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Judaic Incunabula: An Evening’s Encounter With Survivors From My Distant Past

by Sally Wiener Grotta

rare books
SOURCE: Pixabay

I recently spent an evening of wonder and reflection in the company of several Judaic incunabula (printed books in Hebrew from the 15th century) at Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum & Library. Each was a personality and story, bound by hand and laden with transmitted memory. My guide through their histories, typography and quirks was Judy Guston, the Rosenbach’s curator and senior director of collections, who also happens to be a fascinating storyteller. I was entranced, and the time went by far too quickly.

When Gutenberg developed the printing press and introduced moveable type to Europe in the mid-15th century, he created the world we live in where the stories and knowledge that books preserve and impart were no longer available to only privileged scholars and the fabulously wealthy, but to all of us. Well, maybe not “all” – at least not immediately. Those first printed books were still pricey and far beyond the reach of the illiterate masses who wouldn’t have known what to do with them.

The word “incunabula” means “from the cradle” and refers to the earliest books created in Europe with moveable type (i.e., before the year 1500). About 26,000 incunabula have survived and are avidly prized. The Rosenbach is renowned for its collection of nearly 400,000 rare books, manuscripts, and fine and decorative arts objects, and has approximately 100 incunabula, of which seven titles are in Hebrew.

Read the entire article on Judaic Incunabula at Jewish Exponent.