First Impressions: Hebrew Printing in the Fifteenth Century
Presented by The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary
September 28, 2005–January 5, 2006
Online selections available indefinitely


Johannes Gutenberg's fifteenth-century invention of printing with movable type had a dramatic impact on all aspects of European society. For centuries, Jews relied heavily on the diffusion of written texts to facilitate the transmission of Jewish culture. Printing served as a major catalyst for Jewish survival in an era when Jews were dispersed across an ever-changing landscape. Through the dissemination of the printed book, Jews around the world could figuratively and literally "stay on the same page" with their coreligionists across the globe.

This exhibition highlights the rich collection of Hebrew incunabula of The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary. The word incunabula (sing. incunabulum), or "cradle books," denotes books printed during the fifteenth century. This term was first used by seventeenth-century bibliographers to describe the infancy of printing, but eventually came to designate the early books themselves. It has been estimated that some 40,000 separate works, in a wide array of languages, were published throughout Europe in the incunabula period. Hebrew presses are believed to have produced between 130 and 160 editions during this time. The most frequently issued Hebrew titles included volumes of the Talmud, the Bible, biblical commentaries, and the legal code Arba'ah Turim. Other works included prayer books, grammar books, and philosophical, historical, and medical treatises.

Abraham Conat, an Italian Jewish physician and one of the earliest printers of Hebrew books, referred to the new technology as "writing with many pens without a miracle." Jews enthusiastically embraced book production, calling the art of printing a "holy craft." Despite ecclesiastical pressure and political intolerance designed to exclude them from the rapidly growing field, Jews established printing houses wherever and whenever they could. Jews were responsible for the first printing presses in Portugal (Faro), Africa (Fez), and the Ottoman Empire (Constantinople). Jewish influence in printing was particularly remarkable considering that fifteenth-century Jewry accounted for a mere 1 percent of Europe's total population.

The scarcity of Hebrew incunabula today cannot be overstated. Of the 139 editions preserved in public collections, approximately one-third have survived in fewer than three copies. The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary is home to the world's broadest collection of Hebrew incunabula. The collection currently contains 126 editions in 216 complete and fragmentary copies. It includes more than forty works not represented elsewhere in American public libraries, and nine books of which no other copy is known. The cornerstone of The Library's collection was laid when Mayer Sulzberger presented his remarkable library, which included forty-five incunabula, to JTS in 1903. In 1923, this was augmented by more than sixty incunabula with the purchase of the outstanding holdings of the English bibliophile Elkan Nathan Adler. The Library continued to acquire incunabula over the course of the twentieth century to ensure that scholars would have access to these treasures of early printing.

In celebration of the publication of the Catalogue of Hebrew Incunabula from the Collection of The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary by Shimon Iakerson, The Library proudly presents highlights from its incunabula collection, reflecting the depth, diversity, and scholarship of Jewish culture through the lens of fifteenth-century Hebrew printing.