The Pope who Printed the Talmud
Pope Leo X allowed a remarkable group of men to produce the first printed set of Talmud.
A volume of the Talmud – dedicated to the Pope? It seems unlikely but the very first printed edition of the Talmud was in fact dedicated to Pope Leo X, who reigned as pope from 1513 until his death in 1521.
For millennia, copies of the Talmud had been painstakingly written by hand. It could take many years to complete a set of all 63 masechtot, or tractates, of the Talmud.
In 1450, a German bookmaker named Johannes Gutenberg invented the very first printing press. He used it to print pamphlets and calendars, and several copies of the Bible. The “Gutenberg Bible” is considered the very first printed book ever produced in Europe. In the ensuing years, other printers copied Gutenberg’s invention and began printing books. Several Jewish books were printed using the new mechanical invention but nobody ever attempted to print an entire copy of the Talmud. For years, sets of the Talmud continued to be written laboriously by hand.
That changed in 1519, after years of bitter debates, when the very first complete edition of the Talmud was produced using the new invention the mechanical printing press.
Daniel Bomberg: Christian Printer of Hebrew Books
One of the very first printers to produce Hebrew books in Europe was Daniel Bomberg, a Christian printer who moved from his native Antwerp to Venice in 1515 and opened a printing press business there. Venice at the time was home to a vibrant Jewish community, and Bomberg realized that he could prosper by catering to this under-served market.
Printing Jewish books wasn’t so easy. His initial requests for a license were repeatedly turned down by Church and city officials. Bomberg started offering local officials ever larger bribes to allow him to print Jewish books. After paying 500 ducats – an enormous sum – he was granted a ten-year license to print Hebrew books.
Bomberg got to work immediately, hiring learned Jews to help him. He petitioned Venice’s officials for permission to hire “four well-instructed Jewish men”. Jews living in Venice at the time could only live in the Ghetto and were forced to wear distinctive yellow caps whenever they left the Ghetto’s gates. Bomberg’s assistants were granted permission to wear black caps like other non-Jewish workers.
Together, they started printing copies of the Chumash, the Five Books of Moses, and other Jewish books. Bomberg and his Jewish assistants decided to include the text of Targum Onkelos, the translation of the Hebrew text written by the celebrated First Century Jewish scholar Onkelos, a popular custom still in practice today.
Jacob Ben Jehiel: Jewish Nobleman Advising an Emperor
Bomberg’s pro-Jewish business activities were made somewhat easier by the climate in Europe overall, which was becoming more tolerant of Jews, thanks in part to an Austrian Jewish physician named Jacob Ben Jehiel (also known as Jacob Lender).
Very little is known about Jacob Ben Jehiel’s personal life. What’s clear is that he was a learned Jew, fluent in Hebrew, who worked as a doctor. He died in about 1505 in Linz, Austria. Unusual for a Jew, he rose to become one of the most influential men in the Holy Roman Empire, working as the personal assistant of Emperor Frederick III, who ruled from 1452-1493. It was noted that the two men were fast friends, and Jacob Ben Jehiel’s friendship influenced Frederick III to be sympathetic to his Jewish subjects. At the time the emperor’s enemies complained he was “more a Jew than a Holy Roman Emperor”. Jacob was so beloved by the Emperor that Frederick III knighted him, raising him from a lowly Jewish outcast to the ranks of the nobility.
One day, a young German nobleman named Johann von Reuchlin contacted Jacob, asking for his help in learning Hebrew. He’d studied with a Jew named Kalman in Paris, von Reuchln explained, and had learned the Hebrew alphabet. Now he wanted to learn more. Jacob Ben Jehiel agreed to tutor the Christian nobleman and taught him to read and write Hebrew. They struck up a friendship that would lead to von Reuchlin defending Jewish scholarship across Europe and to the first printing of the Talmud.
Johann von Reuchlin: Defending Jewish Books
Now fluent in Hebrew, Reuchlin championed Jewish books, defending Jewish scholarship from Catholic zealots who wanted to ban Jewish literature and burn Jewish books. He had many Jewish friends and was remarkably tolerant of Jewish viewpoints and scholarship. When Catholic officials demanded that he and other scholars condemn the Talmud, von Reuchlin replied contemptuously that one not condemn what one had not personally read and understood. “The Talmud was not composed for every blackguard to trample with unwashed feet and then to say that he knew all of it.”
Johann von Reuchlin
In the early 1500s, von Reuchlin engaged in what was known as the “Battle of the Books,” arguing that Jewish scholarship had merit and that Hebrew books ought not to be banned.
Johannes Pfefferkorn: Condemning his Fellow Jews
Reuchlin’s main adversary in the “Battle of the Books” was Johannes Pfefferkorn, a Jew who converted to Christianity. He turned on his fellow Jews and caused years of pain and misery for Jewish communities across Germany.
Pfefferkorn was a butcher by trade but he was also in trouble with the law. He was arrested for burglary in his 30s, spent time in prison, and subsequently found himself unemployable. In order to reverse his ill fortune, he volunteered to convert to Christianity and to have his wife and children convert as well. Pfefferkorn embraced Catholicism under the protection of the Dominicans, the strict Catholic order that administered the feared Inquisition. The Dominicans wasted no time in using Pfefferkorn to help bolster their attempts to persecute Jews and to ban Jewish books.
