Article - Printing in Safed
Printing in Safed
"A Nation of Writers," the "People of the Book" - these are two apposite descriptions of the Jewish people who throughout their history of wandering from one country of exile to another always carried the written word with them. It is not surprising, therefore, that they were among the first to appreciate the immense importance of the invention of the printing press which they would use to keep contact among their scattered communities and to preserve their spiritual heritage.
The first Jewish printing press in the Holy Land was set up in the year 1577 (5337), some hundred years after the printing of the first Hebrew book in the Diaspora. The explanation for this is to be found in the fact that the Jews of the Holy Land were a small, poor community, persecuted by the Christians and far removed from the important centers of Judaism in Europe.
It was only following the Ottoman conquest of Palestine in 1517 that the country was opened up to the Spanish and Portuguese Jews living within the borders of the Turkish Empire, many of them came to Safed which was an important crossroad between Damascus, the Syrian and Islamic capital, and the Mediterranean seaports of Acre, Tyre, Sidon, and Beirut.
Many of these Jews were wealthy and enterprising; others, such as Joseph Caro, lsaac Luria ("Ari"), Israel Najara, Solomon Alkabetz, were outstanding Jewish scholars. They all contributed to making Safed an important economic metropolis and center of Jewish learning, particularly in the fields of the Bible and the Kabbalah.
The scholars of Safed published their books in Constantinople, Salonica and, mainly, Venice which was a very expensive undertaking given the difficulties of communication in those days. The veteran printer from Prague, Eliezer bar Yitzhak, who wanted to fulfill the holy command to return to the Land of Israel, firmly believed that the Jews of the Diaspora would willingly purchase books printed in the Holy Land. He decided, therefore, to come and settle in Safed and publish the works of the local sages. He was encouraged in his venture by Avraham bar Yitzhak Ashkenazi of Safed who helped him set up his printing press and even went into partnership with him.
When we consider the great progress made by the printing trade in Israel by the commemorative year of 1977 - the use of machines capable of setting up 10,000 letters an hour and the acquirement of technical skills which placed Israel among the top 10 countries of the world for printing stamps and posters - it is difficult for us to appreciate the achievement of Safed's first printer who published only 10 books in 10 years.
It was not the custom at the time to transport type and printing presses. Furthermore, the printers of those days did not regard their occupation as a source of livelihood. Because of the difficult traveling conditions it was also very difficult to find a market for books, and Avraham and Eliezer went to Aden and Constantinople in an effort to sell their books.
The printer's prayer "May the Almighty, blessed be He, grant me the privilege of publishing an unlimited number of books in the Land of Israel" went unanswered and Eliezer was compelled to close down the press in the year 1587. It was to be another 245 years until printing was renewed in the Holy Land - once more in Safed.
Israel Bak, a master printer from Berdichev, a man skilled in the art of engraving, came to settle in Safed in the 5591 (1831) bringing with him the tools of his trade and a number of workers. Israel Bak, too, did not prosper in Safed and in the year 1840 moved to Jerusalem where he set up his press. Since then, there has been a continuous development of the printing trade in the Holy Land and now presses are found in almost every town and large village, including the development towns.
Even in this era of electronic communications, the printed word is still a powerful force in our lives and the products of the printing press serve Man throughout his life in countless ways: in the fields of science and literature; information; through Israel's multilingual newspapers and posters; communications, postage stamps and the bus tickets.
Printing contributed much to the Jewish people's national revival and the clandestine press played a key role in the struggle against the British mandatory power. This is probably a suitable occasion on which to recall that the "Doar lvri" stamps were printed in secret at a time when it had not even been decided on the name to be given to the embryo State.
The printing trade was created and developed by a large community of authors, newspapermen, graphic artists, advertising men, and publishers at the core of which are to be found the printers and their workers who had to fight for decent working conditions while engaged in their labor of love. Credit is due to these workers and to their union, the National Union of Printing Workers, for establishing the Museum of Printing in Safed which houses exhibits illustrating the development of Jewish printing in the Holy land from the very early books to the sumptuous products of our own day; maps illustrating the wanderings of the Jewish press, a reconstruction of the first printing shop from the 16th century; and the press on which the "Doar lvri" stamps were printed. The Museum also contains a memorial tablet recalling the past generations of Jewish printers of the Holy Land and the Diaspora.
On the stamp appears a page of an ancient book printed in Safed in 1577.