The 480th anniversary of printing the first jewish book in Poland

This year marks the 480th anniversary of printing first books in the Hebrew and Yiddish languages in Poland.

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Frontispiece of the first book in the world printed in the Yiddish language, depicting the national coat of arms (eagle); the coat of arms of Lithuania (the Chaser); the coat of arms of the Sforza family (dragon swallowing a child): the family of the wife  /  Aszer Anszel, Mirkewes ha-miszne,(Sejfer szel reb Anszel), Kraków, Bracia Haliczowie, 1534

This year marks the 480th anniversary of printing first books in the Hebrew and Yiddish languages in Poland. They were published in Kraków in 1534 in a publishing house established by three Halicz brothers: Shmuel, Asher, Eliakim. We do not know where they were from as they did not mention it anywhere. Also, it is not known if their surname should be spelt „Helicz” or „Halicz”. Halicz could indicate their hometown being Halicz in Red Russia. It is not certain where they learned the trade. Some historians assume that they came from Prague, but there are no tracks of them left in this city. In fact, the fonts they used in Kraków and title pages of their prints are similar to the patters used in Prague.

The activity of the Halicz brothers was in many ways pioneering, of significant impact on Jewish culture. On the contrary to other Jewish printing houses of this period: Italian, Prague or Turkish ones, it focused not only on printing Rabbinical texts and Jewish classics destined for the elite, but also on making popular books. As a general rule they were not very long and therefore cheaper and available also for the poorer part of the community. Another distinguishing feature was the fact that the brothers focused on local Ashkenazi traditions. The first book published by them can already be regarded as a declaration of a new publishing policy: it was the 14th-century-old Ashkenazi Halakha law, Sha’arei Dura, written by Yitzhak Düren and published on 13th May, 1534. 

All subsequent books given to the printers in 1537 were printed not in Leshon Hakodesh (”the sacred language”), but in the informal Yiddish language: something rare till then. The Halicz brothers were the first in history to publish books in the language of everyday life of the Ashkenazi Jews. By doing so, they overcame an important barrier of Jewish books being reserved only for the Hebrew language. What is more, to print these texts, they used a new font, significantly different from square and Rashi fonts. Already in 1534 they published Mirkeves Hamishneh, also known as Seifer shel Reb Anshel, a Bible concordance, being also a Hebrew-Yiddish dictionary, where they used the new font for the first time. It was the first book in the world to be printed in Yiddish.

We know 14 titles of the books that were made in the first Jewish printing house in Poland which was active for 8 years. Today, they are extremely rare prints. Jews had to wait more than a quarter-century for the next Hebrew printing house to be established in Kraków in 1568 by Yitzhak ben Aharon Prostic.

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