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Bass, Shabetai ben Yosef

(1641–1718), biblical exegete, bibliographer, printer, and cantor. Shabetai ben Yosef Bass was born in Kalisz, Poland. His parents were murdered in wartime violence in 1655; Bass and his older brother, Ya‘akov Strimmers (d. 1686), a renowned kabbalist, survived and fled to Prague. In Prague, Bass received a traditional education; studied secular subjects, including Latin; and, because of his pleasant voice, was taught liturgical singing. He subsequently accepted a position as a basso (bassista) singer in the Altneuschul in Prague, from which the surname Bass (Heb., Meshorer) is derived.

Bass’s love of books drew him to printing, and in 1669 he published Be’er Mosheh, a Yiddish commentary on the Pentateuch and Megilot, to which he supplied an appendix on the rules of grammar. From 1674 to 1679, he traveled throughout Europe, using the opportunity to examine private and communal collections of Hebrew books. His experiences are recorded in Masekhet derekh erets (1680), a three-chapter Yiddish guidebook for travelers that includes prayers, information on the state of the roads, and weights and measures.

Bass had settled in Amsterdam in 1679; he worked as a corrector (proofreader) and mastered the printing trade. He left Amsterdam to establish his own press and did so in Dyhernfurth, near Breslau in Silesia (now in Poland) in 1689. There he published almost 80 titles, and the press remained active, under the successive management of members of his family, until 1762. Bass’s experience in Dyhernfurth was not easy, for he had to deal with the hostility of his non-Jewish neighbors, the partial destruction of the press by fire in 1708, and accusations against him by Jesuits that resulted in his arrest for blasphemy in 1712 and the confiscation of his books. After being incarcerated for 10 weeks, Bass was found innocent and released. He also had to deal with considerable family opposition arising from his marriage as an older man to a much younger woman.

Bass’s most important achievements, and the works for which he is best remembered, are his supercommentary on Rashi, Sifte ḥakhamim (Lips of the Sages), and his bibliographical work, Sifte yeshenim (Lips of the Sleepers; from Song of Songs 7:10, sifte also being an allusion to Bass’s name, Shabetai), both from 1680. The former is not an original commentary but rather a simplified synopsis of Rashi and classical commentaries, intended for readers for whom those works were difficult in the original. It was first published together with a Pentateuch and subsequently as an independent work (1712), and today remains popular and is included in all editions of the Mikra’ot gedolot (Rabbinic Bible).

Sifte yeshenim was the first bibliography of Hebrew books by a Jewish author. In his introduction, Bass notes that Yesha‘yahu ben Avraham Horowitz remarked that for the untutored there was great merit in just reciting the names of books—for which Sifte yeshenim is a useful tool. For that reason the text is in square rather than Rashi letters, to make it more easily accessible to readers. Its more than 2,200 entries include each work’s title, author name(s), date and place of publication, a brief description of the contents, and, for manuscripts, location.

Suggested Reading

Abraham Meir Habermann, “Rabi Shabetai Meshorer Bas (ha-bibliyografi ha-‘ivri ha-rishon),” in Anshe sefer ve-anshe ma‘aseh, pp. 3–11 (Jerusalem, 1974); Yitsḥak Raphael, “Rabi Shabetai Bas: Ha-Bibliyografi ha-‘ivri ha-rishon,” in Rishonim ve-aḥaronim: Perakim be-toldot Yisra’el ve-sifruto, pp. 171–200 (Tel Aviv, 1957); Mendel Slatkine, Reshit bikure ha-bibliyografyah ba-sifrut ha-‘ivrit (Tel Aviv, 1957–1958).