As the year 2020 comes to a close, we turn our thoughts to the bright moments of the year. Despite the pandemic, or perhaps because of it, we were able to launch a series of public programs that reached audiences well beyond Fordham and the New York metropolitan area, to other parts of the US, as far as California and Oregon, to Canada, Brazil, Argentina, Denmark, France, Spain, the UK, Germany, Poland, Italy, Israel, and more. Soon after the pandemic sent us all home we launched a “Zoominar” series on pandemics in Jewish history and society. Then, as we remained home, we continued public programs over the summer, including film virtual screenings, and then through the fall. We look forward to seeing each other in person in 2021 but in the meantime feel free to enjoy the past lectures and conversations that are now available on our YouTube channel.
Thursday, February 13th, 2020
Dear Editor: Advice Columns and the Making of the American Yiddish Press by Ayelet Brinn (live event). Watch.
Wednesday, April 22, 2020
Epidemics, Disease and Plagues in Jewish History & Memory, a conversation between Joshua Teplitsky and Magda Teter. Watch
Wednesday, May 6th, 2020
The Historians and the Memory of Plagues in Jewish History, part II of the conversation between Joshua Teplitsky and Magda Teter. Watch.
Wednesday, May 13, 2020
Orthodox Jews vs. the State: Responses to COVID-19 in the US, UK, & Israel, a tricontinental panel discussion. Watch.
Sunday, May 31st, 2020
Hidden Heretics: Jewish Doubt in the Digital Age, a conversation with Ayala Fader and Robert Orsi. Watch.
Wednesday, June 10th, 2020
Epidemic and the Marginalized of Society: A View from the Jewish Past, a talk by Natan Meir. Watch.
Thursday, June 16th, 2020
From HIV/AIDS Epidemic to Pride Shabbat: Liturgical and Cultural Transformations in Progressive Judaism, a conversation with Elazar Ben Lulu and Deborah Medgal. Watch.
Thursday, August 6th, 2020
“400 Miles to Freedom: A Perilous Journey from Ethiopia to Israel”: a conversation about the film with director Avishai Yeganyahu Mekonen, Steven B. Kaplan, and Kay Shelemay. Watch.
Tuesday, August 18th, 4PM:
Blue Like Me: The Art of Siona Benjamin, a conversation between the artist Siona Benjamin and art historian Ori Soltes. Watch.
Wednesday, September 9th, 4PM:
A Lens onto the Jewish Past: How do Prints of Eastern European Jewish Life Speak to Us Today? A lecture by Susan Chevlowe, the Director and Chief Curator of Derfner Judaica and The Art Collection. Watch.
Thursday, Sept 24, 4PM:
Feminine Power in the History of American Jewish Museums, a lecture by Ariel Cohen, University of Virginia. Watch
Thursday October 22, 1PM :
Fordham and Les Enluminures present “Go forth and learn”: The Artist Joel ben Simeon and a Newly Discovered Hebrew Manuscript. Watch
October 14-November 12:Visiting Distinguished Scholars Lecture Series:
A SHORT HISTORY OF JEWISH GENDER
Wednesday, October 14th, 12 noon:
Lecture 1: The Genesis of Jewish Gender: From the Bible to the Baal Shem Tov
with a response by Sarit Kattan Gribetz, Fordham University. Watch
Wednesday, October 28th, 12noon:
Lecture 2: Jewish Gender Expressed: The Synagogue and Other Institutions
with a response by Debra Kaplan, Bar Ilan University . Watch
Wednesday, November 4th, 12 noon:
Lecture 3: Jewish Gender under Review: Early Modern Ambivalence
with a response by Elisheva Carlebach, Columbia University. Watch
Wednesday, November 11th, 12 noon:
Lecture 4: Well-Behaved Women Undermining Jewish Gender, Part I: Leah Horowitz as the Jewish Mary Wollstonecraft?
with a response by Elisheva Baumgarten, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Watch
Wednesday, November 18th,12 noon:
Lecture 5: Well-Behaved Women Undermining Jewish Gender, Part II: Glickl Hamel as a Model Jewish Grandmother?
with a response by Ruth von Bernuth, University of North Carolina. Watch
Thursday, November 19, 7PM
A panel discussion of the new film by Anat Tel, “The Church” with George Demacopoulos, Sarah Eltantawi, Sarit Kattan Gribetz, and Michael Peppard, four Fordham professors from the Theology Department whose areas of expertise cover Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Watch.
