This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

First Editions*

I am always taken aback when I hear Jews refer to themselves proudly as the "people of the book," as if the epithet were some ancient Hebrew expression contained in the Bible or Talmud to describe the traditional Jewish fondness for literature.

The truth, of course, is that the title derives from the terminology of Islamic law, which granted judicial protection to established religious communities ("peoples") who possessed a venerable scripture ("book"), a policy which furnished the basis for toleration of Jews and Christians in Muslim states.

Notwithstanding the above terminological quibble, there is no denying the longstanding affection that Jews have had with the written word, as well as with the printed page.

Some enthusiasts wanted to go so far as to claim that Jews actually invented printing thousands of years ago.

This outlandish boast is based on an enigmatic passage in the Mishnah that tells of an individual named Ben Kamsar, who is said to have pioneered the development of some sort of mechanical writing. As interpreted by the Talmud, he invented a clever technique for writing four letters simultaneously with the help of four pens that he strapped to his fingers.

Ben Kamsar insisted on keeping his patent under strict secrecy, a policy that did not find favour with the rabbis of the Talmud. Though the rabbis were aware of several artisans who had similarly refused to publish the tricks of their trades, those others were able to justify their secretiveness on grounds that the knowledge could be put to undesirable use. Ben Kamsar was unable to supply a persuasive excuse for his own protectiveness, and hence the sages applied to him the harsh words of Proverbs (10:7): "but the name of the wicked shall rot."

The upshot of Ben Kamsar’s reticence is that we do not know to what precise use he was putting his craft. Rashi understood that his process was employed exclusively for inscribing the mysterious four-letter name of God on sacred texts, perhaps in order to keep the scribe from voicing it aloud as he wrote; though that detail is not stated explicitly in the Talmud.

The nineteenth-century Galician Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Chajes, one of the precursors of modern Orthodoxy, noted that if the Talmud was referring to the process of writing in its normal sense, with pens attached to different fingers each writing a different letter, then such an act is humanly impossible. As an alternative, Rabbi Chajes proposed that Ben Kamsar had made use of pieces of metal upon which the forms of the letters had been imprinted.

"We must therefore conclude," he writes, "that Ben Kamsar’s achievement consisted of the invention of printing!"

It follows from this that the rabbis condemned Ben Kamsar for keeping under wraps an innovation that would have brought untold benefit to humanity.

The influential sixteenth-century Polish halakhic authority Rabbi Benjamin Slonik went so far as to deduce from the story of Ben Kamsar that printed texts can be considered more sacred than handwritten ones, precisely because they inscribe the sacred names in a single action. Some authorities even permitted their use for ritual items like mezuzahs and t’fillin.

Although Rabbi Chajes might have been a bit imaginative in his interpretation of Ben Kamsar’s accomplishment, it is nevertheless true that Jews were among the pioneers of movable-type printing when the technology was first introduced to Europe in the mid-fifteenth century.

In 1444, an obscure Jewish dyer named Davin of Caderousse, resident in the southern French city of Avignon, began taking lessons from a Christian goldsmith from Prague named Procopius Waldvogel in "the science and practice of writing." The precise character of this "science" becomes clearer to us when we read the text of a contract that was drawn up between the two parties in 1446. The notarized document stipulates that, in return for Davin’s commitment to train Procopius in the craft of dying, the latter would agree to provide Davin with a full Hebrew typeface of twenty-seven Hebrew letters (i.e., the 22 normal letters plus the five special "final" forms).

That the letters were to be used for printing comes across unambiguously from the contract’s phraseology, where it is designated that they must be "well cut in iron" and be bundled with appropriate "instruments of timber, lead and iron." A later receipt refers to the project as "artificial writing."

Unfortunately however, the agreement fell through for unknown reasons, and the ensuing lawsuit required Davin not only to return the typeface, but also–in a manner reminiscent of Ben Kamsar of old–to refrain from passing on the technology to anyone else in the region.

Had the project reached fruition, it would have culminated in the mechanical printing of Hebrew books several years before the appearance Gutenberg’s famous Bible in 1455.

And Jews would have yet another reason to claim the title "people of the book."

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University of Calgary Press

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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, November 26 1998, pp. 12-13 (as: "First editions and the people of the Book").

  • Bibliography:
    • Roth, Cecil. The Jews in the Renaissance. Harper Torchbooks ed., Temple Library, New York: Harper & Row, 1959.
    • N. E. Shulman, Authority and Community, Hoboken and New York, 1986.