Judaic Incunabula: An Evening’s Encounter With Survivors From My Distant Past

Sally Wiener Grotta

Copyright 2022 by Sally Wiener Grotta

I recently spent an evening of wonder and reflection in the company of several Judaic incunabula (printed books in Hebrew from the 15th century) at Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum & Library. Each was a personality and story, bound by hand and laden with transmitted memory. My guide through their histories, typography and quirks was Judy Guston, the Rosenbach’s curator and senior director of collections, who also happens to be a fascinating storyteller. I was entranced, and the time went by far too quickly.

When Gutenberg developed1 the printing press and introduced moveable type to Europe in the mid-15th century, he created the world we live in where the stories and knowledge that books preserve and impart were no longer available to only privileged scholars and the fabulously wealthy, but to all of us. Well, maybe not “all” – at least not immediately. Those first printed books were still pricey and far beyond the reach of the illiterate masses who wouldn’t have known what to do with them.

The word “incunabula” means “from the cradle” and refers to the earliest books created in Europe with moveable type (i.e., before the year 1500). About 26,000 incunabula have survived and are avidly prized. The Rosenbach is renowned for its collection of nearly 400,000 rare books, manuscripts, and fine and decorative arts objects, and has approximately 100 incunabula, of which seven titles are in Hebrew.

Whenever I can find the time, I enjoy attending as many of the Rosenbach’s array of intriguing programs and exhibitions as possible. I recently joined a Behind the Bookcase “tour” which focused on the collection’s Hebraic incunabula. Six of us sat around an antique table in Dr. A.S.W. Rosenbach’s intimate wood and book-paneled personal library in his historic Delancey Street townhouse while Judy took each volume down from the bookcase behind her. None of us stayed in our seats for long, popping up to look more closely when she pointed out something new or simply turned a page. Having been instructed to wash our hands before we entered the room, we were even invited to touch these precious volumes.

As soon as we were settled around the table, Judy climbed a stepladder to pull out the Bologna Pentateuch2 and set it on a protective cradle assembled from purpose-built soft wedges. The Bologna Pentateuch (which was printed in 1482 by Abraham ben Hayyim de Tintori of Pesaro, or “Abraham the Dyer”) was the first printed Hebrew Bible to have vowels3. Given that Hebrew vowels are little more than tiny dots or dashes placed under, above or next to the consonants, I imagine that hand-carving the individual vowels for Guttenberg-style moveable type must have been a challenge. The layout of the pages reminded me of my modern Torah commentaries – with two blocks of text side by side, bracketed top and bottom by commentary. Unlike my modern Torah commentaries, the block of text next to the biblical Hebrew is not so much a translation as an explanation in Aramaic (called the Targum Onkelos). The commentary is by Rashi (1040-1105 CE), the French rabbi still revered for his in-depth and extensive commentary on the Bible and the Talmud. However, Judy corrected me when I called the Pentateuch a Torah commentary. She explained that commentaries of the period are quite different.

Judy told us that when Dr. Rosenbach acquired the Bologna Pentateuch, it had sported a red velvet cover. I suppose that might have been a fashionable choice in the 19th century when some previous owner felt such an important book should have a “rich” binding. Dr. Rosenbach had it rebound with a more sober dark leather cover and understated embossing, reflecting the kind of binding that would have been used in the 15th century. Judy invited us to touch the bottom of a page, and then turned it so we could touch the obverse. While the first was textured, the other was comparatively smooth. She explained that was because the pages were parchment (made from animal skin) and the slight roughness indicated the hair side.

Generations had bent over this book, fingering and turning the pages, absorbing and teasing out meaning from the text and, of course, arguing in the grand tradition of Torah scholars. No wonder the pages had grimy blotches from the centuries of hands tracing words and leafing through the text. Dr. Rosenbach could have had the vellum washed when he had the book rebound, but decided against it, preferring to not erase the dirt and smudges that give testament to the very reason the book was created – to be studied.

Yes, I said washed. And no, it wouldn’t have destroyed the typographic ink. The first time I ‘d learned that the pages of old books could be cleaned with soap and water was when I had photographed the bookbinder Don Rash for my American Hands project several years ago. Don had recently received a commission to rebind a rather small book, and was unpacking it when I’d arrived for my first photo shoot with him. But it wasn’t just any small book; it was a “pocketbook” printed by Aldus Pius Manutius (1449-1515) who had invented the format so that people could carry a book around with them, presumably in their pockets. Don had explained that the Aldus job would also include washing each page. Then he’d showed me two sets of pages from another project in progress. The set that hadn’t yet been washed was yellowed, mottled, and stained. But the pages that had been washed were smooth and bright, with crisp contrast between the dark black ink and the clean vellum – as though they had never been touched by human hands. Picturing those sheets in Don’s workshop, I agreed with Judy that to have cleaned the Bologna Pentateuch in that manner would have meant scrubbing away the vigorous intellectual life it had inspired through the centuries.

The next book Judy took down from the bookcase was another Pentateuch, printed by Eliezer Toledano in 1491 in Lisbon, Portugal. Compared to the work-a-day scholar’s Bologna Pentateuch, the Lisbon Pentateuch is a stunning work of art, clearly designed for a very wealthy patron. It’s one of only six incunabula still in existence that has its original box binding. In other words, the book is bound into a leather-covered box, with its spine forming one side of the box, and the book’s front functioning as the box top. What makes this example of bookbinding even rarer is that only a few of the surviving box incunabula have their original text, as this one does. Remarkably, it’s in very good condition, missing only its straps. The printing is also more precise and neatly aligned than in the Bologna Pentateuch, with variable width letters to aid with column justification, and vowels lined up better with the consonants. That typographic meticulousness, plus the finer quality vellum, and beautifully tooled leather binding added considerably to its price. In fact, the printer bragged that it “rivals the Temple in beauty and in cost.”

