This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Stop the Presses! *

With the proliferation of popular devices like the Apple iPad and Amazon Kindle, and the massive digitizing projects being undertaken by Google Books and similar enterprises, it is clear that the business of book publication is undergoing a far-reaching transformation. Observers have compared the current developments to the appearance of movable-type printing in Europe in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when the handwritten manuscript was supplanted by the mass-produced output of the printing press. Then as now, the rapid pace of the changes made it all but impossible for the law to keep up with the new questions that were arising with regard to intellectual property, publication and distribution.

Many of the pioneers of Hebrew printing were adventurous entrepreneurs whose economic bottom line depended on taking prompt and aggressive initiatives in a brutally competitive environment. It was vital to be the first to market with an attractive title, and to protect one's investment against opportunistic imitators.

The first century of Hebrew printing came to be dominated by the illustrious press that operated in Venice under the direction of the Christian Daniel Bomberg from Antwerp. This press was responsible for the introduction of the standard Rabbinic Bible and the first complete editions of the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds.

When the Bomberg press ceased its operations in 1548, it was partly due to the Venetian Senate's rescinding of its generous copyright policy; and was exacerbated by fierce competition from the new rival press of Marcantonio Giustiniani, a well-connected local aristocrat. Indeed, after Bomberg's withdrawal from the market, Giustiniani maintained a virtual monopoly on Hebrew publications, a privilege that he exploited as leverage when negotiating with prospective authors. Thus, we find that when Rabbi Meir Katzenellenbogen ("Maharam") of Padua approached him with his newly edited and annotated version of Maimonides' code of law, the conditions that Giustiniani wanted to impose on him were too exploitative. This induced the rabbi to take his business to a new competitor, Aloiso Bragadini, under whose insignia the new edition of Maimonides' Mishneh Torah appeared in 1550.

Determined not to lose out on this lucrative market, Giustiniani hurriedly prepared his own cheaper edition of Maimonides' code that he hoped would undercut Bragadini's and drive him out of business. He copied the Maharam's commentary and annotations, but relocated them to an inconspicuous appendix while declaring in the preface that they were of no scholarly value.

Rabbi Meir accused Giustinani of virtually giving his wares away in order to drive the competition out of business; and he took care to acquire copyright protection from Rabbi Moses Isserles of Cracow in a ruling that included a ban against the publication of competing products until the original inventory was sold out--a ban that Isserles argued was also to be applied to the non-Jew Giustiniani.

Not to be undone, Giustiniani prepared a bold counterstrike by appealing to the authority of the Catholic Church. He manufactured accusations that Maimonides' Mishneh Torah was a blasphemous work that should be banned for its defamations of the true Christian religion. To add credibility to his campaign he enlisted the support of several apostate Jews who welcomed this opportunity to confirm their loyalty to their new faith by digging up objectionable quotes.

Of course this game could be played by both sides, and it did not take long for Bragadini to start hurling similar denunciations--also supported by the aspersions of his own coterie of apostates--against some of the venerable Hebrew texts that had been published by Giustiniani's press--several of which had, in fact, been plagiarized from previous editions by Bomberg and others. The ongoing bitter conflict between these two gentile publishers of Hebrew books continued for several years.

Caught in the crossfire was the Talmud itself, which Giustiniani had recently issued. The Vatican, embroiled at this time in its desperate struggle against the advances of Protestantism, was prone to heavy-handed censorship. Thus, what had begun as a relatively minor copyright feud between rival printing houses quickly escalated into a devastating tragedy for the Jewish people when the Pope issued an injunction against the Talmud. On Rosh Hashanah in 1553, hundreds of sacred Hebrew tomes were consigned to the flames of an auto da fé on Rome's Campo de' Fiori, setting in motion a pattern that would rapidly spread through many Italian communities.

A similar incident (though without such tragic consequences) became a cause célèbre. more than a century later in Amsterdam, which had inherited much of Venice's glory as a prestigious centre of Hebrew printing.

