Printing a sefer in centuries past took extraordinary effort and commitment; the stories behind the printing of many of these books tell tales of immense self-sacrifice. Two volumes I came across recently both contained in their introductions the background of their coming to print.
In 1751, in Constantinople (Istanbul of today), a commentary on tractate Kiddushin by an unknown author from the era of the Rishonim was printed. The volume was based on a manuscript that was brought from Egypt by R. Mordechai Yafeh Ashkenazi, and the funding for the printing was provided by R. Naftali ben Moshe Ashkenazi. This R. Naftali was a Polish Jew who made aliyah with his elderly father to Eretz Yisrael, where they settled in Safed. His family, though, was left behind in Poland awaiting an opportunity to join him. After his father passed away, R. Naftali made the harrowing trip back to Poland to reunite with his family and bring them back with him to Eretz Yisrael.
He writes of his travails in his introduction to this publication: “I shall speak of some of the great grace which G-d bestowed on me. I traveled to the holy city of Safed, in the upper Galilee with the great rabbi, my father, and left my children whom G-d bestowed upon me in Poland. Time had passed and my master my father had passed away. This required my leaving my home in the holy city to return to my homeland to bring my children from there; perhaps they would merit to study Torah in Eretz Yisrael. On my return through the sea, G-d created huge storms in the seas, and if not for the merit of my forebears and my being an agent for a matter of Mitzvah, I would have succumbed to the waters of the depths. G-d in his mercy saved me and I arrived on dry land, albeit without any of our belongings, just our bare bodies. We arrived at Constantinople and I said to myself, how may I thank G-d for all the grace he has bestowed upon me. I barely completed the thought and who stands before me other than R. Mordechai Shmuel Yafeh, and in his hand is this manuscript ready to be printed, but alas there was no money. I sold whatever little I had left to my name to support this endeavor…”
Another book published thanks to a miracle at sea is of a different nature and is intertwined with the tragic fate of many books from this era of printing. In the early 1600s, R. Chaim Hakohen, originally from Safed and later from Aleppo, was a noted Kabbalist and disciple of R. Haim Vital. In the years 1650 until his passing in 1655, he published six of his works in Amsterdam, Venice, and Livorno. In the whole of the Middle East, North Africa and the Near East, no Hebrew printing existed at this time, his only option for printing being in Europe. R. Chaim Hakohen sent one of his works to Europe to be printed, but years went by and all record of his manuscript was lost. The pirates from Malta were a major danger at sea at this time. The Maltese Knights lived as pirates operating slave galleys. Styling themselves ”Armies of the Religion on the Sea,” they preyed on Muslim trade and cut Muslim throats under banners of the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist, and the famous red cross of their Order. The situation was dire enough that in Venice, the Jewish community had a dedicated fund of “Pidyon Shevuyim” to redeem Jews who were captured by these pirates.
In his introduction to Torat Chacham, printed in Venice in 1654, the author writes “I said to myself I shall print my books to benefit myself and others. I sent first my commentary on Esther, being that it is brief…. From when I sent it, many years have passed and no progress was made. Sick from worry, I told myself I shall go myself to print the books I have written. I left Aleppo and traveled via sea. We were at sea and entered one port, where we were stuck for five days due to the lack of winds. On the sixth day, pirates from Malta quickly overcome our boat; when I saw that all hope was lost I jumped into the sea, and miraculously survived and made it to shore. After many hardships, I made it to a settled area, but alas my manuscripts were lost. I said to myself I will try to rewrite them from scratch, even though my mind is no longer with me and I cannot concentrate, maybe G-d will see my sorrow and assist me as he had in the past….”