Woodcuts depicting Mordekhai, Haman, and jesters, from Akta Ester mit Akhashverosh (Prague: Sons of Yehudah Bak, 1720). Among the illustrated Yiddish books published in Prague were purim-shpiln (Purim plays), whose woodcuts were often made from existing plates that had been used in earlier publications. For instance, the illustrations of Mordekhai and the jesters appeared earlier in Seder birkat ha-mazon (Grace after Meals), printed by the same publishers in 1708. In purim-shpiln, the custom was to print stage directions in oysyes meruboes (square Hebrew characters) and the text in meshit (cursive Yiddish characters). (Avidov Lipsker)

Bak Family

Printers active in Hebrew and Yiddish publishing. The Bak family apparently originated in Venice, where Ya‘akov ben Gershon Bak (1574–1619) followed his father, Gershon ben Mosheh, in training as a printer. After Ya‘akov Bak had printed Maharal of Prague’s Tif’eret Yisra’el (1599), the latter evidently persuaded him to move to Prague. When Bak arrived in that city, he was associated in business with the brothers Avraham ben Mosheh and Yehudah Leib Shidel; by 1605, Yitsḥak ben Aharon Bak had joined them. From the time of the death of Ya‘akov Bak to 1767, the Bak family firm printed 213 texts. Between 1767 and 1788, they and their partners published another 21 books.


In 1605, Bak financed the publication of the first part of the Yotserot liturgy with Yiddish translation; the second part appeared in the following year. In 1607, he and Ya‘akov Stabnitz published Pa‘neaḥ raza by Yitsḥak ben Yehudah Halevi, a text on the Pentateuch. In 1608, Bak began to work in the publishing house of Avraham bar Shalom, issuing the Shulḥan ‘arukh (Oraḥ ḥayim) by Yosef Karo and Leḥem rav by Shemu’el ben Yosef of Lublin (1609), a supplement to Karo’s text. They also published Manoaḥ Hendel ben Shemaryahu’s Ḥokhmat Manoaḥ (1612), with corrections and criticism of the Talmud edition printed in Kraków in 1602–1605.


Ya‘akov Bak’s sons Yehudah and Yosef together and singly printed books until 1620. Although the Thirty Years’ War struck a severe blow to their business, they improved their craftsmanship and hired a master printer, a Christian named Cilius Hanau from Basel (the brother of master printer Jacob Hanau, who himself worked for Hebrew printers in Hanau and had learned his craft from Conrad Walkirch of Basel).


After Yosef Bak died (ca. 1649), Yehudah (d. 1671) operated the business until 1669, at which point the Bak printing house was closed due to a libel charge. After Yehudah’s death, his sons Yosef (d. 1688) and Ya‘akov (d. 1696) received a license to reopen the press in 1672. By 1696, they had printed 60 books; thereafter, their heirs ran the house and they referred to themselves as the “bene [sons of] Yehudah Bak.” From 1693 on, their successors referred to themselves as the grandsons of Yehudah Bak; in 1753, the name was changed again to “The Sons of Mosheh Bak.” From the end of the seventeenth century until 1761, the Bak shop printed 85 titles. Among the editors associated with the Bak printing house was the preacher Shabetai Shemu’el Yisakhar Be’er Perlhefter (1686–1696).


Between 1728 and 1750, the Bak family press attempted to print the entire Talmud, but the project was not completed. Yonatan Eybeschütz, the rabbi of Prague, was involved in this initiative, but left the city to serve as the rabbi of Metz before the project was finished. As was the case with other printers, Bak issued prayer books for daily and holiday use, and when Kabbalah became popular, it produced a variety of Lurianic Tikunim (midnight prayer services intended to “repair” the world), notably for use on the Sabbath (1672, 1673, 1691, 1703, 1705, 1713).


