Page 62 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 21

Basic HTML Version

e w i s h
o o k
n n u a l
5 6
Hebrew Incunabula Collection
Perhaps the pride and joy of our entire collection is the
incunabula section, those books of the 15th century that belong
to the era of the “cradle of printing.”
The Hebrew incunabula department of the Seminary Library
is the most complete in the world. Of approximately 180 known
prints, the collection comprises 145, in whole or part, including
some printed on vellum.
A visitor to this department can see what is probably the first
dated Hebrew book set in type, the
Arba'ah Tur im
of Jacob
b. Asher, printed in Piove di Sacco in 1475. Nearby is the very
close second, some leaves from Rashi’s commentary to the
Pentateuch, from Reggio di Calabria, 1475. The popularity of
this work is demonstrated by incunabula from Rome and Spain
as well.
Spanish books of the fifteenth century are particularly hard to
come by, owing to the activities of the Inquisition. The Library
owns a very rich collection, nonetheless. Among several rare
pre-expulsion liturgies is one for the Day of Atonement printed
at Montalban. This unicum is not identical with any known
ritual. Its remarkable oblong shape suggests that it was specially
printed for Marranos, so that they could, if surprised by the
agents of the Inquisition during prayer, quickly slip it into
a pocket or sleeve.
Another unique book from Spain is Rashi’s Commentary to
the Pentateuch published at Zamora by Samuel b. Musa in
1487. This is the only extant copy of the three Hebrew works
issued by this press.
The only medical work printed in Hebrew in the 15th century
is represented in two copies, one on parchment, the other on
paper. Avicenna’s
translated from Arabic into Hebrew
by Joseph Lorki and Nathan Hameati, was published at Naples
in 1491.
The only illustrated Hebrew incunabulum is Isaac ibn Sahula’s
Meshal HaKadmon i ,
Soncino, 1490-1. The Library not only
possesses two copies of this edition, but has also a reprint of
five years later.
Another excessive rarity is a broadside folio Hebrew calendar
for 1496/97.
The Hebrew incunabula are especially prized, and not merely
as collectors’ items. Their intrinsic value for research is even
more important, for they were printed directly from manuscripts
which in most cases have long since vanished, and which fre­