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Bookselling at the Crossroads: An Anecdote of Hebrew Book History from the Early Ottoman Empire

(The following post is by Ann Brener, Hebraic area specialist in the Library’s African and Middle Eastern Division.)

The year is 1547; the place a synagogue in Constantinople, crossroads of Europe and Asia and capital of the burgeoning Ottoman Empire. Constantinople in this period is a vibrant, bustling metropolis, newly revitalized by the conquests of Mehmet II and peopled by Muslims and Christians from all across Ottoman lands.

Photo-panoramic view of Constantinople. 1880-1893. Albumen Print. c1876. Prints and Photographs Division.

It is also home to an ancient Jewish community, one that has grown considerably over the past fifty years or so thanks to the warm welcome which Mehmet II accorded Jewish refugees from the Iberian Peninsula and their descendants. Constantinople is even the site of the first printing press in Ottoman lands. The first printed book, a Hebrew code of law from medieval Spain, rolled off the press in Constantinople in 1494 and Hebrew printing continued apace throughout the first half of the sixteenth century. But in 1546, one newly published book was causing something of a stir.

The book in question was the collected responsa, or legal correspondence, of Rabbi Isaac ben Sheshet, a renowned authority on Jewish law from 14th-century Spain. It was published by Eliezer Soncino, son of legendary printer Gershom Soncino, and edited by Samuel Halevi Hakim, a refugee from Spain already thirty years in Constantinople. Hakim, who appears to have had something of a poetic streak, expressed his admiration for the great rabbi in rhyme, likening his legal decisions on the title-page of the book to “arrows that strike a blow / mightier than the warrior’s crossbow” – a reiteration of the medieval topos pitting the power of the pen against the sword.

Title-page with the editor’s poem from the “Responsa of Isaac ben Sheshet.” Constantinople, 1547. Hebraic Section, African and Middle East Division.

Now, it was not Rabbi Sheshet per se who ignited the dissent over the book, nor was it the nature of his responsa on the various legal issues. It was not even those rhymes penned by the aspiring editor, weak though they undoubtedly were. The problem was the manner in which Hakim tried to peddle the book. From a manuscript, now housed in the National Library of Israel, we learn that Hakim printed the volume “quire by quire,” that is, section by section, and that he brought the individual quires into synagogue in order to sell them after the Sabbath morning prayers, though of course no money changed hands on the Sabbath itself. The reason for this selling strategy was simple enough: Sabbath prayers, to use Hakim’s own words, attracted “many good and righteous men . . . able to bring down the rains of generosity.” The “rains of generosity” – another poetic topos from medieval Spain – is neither more nor less than cold hard cash, and here we come to the crux of the matter: Hakim was looking for patrons. “The quires are distributed to men with deep pockets,” Hakim explained, unrolling his strategy, “men who willingly agree to purchase what I have [in print] as well as that which is due [to be printed].” Interestingly, Hakim’s terminology reflects a discussion in the Talmud concerning the payment of sacred objects (Baba Metzi’a 58a), and indeed he casts the purchase of his own book in the same sacred light: “By agreeing to purchase the books [of responsa] for themselves and for others,” he continues, “they multiply Jewish learning and exalt Divine Law.” After all, publishing a large book like this was a very expensive undertaking and, alas, “there are no longer any publishers like Daniel Bomberg [of Venice] able to keep books on their shelves for years at a time.” Selling his book quire by quire, Hakim explained, gave him the financial wherewithal to complete the publication of the entire volume.

But not everyone was on board with this argument. Up in Bursa, a city in northwestern Anatolia, one Rabbi Isaac ibn Lev decried the practice as a clear desecration of the Sabbath, thundering: “Woe to the generation when its most venerable sage errs so egregiously and permits that which is forbidden for the sake of profit.”

General View of Bursa, Turkey. Ca. 1890-1900. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Nor was this the only problem Ibn Lev perceived. “Many of our worshippers are poor,” he continued, “and only purchase the volume [there in synagogue] out of shame, afterwards selling it for half of what they paid and so turning Sabbath joy into sorrow.”

Meanwhile, back in Constantinople, Hakim remained unfazed. In earlier times, he pointed out, Hebrew books had been sold exactly the same way in Constantinople “and no one said a word against it.” He cites two books by name: “Toledot Adam ve-Havah (“The History of Adam and Eve”) by Yeruham bar Meshullam (Constantinople, 1516); and “Toledot Yitzhak” (“The History of Isaac”) by Isaac Caro (Constantinople, 1518).

“Toledot Adam ve-Havah” (“The History of Adam and Eve”) by Yeruham bar Meshullam. Constantinople, 1516. Hebraic Section, African and Middle East Division.

From the vantage point of 500 years, one wonders whether Hakim was not being somewhat disingenuous in using this last argument. The two books he cites had been published in the years immediately following the expulsions of the Jews from Spain and Portugal. This was a period characterized not only by the large-scale uprooting of Jewish communities but also by the loss and destruction of Jewish books and learning, a grim fact regarded by many of that generation as a threat to the continued existence of Judaism itself. At the end of “Sefer Meysharim” [“The Book of the Righteous”], for example, a book which was published and bound together with the just-cited “Toledot Adam ve-Havah,” the editor gives voice to contemporary fears in no uncertain terms, linking the loss of Jewish learning and morale to “the lack of books and the absence of scribes” in the aftermath of the expulsions. He further links the new art of printing with the salvation of Judaism and expressly gives thanks to “the printers who triumphed over the evil decrees [of the Inquisition and Expulsion],” and to the men whose financial support would facilitate “the printing of all our religious and ethical books, so that the earth be filled with righteousness and learning quickly in our own days.” But one wonders whether that same sense of urgency, that same desperate need to replace lost texts still resonated quite as powerfully as it had thirty years earlier when Constantinople stood at the crossroads of the cataclysmic events shaping Jewish history, and not only of Europe and Asia.

Be this as it may – disingenuous or not – it was in fact Hakim who ultimately carried the day. Books continued to be printed and sold in similar fashion in Constantinople – and apparently only in Constantinople – up to the very end of the 16th century, thereby offering lovers of the Hebrew book a unique phenomenon in the annals of Hebrew printing and bookselling, and historians, perhaps, another example of Jewish response to catastrophe.

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