Sunday, November 22, 1PM:
Nina Rowe, “The Illuminated World Chronicle: Tales from the Late Medieval City” in conversation with Ephraim Shoham-Steiner. Watch.
Tuesday, December 1st, 2020
Sarit Kattan Gribetz, “Time and Difference in Rabbinic Judaism” in conversation with Elizabeth Shanks Alexander. Watch.
Thursday, December 3rd, 2020
“Singed by History: Lucy S. Dawidowicz, Polish-Jewish Relations, and Holocaust Historiography,” a talk by Nancy Sinkoff. Watch.
Wednesday, December 9th, 4:30PM:
Alon Tam, “Nostalgia: Remembering The Jewish Community In Egypt”
All events are possible through the generosity of The Joseph Alexander Foundation, The Knapp Family Foundation, The Picket Family Foundation, the Shvidler Gift Fund to Fordham University, and individual donations from friends of the Center for Jewish Studies at Fordham.
Measuring only 4.5 by 5.5 inches, the French and Hebrew prayer book Sidur Minhat ‘Erev[i], is not eye-catching in the slightest. It has a plain, peach-colored cover, void of any markings beside those accidentally added over time. The binding is falling apart but the pages are in good condition, suggesting that while this book was certainly used, it may not have been the well-loved, well-worn prayer book carried everywhere with a person. It appears to be cheaply made and boasts no grandeur in the slightest. However, this book can shed an interesting light on the life of Jews, specifically French-speaking Jews living in Cairo at the time of World War II.
This prayer book was published in 1943 in Cairo, Egypt by the publisher Editions Dath. It is a Jewish prayer book meant specifically for everyday use and the Sabbath as is described in the subtitle “Pour la semaine et le samedi”. It contains prayers written in Hebrew characters juxtaposed against French translations of the same prayers. There is no available information as to who precisely translated this prayer book, other than the ambiguous note “French translation by a group of rabbis”. In fact, the only name actually mentioned is that of Rabbi Dr. Moses Ventura, the chief rabbi of Alexandria (1937 – 1948), who wrote the French foreword to the text. Upon further research, there appears to be only one other reference to Rabbi Ventura on databases available at Fordham. In the footnotes of Dr. Nadia Malinovich’s PhD dissertation “Le Reveil D’israel: Jewish Identity and Culture in France, 1900 – 1932,”[ii] there is a reference to another book in which a man named Moishe Ventura wrote a foreword.[iii] Rabbi Ventura’s involvement in the two books book illustrates the vibrancy of the Egyptian Jewish community in the early-mid 20th century. Although the Sidur Minhat ‘Erev had limited circulation throughout Cairo, it still contained a foreword from the chief rabbi of Alexandria, a rabbi who had two works published in French, evidencing the widespread influence of French schooling in Egypt.
Another mystery lies in the publisher of this prayer book, Editions Dath. Editions Dath appears not to have published any other books, at least none on record. In fact, even the book at hand, Sidur Minhat ‘Erev, has only two recorded copies in the world. One at Fordham University and the other in The National Library of Israel[iv]. However, the lack of information concerning the publisher can actually reveal quite a bit about the circumstances of this book’s publication. It is more than likely that only one edition of these siddurim was ever circulated, due to the lack of surviving copies. Furthermore, it is clear that the printing was done cheaply, as many pages are printed quite crookedly.
The book was printed specifically for the French-speaking Jews in Cairo, not for a large-scale audience, and Editions Dath was likely a publishing company set up by those in this community, influenced by schools founded by the French. The question remains, who precisely made up the French speaking Jewish community in Cairo? While one could a group of French immigrants, more likely it was educated Egyptian Jews. In the 20th century, many Cairo Jews went to French schools established by Alliance Israelite Universelle. According to Joel Beinin, “… the use of French in the community schools [was] a result of the proselytization of the Alliance Israelite Universelle”[v]. Alliance Israelite Universelle, a French Jewish organization focused on educating Jews in the Balkans and the Middle East on Jewish and French culture,[vi] came to Cairo around 1903. By the time this siddur was written, French was the language being taught in schools to most Sephardic Jews. Consequently, this prayer book could be used not only by the French Jews in Cairo, but by all French speaking Sephardic Jews.
