Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Yashar of Candia questions if the printing press is so great after all.

In 1631 a student of Yashar of Candia printed a work of his without permission. The teacher was not pleased, and sent him a letter expressing his displeasure. The student dutifully added it to the book as an introduction. In it, the aforementioned Rabbi Yosef Shalom Delmedigo (=Yashar, Yosef Shalom Rofe) expresses his views about the printing press. To summarize: not such a big fan.

Before I post an excerpt, here is a piece from much later in the book, where Yashar shows his erudition and familiarity with the history of printing in general:

"We know that prior to the discovery of the art of printing in Europe it was known as long as a thousand years in the kingdoms of China and Japan. Many of their printed books on medicine and astronomy have been brought to Amsterdam, with illustrations, and we know that they have the Elements, albeit not as Euclid arranged it. We also observe that their form of printing does not utilize separate letters, rather, it uses blocks of complete words . . . This makes it difficult for them, since it requires cutting many separate blocks of complete words, whereas for us we need only have quantities of the 22 letters [of the Hebrew alphabet], so long as we have enough of each letter in type. Their method is good for printing images in geographic and topographic works, but in general the European method is superior . . . "
Here's a book from 1611 which goes into less detail, but mentions the prior invention of printing in China:

Getting back to the introduction, Delmedigo tells his pupil that he doesn't think so highly of printing, and he doesn't desire so much that his work ought to be printed. He writes "בגלל הדפוס עולם הפוך," "Because of the press/ the world is a mess." An excerpt (link):
"You wrote me that you are surprised that I don't want to print this book. I too was surprised about many great ones, specifically my rabbis and fathers whom I learned from, such as my great-grandfather of blessed memory, a great light, who was sharp and constantly innovating halachic ideas, he studied in yeshivos over 45 years . . . [much more praise about their learning and erudition] and they didn't want their written work printed. I was surprised, but then  I saw many manuscript works by the earlier ge'onim and sages, which were never printed; [if they weren't printed then] they wrote them for nothing? Where is the commentaries of Rabbi Hai, Rabbi Saadiah, Rabbenu Nissim Gaon and Rabbi Hananel, who were the rabbis of Rabbi Gershom, the Light of the Exile, whose commentaries were abstracted by Rashi, who commented on the whole Talmud? Where are the commentaries of Rabbi Moshe Ha-darshan, who is mentioned by both the author of the Aruch and Rashi? Or the original explanations by Rabbi Joseph Migash, rabbi of Maimonides, who wrote about him in the introduction to the Mishnaic Order of Zeraim? . . . Where is the Book Yashar by Rabbenu Tam? Where are the original explanations of the Raabad, Ramban, Ran, Ritva, Rabbi Peretz and Remah? - all mentioned by other authorities. . .  
"Everyone says that printing was beneficial, but it is the opposite. In earlier times books were precious and  it was expensive to hire scribes, and people only acquired those books which were beneficial, and unworthy works languished in obscurity. Nowadays, most of the people are arrogant (רבים מעמי הארץ מתיהרים), and as soon as they have a little money they want to print and spread silly works. The printers are mostly busy with printing new works, and are not caring for the earlier works, which lie in the dust. I see that because of the press, the world is a mess (בגלל הדפוס עולם הפוך); 'the familiar are in the ground, the stranger in heaven.'  . . . it isn't for nothing that in Latin a "son" and a "book" are called by the same name: liber."
Speaking of the last observation of his, I once heard R. Yisroel Reisman quote R. Yaakov Kamenetzky to the effect that as a child he had a volume of one of the prophets - perhaps Yechezkel - and on every page it bore the Latin title "Liber Ezechiel." Being a young, Yiddish speaking boy, he thought it said 'lieber,' or 'dear.' He said that this helped inculcate a love for Tanakh in him.


  1. The story from Rabbi Reisman, if my memory serves me, is written about Rav Pam in the artscroll biography.

  2. “Of making many books, there is no end, and much study is a weariness to the flesh.” -- Koheles 12:12
    Just thought it was appropriate to include that source.

  3. בגלל הדפוס עולם הפוך - better translated as: "Because of printing, world revolutionized" (or "turned over" - as in הפוך בה)

  4. "The World Turned Upside Down" is the song that the British band is said to have played at the surrender at Yorktown. "Revolutionized," indeed. But there is charm to S.'s less literal rhyme, "Because of the press/ the world is a mess."

  5. It's written in the Artscroll biography of Rav Pam- apparently, his father moved to America ahead of his family and took all of the volumes of his Tanach except for Yirmiyahu. R' Pam, about six, saw the words "Lieber Jeremiah" on the front page and decided that it meant that Yirmiyahu especially loved the Jewish people (not the most obvious conclusion you can get from reading it), or was loved by God, and read the book accordingly for the rest of his life, even after he came to America, reunited the book with the rest of the set, and saw they read "Lieber Genesis" etc. on every volume.

  6. "בגלל הדפוס עולם הפוך - better translated as: "Because of printing, world revolutionized" (or "turned over" - as in הפוך בה)"

    Not better - more literal. I wanted the rhyme.

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