Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A major turning point in the history of printing of Hebrew books

A major turning point in the history of printing in general and of Hebrew books in particular, this rare incunable, has a value is estimated at $1,000,000-1,500,000.  Printed in Hebrew in Bologna in January 1482, the volume represents the very first appearance in print of all five books of the Pentateuch as well as the first to which vocalisation and cantillation marks have been added. It is equally the first time that the printed Biblical text is accompanied by Rashi's commentary and the paraphrase in Aramaic (Targum Onkelos). The significance of this edition is demonstrated by the fact that this format is still in use today when printing the Torah.

Essential to reading and chanting the text of the Torah, the addition of vocalisation and cantillation marks represented a considerable challenge for 15th century printers. Abraham ben Hayyim of Pesaro was the first to overcome this technical difficulty during the printing of the present Pentateuch. Having overcome this first hurdle, he also had the talent and intelligence to frame the Biblical text with Rashi's commentaries in order to facilitate the parallel study of the text. The majority of the copies were printed on vellum in accordance with the precepts of the Law. 

The back of the present copy bears the signature of three 16th and 17th century censors, testifying to its presence in an Italian library until at least the mid 17th century: Luigi da Bologna in 1599, Camillo Jaghel in 1613 and Renato da Modena in 1626. The censors had the task of examining and checking all books, both manuscript and printed, in order to authorise or ban ownership and distribution of the work: the text of the Rashi commentary here bears the marks of their work, having been erased or crossed out in a number of places.

Over the last hundred years only two copies of this rare edition have come to auction: the first in 1970, printed on vellum and complete, the second in 1998, printed on paper and missing eight pages. The Pentateuch to be presented next April is printed on vellum, complete (apart from the rear free end paper) and in exceptionally fresh condition.

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