kenicott, de Rossi, Ginsburg, etc In other words, the ben Asher tradition has been chosen, and the ben Naphtali tradition has been rejected. ..Is this right or even wise? After all, if Maimonides (as it is said) commended Aleppo, why did Jewish synagogues and individuals not switch to it? Why did ben Naphtali continue? was it because Aleppo and Leningrad are, actually or allegedly, Qaraïte productions? There is something not quite kosher here!

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