Incunabulum Identified in the Collections of the JHI

Written by: dr Magdalena Bendowska
Translated by: Robert Anderson
At the conclusion of the study of old Hebrew prints in the collections of the Jewish Historical Institute, we were met with a truly sensational surprise. One of the final books waiting to be processed and registered in the Aleph library system turned out to be the oldest print in the collection – an incunabulum printed in Italy in 1488.

Fot. Grzegorz Kwolek, the JHI

Incunabula are the earliest and most valuable books, embossed in the first years of printing – until the end of 1500, i.e. in the 15th century. At the beginning of the 20th century, the number of Hebrew incunabula titles was estimated at 194, most of which comprised the Bible and its commentaries. By the end of the last century, thanks to new discoveries, the number of Hebrew incunabula titles was concluded to have increased to 207.

In Poland, until recently, Hebrew incunabula were found in only two collections: the Library of the University of Wrocław, which holds six titles (in seven volumes) recovered in 2004 from the collection of the famous bibliophile Leon Vito Saraval by the Wrocław Jewish community, and three volumes in the collection of the National Library in Warsaw. One volume previously kept in the Jagiellonian University Library and eight volumes from the Saraval collection, which were transferred to the Jewish Historical Institute after the war, are considered lost. Currently, after the identification of an incunabulum in the Jewish Historical Institute, which does not come from the Saraval collection and has not been recorded before, the situation has changed. The ten volumes known in Polish collections have now been joined by an eleventh volume, which is currently the only one in the collections of the Jewish Historical Institute. This volume is the work of Moshe from Coucy titled Sefer Mitzvot Gadol, dated 19 December 1488 in the town of Soncino in Lombardy (Figs. 1 and 2). The book originally had 280 unnumbered pages, but our copy is unfortunately missing the last page with a colophon, which made identification problematic. The text is printed in a square script without vocalization, with two columns per page.

Sefer Mitzvot Gadol (abbreviated SeMaG – The Great Book of Commandments) is one of the earliest codifications of Halakha (Jewish religious law), completed in 1247. It consists of two parts: a discussion of 365 prohibitions and 248 imperative orders. It therefore contains an elaboration of all 613 commandments in Jewish law. The author elaborated on these commandments in accordance with the Talmud, frequently quoting it. He also drew upon Maimonides' earlier codices and Rashi's commentaries.

The text is the work of the French scholar Moshe ben Yaakov of Coucy (1198–1274), also known as  SeMaG. He travelled around France and Spain, teaching Jewish law in synagogues. He was a skilled orator, proficient in French, Spanish and Arabic. In 1240, Moshe was one of four rabbis who, in a public discussion in Paris, were to defend the Talmud against the accusations of Nicholas Donin, a Jewish convert to Christianity. However, two years later, Hebrew books were burned in Paris. These events may have inspired him to create a codification of Jewish law based on the Talmud, the preservation of which was under threat.


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1. Moshe (Moses) of Coucy, Sefer Mitzvot Gadol
Soncino: Gershom ben Moshe Soncino, 1488.
The first and last preserved page. (From the collection of the JHI).
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2. Moshe (Moses) of Coucy, Sefer Mitzvot Gadol
Soncino: Gershom ben Moshe Soncino, 1488.
The first and last preserved page. (From the collection of the JHI).


The book was printed by Gershom ben Mosze Soncino – the most prominent and distinguished typographer from the renowned Soncino printing family. He was the grandson of the publishing house’s founder Israel Natan and nephew of Joshua Solomon. Gershom led the life of a wandering printer, establishing his workshops in Soncino and various other cities in northern Italy, as well as      in Thessalonica and Constantinople, where he died in 1534. Over his career he published approximately a hundred books in Hebrew and an equal number in Latin, Greek and Italian. Our book is notable for being the first item published and signed in the colophon with his name. Among his achievements were innovations in woodcut decoration including expressive lettering and the use of perfectly proportioned floral motifs within an elegant frame (Fig. 3).

The book, like all incunabula, was published without a title page, as the concept had not yet been developed. There is also no printed pagination within the book; instead, the pagination in Hebrew alphabet visible at the top of the pages turned out to be handwritten (Fig. 4). This discovery turned out to be an extremely significant clue as there were only two editions of this text known to be unpaginated, both printed in the 15th century. Therefore, both editions had to be compared with the specimen under examination.

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3. A woodcut measuring 6.8 × 6.6 cm
from the opening page of the first part of the book,
decorating the wordmitzvah’ (a commandment).
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4. Card number 18 entered manually.


The first page from the first edition embossed in Rome around 1473–1475 did not match our page. However, a comparison with the second edition from 1488 solved the mystery – we are dealing with the Soncino edition! (Fig. 5).

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5. Moshe (Moses) of Coucy, Sefer Mitzvot Gadol
Soncino: Gershom ben Moshe Soncino, 1488.
Opening page of the first part of the book.
From the collections of the New York Public Library.

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6. Moshe (Moses) of Coucy, Sefer Mitzvot Gadol
Soncino: Gershom ben Moshe Soncino, 1488.
Opening page of the first part of the book.
From the collections of the JHI.

The copy of the Sefer Mitzvot Gadol identified at the Jewish Historical Institute was preserved in very good condition. Although the first few pages are damaged and the last page is also missing, it must be remembered that the book has survived for over half a millennium. There were several handwritten entries in it, which can be translated: "It belongs to the Beth Midrash, here in the city of Lublin" (Fig. 7). The book also has a rectangular metal ink seal measuring 3.5 × 1 cm stamped over 20 times with the following text: "Belongs to the Book Repair Association, Beis Midrash of the Holy Commune from Lublin" (Fig. 8). Therefore, it belonged to the house of study of the Jewish community in Lublin. Due to the lack of other ownership entries, it can be assumed that it remained there until the outbreak of World War II. It probably came to the Jewish Historical Institute with other books donated by the Central Jewish Library after the war.

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Handwritten entries that I read as:
שייך לב[ית] המדרש פה ע[יר] לובלין.

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שייך להחברה דתיקון ספרים
בהמ"ד [בית המדרש] ק"ה [קהל הקדוש] מלובלין

Due to the recently completed project of processing old Hebrew prints at the Jewish Historical Institute, we have now gained complete knowledge of the resources of this section of special collections and are certain that we do not have any more prints from the 15th century. However, other incunabula may be waiting to be identified in other Polish collections…

dr Magdalena Bendowska   kustosz zbiorów specjalnych Biblioteki ŻIH, ekspertka od starodruków