Sunday 11 April 2021



Sefarim printed by the Helicz brothers on paper with an unusual watermark.


An interesting question is: What is more influential in shaping Jewish ideology - books or theology? Obviously, there is an overlap because you cannot have religious books without an underlying theology, but does theology create the need for books or do books inspire the theology?[1]

The stories behind the emergence of various sefarim or religious books (including the well-known Shulchan Aruch[2]) and their early reception, are indeed fascinating. It was never easy or affordable to publish books and often there was some degree of intrigue as to who got their books printed. Popular Jewish printing enterprises to this very day hold huge sway on the popular religious mindset.

This article, based extensively on the research by Magda Teter and Edward Fram[3], focuses on the three Helicz (הֶעֶלִיץ) brothers who started the first Jewish printing business in Poland in 1534. We trace the humble beginnings of their printing business to its failure, and then to its surprising subsequent rise to success, and investigate the dynamics of that series of events.



The three Helicz brothers - Shmuel, Asher and Elyakim - began a modest printing venture in the early days after the invention of the printing press. Within the first year they published five works; a Halachic book entitled Sha’arei Dura and four of the first Yiddish books ever to be printed. A year later, because their press could not sustain them financially, they walked away from their printing business.

Three years later, however, they were back in business. This time they were producing substantial and important rabbinic works.

During the intervening three years, the three brothers had converted to Christianity and now went by the names Paul, Andreas, and Johannes Helicz.

It had been believed that the brothers converted to Christianity due to Christian persecution of the Jews in Cracow but, as Teter and Fram explain:

“…newly uncovered archival sources suggest that the story of their conversion may not be a reflection of Christian pressures on Jews but rather of personal beliefs and the vicissitudes of the sixteenth-century publishing business.”

Or as they say more bluntly in a footnote:

“the reasons for the brothers’ conversion were tied to problems in the business.”

It seems that the Helicz brothers expected their earlier printing of Sha’arei Dura (also known as Issur veHetter), the Halachic work by R. Yitzchak ben Meir of Dura (or Dueren) to be a best seller as it was a popular handbook on the laws of kashrut (keeping kosher) and on nashim.

According to Encyclopaedia Judaica:

“Sha'arei Dura was first published in Cracow in 1534. Since then it has been republished ten times with the addition of many glosses and commentaries by the greatest talmudists in each generation, among them Israel Isserlein, Solomon Luria, Elijah Loans, and Nathan Spiro. These glosses, as well as those of the scholars who preceded Israel Isserlein, were sometimes indiscriminately incorporated into the text, so that it is difficult, without the aid of manuscripts, to determine the original content of the book, a critical edition of which is still lacking. The book was regarded with such sanctity that Ḥayyim b. Bezalel, brother of Judah Loew of Prague, complains about Moses Isserles' daring to deviate in his Torat Ḥattat from the order of Sha'arei Dura.”[4]

Torat haChatat (Treatise on the Laws of Kashrut) by R. Moshe Isserless. Published by Yitzchak ben Aharon Prostitz, 1569.

Teter and Fram point out just how popular the Sha'arei Dura was:

“A search of the electronic catalogue of the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts at the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem lists almost 100 manuscripts of the work, plus commentaries, abridgements, and indexes, almost all of which predate 1534.”

It seems, therefore that the brothers did their research and expected to draw their dividends, but they were to be disappointed when the book did not sell as well as they thought it would.

Another of the Helicz brothers’ first printings that they thought would be successful sellers was the Yiddish handbook for women entitled Azharat Nashim, by R. David Kohen, which dealt with the laws of niddah, challah and candle lighting. They thought that this book would sell due to an expected demand from women who lived in more rural areas away from rabbinic authorities. Also, most Jews in Poland at that time spoke and read Yiddish, not Hebrew, so their target market was quite extensive.

It was more expensive to produce books in Yiddish than in Hebrew because, although both languages used the same basic Hebrew alphabet, it was believed that Yiddish required its own unique font so as to differentiate it from the Hebrew which was regarded as the “holy tongue”. The Yiddish font was known by the unfortunate designation, “veibertaitsh“ or “women’s translation”. This would have referred to the language of the unscholarly men as well, who could only read and speak Yiddish, not Hebrew.

Most of the other printing businesses from that era - such as Daniel Bomberg in 1516-7 [see: Kotzk Blog: 193) DANIEL BOMBERG –THE STORY BEHIND THE TZURAS HADAF:] - began with much larger works, such as the Chumash (Pentateuch) with over 200 folios. This indicates that the Helicz brothers were more financially challenged and unable to invest large amounts of capital in their business venture. Their strategy was therefore to publish works that had not been published before so as to reduce the competition. Although they were the only Hebrew publishing house in Poland, there was fierce competition from the major Hebrew presses in Prague and Italy. This is why their early publications were, intentionally, practical handbooks and not large canonical works. Also, their products were relatively cheap compared to the other larger printing houses.

