This week I acquired a complete Shas printed in Zhitomir by the brothers Hanania Lipa and Yehoshua Heschel Shapiro in the years 1858-1864.
The Shapiro printing press was founded in Slavita (today in western Ukraine) by R. Moshe Shapiro, the son of R. Pinchas of Koretz, a talmid of the Baal Shem Tov. The Shapiro printing press is most remembered for its Talmud, about which R. Raphael Nathan Rabinowitz writes in Dikduke Sofrim: “there is none comparable to its beauty.”
Since publishing this Talmud was very expensive, the printers sought to obtain a copyright in 1807 for the first edition, and many rabbis, including the Baal HaTanya, signed on to a decree prohibited anyone else from printing the Talmud for 25 years.
Nearly 30 years later, the Romm Printing House in Vilna started preparing to print its own Talmud. While more than 25 years had passed since the original Shapiro edition, only 21 years had passed since the final edition of the Slavita edition, and much of the stock remained unsold. The Shapiros protested the Vilna printers’ plans, claiming breach of copyright.
The dispute evolved into a fierce fight between chassidim defending the Shapiros and mitnagdim defending the Romm printers. Some of the defenders of the Vilna edition included R. Akiva Eiger and the Chasam Sofer, while R. Yaakov Orenstein defended the Shapiros. Eventually, a compromise was reached: The Romm Printing House could print a new edition of the Talmud on condition that it purchase the remaining stock of the Slavita edition from the Shapiro brothers.
In 1836, a recently fired employee at the Shapiro Press was found dead after an apparent suicide. The deceased’s family accused the printers of murdering the employee to prevent him from reporting to the authorities books printed without the censor’s approval. Local priests and apostates agitated against the Shapiro brothers as well, all of which resulted in their imprisonment and the closure of many of the Hebrew printing houses in Eastern Europe.
In 1856, upon their release from prison, the Shapiros moved their printing operation to Zhitomir, where their publishing house once again flourished. Their publications are sought after by many today, particularly in the chassidic world, due to the saintliness of the Shapiro brothers and their holy lineage. (According to tradition, the Shapiros actually dipped their printing press in the mikveh before printing their Talmud.)