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Hebräischer Buchdruck

Talmud von Gottschalck, Michael Frankfurt/ Oder und Berlin, 1738 ©Ausstellung Museum Viadrina

Hebräischer Druck von 1865 ©Ausstellung Museum Viadrina

Hebräischer Druck. Vermutlich aus dem Besitz von Prof. Johann Christoph Beckmann, 1693 ©Ausstellung Museum Viadrina

Ausstellungsraum zum Buchdruck in Frankfurt (Oder) ©Museum Viadrina

Since the late 16th century, the Viadrina University had its own printing press. As Hebrew was taught by the university’s theological faculty, there too was a demand for the requisite printed materials.  The Eichorn print shop filled this requirement and in 1591 procured a Hebrew character set.

Around the year 1600, the university decided to print the Hebrew Bible at the university. The offer submitted by Eichorn was probably too expensive, and thereby the printing rights went to the publishers Hans Hartmann and his son Friedrich. They recruited specialists from Wittenberg and began publishing the Biblia Hebraica Hartmannorum in 1596, the book was much sought after, especially in nearby Poland.

The Hebrew printing press experienced its zenith in Frankfurt (Oder) during the second half of the 17th century. The Viadrina-Professor Johann Christoph Beckmann played an important role in this. Beckmann grew up in Zerbst and in 1659 he moved to Frankfurt (Oder) at the age of eighteen. After briefly working as a lecturer, he received a travel stipend from the Kurfürst (Prince Elector) of Brandenburg to explore Europe. In Amsterdam in 1663, he met not only with Jewish students, but also with the Rabbinical scholar Jakob Abendana. There he studied the Talmud and returned to Frankfurt in 1666.

The Origins of Orientalistik at the Viadrina

Beckmann returned to the Viadrina and brought the ideas of the early enlightenment along with him. He taught at the University until his death in 1717, where he was rector eight times over. Due to its open admission policy for Jewish students, the Viadrina developed into an Amsterdam of the East, where along with the Hebraic studies program the ‘Oriental languages’ program grew in importance. In 1673, Beckmann finally obtained a printing press. He obtained permission to employ two Jewish printers, who due to protests from the citizenry of Frankfurt, were under the direct protection of the university. He was even able to recruit Jewish specialists from abroad. Demand for religious Hebrew literature was enormous and the printing presses prospered. Beckmann was allowed to employ more Jewish printers, and he then turned his focus on creating a new edition of the Babylonian Talmud, last printed in 1645. The Talmud, according to German instruction and education, is the most important text in the Jewish Faith next to the Jewish Holy Bible, the Tanakh.

The End of the Hebrew Printing Press

At the time in nearby Poland, there was an especially large demand for printings of the Talmud, as a result of the Cossack uprisings there was a dire lack of Hebraic literature among the greater Jewish community. In 1693, hoping to create an economic boost for the important trade city of Frankfurt (Oder), the Kurfürst (Prince Elector) granted the Beckmann printing presses the right to print the Talmud despite protest from some local churches. Beckmann teamed up with Michael Gottschalck, a local bookdealer. After failing to find the financial backing for this ambitious project, he sold the printing press to his business partner and rededicated himself to academia.

In 1697, Gottschalck secured financial support from the Kurfürst of Saxony. The first printings of the Talmud were delivered before the end of the year, the twelve volumes printed in an edition of 2,000 copies quickly sold across Europe. The printing rights made Gottschalck a wealthy man. His printing press prospered and in 1722 he printed a second edition of the Talmud.

After Gottschalks death, the printing press was managed by a professor of philology named Johann David Grillo. The beginning of his tenure was overshadowed by disasters, which nearly ruined him financially. A warehouse in Amsterdam burned, where much of an edition of the Talmud was stored. Then a ship sank with another part of the edition. Finally, Talmud sales dropped off as other printing houses began printing competing editions. Despite all this, he was able to keep the printing business running and steered it into another era of success.

The successful printing business remained in the Grillo family until 1796 when it was acquired by Christian Salomo Elsner, a professor of theology who was an unlucky entrepreneur. In 1813 a former employee named Hirsch Meyer Baschwitz acquired the printing business, and he became its first Jewish owner. After the university was closed in 1811, the lack of demand for texts forced the printing house in Frankfurt to slowly close its doors. Exactly when the Hebrew printing press closed cannot be determined today.

the Editors