Over the generations, the Bak family contributed significantly to the dissemination of Yiddish books. Noteworthy among its many titles were the popular ethical work Lev tov (Good Heart) by Yitsḥak ben Elyakim of Posen (1626, 1709); Safah berurah (Clear Language) by Natan Note Hannover (1660), a textbook in Hebrew, Yiddish, Italian, and Latin; Mayse-bukh (1665), the most important Ashkenazic collection of stories, first printed in Basel in 1602; Der tsukhshpigel by Zeligman Ulma Ginzburg (1678); and even a book about the Jews of Cochin in India, Varheftige kontshaft by Mosheh Perera (1688). Throughout the seventeenth century, Prague had supplanted Venice as a center in the field of Yiddish printing. Toward the end of the 1600s, however, Amsterdam had emerged as a competing center for Jewish printing and, by the eighteenth century, had become the major site in the world for Yiddish printing in particular and Hebrew printing in general.


Bak also produced books on commandments for women, including Seder noshim (The Order of Women), issued in Yiddish as the Vayber bukh by Shemu’el Shmelke ben Ḥayim of Prague (1690); Mikvos Avrom (The Ritual Baths of Abraham; 1731), outlining the laws governing menstrual impurity and ritual bathing for women; and Derekh noshim (The Way of Women) by Yosef Krotoshin (1759). Another Yiddish title was Segulos verefues (Charms and Remedies) by Yisakhar Ber Teller (1694).


In 1702, Bak published a text on the customs for Yom Kippur Katan (an optional fast at the beginning of the month [Heb., Rosh Ḥodesh], a ceremony practiced according to the kabbalistic custom of sixteenth-century Safed), along with the Book of Psalms. Another title was Tkhines (Supplications) in Yiddish (1708, 1718, 1719). The company issued secular Jewish works as well, and played an important role in the dissemination of biblical plays in Yiddish. Among its titles in drama was Akta Ester—Ester mit Akhashveyresh (1720), apparently written (and presented) by students at the yeshiva of David Oppenheim in Prague. Three woodcuts adorn the text, and though some scholars mistakenly concluded that the artwork depicts figures from the play in costume and as a kind of stage direction, the woodcuts in fact were copied from a pamphlet containing the blessing after meals that had been printed in 1708. (See image above.)


Prominent among Bak’s halakhic works was the popular Sheḥitot u-vedikot (Slaughtering and Examining; 1673 [two editions], 1680, 1692, 1723) by Ya‘akov Weil. In general, however, halakhic works formed only a fraction of the books they published. The fact that Bak sought a market among Yiddish readers, both men and women, also explains their publication of the tiny popular Hebrew work of one of the great masters of halakhah, Po‘el tsedek (Just Action; 1723) by Shabetai ben Me’ir ha-Kohen. This book had first been published three years earlier, and at least 11 editions were issued over that century. It contains a short list of the commandments and a brief explanation of the reasons for performing them. In producing kabbalistic works, the Bak family likewise chose mainly to publish the most popular and briefest works—booklets of Tikunim—instead of classical kabbalistic works such as the Zohar.

Suggested Reading

Bernhard (Ḥayim Dov) Friedberg, Toldot ha-defus ha-‘ivri be-‘arim ha-eleh shebe-Eropah ha-tikhonah (Antwerp, 1935), pp. 19–26; Yonah ‘Imanu’el, “‘Al hadpasat ha-talmud ve-ta‘alule ha-tsenzurah,” Ha-Ma‘ayan 16.1 (1975/76), pp. 21–38 (see pp. 28–29; article also appears in 25 Jahre jüdische Schule Zürich: Festschrift [Jerusalem, 1980]); Shnayer Zalman Leiman, “Perush ha-Ga’on Rabi Yehonatan Ebeshits zts”l li-ketsat agadot mi-masekhet Brakhot,Or ha-mizraḥ 29.3–4 (1981): 418–428 (see pp. 418–419); Raphael Nathan Nata Rabbinovicz, Ma’amar ‘al hadpasat ha-Talmud: Toldot hadpasat ha-Talmud (Jerusalem, 1951/52), pp. 112–116, 228–230; Isaiah Tishby (Yesha‘yahu Tishbi), Netive emunah u-minut (1964; rpt., Jerusalem, 1982), pp. 86–107, see esp. pp.

86–87; David Loeb Zins, Gedulat Yehonatan vol. 1 (Piotrków, Pol., 1930), pp. 12–14; vol. 2 (Piotrków, Pol., 1934), chap. 1, section 2, pp. 135–142, chap. 5, section 9, pp. 214–215.

Author

Translation

Translated from Hebrew by Jeffrey Green