In the years between 1507 and 1509, Pfefferkorn wrote a series of booklets claiming to illuminate the secret world of Jewish thought. Although Pfefferkorn's writings show that he had a very poor grasp of Jewish scholarship, that didn’t deter him as he churned out booklet after booklet excoriating Jews and the Jewish faith. His pamphlets were written in Latin and aimed at Catholic scholars and priests. They had names such as Judenbeichte (“Jewish Confession”) and Judenfeind (“Enemy of the Jews”), and Pfefferkorn falsely claimed that Jews were devious and blasphemous and that their literature ought to be banned. Though he wasn’t educated enough to study it himself, Pfefferkorn demanded that the Talmud be banned in Europe.
Using Pfefferkorn’s booklets as “proof”, Dominical authorities demanded that Jews be expelled from towns which had large Jewish communities, including Regensburg, Worms and Frankfurt. Their campaign succeeded in Regensburg and the city’s Jews were expelled in 1519.
Pfefferkorn and his supporters managed to convince Emperor Maximilian I to briefly ban the Talmud and other Jewish books in cities across Germany and to destroy any and all Jewish books that could be found. This alarmed more liberal Catholics, including Johann Reuchlin, who’d spent so long learning Hebrew and studying Jewish holy books with Jacob Ben Jehiel. Reuchlin objected and wrote passionate defenses of the Talmud and other Jewish books. Eventually, Maximilian I reversed his decree.
Pope Leo X and the Battle of the Hebrew Books
The “Battle of the Books” raged across German cities and was debated among the educated class: should the Jewish Talmud and other holy books be banned, or were they worthy of preservation and study? Historian Solomon Grayzel notes that “There was not a liberal Christian in Europe, nor a single critic of the forces of bigotry within the Church, who failed to range himself on the side of Reuchlin in defense of the Jewish books… Everyone who was not a peasant in Europe was thus ranged on one or the other side in the controversy. The only people who were forced to stand aside and not participate were the ones most directly concerned – the Jews.” (From A History of the Jews by Solomon Grayzel. Plume: 1968)
Reuchlin eventually gained a powerful ally: Pope Leo X. A cultured, educated man, Leo X came from the fabulously wealthy Medici family. He was disposed to be tolerant towards Jews – so much so that at one point the Jews of Rome wondered if his benevolence towards them was a sign that the Messiah was on his way: community elders even wrote to Jewish leaders in the Land of Israel asking if they, too, had seen signs of the Messiah coming.
Pope Leo X
In 1518, Leo X took a public stand in the Battle of the Books: not only should the Talmud not be banned and burned, he stated, but he gave a Papal Decree allowing it to be printed using the new mechanical printing presses that were all the rage in Europe. Some individual volumes of the Talmud had already been printed; now, the Pope was allowing a complete set of all 63 volumes of the Talmud (called Shas in Hebrew) to be produced. Joannes Bomberg, who’d already built up a Jewish business at his printing press in Venice, was given the commission to print this first complete set of Shas on his printing presses. It was an unprecedented show of support for Jews in Europe.
Jacob ben Chaim ibn Adonijah
But Pope Leo X imposed one crucial condition: Daniel Bomberg could print the Talmud only if he included anti-Jewish polemics in the books. Realizing that this would alienate potential readers, Bomberg successfully lobbied against including anti-Jewish screeds in his Jewish books. He did, however, make one concession to the Pope’s generosity: the first four volumes of the set of Talmud he was printing were dedicated to Pope Leo X.
Bomberg Babylonian Talmud, Venice Pesachim
Local Jews were reluctant to buy expensive new volumes of the Talmud dedicated to a Catholic leader whose Church regularly persecuted Jews and Jewish communities across Europe, even if Pope Leo X himself was sympathetic towards Jews. Sales were sluggish and Bomberg realized he had to make some changes, including dropping the dedication to the Pope. He also turned to Jacob ben Chaim ibn Adonijah, a Jewish proofreader from Tunisia, for help. (There is some evidence that ibn Adonijah might have converted to Christianity, like some other printers who specialized in Hebrew books in Venice at the time.)
Bromberg and ibn Adonijah devised a layout of their printed editions of the Talmud that is still in use today. They placed the Talmud text in the middle of the page, and included key commentaries on the Talmud around the central text. The commentary by Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki (known as Rashi), a Medieval French scholar was printed on one side of the page. Commentaries by a group of other Medieval Jewish sages known as the Tosefotists are found on the opposite side of the page.
This layout made it easy to read and study, and proved an immediate hit with customers. Though their title pages no longer carried a printed dedication to Pope Leo X, these beautiful books continued to be printed with his permission, enabling even more Jewish communities to study and learn from complete sets of the printed Talmud.
For further reading, see these books:
- History of the Jews by Heinrich Graetz (1894).
- The Jewish Connection by Hirsh Goldberg (1976).
- A History of the Jews by Solomon Grayzel (1968).