Q. Famous translations of the Talmud and other Jewish classics are called “Soncino”. Where does this name come from?A. It is the name of a great family of Hebrew printers in the town of Soncino in Italy (the family adopted as their surname the name of their town), and when the Soncino Press was established in England about 70 years ago they used this famous name because their publications were planned to be a modern continuation of the work of the original Soncinos.
The first Hebrew books to be printed appeared in Rome in about 1469, but the first to identify the printer and the place and date of printing were Rashi’s commentary on the Torah, issued in a cursive Hebrew font in 1475 by Avraham ben Garton in Reggio di Calabria. Later that year, the first volume of the Arba’ah Turim, a law code, was issued in a square Hebrew font by Meshullam Cusi and his sons in north Italy. Soon there were Hebrew presses in other parts of Italy and in Spain and Portugal.
The Soncino family printed the first complete Hebrew Bible, parts of the Talmud, Hebrew grammars and commentaries, siddurim, and even secular books. A great Hebrew press was established by a non-Jew, Daniel Bomberg, in Venice in 1515. He issued the complete Babylonian Talmud, the Jerusalem Talmud, and the T’nach with rabbinic commentaries. In many other parts of Italy, Hebrew printing was also in the hands of non-Jewish presses with the assistance of Jewish editors, compositors and proof-readers.
Hebrew printing was brought to Salonika and Constantinople by Jews from Spain and Portugal in the early 16th century. A Hebrew press founded in Prague in 1513 issued the earliest illustrated edition of the Haggadah. Chayyim Schwartz from Prague brought Hebrew printing to Germany and Poland. In northern Europe Christian printers issued Hebrew books, e.g. Christopher Plantin’s 8-volume Polyglot Bible printed in Antwerp.
Hebrew presses began in Israel in 1576 in Tz’fat, though they did not emerge in Jerusalem until 1841, and there were presses also in North Africa. By the 17th century, Amsterdam had become the main centre of Hebrew printing, producing works not only in Hebrew but in Yiddish. As early as 1688 there was a Yiddish newspaper published in Amsterdam.
Nearly 100 years ago Elkan Adler, in his book, “About Hebrew Manuscripts” (1905, republished 1970) wrote of “the romance of Hebrew printing”. It truly is a romantic story, showing how the People of the Book brought their books to the notice of a world-wide audience. An important account of the story is given in Aron Freimann’s “Gazetteer of Hebrew Printing”, 1946.