First Impressions: Sefer Hasidim and Early Modern Hebrew Printing
Joseph A. Skloot
In 1538, a partnership of Jewish silk makers in the city of Bologna published a book entitled Sefer Hasidim, a compendium of rituals, stories, and religious instruction that primarily originated in medieval Franco-Germany. How these men, of Italian and Spanish descent, came to produce a book that would come to shape Ashkenazic culture, and Jewish culture broadly, over the next four centuries is the basis of this kaleidoscopic study of the history of Hebrew printing in the sixteenth century.
During these early years of printing, the classic works of ancient and medieval Hebrew and Jewish literature became widely available to Jewish (and non-Jewish) readers for the first time. Printing, though, was not merely the duplication and distribution of pre-existing manuscripts, it was the creative adaptation and transformation of those manuscripts by printers. Ranging from Catholic Bologna to Protestant Basel to the Jewish heartland of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Skloot uncovers the history of that creativity through the prism of Sefer Hasidim in its first two printed editions. Along the way, he demonstrates how volumes, long thought to be eternal and unchanging, were in fact artifacts of historical agency and contingency, created by and for human beings.
Joseph A. Skloot, Ph.D. is the Rabbi Aaron D. Panken Assistant Professor of Modern Jewish Intellectual History at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. He is a historian of Jewish culture and religious thought.