I recently obtained the two first editions of the Yiddish Bible, great historical titles published almost simultaneously in Amsterdam in 1678–1679. The prominent Amsterdam printer Uri Feivush ha-Levi (1625-1715) was the grandson of the first Amsterdam Spanish-Portuguese Jewish community rabbi and son of its synagogue’s first cantor. His printing activities were between the years 1658-1689, all in Amsterdam, first as a typesetter for Menasseh ben Israel and later as a printer under his own name. In 1669 he published the Tzena Urena, which became a fast classic.
While the Jewish community in Amsterdam was founded first by Jews escaping from Spain and Portugal, the city was relatively tolerant at the time, and became a refuge to many Jews from different lands. In a short time, there was a substantial Ashkenazi community as well. By the late 1600s, Amsterdam became the center of Hebrew printing, with several printing presses active concurrently and their books being marketed throughout the world, including to Eastern Europe, where printers were scarce but censors still flourished and obstructed printing operations. Amsterdam printing was known for its quality and accuracy, to the extent that other printing places would falsify their title pages with the word “Amsterdam” in prominent type size, thus fooling buyers into believing their books were printed there – while simultaneously preceding it with the phrase “In the style of” in smaller type, or printing the book’s actual place of publication in similarly smaller print.
The printer Uri Feivush ha-Levi, was first to embark on the production of a complete Yiddish Tanach. Uri Feivush commissioned Yekutiel ben Isaac Blitz to produce a translation. Blitz relied in large part on translations to European languages, including the Luther German translation and the official Dutch translation, Statenvertaling. As a way of compensating for his heavy reliance on non-Jewish material, Blitz, who had a penchant for polemics, also inserted attacks on Christianity in his translation.
One of Uri Feivush’s financial backers, Joseph Athias, unhappy with Blitz’s radical translation, withdrew his support for the project and commissioned Joseph ben Alexander Witzenhausen, to produce another translation. Witzenhausen was a more scrupulous translator than Blitz and his efforts produced a work closer in style to the traditional Yiddish translations.
Athias came to consider himself as the translations’ rightful owner despite Blitz doing the bulk of them. Athias had completed slightly less than half the work when he absconded with over 50,000 sheets of translation, including all of Blitz’s work up until Chapter 21 of Exodus. Athias then successfully applied to the Amsterdam authorities for permission to print his own Yiddish bible, using the printing sheets as proof of “his” upcoming book’s state of advanced production. They granted him a 15-year exclusive publication right, and Athias immediately hired Witzenhausen – the original proof-reader – to complete the translation. Uri Fayvesh finished printing Blitz’s translation in late 1678, not long before Witzenhausen’s version came off the press (1679).
The arguments between the two publishers and their respective translators can be found within the Bibles themselves. In his preface, Uri Feivush complains about his betrayal at the hands of Athias and Witzenhausen. In his own edition, Witzenhausen pokes fun of errors in the Blitz translation. In a mutual effort to preclude the other from proceeding, both Athias and Feivush obtained conflicting copyrights, one in the Netherlands and the other in Poland. In order to obtain his “privilegie” from the civil authorities in Holland, Athias presented copies of 18 leaves from Feivush’s edition with which, as an early financier, he had been entrusted, and presented them as his own. He actually used these 18 folios of Blitz’s translation and inserted them into the Witzenhausen text to avoid re-setting the type, resulting in a considerable reduction of his own expenses. In fact, one may compare these leaves (fols. 21-36) in both editions and it is clear that they are identical.
Estimated value of each: $1,000.