Notwithstanding all their market research and thorough preparation, their strategy failed and, as mentioned, the Helicz press closed a year later in 1535. Within three years the brothers (and a sister as well as other family members) converted to Catholicism.

Majer Bałaban, who recorded the history of this period[5],  maintained that the family was coerced to convert because of persecutions and pressure from the powerful and influential Bishop of Cracow, Piotr Gamrat. This appears to have been the prevailing view until recently when it was shown that Piotr Gamrat was only appointed Bishop of Cracow on July 29, 1538, which was years after the conversions took place.

Paul Helicz was personally responsible for arranging the baptism of thirteen or fourteen Jews to Catholicism, and on that same day King Sigismund I granted him the monopoly on the import and sale of all Hebrew books in Poland. They were also given money as well as a piece of ground on which to build a house. While it is difficult to ascertain what motivates people in their hearts, it does seem that these were all enticing incentives for conversion, especially considering their past financial failures in the printing business and their disappointment that their own people did not support them.

Soon, with a new cash injection, the Helicz brothers re-established their printing business, but this time with a difference – they no longer only produced the smaller Yiddish handbooks but began printing major rabbinic works just like the large Hebrew presses of Venice.

Thus, we see that around 1539, prestigious works like the Arba’ah Turim with over 500 folios, were produced. The brothers were able to do this because they were also given access to new sources of paper.

Teter and Fram explain:

“All of the Helicz brothers’ books that had been published while they were Jews had been printed on generic paper stock that had very simple watermarks reflecting only the wires and chains used in the production of the paper. As Christians, however, they were able to purchase better-quality paper with distinguishable watermarks.”

And interestingly:

“The vast majority of the paper used by the brothers in the production of their postconversion books published for the Jewish community had a double-cross watermark, the stock of paper that had been used for some time by both the Cathedral Chapter in Cracow and the bishop’s office.”

The double-cross watermark, clearly visible, represented the Duchaków (Holy Spirit) monastic order and was used by the mill which produced the paper because it operated on lands belonging to that order.

However, despite all the finances and contacts made available to the Helicz brothers, they ran into an unforeseen problem. Jews refused to buy books from them.

Teter and Fram continue:

“Struggling to sell their stock of books, the brothers resorted to deception.”

They decided to backdate their printed work to 1532 which was prior to their apostacy. But the good quality double-cross printing paper was a give-away to the perceptive eye.


“On December 31, 1539, King Sigismund I responded to the brothers’ pleas and issued a decree forcing the Jewish communities of Cracow, Poznań, and “Russia” (Lwów) to purchase all of the remaining inventory of Hebrew books held by Paul, Andreas, and Johannes Helicz and to divide the costs evenly among themselves…

[T]he brothers had in their inventory 800 mahִzorim, 850 copies of selihִot, 500 copies of the Tur, 400 yozִerot, 200 copies of a minhagim book, 300 Pentateuchs, 300 small siddurim, 300 large-format zemirot books, and 200 zemirot in a small format—in all, 3,850 books, valued by a royal committee at 1,600 florins.”

Responsa literature published by the Helicz press. 

The Helicz brothers were again given another injection of funding, but unwilling to take any chances, they began to produce works for the Christian community and - not forgetting their original birth community - in 1540 they even printed a Yiddish translation of the New Testament. The work was dedicated to the Bishop of Cracow, Piotr Gamrat. According to Encyclopedia Judaica, Paul "became a Catholic missionary among Polish Jews".

But this is not the end of the story:

In 1551, a printer in Constantinople published a vocalized version of the Torah with Rashi’s commentary. On the title page the following inscription was to be found:

“… Do not call me Shemu’el…but rather Shevu’al (who has returned to God (she-shav le-’el) …

After my return [to Judaism], I considered what to do. I said that this [i.e., printing the Bible] will bring me relief from my deeds and the toil of my hands.”

That printer, then living in Constantinople, was non-other than Paul (or Shevu’al) Helicz.

[1] We see this debate reflected in the Scholarly analysis of the causes of the Sabbatian movement: According to Scholem, Lurianic Kabbalah gave rise to expectations of messianic redemption and therefore must be viewed as a cause – whereas according to more recent research by scholars like Moshe Idel and Matt Goldish, the interest in Kabbalah increased as a result of the popularity of the Sabbatian movement.

[3] Magda Teter and Edward Fram, “Apostasy, Fraud, and the Beginnings of Hebrew printing in Cracow” (2006).

[4] Encyclopaedia Judaica, under the entry: Dueren, Isaac Ben Meir. 

[5] Majer Bałaban, (July 1929), “Zur Geschichte der Hebräischen Drukkereien in Polen,” Soncino-Blätter 3, no. 1:


No comments:

Post a Comment