Sunday 9 September 2018


Bomberg edition of Mikraot Gedolot 1525, edited by Yaakov ben Chaim Adoniyah.
It is often emphasized - when teaching any section of Torah, especially to children – that the exact printed format with the original page layout of the text should be used. So, for example, one shouldn’t just type out the wordage, but rather copy the primary text from the Gemora or Chumash itself.
This is known as Tzuras haDaf, or the format of the page, which is said to be beneficial for students to learn from and become acquainted with – almost as if it has some mystical significance.
In this article, we are going to look at the fascinating and rather surprising story of how that basic format of a typical Chumash and Gemara which we use today, was first developed.

Daniel Bomberg[1] (1483-1549) was the father of printing and publishing when it came to Jewish religious books. He was born in Antwerp and he was a Christian, yet he wasn’t just a printer – he became the catalyst for the preservation of our main Torah texts as we know them.
All in all, Bomberg published about two hundred Jewish books, many for the first time.

Among the rabbis Daniel Bomberg employed and consulted with, were some of the most respected of the time, including R. Meir ben Isaac Katzenellenbogen (he was the founder of the Katzenellenbogen family), known as the Maharam of Padua:
The Maharam of Padua authored the well-known responsa work, She’elot uTeshuvot, and was an interesting rabbi in his own right. He was related to R. Moshe Isserless who referred to him as the Rabbi of Padua, and he was known for his more lenient and liberal rulings. He also referred to the non-Jewish months by name (in some cases) which was very unusual for a rabbi of that time.
To illustrate the dangerous spirit of those difficult times: In 1549, the Maharam of Padua was involved in printing the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, under the licence of another printing press, the Bragadini press. Jews were not allowed to own printing presses but they were allowed to operate them, under the patronage of non-Jewish owners.
At the same time, a rival printing press - the Giustiniani press – pirated the Bragadini press’ Mishneh Torah. Things turned sour and the censors got involved and the result was a large-scale burning of Talmudim and other Jewish books.[2]
In another instance, the Maharam of Padua wrote that one should not rely on his opinion because he had no copy of the Talmud to refer to, as all the manuscripts were burned[3]. This additional burning of the Talmud took place around 1553 under Pope Julius III, who was advised to take such action by Jews who had recently become baptized!

In Venice, Daniel Bomberg adopted aspects of the earlier Joshua Soncino format of 1483, with what is known as the ‘foliation'[4] (such as Bava Kama 52b) and what has become the universal format of the Talmud page, with Rashi on the ‘inside’ and Tosefot on the ‘outside’. 
Bomberg added the other commentaries which are found at the back of printed tractates of Talmud. Soncino had only printed sixteen tractates and did not access all the Talmudic manuscripts which Bomberg was able to source. This made Bomberg’s Talmud much more reliable.
To this day, the standard and conventional layout of the Talmud follows the 1523 edition of the Bomberg Talmud.
It took him four years, from 1519-1523, to produce his Talmud, which was project managed by R. Chiya Meir ben David who was a judge on the Beit Din of Venice.

The Bomberg Talmud was published with the approval of Pope Leo X (although he died in 1521), who showed special favours to the Jews. He was a patron of all forms of study, having raised the salaries of the eighty-eight professors who taught at the Roman University and he wanted to elevate the church by encouraging all intellectual pursuits. He believed that the printing of the Talmud would help him in with the ascension of the Church.

As mentioned, in Daniel Bomberg’s Venice publishing house, he consulted expert sages, scholars and rabbis. But one of his main consultants was Felix Pratensis, a Jew who had converted to Christianity to become an Augustinian Friar! In fact, it was Felix Pratensis who first encouraged Bomberg to publish Torah books in the first instance.
Daniel Bomberg’s first published work, as early as 1517, was the Chumash (Five Books of Moses) with many commentaries (some which had never been printed before), and it was entitled Mikraot Gedolot.  Friar Felix Pratensis was particularly involved in this publication, and it was also endorsed by the Pope.
The first Mikraot Gedolot was not widely welcomed by the Jews, because it had mistakes with cantillation or musical symbols, but the fact that the apostate Pratensis was involved was also a major part of the objection.
What the Bomberg’s Mikraot Gedolot did do was to innovate the Torah text by organizing it into Chapters and Verses. Although this reference system had been in use in Christian circles since the 1200’s, this was the first time it was used in a printed text of the Torah. It has remained the standard printing procedure ever since then. Many would find this surprising as every Chumash we open today, naturally has chapters and verses and one somehow imagines that it was always like this.
Bomberg wanted to be as accurate as he could with his versions of the printed texts, but his hands were tied by some of the restrictions of the Church. In the case of R. David Kimchi, known as the Radak, much of his commentary was indeed censored as some of his writing contained anti-Christian polemics. However, in fairness to Bomberg, he later published a limited edition of the full text of the Radak as a separate enterprise.

