Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The Evils of Printing

The conference in honour of Benjamin Richler took place yesterday in Givat Ram. The hall was full, with people standing at the door for lack of empty seats.

The only lecture I was able to take notes from was that by Dr. Simcha Emanuel. He spoke about the impact of printing on Hebrew manuscripts, focusing on central Europe. During the sixteenth century, Hebrew printing houses were producing three kinds of books - reprints of books that had already been published in the 15th century, works by contemporary authors (e.g., the Shulhan Aruch) and first editions of older works which had existed until then in manuscripts. In this last category, most of the books being published were Ashkenazic in origin.

During the 17th century, this last category was severely neglected. Simcha says he knows of only two books published from medieval manuscripts in Central Europe during this period - the Responsa of Maharam Mintz (Cracow 1617) and Pesiqta Rabbati (Prague 1657).

In the 18th century, the publishing of medieval works picked up again. This was largely under the influence and support of David Oppenheim, rabbi of Prague. But this time, it was different. Most of the books were being published from Sefardic or Oriental manuscripts, many of which had only recently arrived in Europe (some from the library of R. Bezalel Ashkenazi).

During the interim period when the publication of manuscripts was neglected, many unique works were lost. During the Middle Ages, people knew that, for a book to survive, it needed to be copied. After the advent of the printing press, though, people became complacent in their feeling that, even if a book had not yet been published, it surely would be soon. And if it hadn't, then it probably wasn't that important anyway.

To demonstrate the ramifications of this attitude, Simcha mentioned the example of the Talmudic novellae (hiddushim) of R. Abraham b. David of Posquieres. The Ra'avad was principally known to medieval talmudists as the author of commentaries (R. Menahem ha-Meiri named him gedolei ha-mefarshim, the giant[s] of commentators). And yet, until the 20th century, none of his novellae had been published. Over the past century two books were published - his commentary on Baba Kamma (by Samuel Atlas) and Avodah Zarah (by Abraham Sofer). Both, from a single surviving manuscript. A manuscript containing his novellae on Berachot was lost in a flood in the 1920s. The novellae on Baba Batra survived in a unique manuscript as well, and will be published imminently. But that's all that's left.

Dr. Emanuel ended by emphasizing how important it is for the IMHM to continue its work of collecting copies of all Hebrew manuscripts, the world over.

After all the speeches, Benjamin spoke for a few minutes about his path to the library, which included a stint of teaching English at Midrashiyat Noam in Pardes Hannah. Then he regaled us with one of his latest discoveries, uniting under a single author disparate manuscripts in Jerusalem, Oxford, Budapest and Cincinatti.


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