We found the oldest Hebrew book printed in a Jewish publishing house in Warsaw

Written by: dr Magdalena Bendowska
Translated by: Przemysław Batorski
Interesting discoveries happen in every library and the JHI library is no exception. This time I came across a work Rishmey Sheela, published in Warsaw, by Israel Moshe ben Arie Leib, a rabbi in Zabłudów. The Hebrew year [5]571, given in the chronogram, is the year 1811 in the Gregorian calendar. The volume belonging to the collection of the Jewish Historical Institute is the oldest book printed in Hebrew in Warsaw by a Jewish printer.

Israel Moshe ben Arie Leib, Sefer sheelot u-tszuwot Riszmey sheela (fragment), Warsaw: Cvi Hirsh ben Natan, 1811. Collections of the Jewish Historical Institute


The Rishmey Sheela text is divided into three parts. The main fragment is the rabbinic responsa, i.e., the responses of Israel Moshe ben Arie Leib to the inquiries addressed to him. Such questions, concerning specific cases in the field of religious law, were directed by Jewish communities or individuals to scholars enjoying fame and respect. The decisions contained in the rabbis' responses had a normative force, therefore studying the responses was an element of legal education.

The second part consists of Talmudic commentaries concerning, for example, the tractate Moed Katan from the Babylonian Talmud, and the third part – sermons delivered by the author. The book is provided with Haskamot, i.e., rabbinical approvals. One of them was given by the famous Talmudist, Akiva Eger, one of the greatest scholars of his time, who was involved, among other things, in the negotiations on the rights of Jews in the Duchy of Warsaw (1807).

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Israel Moshe ben Arie Leib, Sefer sheelot u-tszuwot Riszmey sheela, Warsaw: Cvi Hirsh ben Natan, 1811.
Collections of the Jewish Historical Institute

Why does this work deserve special attention? Because it is the first Hebrew book to be printed in Warsaw, in a publishing house run by a Jewish printer.

The first Jewish printer in Warsaw to run a Hebrew publishing house was Cvi Hirsh ben Natan Nosonowicz (Nossonowicz) from Lutomiersk. He began publishing activities in 1811, when Jews were given the right to permanently settle in the city. He bought a large part of the typographic equipment from the Evangelical Johann Krüger, who in 1781 founded a Hebrew printing house in Nowy Dwór, which belonged to prince Stanisław Poniatowski. Krüger located his office near the capital, because he employed Jewish workers, and at the time Jews did not have the right of permanent residence in Warsaw itself.

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The stamp duty stamp visible on the title page of the book
Riszmey sheela, Warsaw 1811. Collections of the Jewish Historical Institute

The title page of our book features the name of the censor, Dawid Wałłach (D.H. Wallach), who was also the censor of Krüger's publishing house. There is also a proof of payment of a fee, called the stamp duty (Polish: opłata stemplowa), levied on goods considered to be luxury. At the end, it was signed by the typesetter Moshe ben Mordechai from Warsaw.

The march of Napoleon's army through Poland interrupted the work of the printing house, but in 1814 it resumed activity. In 1821, Nosonowicz entered into a partnership with Avigdor ben Joel Lebenson, who, from 1819, published Jewish books in Warsaw under his own name. After a few months, the company broke up. Lebenson returned to independent activity, and Nosonowicz began publishing with his son Nathan as Nosonowicz-Szriftgiser (Schriftgiesser), or just Szriftgiser. Thus, two independent Jewish printing houses operated simultaneously in Warsaw. Cvi Hirsh Nosonowicz died in 1831 after 20 years of running a publishing house. His son took over the business, publishing books under the name of N. Schriftgieser. In 1852, Avigdor Lebenson left for Palestine, and the printing house was taken over by his son Joel. This firm pressed books at least until 1878.


It is worth recalling that the collection of old prints of the JHI Library also includes the first Hebrew book ever printed in Warsaw. It was published in 1796, after the third partition of Polan and the occupation of the city by the Prussians.

The book came from the publishing house of Piotr Zawadzki, a Christian nobleman with the Ostoja coat of arms. In the years 1777-1796 he owned a gisernia in Warsaw (a casting workshop producing metal products). During the Great Sejm and the Kościuszko Uprising (1794), Zawadzki's publishing house became one of the most distinguished and active printing houses in Warsaw. It pressed, inter alia, “Gazeta Narodowa i Obca” – an organ of the parliamentary patriotic party, “Dziennik Sejmowy”, magazines, calendars, books, brochures, and leaflets. In 1794, 42 universals (legal acts) were printed, including two by Tadeusz Kościuszko: regarding the release of peasants participating in the uprising from serfdom, and Do obywatelów Polski i Litwy [To the citizens of Poland and Lithuania].

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Cvi Hirsh ben Chaim from Płońsk, Cemach le-Awraham, Warsaw: Piotr Zawadzki, 1796. Collections of the Jewish Historical Institute

Before his death, Zawadzki managed to press only one work in Hebrew: Cemach le-Avraham. The author was Cvi Hirsh ben Chaim Halevi from Płońsk, father of Ezekiel ben Cvi Hirsh Taub (died 1857), around whom a Hasidic manor house was built in Kazimierz Dolny on the Vistula River. The book contains explanations about Yalkut Shimoni, a collection of halachic and hagadic midrashim, collected by the German Rabbi Simon Darshan from Frankfurt at the beginning of the 13th century. The print has a two-color, black and red title page. There is a printing signet of Piotr Zawadzki on it. The book was sealed with the seal of “Censorship of Jewish Books. Government Commission of Religious Denominations and Public Enlightenment” [Cenzura Xiąg Żydowskich. Kom. Rząd. Wyzn. Relig. Osw.], which allows the print to be distributed. The Commission was established in 1815 and exercised supervision over education in the newly created Kingdom of Poland.

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Stamp of censorship by the Government Commission for Religious Denominations and Public Education visible on the title page of the book Cemach le-Awraham, Warsaw 1796. Collections of the Jewish Historical Institute

At the bottom of the card, the Latin inscription is embossed in very small font: in Typographia Privilegiata Petri Zawadzki Varsaviae 1796 Anno. The Hebrew year is given in the chronogram. Zawadzki was a Christian, so he had to employ Jewish workers to work on Hebrew prints. The information at the end of the book shows that the proofreader was Yaakov Juda ben Shmuel Halevi Bochner from Pińczów. There is also a very interesting remark in appreciation of the effort put into printing this book by two non-Jewish workers: typesetter Chmielewski and presser Toczeski:

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“See the effort of the non-Jewish born, thanks to whom this work was printed from beginning to end, by the typesetter Mr. Chmielewski and the presser Mr. Toczeski, who are still ready to continue whatever work they can.”

The book obtained haskamas by eight rabbis: from Kalisz, Frankfurt on the Oder, Berdichev, Sochaczew, Łask, Wisznice, Wyszogród, and Grodzisk.

dr Magdalena Bendowska   curator of the special collections of the JHI Library, expert in antique books