This book is not ornate; it has no pictures and is in mediocre condition. There are water stains throughout and, as earlier mentioned, is falling apart at the binding. This is not the book of a religious official, nor a remarkably wealthy man. This is the book of an average man, leading one to conclude that even the average man at the time spoke Hebrew. (It is clearly a man’s book because women at the time could not practice religion in the same way. This is evidenced by the distinct lack of mention of female prophets in prayers such as the Amidah, as is common in traditional Sephardic practice.)
The book in Fordham’s Special Collections likely belonged to an average, yet educated Cairo Sephardic man. The font is large enough that it can be assumed the book was meant for personal use. However, there is a distinct lack of transliteration meaning that either a) the intended user spoke Hebrew or b) simply would follow along with the French translation as the rabbi conducted a service.
On the inside the front cover of this copy of Sidur Minhat ‘Erev at some point the owner wrote a note in Hebrew script about the owner’s migration to Israel with the book. The book was owned by an Egyptian family Mansour (Mantsur), and was still used after they migrated to Israel. Hebrew notes on the inside cover demonstrate that the owner of this book spoke Hebrew, at least after he and the family moved to Israel.
Published in 1943, the book appeared at the height of World War II, soon after the Allied defeat of the Nazis in Egypt. In the 1940s, Egyptian Jews appear to have published other texts: at least two Haggadot,[vii], another siddur,[viii] and a fiction book.[ix] To contrast, WorldCat only revealed one French Jewish text originating in Cairo outside of that era – a siddur written in 1917.[x]Jews in Cairo were thriving in the early 1940s, and yet they were so close to a mass exodus out of Egypt.[xi] It is remarkable that just years before many of the Jews left for Israel, they were a thriving, intellectually stimulating community living with enough stability to produce a number of books.
An interesting picture is painted of 1940s Jewish Cairo. It seems to be a productive, educated community, and yet it is only a few years away from a major disruption. The fact that many would have spoken not only Arabic but, also French and Hebrew points to a level of literacy higher than average. The number of surviving volumes from this era also shows the emphasis placed on furthering Jewish education. This small, 213-paged, peach-colored book originated, Sidur Minhat ‘Erev, which, stand-alone, is certainly quite obscure, actually has much to tell about World War II era Cairo, and offers a glimpse into the lift of Jews there.
This essay was written in fall of 2018, during Sophie Hamlin’s first semester at Fordham, within a course on modern Jewish history (HIST 1851) taught by Professor Magda Teter. Their essays, some of which will be featured here, were published in a volume “You Can Judge Books by Their Covers Jewish History through Used Books.” Fordham’s Judaica collection prides itself in collecting books that were used and popular, often quite quotidian and ordinary, for they reflect a broader Jewish culture that might not be visible through expensive extraordinary items.
We are on the precipice of the largest intergenerational wealth transfer in human history. Over the course of the next 10 years alone, at least $4.1 trillion is expected to change hands from American baby boomers to their millennial and Gen Z children. The United States is currently the country with the most ultra-high net worth individuals, and individuals account for four out of every five philanthropic dollars in the United States (foundations and corporations account for the other 20%). Additionally, of all ethnic groups in North America, Jews give the most to charity per capita as of 2016 reports by Giving USA. As a result, many of those who will be giving wealth to and receiving wealth from their loved ones over the course of the coming decades are, or might become, Jewish philanthropists – that is, self-identifying Jews who are donors, and/or people who give to Jewish organizations and causes.
History is informing these donors’ giving practices even if individuals aren’t always aware of it. Some scholars are exploring the ways in which philanthropy has defined the twentieth-century evolution of the American Jewish community, including Lila Corwin Berman in her new book, The American Jewish Philanthropic Complex. These important studies show us the processes from history that created the present giving landscape. But the “ethical will” concept and the legacy of cultural philanthropy are both largely ignored in American Jewish studies, and both are vital keys to understanding the history of American Jewish philanthropy as a whole. This article offers two American Jewish museums as case studies for the ways in which the built environment can serve as an embodied version of the ethical will. Perhaps with a greater understanding of the history of American Jewish philanthropy, complete with intergenerational transfers of ethical values and the history of American Jewish museums, the next generation of donors will be empowered to lean on the tools and traditions of Jewish history in their own giving. Further, because Jewish cultural philanthropy was first envisioned by women, this history urges a move toward gender equity in the narrative of Jewish philanthropy. Let us examine what these intertwined histories of Jewish ethical wills and American Jewish museums have to offer us.