This affair involved the publication of a Yiddish translation of the Bible. The project was undertaken by the publisher Uri Fayvesh Halevi who assigned the translating to a scholar named Jekuthiel Blitz. The two were outspoken advocates of systematic grammatical studies of the sort that were cultivated by the Sephardim, but which they felt had been largely disregarded in Ashkenazic culture. The resulting translation was heavily influenced by the standard Dutch and German versions, and Blitz even included some comments that were critical of Christianity. Owing to the heavy risks involved in financing the translation, Uri Fayvesh took the precaution of securing copyright privileges from the central governing body of Polish Jewry, the Council of the Four Lands; though the subsequent legal wrangling reveals that there remained tangible questions as to the precise identity of the copyright holder. Under the terms of the edict that was issued in 1667 and subsequently confirmed by both German and Sepharadic authorities in Amsterdam and elsewhere, no competing Yiddish Bible translation would be allowed for a period of ten years under threat of a rabbinic writ of ostracism (herem). Later, with the help of his Christian backers, he was able to obtain a twenty-year guarantee of his copyright from the Polish crown.

Unfortunately, Uri Fayvesh had not made allowances for the chicanery of a disgruntled typesetter named Yosel Witzenhausen who used his insider's knowledge to produce, under his own name, a translation which he offered to the press of Joseph Athias (some of it consisting of the actual typeset pages from Blitz's edition). Athias had previously been one of Uri Fayvesh's backers, but he became dissatisfied with Blitz's translation and decided to publish a competing version that was more similar to the traditional Yiddish translations. He even succeeded in narrowly beating Uri Fayvesh's edition to market.

Athias was famous for his award-winning edition of the Hebrew Bible, and he established himself as one of the city's foremost publishers. Athias' affluence and professional standing enabled him to secure copyrights for Witzenhausen's translation from several local jurisdictions ("because he fears someone else might steal his idea"), and even from the Council of the Four Lands. In reality, it appears that neither publisher was paying much attention to the solemn restrictions that were pronounced by the respective authorities, and they both proceeded to peddle their wares quite freely while citing technical legalities to justify their actions.

Nevertheless, their short-term greed turned out to be self-destructive for both publishers. By over-saturating the market they were exposing themselves to financial disaster as they found themselves in continuous debt to their financial backers. Uri Fayvesh at one point had to pawn his equipment, while Athias had to sell off his inventory and concentrate his efforts on the more lucrative business of printing English Bibles.

The brave new frontiers of digital publishing place before us some weighty ethical and legal challenges. It is to be hoped that some cautionary lessons have been learned from the debacles of the bygone printing presses in Venice and Amsterdam, so that the promise contained in today's technologies for the promulgation of information, ideas and culture will not be subverted by short-sighted greed.

This article and many others are now included in the book

On the Trails of Tradition
On the Trails of Tradition

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  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, August 27, 2010, p. 14.
  • For further reading:
    • Amram, David Werner. The Makers of Hebrew Books in Italy; Being Chapters in the History of the Hebrew Printing Press. London: Holland Press, 1963.
    • Aptroot, Marion."'In galkhes they do not say so, but the taytsh is at it stands here'. Notes on the Amsterdam Yiddish Bible Translations by Blitz and Witzenhausen." Studia Rosenthaliana 27 (1993): 136-158.
    • ------. "Bible translation as cultural reform : the Amsterdam Yiddish Bibles (1678-1679)." D.Phil., Oxford: University of Oxford, 1989.
    • Bloch, Joshua. Venetian Printers of Hebrew Books. New York: The New York public library, 1932.
    • Fuks, Lajb. Hebrew Typography in the Northern Netherlands, 1585-1815: Historical Evaluation, and Descriptive Bibliography. Leiden: Brill, 1984.
    • Netanel, Neil Weinstock. "Maharam of Padua v. Giustiniani: the Sixteenth-Century Origins of the Jewish Law of Copyright." Houston Law Review 44, no. 4 (2007): 822-870.
    • Roth, Cecil. History of the Jews in Venice. New York: Schocken Books, 1975.
    • ------. The Jews in the Renaissance. 1st ed. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1959.
    • Schatz, Andrea. "Returning to Sepharad: Maskilic Reflections on Hebrew in the Diaspora." In Sepharad in Ashkenaz: Medieval Knowledge and Eighteenth Century Jewish Enlightened Discourse, edited by Resianne Fontaine, Andrea Schatz, and Irene Zwiep, 263-277. Amsterdam: Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2007.
    • Timm, Erika. "Blitz and Witzenhausen." In Studies in Jewish culture in honour of Chone Shmeruk, edited by Israel Bartal, Chava Turniansky, and Ezra Mendelsohn, 39-66. Jerusalem: Zalman Shazar Center for Jewish History, 1993.