The Sephardi Perspective: Reclaiming the Jewish word
Posted by Ashley Perry (Perez)
Next week is the anniversary of the creation of the first printed and dated Hebrew book ever published with movable type on the 10th of Adar, Feb. 17, 1475. The book is a copy of Rashi's commentary of the Five Books of Moses. It was printed by Abraham ben Yitzhak ben Garton in Adar 5235 in the city of Reggio di Calabria, Italy. The sole copy of this book that still exists is kept in the Palatine Library in Parma, Italy. The method of type was called incunabula, which is a block-book printed from a single carved or sculpted wooden block for each page, made with individual pieces of cast metal movable type on a printing press, in the technology made famous by Johannes Gutenberg.
Relatively little is known of Garton, although most historians claim that he was a Spanish Jew who had escaped to Italy because of the wave of anti-Jewish hatred asserting itself in the Iberian Peninsular. Reggio di Calabria had become a haven for those Jews who fled Spain firstly because of the anti-Jewish violence and then the Spanish Inquisition.
Interestingly Garton used what has now become known as 'Rashi Script' which differs from other written forms of Hebrew. The type-set became known as Rashi Script because of this event; Rashi himself never used such a script. The script was known to be used by early Sephardi Jews and also became the type-set for Ladino, the language of the Iberian exiles.
This book set the tone for a cultural, intellectual and Judaic revolution. While the bastion of Jewish civilization which had been Spain was being literally burnt at the stake, the printing press in Central Europe allowed the Ashkenazi world to rise in dominance. Many Iberian exiles took the printing press to the Ottoman Empire and other parts of the Mediterranean. However, this venture did not permeate the Arab world in significant numbers.
The Arab world did not adopt a significant printing press for many centuries after Johannes Gutenberg first created the printed word. One reason is that the cursive nature of the Arabic script and certain of its other peculiarities made its adaptation to printing difficult. Another reason was the Western trend toward printing and the development of ornamental and sometimes elaborate type faces. In Islam, the drawing or depicting of human or animal forms was forbidden and writers and artists were forced to resort either to what has since come to be known as "arabesque" (designs based on strictly geometrical forms or patterns of leaves and flowers) or, very often, to calligraphy. This made writing the religiously preferred mode of copying texts.
While Christian Europe was undergoing the Renaissance and the Reformation, the Arab world had already been in decline for a couple of centuries. The 15th century Reconquista of Spain by the Catholic monarchs was the final nail in the coffin. The disruption to the cycle of equity based on Ibn Khaldun's famous model of Asabiyyah (the rise and fall of civilizations) points to the decline being mainly due to political and economic factors.
Tolerance of differing ideas and concepts had greatly reduced from the great Arab polemical debates at the turn of the millennium. This is perhaps best demonstrated by al-Ghazali's polemic work The Incoherence of the Philosophers.
This decline also affected the Jews within Arab lands as they were faced with more intolerant neighbors. While colonialism brought with it a rebirth in the standards of education for many Jews in the Arab World, centuries of lagging standards meant many were behind their European brethren. The Alliance Israélite Universelle, an organization created to combine the ideals of self-defense and self-sufficiency through education and professional development among Jews, disconnected many Jews from their traditions which in turn made sure they played little part in a Jewish intellectual renaissance.
Jewish printing presses from the Arab World during these centuries of decline were almost non-existent. This had a dramatic effect on the modern Jewish state. While religious life was largely unaffected due to the fact that large portions of the Sephardi service are sung or intoned in unison and thus had less use of printed prayer books, very few Jews of the Arab World had access to large compendiums of Jewish works.
While there was a time where almost all of the great Jewish treatises were Sephardi, recent times have proven the opposite is true. Today we see that most of the recent well-known works of Judaica are of Ashkenazi origin.
It is time for the great Sephardi mind to recapture their place in the Jewish world and not just in Halacha, where they have made inroads out of necessity. The great works of the Rambam, Ramban, Aboulafia, HaLevi and many others demonstrate that Sephardim have a rich history to rest on. The anniversary of the first Jewish printed book should be a good time of reflection for the Sephardim to share in the dissemination of the Jewish word.