First book in Hebrew printed in Prague half a millennium ago

Photo: The Jewish Museum of Prague

Today, in Prague’s bookstores one can find titles in a number of world languages – English, German, Russian, French, and of course Czech. It is much harder these days, although not impossible, to find books published in Hebrew. But five hundred years ago, a little less than a century after the Gutenberg press was invented, the first Hebrew book in Central Europe, and possibly north of the Alps, was printed right here in Prague.

Photo: The Jewish Museum of Prague
The Jewish Museum of Prague opened an exhibit in December to commemorate five hundred years of Jewish, and specifically Hebrew, printing in this region. The exhibit, entitled ‘You won’t need to see a rabbi’ presents an impressive collection of some 50 earliest books to have been published in Hebrew in Bohemia and Moravia. Here is how the spokeswoman for the museum, Jana Havlíková, described the main part of the presentation:

“The exhibit contains books from the 16th to the 18th centuries and at most two editions of each book have survived. But the oldest one, whose anniversary the exhibit is marking, is a sidur, or a book of prayers, which was published in Prague in 1512.”

The printing of the first book – a sign of both technological and educational progress – is an irrefutable part of this period in the history of Prague’s Jews, which is often called the Jewish Renaissance. Only a decade before, the local nobility reaffirmed many of the privileges previously granted to the city’s Jews, which helped the community to prosper economically and culturally.

Printer’s device of Gershom ben Solomon ha-Kohen from 1514. Reused in Hamisha Humshe Torah […],  Prague,  1530. JMP,  sg. 2.361,  fol. [1b],  photo: The Jewish Museum of Prague
In the five hundred years since then, the Jews of Prague have seen their fortunes ebb and flow, and many of the older publications ended up outside of their native land. I spoke to the exhibit’s curator Olga Sixtová, who told me that the museum had to ask the Bodleain library in Oxford to loan them a number of the most precious items in the exhibit:

“We were very lucky because we were able to borrow six books from Oxford. I didn’t even hope that we would get this oldest one, but the people in Oxford were very generous. So, we received the 1512 book, then also a sidur that was printed in 1556 on parchment. This was quite typical for early books. They were still considered to be luxury items, not like our books today. And to make it even more durable and valuable, sometimes they were printed on parchment, which is basically animal skin.”

The first Jewish books in Bohemia were religious in nature – prayer books, explanations of the torah and others. But piety was not the only reason publishers chose this particular genre, it was also, in modern speak, a marketing technique. Since all Jews needed to have a prayer book in the house, the printers could be sure that they would sell their product, which was considerably cheaper than the books that were written by hand.

Photo: The Jewish Museum of Prague
The somewhat peculiar title of the exhibit also comes from what we can call an advertising slogan from a glossary that provided explanations of Hebrew words in the Torah in Yiddish, the secular language that most Jews used at the time.

“I found this quote in a book printed in 1604 by Moses Sertels – a glossary to the Bible. There you have Hebrew words [from the Bible] and the explanation in Yiddish. And as a heading, or as a promotional statement, he wrote – now that you have this book you won’t need to go see the rabbi, because you have everything here. In the forward to the book he also says that many people these days live in small communities and villages, so they don’t always have a rabbi living nearby. But now you don’t need the rabbi, because you have the book.”

Although the first books in Hebrew were religious texts the beginning of printing in the Jewish community, both in Hebrew and in later in Yiddish, had a significant impact on the spread of secular knowledge among the Jews as well.

Olga Sixtová,  photo: archive of ČRo 7 - Radio Prague
“There is a beautiful passage in David [ben Shlomo] Gans’s chronicle, that was printed in 1592 in Prague. This book has two parts – Jewish chronicle and general history. And general history has no illustrations, except for little crowns that are placed next to the names of important kings and emperors. The only event that is marked with a crown is the invention of printing in 1444, which says a lot.

“In the book he speaks about the invention of printing as the biggest invention that man could have received since, maybe, the torah was given to Israel. And he stresses that it makes available all kinds of knowledge, especially about what people invent in their professions.”

But in these first few centuries of the printed word, putting a book together was a complicated and expensive affair. After the first Hebrew book was printed on the press in 1512, new books would come out only once in two or more years. To maintain a printing press for such a small number of books would have been too costly. So Jews interested in printing books cooperated very successfully for a number of decades with Christian printers, usually Lutherans. The first book was printed in the press of Jan Severin. Olga Sixtová pointed out that the Jewish editor and investors made use not only of the printing machinery, but also the expertise of the Christian craftsmen.

Mahzor,  first part. Prague: Gershom ben Solomon ha-Kohen with sons Mordecai and Solomon,  1529. JMP,  inv. no. 178.825,  fol. [18b],  border with Adam and Eve first used in the 1526 Haggadah ,  photo: The Jewish Museum of Prague
“The compositors and printers were also Christians. I think they learned from them and as they began printing more often, they opened a press of their own. The cooperation was also on another level.

Especially in the first decades the Hebrew books were very nicely decorated with woodcuts. And during my research I asked my colleague Petr Vojt from the Strahov library of Premostratensians here in Prague, who is very knowledgeable in the 16th century Bohemian printing, to cooperate with me on this exhibit.

And he was able to identify all the woodcutters [from the Hebrew publications] from other Lutheran and Catholic prints. So it seems that Jews at the time were able to hire professionals from among Christians with no hindrance here.”

Although at the cozy exhibition space in the Robert Guttmann gallery the original books can only be viewed through display cases, the authors decided to use today’s modern technology to allow visitors to interact with the texts and their creators in other ways. Jana Havlíková explains:

Seder Zemirot u-Birkat ha-Mazon. Prague: Gershom ben Solomon ha-Kohen,  Meir ben Jacob ha-Levi Epstein,  Hayyim ben David Shahor,  Meir ben David,  1514. JMP,  sg. 64.981,  fol. [34a],  first variant of the hare hunt  (hares caught the net),  photo: The Jewish Museum of Prague
“While the exhibit was in the works, we were able to gathers lots of interesting information about the people involved in Hebrew book printing, so visitors to the exhibit can learn about specific printers, illustrator, editor and authors of individual texts. Visitors can also view selected titles in digital form. And, most importantly, we were able to put together the first ever comprehensive bibliography of Hebrew book printing.”

In addition to the older artifacts, the exhibit also engaged young visual artists to create materials for the exhibit. Olga Sixtová went to speak to a class of young animators at Prague’s School of Applied Arts, attracting their interest with the aesthetic value of the old prints.

“I was thinking that we have these books that were printed here in Prague 500 years ago, and then we have there Prague students, and none of them know about it. It is generally not well known that Hebrew printing existed here. So, I thought I would introduce them to this topic and see how they would react. Six of them became interested and two of them made videos. One of them is presented at the exhibit and it is an abstract play with Hebrew letters. The other one, which is an animation of the Haggadah, is shown in the Prague metro as advertisement for the exhibit.”

Photo: Jana Šustová
This combination of modern technological advances and those from half a millennium ago provides fascinating food for thought. You can view the exhibit ‘You won’t need to see a rabbi’ at the Robert Guttmann Gallery in Prague until the end of February. The museum has also put out a book in Czech and English that chronicles Hebrew printing in Bohemia and Moravia.

For more information about the exhibit visit

The episode featured today was first broadcast on January 8, 2013.