People of the Book

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

by R. Gil Student

My article in the latest issue of Jewish Action

The Internet is only the latest, and probably not the last, of many information upheavals due to technology. An important change began over 500 years ago with the invention of the printing press. This new method for mass-producing books quickly altered the political and religious face of Europe. Jews, traditionally devoted to literacy and study, were early adopters of printing technology and suffered less upheaval than their Christian counterparts.

In a fascinating and richly illustrated new book, People of the Book: Five Hundreds Years of the Hebrew Book From the Beginning of Printing Until the Twentieth Century, Akiva Aaronson traces important Jewish developments along the path, from Rashi’s Torah commentary, the first dated Hebrew book (Italy, 1475), through the Survivors’ Talmud published in 1948.

In the mid-1400s, Johannes Gutenberg invented the mass production of books through the printing press. Metal letters—movable type—were assembled onto a page. Ink made from vegetable oil rather than water, which does not stick to metal, was applied to the typeset page. Paper, which had been recently invented, was placed into a press in which the typeset page covered with ink was pushed onto the paper. With this combination of inventions, the new technology of the printing press could produce books in large volume. While some lamented the loss of the art of handwritten books, their apprehension could not stop the spread of inexpensive, mass-produced books. In explaining all this and more, Aaronson includes delightful and enlightening illustrations of early printing presses and books.

Printing was developed in Germany, but Jews were excluded from the industry by the local guilds. However, when the technology made its way to Italy, Spain and Portugal, Hebrew printing exploded. The first fifty years of printing, from 1450 to 1500, are called the period of incunabula. During that time period, there were twenty-nine active Hebrew printing shops, nearly one-fifth of all known printers at the time. With a literate and learned population, the Jewish community enjoyed a high demand for affordable books.

Continued here: link

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Editor of, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student currently is serving his third term on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and also serves as the Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

Leave a Reply

Subscribe to our Weekly Newsletter

The latest weekly digest is also available by clicking here.

Subscribe to our Daily Newsletter