The first Jewish museums in our country with their own independent addresses were created by women in New York and in Boston. Through their visionary writings and donations, these two philanthropists, one a wealthy German Jewish heiress and the other an educated middle-class rebbetzin, promoted a vision that left an indelible mark on American Jewish identity and that shaped the earliest Jewish museums in North America. By creating the Jewish Museum on Fifth Avenue (famously still extant today) and the historical Jewish Museum of Boston, Frieda Schiff Warburg and Mignon Levine Rubenovitz wrote their own ethical wills, reclaiming and reinventing a masculinized practice from medieval Judaism.
The ethical will hails from the men of medieval Jewish communities primarily residing in France and Germany. Leaning on biblical precedent, the first medieval writers of ethical wills used Genesis 48 as a template for their own writings and cited it as a binding decree for fathers to write “moral exhortations” for their children. In Genesis, Jacob gathers his sons and grandchildren before his death and says:
May the G-d before whom my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked faithfully, the G-d who has been my shepherd all my life to this day, the Angel who has delivered me from all harm – may he bless these boys. May they be called by my name and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, and may they increase greatly on the earth. (Genesis 48:16).
In medieval Europe, ethical wills were written exclusively by Jewish fathers to their children. Designed for private, familial use and written in informal language, they revealed the emotional composition – fears, hopes, dreams, frailties – of the author. As Stefanie Siegmund has shown, some ethical wills hailing from the Spanish inquisition commanded readers to do business honestly, wear special clothes on the Sabbath and other occasions, honor one’s body, and practice sexual modesty. As Jacob Marcus has uncovered, some from fourteenth century Germany discuss charity, refraining from speaking out of turn, reciting blessings, and living in primarily Jewish neighborhoods. As Israel Abrams has demonstrated, some ethical wills even enter into Jewish philosophical debates and command children to adhere to one leader or another (for example, Maimonides).
The ethical will was scantly present in the later early modern Jewish communities but has not disappeared from the Western world. During industrialization in the 1880s, wealthy Americans, Christian and Jewish, revived the concept, writing ethical wills as detailed estate plans to be used by their families after their deaths. In the early 20thcentury, chaplains and caretakers for patients in hospice began to help men and women compose ethical wills orally or in writing as a comfort to the dying and an offering to the living. American celebrity physician Dr. Andrew Weil now defines ethical wills as documents of intergenerational spiritual healing, bridging gaps between parents and their sons and daughters.
In 1926, the first-ever compilation of Hebrew ethical wills was published in the United States by the Jewish Publication Society. During this interwar period, as many American Jews became middle-class, they confronted massive societal changes and decentralized communities. The immigration acts of 1921 and 1924 dramatically decreased the number of Jewish immigrants, and successful American Jews began searching for the instruments of community that would not only keep Jewish global heritage alive but could creatively remake it with each generation. Frieda Schiff Warburg, named JTS’s first female board member in 1937, began to consider creative ways to commemorate and breathe life into the global Jewish experience of millennia past, and to pass Jewish history and ethics on from her own generation to the next.
In January 1944, Frieda Schiff Warburg wrote a seminal letter to the chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary announcing her donation of the Warburg family’s three-story Gothic mansion on the corner of 92nd street and Fifth Avenue. She envisioned her home as a museum:
With the consent of my children, I am now ready and glad to offer my former home… to the Jewish Seminary of America to be used as a Museum… I would like my gift to be [remembered as]… my affirmation of my faith in the fundamental principles of our Jewish Traditions, which can be helpful and constructive in the problems of the World Today… It gives me great happiness to think that the house… should now continue to live on to further the ideals of our family traditions.
Schiff Warburg’s correspondences and 1956 memoir reveal that she imagined the Jewish Museum as an ethical will to her own children and grandchildren as well as to the American people. When Moses gave the Torah to the Israelites in Deuteronomy, which is often cited as a second template for the ethical will, he predicted their successes if they adhered to G-d’s ethical code. Similarly, in her writings Frieda Schiff Warburg predicted the open-mindedness and successes of the Jews and Americans who would walk through the halls of her former home. Invoking her children and future grandchildren in her letters and speeches leading up to the opening event, Schiff Warburg clarified her mission: to steer future Americans in the directions of cultural pluralism, interfaith dialogue, and artistic richness.