The other books Judy showed us were not biblical. The Nofet Tsufim (The Book of the Honeycomb’s Flow) by Messer Leon is a philosophic work on rhetoric (using both secular and biblical references). About the size of an average modern hardback novel, it’s believed that it was printed in the first year that Hebrew books were produced using moveable type, i.e., sometime in the early 1470s. The Nofet Tsufim was printed in Mantua by a husband-and-wife team, Abraham and Estellina Conat, both of whom became important figures in early Hebraic printing, known for their elegant creativity, and Abraham for his development of cursive Hebrew fonts.

Estellina went on to produce fine books under her own name, too, such as the first edition (late 1470s) of a poetical/ethical work the Behinat Olam (An Examination of the World), by ha-Penini (a pen name which means “the dispenser of pearls”). While I would have liked to have seen how a woman’s sensibility of that time might have influenced a book’s design, only six copies of Estelliina’s printing of this book are known to have survived. The Rosenbach’s copy is from the second printing by Joshua Solomon Soncino, of which 38 remain. The typography is one of the earliest examples of combining different fonts for editorial effect. Specifically, the more “common” square Hebrew font (if anything can be said to be common in those early years) is used for the poetical text, and the commentary is in cursive Hebrew. Despite being disappointed that I wouldn’t see the work of an early female printer, I couldn’t deny that Sonsino’s Behinat Olam is beautiful.

The final books we saw – a Siddur, or prayer book for the annual Jewish holidays (1485-1486) and a book of poetry by Immanuel ben Solomon ben Jekuthiel of Rome (1491) – were also printed by the Soncino family, whose shop moved frequently from town to town, and even from Italy to Greece and Turkey. Such was the lot of Jews in the 15th and 16th century that few places remained safe for long.

As is reflected in the incunabula that Judy showed us, early Hebrew printing was done primarily in the Iberian Peninsula and Italy. In other words, these books were printed in the shadow of the Inquisition with its torture of “heretics” and the eventual expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal a few years later. For those created in Italy, the books were printed during the time of vicious blood libel riots that ravaged Jewish communities. All throughout Europe, Jews’ everyday lives were precarious at best. And the printing of Hebrew books was under the watchful eyes of powerful censors who were on the lookout for hidden insults to Jesus and Christianity. Using numerology, the censors would often count the numerical value of words, seeking signs of blasphemy. Those were among the words that they would scrape away. If a printer failed to obey the censors, he and his family would have hell to pay. What’s more, such censorship continued up to a century after the books were printed, and censors would search for offenders (people who owned and/or read such blasphemous books) by scouring libraries.

Judy showed us the effect of this censorship in the Aleinu prayer in the Soncino Siddur. The Aleinu, the second most recited prayer in Judaism, is an acknowledgment of each Jew’s relationship with God – “Adonai is our God, there is none else.” It also looks to a future when all humanity will be united in their recognition and worship of the one God.

Even though the Aleinu is most probably older than Jesus, censors saw references to Christianity in it. They focused on one phrase in which the prayer praises God “who has not made us like the nations of the world… nor our lot like that of all the multitude, for they bow to vanity and emptiness and pray to a god who cannot save.” Eventually, some printers, such as the Soncinos. simply learned to not reproduce some words, leaving empty spaces in the text instead. That would increase the likelihood that the book would receive the censor’s stamp of approval. Judy explained that, if the purchaser of the Siddur wished, he could write the words in those blank spaces once the book was in a private library. Judy said that the Soncino Siddur displays signs that at one point somebody did just that, and later the “offending” words were washed away. While no one knows whether the removal of the handwritten words was done by a censor or an owner, I imagine that, if the words had been discovered, an entire family could have been destroyed. To this day, many siddurs still don’t include that phrase.

I came from that evening at the Rosenbach feeling energized by both the beauty of the Judaic incunabula and the poignancy of their survival. That they are here, in Philadelphia, where I could touch and hold them, where they can continue to inspire questions and debates, as Jewish books are meant to do – feels like something of a miracle to me. They have been through the Inquisition and the Holocaust, and all the other evil eras when humanity’s oldest and most enduring hate – antisemitism – erupted into mass violence. Yet they endured, just as we have, in part because of books like these and their descendants. What gives me hope is that, as long as we have and cherish such books and the thirst for understanding that drives us to read and debate them, hate cannot and will not win in the long run.


Note: For more information about The Rosenbach’s collection of Jewish books which includes rare tomes beyond the 15th century such as a number that were printed in early America, go to https://rosenbach.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/08/GG-ITB-FINAL.pdf


  1. Though many of us were taught that Guttenberg invented the printing press with moveable type, the Chinese developed it much earlier, around the year 1040.
  2. Pentateuch is a Greek word for “five books” and refers to the Five Books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy) which comprise the Torah.
  3. Torah scrolls have no vowels. However, books containing the text of the Torah (often with relevant commentary) are intended for study, and ever since the printing of the Bologna Pentateuch, have included vowels.


Sally Wiener Grotta is an award-winning writer, photographer and speaker whose hundreds of stories and essays have appeared in scores of publications. One of her current works in progress is “Daughters of Eve” (Bayit Publishing, 2023), which is a collection of essays that mines the tales of biblical Matriarchs to explore modern lives, concerns and crises. (SallyWienerGrotta.com)


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