November 27

On this day in 1518 in the city of Venice, there issued from the press of Daniel Bomberg his first Great Rabbinical Bible. It established his reputation as a scholarly printer of Hebrew, possibly the most eminent of them all, even to the point of his being termed “the Hebrew Aldus.” Bomberg, a native of Antwerp, was the son of a wealthy man. Early in his life he decided to settle in Venice, the great trading center of Italy and a magnet for thousands of northern craftsmen during the late 15th and early 16th centuries. About 1515 he was persuaded by an associate, Felice da Prato, to take up the career of printing.

Although a Christian, Bomberg had learned the Hebrew language, and had a consuming interest in Jewish traditions. He therefore began the publication of Hebrew texts, although he was risking the investigations of the Inquisition by doing so. Thus he was entering an area of scholarship which offered no promise of success. There existed at the time a great deal of controversy in the Church of Rome concerning the treatment of the Jews, particularly from the Dominicans, although many of the church scholars, including Pope Leo X, were sympathetic to Hebrew theology and literature.

Bomberg found it necessary to request of the Venetian authorities that his proofreaders be exempted from the decree that Jews wear an item of clothing to separate them from Christian citizens, in this instance a yellow cap, which subjected them to molestation upon the streets of the city while traveling to Bomberg’s printing office. The bible, which was dedicated to Pope Leo X, contained massoretic notes compiled by Felice da Prato, the purpose of which was the collection of traditional information by which the text of the biblical books was fixed beyond the possibility of change.

Bomberg’s next great work was a complete edition of the Talmud, for which he requested and received the support of Leo X. This splendid work, begun in 1519, was completed in 1522. For the rest of his life this Christian printer printed the great works of Hebrew literature, at one time having as many as one hundred Hebrew scholars in his establishment to guarantee the authenticity of his texts. Accounts differ about the cost of his publishing enterprises, but he gave to it his personal fortune. It is estimated that in the thirty-two year period following the printing of the Rabbinical Bible, Bomberg’s printing cost him three million crowns—a vast sum when it is recalled that it cost but twelve hundred crowns per year to rent his entire printing office.

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