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Kohen Family

Printers and publishers active in Prague. In the early sixteenth century, Prague became the leading center of Hebrew printing in Central and Eastern Europe, the first prayer book being produced there in 1512. From 1514 onward, the leading figure in the local group of printers was Gershom (also Gerson or Hermann) ben Shelomoh ha-Kohen (d. 1544). Between 1514 and 1522, this group issued four prayer books and an elaborate Pentateuch with a commentary by Rashi (1518; reprinted in 1530). Kohen is listed first in all the colophons, and his symbol—a pair of hands raised in blessing—appears on the opening page of the Pentateuch (1518) and the Maḥzor (1522). After 1522, the group disbanded. In 1526 Kohen, together with his brother Gronem, printed the earliest Passover Haggadah, containing more than 60 lavish woodcut illustrations (mostly by Ḥayim Shaḥor) in the style of Holbein and Dürer. This work became the preeminent model for subsequent Haggadahs and is widely regarded as a masterpiece.

In 1526, Kohen applied to King Ferdinand I for a license (privilegium) to give him the exclusive right to print Hebrew books in Prague. In 1527, this request was granted and his rivals had to close their businesses. Kohen hired typographer Me’ir Miḥtam to instruct his sons Shelomoh (d. 1547) and Mordekhai (d. 1592) in the craft. Together with his sons, Kohen published a series of prayer books and Pentateuchs, as well as exegetical and Talmudic works. In time his other sons Mosheh (d. 1549) and Yehudah (d. 1593) also joined the enterprise. Books were distributed by the Helicz brothers of Kraków, Poland, and at the Frankfurt trade fair.

At the end of 1544, Gershom Kohen died and his son Mosheh applied to Ferdinand I for the same privilegium that his father had received. This was granted in 1545, but Mosheh died shortly afterward and for many years hardly any volumes were produced by the Kohen family press. Mordekhai Kohen left printing and became involved in communal affairs as a lobbyist-representative (shtadlan). In 1566, he resumed the craft with his five sons, only to leave it again in the 1570s. From 1592 onward, the firm was managed by Shelomoh Kohen and his son Betsal’el, and subsequently by his brother Mosheh (d. 1659), who continued the business until the mid-seventeenth century.

Apart from standard liturgical production, the press also issued such works as Ya‘akov ben Asher’s Arba‘ah turim (1540), Mosheh IsserlesTorat ha-‘olah (1569), and writings by Yehudah Leib (Löw) ben Betsal’el and David Gans. Mosheh’s grandsons Yisra’el and Mosheh continued the business under the name “the Grandsons of Mosheh Katz.” The press remained active until 1784, when it was merged with the Bak firm.

Suggested Reading

S. H. Lieben, “Der hebräische Buchdruck in Prag im 16. Jahrhundert,” in Die Juden in Prag (Prague, 1927); Moshe N. Rosenfeld, “The Development of Hebrew Printing in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries,” in A Sign and a Witness: 2,000 Years of Hebrew Books and Illuminated Manuscripts, ed. Leonard Singer Gold, pp. 92–100 (New York, 1988); Betsal’el (Cecil) Roth, “Ha-Hagadah ha-metsuyeret shevi-defus,” Areshet 3 (1961): 10–11; Joseph Tabory, “The Art of Printing and the Illustrations in the Prague Haggadah,” Ohev sefer 1 (1987): 15–28; Josef Volf, Geschichte des Buchdrucks in Böhmen und Mähren bis 1848 (Weimar, 1928); Charles Wengrov, Haggadah and Woodcut (New York, 1967).



Translated from Czech by Stephen Hattersley