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Article: Early Hebrew Printing in Africa and the Ottoman Empire

גירוש היהודים והפצת טכנולוגיה:  הדפוס מגיע לאסיה ולאפריקה

Early Hebrew Printing in Africa and the Ottoman Empire

Alexander Gordin

Jews pioneered print in the Ottoman Empire and Africa. The first printed books outside of Europe using Gutenberg’s technology were in Hebrew, and two of the earliest prints were copies of the vastly popular and influential Jewish legal code, The Four Columns (Arba‘ah Turim), by Rabbi Jacob ben Asher
(ca. 1269–ca. 1343).

Print using movable type spread rapidly in Europe, but the Islamic world preferred to rely on the vast output of manuscripts from guilds of scribes for most textual needs. Whether due to the economic influence of these guilds, the technical difficulties of using movable type with the complex Arabic script, love and respect for the handwritten word, or limitations imposed by the authorities, a significant output of mechanically printed books in Arabic would not arrive until the nineteenth century.

However, when Jews were expelled from Spain in 1492 and when many left Portugal after the forced conversion of 1497, they took with them both an enthusiasm for print and technological know-how. In 1493, Spanish exiles David and Samuel Ibn Nahmias printed this edition of Arba‘ah Turim in Constantinople, newly named Istanbul, making it the first book printed in any language in the Ottoman Empire. In 1516, Jewish printers in Fez produced a one-volume edition (Yoreh De‘ah) of the longer Arba‘ah Turim – likely the first book printed in Africa using European technology. In the same year, Samuel ben Isaac Nedivot and his son Isaac, having learned the trade in Lisbon, printed this Sefer Abudraham, a medieval commentary on the prayer book. Thus, after fleeing from the Iberian Peninsula, Jews not only preserved their religious convictions but also spread ideas, knowledge, and technology, as manifested in the three early books here.