A second revised and corrected edition of Mikraot Gedolot was published a while later, this time with Tunisian born Yaakov ben Chaim Adoniyah as editor – and that became the format for all future Mikraot Gedolot. He was an expert in Nikud or vocalization, and also edited the first edition of the Jerusalem Talmud and Rambam’s Yad. Later Adoniyah was also to convert to Christianity - yet his edition remains the standard we still use today.

 DAVID GINSBURG (1831-1914):
A more modern scholar, who studied and wrote about Yaakov ben Chaim Adoniyah, was David Ginsburg. He was born to a wealthy family in Warsaw and studied in top Polish Yeshivot.
Yet - in keeping with the strange history of those involved in perpetuating our sacred texts - he too converted to Christianity. He moved to England and became Christian David Ginsburg.
Ginsburg considered Yaakov Adoniyah as a type of ‘mentor’ (although he had lived three hundred years earlier), and he took up the subject almost where it was left off by those early pioneers who worked with Bomberg. Ginsburg continued the search for portions of text from the countless manuscripts scattered throughout Europe and the East.
Christian David Ginsburg translated into English Yaakov Adoniyah’s Introduction to Mikraot Gedolot:

(NOTE: I couldn’t help but notice that the original Mikraot Gedolot of 1525 was called Shaar Hashem haChadash [see picture at beginning of article] whereas in Ginsburg’s book he refers to it as Shaar Hashem haKadosh.)

In 1867, in his preface to his second edition of his English translation of Yaakov Adoniya’s Introduction, Ginsburg writes rather mysteriously:
“...For the elaborate Indices, I am to a great extent indebted to a friend, whose name I am not at liberty to mention.”
One wonders who that individual could have been and why his identity was kept from us.
[Perhaps the following excerpt may shed some light:
Inspite of his personal status his works are still cited and used by many present day talmidei chachamim and serve as an invaluable work towards preserving the massorah of the correct text of Tanach. Seforim Online offers the original 4 vols. in the 6 vols. Edition.”[5]]
Ginsburg gives an overview of the life and times of Yaakov Adoniyah:
Very little is known of the life of JACOB BEN CHAJIM ADONIJAH, who rescued the Massorah from perdition, and for the first time collated, compiled, and gave to the world in a printed form the grand critico-exegetical apparatus, bequeathed to us by the Jews of olden times. In his celebrated Introduction to the Rabbinic Bible, which we publish with an English translation, he tells us that he was a resident of Tunis...Hence he is also called Tunisi...
For more than seven years (1510-1517) Ibn Adonijah roamed about homeless in the different towns of Italy, where at that time Hebrew literature was greatly cultivated and patronised by the highest of the land; and where popes and cardinals, princes and statesmen, warriors and recluses of all kinds were in search of Jewish teachers, in order to be instructed in the mysteries of the Kabbalah.
Whether it was owing to his conscientious scruples, which would not allow him to initiate Gentiles into this esoteric doctrine...[he did not find work, and] he had at first to endure great privations during his sojourn in Rome and Florence. He at last went to Venice, where the celebrated Daniel Bomberg, of Antwerp, had at that very time established his famous Hebrew press (1516), and...he at once became connected with the printing office.”
Then Ginsburg informs us that it wasn’t only the ‘Rabbinic Bible’ or Mikraot Gedolot, that Yaakov ben Chaim Adoniyah edited, but also:
 “...the entire Babylonian Talmud, published by Bomberg in 1520-1528, was partly edited by Jacob b. Chajim [Adonijah]...simultaneously...Ibn Adonijah also worked at the editio princeps of the Jerusalem Talmud.”
And that’s not all, because:
“...within twelve months...he edited...the stupendous legal and ritual code of Maimonides, entitled, Mishne this code, which appeared in 1524...Ibn Adonijah wrote an Introduction.
It is perfectly amazing, to find that the editing of these works, which would itself more than occupy the whole time of ordinary mortals in the present day, was simply the recreation of Jacob b. Chajim; and that the real strength of his intellect, and the vast stores of his learning, were employed at that very time in collecting and collating MSS [manuscripts] of the Massorah, and in preparing for the press the Rabbinic Bible, which was published in 1524-25...”
Ginzburg then quotes Yaakov ben Chaim Adoniyah:
Behold, I have exerted all my might and strength to collate and arrange the Massorah, with all the possible improvements, in order that it may remain pure and bright, and shew its splendour to the nations and princes...This was a labour of love, for the benefit of our brethren, the children of Israel, and for the glory of our holy and perfect law...
As regards the Commentaries, I have exerted my powers to the utmost degree to correct them in all the mistakes as far as possible: and whatever my humble endeavours could accomplish was done for the glory of the Lord, and for the benefit of our people. I would not be deterred by the enormous labour, for which cause I did not suffer my eyelids to be closed long, either in the winter or summer, and did not mind rising in the cold of the night, as my aim and desire were to see this holy work finished.”
This is how Yaakov Adoniyah describes his boss, Daniel Bomberg:
When I explained to Bomberg the advantage of the Massorah, he did all in his power to send into all the countries in order to search out what may be found of the Massorah...and we obtained as many of the Massoretic books as could possibly be got. He was not backward, and his hand was not closed, nor did he draw back his right hand from producing gold out of his purse, to defray the expenses of his books, and of the messengers who were engaged to make the search for them in the most remote corners...”

