Theses Doctoral

Printing, Hebrew Book Culture and Sefer Ḥasidim

Skloot, Joseph Aaron

This dissertation is a contribution to the fields of the history of the Hebrew book and early modern Jewish cultural history. It is a study of Sefer Ḥasidim, a text that originated in the medieval Rhineland, in its first two printed editions (of 1538 and 1581, respectively). By analyzing these editions closely, and by comparing them to their manuscript antecedents, it is possible to determine how the work of printing changed Sefer Ḥasidim and how printing shaped readers’ understanding of the text. These investigations advance the argument that the printing of Hebrew books was a creative act, not merely a process of reproduction and dissemination. Like all creative productions, moreover, these editions can be read as witnesses to the particular social and cultural contexts from which they emerged—in this case, a period of upheaval in Jewish life and European society. Moreover, the varied cast of characters who produced these editions—printers, editors, proofreaders, press workers, among others—were influenced by commercial, intellectual and religious interests unique to the sixteenth century and to Italy. These interests left their mark on the texts of Sefer Ḥasidim that emerged from their presses (in the form of censorship and emendations), as well as their associated paratexts (e.g. prefaces, tables of contents and introductions).
Part one of this dissertation focuses on the first printed edition of Sefer Ḥasidim, produced by a group of Jewish silk entrepreneurs who called themselves “the partners” in the city of Bologna. It contains two chapters. Chapter one examines who the partners were and their social position within Bolognese Jewry, as well as the legal and institutional framework that regulated the production of Hebrew books in Bologna. Chapter two is a close reading of their edition of Sefer Ḥasidim and a comparison to the extant Sefer Ḥasidim manuscripts. This chapter highlights three areas where the partners innovated: They ascribed the authorship of Sefer Ḥasidim to the medieval pietist R. Judah he-Ḥasid; they prefaced the text with a lengthy table of contents; and they censored the text to eliminate a number of references to Christianity and Christians.
Part two focuses on the second edition of Sefer Ḥasidim. It contains three chapters. Chapter three examines the people who created this edition: the Christian printer Ambrosius Froben of Basel and his Jewish and Christian associates. Chapter four focuses on the many paratexts that accompanied Froben’s edition. These documents present Sefer Ḥasidim as a canonical work of scripture and aggadah (rabbinic lore) intended for young students. Chapter five focuses on the text of Sefer Ḥasidim in Froben’s edition and the emendations Froben and his editors introduced. The chapter highlights three kinds of emendations: censorship of anti-Christian passages; the removal of phrases in languages other than Hebrew; and the introduction of punctuation and glosses. Taken together, these emendations create the impression that Sefer Ḥasidim was a “classic” of far greater import than it may have had at the time of its composition.
This dissertation closes with a conclusion that describes how the data contained in the previous chapters might be useful for students of the history of the book and Jewish modernity.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Carlebach, Elisheva
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
June 5, 2017