Photo Credit: Israel Mizrahi

 The rarest and most sought after printed books, by both private collectors and institutions, are Incunabula, defined as anything printed before the year 1500, the earliest and infant stage of Hebrew printing. All Hebrew incunabula are exceedingly rare, with several extant only in one known complete or incomplete copy. Many of the copies that did survive were found in libraries, where they were safe from the centuries of persecution that following the Jews in their exile. It is thus rare that any get offered up for sale in the public market. I was excited this week to be able to acquire a fine copy of one of the most important Hebrew incunabula and a landmark in Hebrew printing, the Chumash commentary of Ramban, Nahmanides, printed in Lisbon in 1489.

Jews have lived in the area now called Portugal long before the country came in to existence. Records of Jewish persecution during the Visigoth era in Iberia attest to significant Jewish communities already in the 5th century. The Jews survived the intense fighting that embroiled the region between the Islamic invaders and the Christian defenders, and flourished, despite the regular persecution thru 1497 when King Manuel I decreed that all Jews must be baptized or leave the country. Over the following centuries, nearly all records of Jewish existence in Iberia were erased. The few books that managed to be printed in Portugal before the expulsion are some of the only remnants of the great and proud community that was destroyed. This Ramban, printed in 1489, is not only the first Hebrew book printed in Lisbon, but the first book printed in the city, preceding the first Latin title published there by several years. The printer of this volume, physician Eliezer ben Jacob Toledano (originally from Toledo, Spain), was active in the city between 1489 and 1492, the year the Jews were expelled from neighboring Spain. Printers from Toledano’s printing house, after the expulsion, set up shop in Salonica, Greece and Fez, Morocco, founding the earliest printing presses in both cities.


Titles pages weren’t in use in printed book until decades later, but the opening page features a beautiful floral border. The frame was designed by a Christian printer and engraver, Alfonso Fernández de Córdoba, originally for a Hebrew Bible published in 1486 and 1487 by Eliezer ben Abraham ibn Alatansi and Solomon ben Maimon Zalmati in Híjar, Spain.


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Israel Mizrahi is the owner of Mizrahi Bookstore in Brooklyn, NY, and He can be reached at [email protected].