In Boston, there was another American Jewish woman moved to display Jewish objects as pleas to present and future Jews to pass along values from one generation to another. Motivated more by fear, loss and devastation than her distal friend Schiff Warburg, Rebbetzin Mignon Levine Rubenovitz of Boston’s prominent Conservative outpost Temple Mishkan Tefila called upon American Jews to “rescue Jewish history from the broken hands of those who live under the malignant skies of Europe.” Levine Rubenovitz began to collect objects and to write about a future Jewish Museum in Boston when the Nazis rose to power in 1933. In 1940, she founded her museum as a model of the “great responsibility” of American Jews: to liberate Jewish objects from Europe and guard them in the United States on behalf of world Jewry. In other words, her museum was her own version of an ethical will, too, pleading for American Jews to keep Jewish ritual objects safe for future generations. In her founding museum document, she wrote:
Perhaps I have told you enough to convey our underlying purposes – the quiet, painstaking salvaging of the symbols of Jewish values, of Jewish idealism and dignity, at a time when millions of our innocent and unoffending coreligionists were ground into the dust. Here a precious few of Jewish treasures are treasured: Jewish aspirations made concrete. While the guns roared in Europe where our people, martyred, fed the flames, we unceasingly pursued our peaceful task of succoring, albeit in small measure, the things they wrought to express their belief in the sacredness of human personality and its corollary, the faith that freedom would not, must not, perish from the earth.
Now, in 2020, as Jewish elders prepare to leave our earth, many are concerned with imparting their legacies and inherited Jewish values to the next generation. Several years ago, a group of Jews got together to form the Jewish Future Pledge which calls upon all Jewish donors to give 50% of their philanthropy to Jewish causes. American Jews are increasingly turning to outside organizations for help in facilitating conversations with their children, who they hope will be next-generation givers to Jewish causes. Many fear a looming loss of Jewish history, culture, and practice in next-generation America. Some want to invest in the Jewish non-profits that will serve and maintain community for generations to come.
Some Jews are now also reviving an ancient and medieval Jewish concept to pass along their ethics to their children. The ethical will, filled with spiritual, religious, and ethical significance to the Jewish people specifically, is serving a renewed purpose in families and private spheres as we prepare for the world’s largest-ever transition of intergenerational wealth. One might wonder whether the next Frieda Schiff Warburg or Mignon Rubenovitz is on the horizon to explore the ethical will through an altogether new modality. As more ethical wills are being written in the traditional style – with words on paper – I am curious to see whether more will be written in nontraditional styles that set precedent for future Jewish ventures. I predict that women, again, will imagine them.
Ariel Paige Cohen was a Fordham-NYPL Research Fellow in the Fall of 2020. She spoke about “Feminine Power in the History of American Jewish Museums” in September, 2020.
The physical qualities of books, regardless of the content of the text itself, such as condition, format, design, fonts, and many more are valuable pointers to show how and by whom a book would have been used during its lifetime. Bibliographical records on the author and publisher can also help the reader understand the style in which the book was written and published. There is no better instance where this is the case than in Sefer Mitsvot ha-gadol by Moses ben Jacob of Coucy and published by the world-renowned Venetian publisher Daniel Bomberg in 1546/7.
Sefer Mitsvot ha-gadol is arguably Moses ben Jacob of Coucy’s most celebrated work. Fordham owns two copies of the 1546/7 edition. The Mitsvot ha-gadol, as it is commonly known, or “Se-Ma-G,” for short, includes the principles of the Rabbinic Oral Law and is divided into two sections: positive and negative precepts. Due to its popularity and importance to rabbinic learning, the Mitsvot ha-gadol had been widely distributed in the Middle Ages and published in print several times as well.
Its first publication took place in Rome sometime between 1469 and 1480, by Obadiah, Menasheh and Benjamin of Rome. Subsequently, it was published in 1488 by Gershom Soncino in Soncino, the Duchy of Milan. According to Israel Moses Ta-Shema, the final publication of this book during the pre-modern era took place in 1546 by Daniel Bomberg. This edition was the last until the nineteenth century. Bomberg’s print shop in Venice, Italy, became famous for its Hebrew publications, including the first full edition of the Talmud, with what would be come a standard foliation of the work. There have also been a number of great scholars who have written commentaries on this work including, Isaac Stein, Joseph Colon, Elijah Mizrachi, Solomon Luria, and Hayyim Benveniste. However, as demonstrated by the lack of publications after 1546/7, the Mitsvot ha-gadol fell out of use, likely because it was replaced by the Shulhan Arukh around the time it was published in 1565.
