The Hebrew publishing house that Menasseh ben Israel began in Amsterdam was a small beginning to a great industry. At the close of the 17th century and throughout the 18th century, Amsterdam was the center of Hebrew printing for the entire world. In addition, most of the religious literature in Spanish and Portuguese intended for the guidance of the Sephardi communities was composed and printed in Amsterdam.

Fugitives from the Inquisition who had established the new Spanish-Portuguese community in Amsterdam at the turn of the 16th century were ignorant of Hebrew. They recited their prayers in Spanish, and by 1604 Spanish siddurim (prayerbooks) were being printed in Amsterdam. When Hebrew became more familiar, Venice supplied prayer books in Hebrew, with or without translation.

When Menasseh ben Israel founded Amsterdam's first Hebrew press in 1626, Amsterdam was a great center of general printing. In format, composition, and decoration he followed the Dutch style; his inclusion of the author's portrait in several of his works was clear influenced by Dutch publications. In the realm of Hebrew printing, Ben Israel's printing press was revolutionary. He discarded Italian type which had dominated until that time, and his own type cast and printing style were soon as popular as the Venetian ones had been, and were quickly imitated.

Menasseh's press changed owners several times, though he remained involved with it. Another press was set up by Daniel de Fonseca but only two works were issued: Meir Aldabi's Shevilei Emunah and Abraham de Fonseca's Einei Avraham (1627). Other Sephardi printers included Joseph Athias (1658-98) and his son (d. 1709), David de Castro Tartas, and the brothers Proops. Their publications, which incorporated the style of the famous Dutch printer Elsevier in their vignettes and diagrams, were sold locally and throughout the Spanish-speaking Jewish Diaspora, and even in Eastern Europe and Asia.

Athias first used Menasseh's title pages, but later had his own designed; he also added a neatly executed copperplate engraving to some of his productions, which found a number of imitators. Another member of the Athias family, Abraham b. Raphael Hezekiah, printed some handsomely produced books during 1728-40.

David de Castro Tartas learned the printing craft at Menasseh's press and incorporated his borders; his frontispieces show scenes from the life of David. Of particular interest are his small-format liturgical items of 1666, dated year one of the new Shabbatean era and with an engraving of Shabbetai Zevi as king-messiah.

In the 18th century the dominant figure in Amsterdam Hebrew printing was Samuel Proops (1702-34). His press produced mainly liturgical books (siddurim and mahzorim), as well as a wider range of works in halakhah, aggadah, kabbalah, ethics, and history. Proops was the first printer to publish a sales catalog of Hebrew books (Appiryon Shelomo, 1730); his press remained in the family until 1849 and was as important to Amsterdam as Bragadini was to Venice.

In addition to smaller early 18th-century entrepreneurs who produced mainly for their own community (among them, Moses b. Abraham Mendes Coutinho; Isaac de Cordova; Moses b. Isaac Dias; Isaac Templo; and Nethanel Foa), there were those who sought to meet the needs of the German community established in Amsterdam in the course of the 17th century. There was Manuel (Immanuel) Benveniste, whose productions lack the finish of those of Menasseh, though his title page were copied by German, Italian, and even Salonika printers. Another printer, Uri Phoebus b. Aaron ha-Levi (1658-89), worked even more for the German and for the newly established Polish communities. From Menasseh ben Israel he borrowed the title border and the vignettes; the engravings on the frontispieces in his Bibles and prayer books, showing Moses and Aaron on each side, were widely copied by German presses. In 1612 he founded a Hebrew press at Zolkiew, thus bringing the Amsterdam type to Poland.

Other important printers in the late 17th, early 18th century who produced impressive mishnayot, haggadot, and liturgical works included Albertus Magnus; G. Surenhuys; and the physician Naphtali Herz of Emden (1721-42, to 1768 with his son-in-law). Some Christians too engaged in the Hebrew printing in Amsterdam — employing Polish refugees — such as Kaspar Steen.



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