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.
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