Monday, August 17, 2015

A History of the printing of Hebrew books in Aleppo

Aram Soba, as the city of Aleppo was known to it's Jews, traces it's Jewish History back to the days of King David, over 3,000 years ago. King David is mentioned as being in Aleppo already in Tanakh, in Tehillim chapter 60 and in the book of Shemuel (שמואל א יד, מז). The community for the most part prospered throughout the centuries, under Christian Rule until 636 CE, and under Muslim rule, as Dhimmi until the mass emigration in the 20th century.

The printing press arrived to the Jewish Community in Aleppo surprisingly late, not before the year 1865. This may be due in part to their neighbors' religious beliefs, Islam's view of the printing press, "It would be an act of impiety if the word of God should be squeezed and pressed together; but the true cause was, that great numbers of themselves earned a considerable income by transcribing those books" (Quarterly Review XLI 1829 Page 475). Before the arrival of the printing press in Aleppo, the Jewish Community would send their books mostly to Europe to be printed, in the 16th and 17th century for the most part to Venice, later on to Amsterdam and Constantinople and from the 18th century on, mainly to Livorno, Italy. The first known book to be sent from Aleppo to be printed was the Mahzor Aram Soba, printed in Venice in 1527.

It happened more than once that manuscripts sent to be printed in Europe were lost en-route, so many authors would keep copies of their manuscripts for themselves, before sending them on the long journey to be printed in Europe. A tragic reminder of such a case, was the fate of the works of R. Hayim Hakohen of Aram Soba, who writes how en-route to have his books printed, his ship was boarded by pirates, and to escape he jumped off the boat and swam to shore. He survived, but his manuscripts, of which he had no additional copy, were lost forever (Mekor Hayyim, Istanbul, 1750 in his introduction).

The risks and financial burden that it took to get a book sent and printed outside of Aleppo can be seen from the introduction of Hazon Ovadia by R. Ovadia Halevi of Aleppo, printed in Livorno in 1787. He writes how he sold his entire library and put up his home as collateral in order to raise the funds to have his book printed!
introduction of Hazon Ovadia by R. Ovadia Halevi of Aleppo

In Aleppo itself, there were people whose business it was to arrange for the printing of manuscripts and making copies of the works before they were sent. One such person was Avraham ben Yeshua Sasson, who later on would be the founder of the First Hebrew printing press in Aleppo. Avraham Sasson printed in Livorno several works of Aleppo Rabbis, including Ohel Yesharim of R. Avraham Antebi in 1943. His son, Eliyahu Hai Sasson (b.1830) was then sent to the printing press of R. Elijah Benamozegh to learn the art of printing.

For the most part, Aleppo's Press, produced works written either by local Rabbis or from manuscripts found in Aleppo. The printing in Aleppo can be categorized in to 3 separate periods, 1866-1873, 1887-1909 and 1910 and on.

Shalom La'am of R. Shalom Hedaya printed in Aleppo in 1896

Eliyahu Sasson was sent by his father in 1864 to Livorno where he thoroughly learned the art of printing, returned in 1865 and immediately got to work once he received exclusive rights to Hebrew printing and a printing ban for anyone else, from the Rabbis of Aleppo. Ever since 1518 when such a ban was given, it was the practice of Hebrew printers to request bans in order to protect the massive financial investment needed to open and operate a printing press. The first book to come out of Sasson's press was Sha'are Kedusha of R. Haim Vital. The books produced by Sasson were of the highest quality, on fine paper and with attractive font. In all, in the period of 1866-1873 13 books were printed by Sasson in Aleppo. The work at the press, was very much a family affair, with the father assisting in choosing the material to be printed and his brother, Moshe assisting with the actual printing. Under financial pressure, the printing press moved in 1873 to Jerusalem, where he printed first Kenesiya Leshem Shamayim of R. Menashe Sutton, followed by 11 other works, all but one by Sephardic authos. Even after Sasson departed to Jerusalem, the original 20 year ban against competitors was still in effect, and no additional books were printed in Aleppo until 1887.

In 1887, R. Yeshaya Dayan founded a Hebrew printing Press in Aleppo, originally founded as a way to publish his own books. He brought in for this purpose, the printer Haim Pinchas Hakohen from Jerusalem and during the first 3 years of operation produced 6 works. As his press was without a license from the Turkish Government and not censored as required by the law of the land, it was published without mention of the printer or even the place of printing. For fear of informers, the press was closed until 1896 when he was able to obtain the necessary license from the Ottoman Rulers of Syria.

In 1910, Ezra Haim Joejati of Damascus founded a new press in Aleppo, followed by another press run by Ezra Bijo from 1924 and on.

Likutim MiPardes by Rabbi Yitzchak Schrem printed in Aleppo in 1873

Sources and for Additional info: Avraham Yaari: Toldot Hadefus Be'artzot Hamizrach, LiKedoshim Asher Ba'aretz by David Zion Laniado and Encyclopedia LeHalutze Hayishuv VeBonav by David Tidhar (Otzar Yisrael by Eisenstein in the entry on Aram Soba lists in error the year 1898 as the founding of the Hebrew press in Aleppo, Encyclopedia of the Jewish Diaspora, Vol II, page 787 list the date as 1806, in error as well)

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