Fordham’s unexpurgated copy of Sefer Mitsvot ha-gadol is bound in a green cardboard cover with brown leather spine. The book measures thirty-two-point-five centimeters by twenty-three centimeters (Figure 1).
The large size of this book suggests that it was used as a reference book. The worn condition of the cover shows that it was frequently used.
Although the outside of the book gives the reader a general understanding of its use, the pages tell a whole story in themselves. The title page of the Mitsvot ha-gadol has a large image of an archway with words embedded under the arch, known as a head-piece (Figure 2).
These words are divided into three sections. The topmost set of words is arranged in two lines of dark black letters which are written in the largest font size out of the four sections. This is the title of the respective section of the book which follows this page. The second section of words is split into two identically-shaped paragraphs, preceded by a line of words with a larger text size than the two paragraphs, but smaller than the first section of words. These paragraphs taper down from a full line to one word at the bottom, resembling two upside-down triangles on top of each other. Moreover, the size of the text of this section is quite smaller than that of the first section and is printed in a different typeset. This text briefly explains the purpose and usefulness the positives precepts which are held in the first part of the book. The third and final section of text presents itself in three lines which are separated by a space. The first line is very similar to the second, except that the first line is written in more of a rounded Hebrew font, while the font of the second line seems to be much more boxlike or square. However, the third line is much different than both. This line is very short and has a larger, broader font than lines one and two. These three lines are likely the closing remarks of the paragraphs in the second section of words.
While there is much to say about the text of the title page, the relatively poor physical condition of the page is immediately apparent as well (Fig. 2). There is tape all around the edges of the page indicating that there was damage which needed to be repaired. The binding is visibly very worn, weak and appears to have water damage. Finally, there is also writing which was done by hand in between the lines and letters of the above-mentioned three sections of words. Ironically enough, on the inside cover of the book and adjacent to the title page, someone had written, “Writing in this book is prohibited,” about fifteen times in Hebrew (Fig. 3).
The age of this book is apparent on the page following the title page as well (Figure 4). All over the page are spots and browning that come with the book aging process. This process is known as “foxing.” Besides the foxing on this page, there are also holes in the paper which are seen on the majority of the pages, known as “wormholes.”
As consistent with the title page, there is also water damage and tape on the edges of the paper. Besides the physical qualities of this page, there is also evidence of Daniel Bomberg’s employment of foliation in the top left corner above the text, which made it easier to navigate a large resource such as the Mitsvot ha-gadol. Furthermore, this page has three large Hebrew letters at the top of the page boxed in by an ornate design, which is displayed in a similar fashion to a head-piece or vignette. One may also note that at the top of the page and besides the ornate box there are large words which most likely identify the section of the book that the reader is currently in. Finally, where the text begins in the first paragraph, the first Hebrew word is capitalized. This typographical method is used to add emphasis and is known as an initial or drop cap. While the first page holds many particular observations, the rest of the book is more or less quite uniformly designed.
The standard page in the Mitsvot ha-gadol includes two columns of text (Figure 5). Beside the columns and in indented sections of the paragraphs are notes in a smaller font size than the text. These serve as references to the sources in which Moses ben Jacob used. Many of these, but not all, are direct references to the Sephardic Jewish philosopher Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, which is said to be directly cited on at least every page. These pages are numbered in the top outer corners and have large words at the top of the page which identify the section of the book as either the positive or negative precepts. Additionally, at the end of the first section, there are large darkened words which specify that the section is over, and a new section begins with the same archway that is observed on the title page of the book (Figure 6).