There are many ironies in this story: Besides the Maharam of Padua and R. Chiya Meir ben David, the other main participants were either Christian (Daniel Bomberg and Pope Leo X), or Jews who had converted to Christianity (Friar Felix Pratensis, Yaakov Adoniyah and Christian David Ginsburg).
The extent of this irony should not be lost because it is difficult enough to study the Torah with all its main commentaries, the Rambam’s encyclopaedic Mishneh Torah, the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmudim – let alone know how to collect the most accurate source material for all those texts and then collating and editing them.
Such work requires special minds even more expansive than the great students who later study them. The Reader is urged look at Hachi Garsinan, to get some perspective of just how variant some of the source texts are – to the extent that they can change the meaning of the matter under investigation.[6]
What had happened to Felix Pratensis that he became a Friar and why did converted Jews encourage Pope Julius III to burn the Talmud?
And after reading about Yaakov Adoniya refusing to teach Kabbalah to non-Jews because of the value he placed on the esoteric tradition; and how he tried to make a Kiddush haShem and relentlessly laboured on behalf of ‘our brethren, the children of Israel’- one wonders why such a scholar was later to leave his own religion for another.
One of the heroes of the story must surely be Daniel Bomberg himself who spent his own money to fund the collection of accurate manuscripts (and who fought against censorship as we saw with his limited edition of Radak) and bequeathed to later generations works which were to become the cornerstone of all future Torah learning. 
He must surely rank among the righteous of the nations.

[1] Sometimes referred to as Bombergi.
[2] Cecil Roth, History of the Jews in Venice, p. 256.
[3] She’erit Yosef 1.
[4] The is a difference between foliation and pagination: Pagination is defined as:consecutive page numbering to indicate the proper order of the pages, which was rarely found in documents pre-dating 1500, and only became common practice c. 1550, when it replaced foliation, which numbered only the front sides of folios”.
[5] Massorah Massoreth Massoretic RabbinicHebrewBible.  C.D.Ginsburg. 1865. 1905. 4vols. plus 3 vols.
[6] My friend, Mendy Rosin recently visited R. David Bar-Hayim in Israel, and he writes: 
"...He [R. Bar-Hayim] then showed me what he was currently working on, comparing various early manuscripts of the Mishna for discrepancies. It also just so happened that on the screen at that time, he showed, was a page from the Gemora (possibly Bavli Nedarim 62a at the bottom) where a verse from Vayikra was quoted but missing a whole world (the four-letter name of Hashem if my memory recalls correctly). Rav Bar-Hayim mentioned that there are many instances of single letter differences between our text of the Torah and what the Gemora quotes - but a whole world is irregular."


  1. Thank you for the thorough background of the subject.

    I wonder if the lot of them became Christians due to the social acceptance of their intellect.

    Even in today's society, where Judaic intellectualism is celebrated, many scholars unfortunately feel the need to belittle their traditional roots in order to achieve scholarly success.

    Regardless, as I believe you've written in previous posts, much of our reliance of having a perfect safer Torah comes from Karaite Judaism. Still though we accepted and relied on their proficiency and expertise because we're looking for just that.

  2. Thank you. Yes I agree with your suggestion that they were looking for social acceptance. And I think they were also encouraged or enticed to become part of the elite, perhaps due to nefarious influences who viewed such scholars as a 'great catch'.
    As to relying on proficiency and expertise from someone 'outside of the camp'- one wonders whether we would still be willing and able to do so today?