The Sefer Mitsvot ha-gadol was written by Moses ben Jacob of Coucy, who was born in France and, in 1236, became an itinerant preacher in Spain. During the rise of rationalization in Spain, the adherence to the precepts of the Jewish faith became fairly permissive. Consequently, Moses ben Jacob began his work on the Mitsvot ha-gadol to address the precepts and commandments. He arranged, as is traditional, the precepts into positive and negative sections of the book and organized them in such a way that the reader could distinguish which applied to their time and which did not. Although educating its reader on the precepts may have been a primary motivating factor behind the writing of the Mitsvot ha-gadol, Moses ben Jacob also states in the introduction of the positive precepts that, “A man may learn his entire life and still fail to attain knowledge of a particular commandment, and this is due to the length of the Talmud, the dialectic reasoning, and to the fact that one commandment may appear in several places.” So, this book was also meant to be used alongside the Talmud as a reference due to its complexity, and, therefore, the target audience would have been narrowed to scholars who were already immersed in Talmudic studies. Following the great success of the Sefer Mitsvot ha-gadol, Moses ben Jacob also went on to author another work. He wrote a commentary on the tractate Yoma which was titled “Tosefot Yeshanim.” This commentary, however, was not published until 1735 in Berlin.
Daniel Bomberg, the printer of Fordham’s Sefer Mitsvot ha-gadol, was one of the most prolific publishers of Jewish texts during the 16th century. Bomberg, a native of Antwerp, moved to Venice in 1516, which was the center of Jewish and Christian writing in the 15th century. Here, he opened a print shop and began specializing in printing Hebrew bibles, famously printing the Rabbinic Bible, which became known as the Bomberg Bible in 1517. The Bomberg Bible solidified Daniel Bomberg’s reputation amongst 16th-century printers because, through its many successive printings, it became the golden standard for Hebrew scriptures in the Jewish tradition. In dominating the competitive printing scene, Bomberg also took business from other printers, such as Gershom Soncino, the preeminent printer of medieval Hebrew works and one of the earlier publishers of the Sefer Mitsvot ha-gadol (in 1488). Years later, Soncino wrote, “The Venetian printers copied my books and published, in addition, whatever they could lay their hands on. They tried hard to ruin me…” Clearly referring to Bomberg as a “Venetian printer,” Soncino admits that Bomberg was outpacing him and, subsequently, ruining his career. The very notion that Bomberg could take a work, such as the Mitsvot ha-gadol, from the distinguished Gershom Soncino and print a superior version in his own style is a testament to his success.
Daniel Bomberg also published dozens of other influential pieces of Hebrew literature. This included works like Sefer ha-shorashim by David Kimhi and Elijah Levita, which goes into detail about the Hebrew language itself, and Hamishah humshe Torah ; Neviim Rishonim; Arba `a Neviim Aharonim ; Ketuvim,” a collection of commentaries on the Old Testament of the Bible compiled from four volumes into one book in 1521. Bomberg also famously printed the first full foliated edition of the Talmud in 1520. A specialty of his, the addition of page numbers made reading texts like the Talmud much more accessible because it allowed people to easily locate sections of the book without having to refer to the chapter and verse. This foliation became standardized in the printing of the Talmud.
The Sefer Mitsvot ha-gadol has engraved its name as one of the most distinguished pieces of Hebrew works in medieval Europe. It presented the negative and positive precepts in a clear and usable way. When the printing press was invented, it was one of the first Hebrew works to be printed, and the book had such success that several distinguished scholars wrote commentaries on the work. Fordham’s copy of the Mitsvot ha-gadol was printed in 1546/7, by the notable printer, Daniel Bomberg, in Venice. This was the last publication of this important halakhic compendium in the pre-modern period and was not republished again until the 19th century. The fact that it survived throughout the centuries and was still studied by scholars in Europe even after it ceased to be published points towards its importance. Furthermore, as evidenced by the physical examination of this book, it was undeniably frequently used, its owners trying to repair and preserve the work. Although it was not published again until the 1800s, it is beyond doubt that the Sefer Mitsvot ha-gadol has left a lasting impact on the history of Jewish law and culture.
This essay was written in fall of 2018, during Andrew Pace’s first semester at Fordham, within a course on modern Jewish history (HIST 1851) taught by Professor Magda Teter. Their essays, some of which will be featured here, were published in a volume “You Can Judge Books by Their Covers Jewish History through Used Books.” Fordham’s Judaica collection prides itself in collecting books that were used and popular, often quite quotidian and ordinary, for they reflect a broader Jewish culture that might not be visible through expensive extraordinary items.
 Israel Moses Ta-Shema, “Moses Ben Jacob of Coucy,” Encyclopaedia Judaica 14 (2018).