Hebrew, Judeo-Arabic, and Marathi Jewish Printing in India Online

Hebrew, Judeo-Arabic, and Marathi Jewish Printing in India Online
Hebrew, Judeo-Arabic, and Marathi Jewish Printing in India Online

The Valmadonna Collection of Hebrew and Jewish books from India is a unique resource for the study of oriental printing and lithography, Hebrew poetry and liturgical history, Eastern Judeo-Arabic literature, and the folklore traditions and vernacular writings of the Jews of South Asia. Brill makes the entire corpus of Indian Jewish literature accessible to researchers for the first time.

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Hebrew, Judeo-Arabic, and Marathi Jewish Printing in India Online

The Valmadonna collection of Hebrew and Jewish books from India is a unique and unparalleled resource for the study of oriental printing and lithography, Hebrew poetry and liturgical history, Eastern Judeo-Arabic literature, and the folklore, traditions and vernacular writings of the Jews of South Asia. Through this Brill publication, the entire corpus of Indian Jewish literature is made accessible to researchers for the first time.

Hebrew in India

The Hebrew culture of India has survived in a corpus of books and manuscripts from the three distinct historical Jewish communities of the subcontinent: the 'black' and 'white' Jews of Cochin along the Malabar coast, who used Malayalam (a language related to Tamil) as their vernacular; the Bene Israel of the Konkan region, around Bombay, who used Marathi as their vernacular; and the Baghdadi or Arabian Jews, the most recent Jewish arrivals to India, for whom some variety of Judeo-Arabic was originally the dominant vernacular. The manuscripts and printed books of Indian Jewry are today scattered in various repositories around the world, and no public institution holds a comprehensive collection.

Printing in India, and the Introduction of Hebrew Type

The art of printing by movable type was brought by Europeans to the sub-continent in the mid-16th century, and a few Portuguese traders of Jewish or New Christian origin were associated with some of the first typographic endeavours in India, in Portuguese language at Goa and in Tamil at Cochin. A few Hebrew-character texts for or about the Jews of India were printed in Europe, at Jewish presses, prior to the introduction of Hebrew book-printing on the sub-continent in the 19th century, but the very first instances of Hebrew print in India were from colonial or missionary presses. The earliest appearance of Hebrew type, and its sole use before 1800, is a sample of fonts provided on one page of an English-Persian lexicon printed at Calcutta in 1791, prepared by an English orientalist for the East India Company.

Missionary Presses at Madras and Bombay

The first Hebrew book printed in India was the New Testament in Hebrew, issued for the use of the English mission by Thomas Jarrett in Madras in 1817 (based on the London edition of 1813). The types were cut by a native Indian, and the proofs were corrected by a 'white Jew' of Cochin, this being the first known involvement of an Indian Jew with Hebrew printing in India itself. A few years later, in 1819, a Hebrew catechism was likewise published by English missionaries at Madras, again under the editorship of Thomas Jarrett. Entitled Sefer Hinukh behire y-h, this is Calvin's catechism as translated into Hebrew by the 16th-century grammarian Tremellius, a Jewish convert to Christianity, and first issued by Robert Estienne in Geneva in 1554. This book was for a time considered the first original Hebrew composition printed in India, albeit not by an Indian Jew, not written in India, and only a translation.

Hebrew printing was introduced in Bombay by an orientalist at the Scottish mission, John Wilson, who produced by lithography The Rudiments of Hebrew Grammar, in Mar'thicute;, with the points, in 1832. No Hebrew appears on the title-page (which bears a fore-title in Marathi), but the text of the book is comprised of a combination of Marathi and Hebrew text. This work is the first instance of Hebrew lithographic printing in India, where in the 19th century 'stone printing' played nearly as large a role as printing with movable type. It also marks the start of a long tradition of Hebrew and Marathi printing for the Bene Israel community in Bombay. In the same year there appeared in Madras a historical curiosity by a native of Lithuania, The Travels of Rabbi David D'Beth Hillel: From Jerusalem; Through Arabia, Koordistan, Part of Persia and India, to Madras, which includes a glossary of vocabulary in five languages, Hebrew, Arabic, Persian, Hindustani and English. Long unknown to bibliographers, this rarity is - together with the missionary editions by Jarrett - one of the few instances of the use of Hebrew type at Madras. It is also the first book printed in India and containing Hebrew type whose text is the work of a contemporary Jewish writer living in India, albeit an immigrant Ashkenazi and not a native of the subcontinent.

Hebrew Book Printing at Calcutta

In Calcutta in late 1840, the scholar R. Elazar 'Iraki, born in Cochin to a Yemenite family, began to print Hebrew books by movable type. His first production of dozens was Sha'are kedushah, a treatise on ritual animal slaughter by the Yemenite Yahya ben Salih, an author from his father's native town. (It was in India that the works of Yemenite Jewish authors first appeared in print.) 'Iraki may be considered the first Hebrew printer in India, and his books - largely works by Yemenite authors - compare favourably with contemporary Hebrew printing in Europe. Simultaneous with the establishment of 'Iraki's press, or perhaps just before it, a single lithographic book prepared by one Isaac ben Jacob Baghdad appeared in Calcutta, but more than thirty years passed before any Hebrew lithography was undertaken again in this city.

In 1871, Hebrew-character lithographic printing was taken up anew by Ezra Isaac Solomon Benjamin, whose first production was Sharh 'aseret ha-dibrot [the Decalogue in Judeo-Arabic], followed by about twenty other titles, mostly Hebrew and a few in Judeo-Arabic. Several other Hebrew printers were also active in Calcutta, most notably the industrious Solomon Tawina, a native of Baghdad whose prolific press issued over 70 books, in large part his own works, as well as a Judeo-Arabic newspaper, one of several such papers published in India. Altogether the Calcutta presses issued over the course of sixty years more than 200 Hebrew-character books, more than those issued anywhere else in India.

Judeo-Arabic Lithography and Marathi Books in Bombay

In Bombay, full-text Hebrew-character printing, i.e. book printing, was introduced in 1841, in parallel with Calcutta and likewise at first by lithography. (In this same year Hebrew printing was launched in Jerusalem.) The lithographic enterprise was that of Solomon Sharabi, another Cochin Jew of Yemenite origin, and the first product of this press was the Mahzor liyme ha-selihot [festival liturgy], based on an earlier Constantinople edition. This was followed by a Passover Haggadah in Hebrew and Marathi, with illustrations modelled on editions from Amsterdam and Leghorn. These and a few other books were intended for the Bene Israel community. From 1855 lithographic printing of Hebrew and especially Judeo-Arabic, including a long-running Judeo-Arabic newspaper, was undertaken by a number of Baghdadis. In 1859 a single Hebrew book, Sharh Rut [the Book of Ruth in Judeo-Arabic] was printed by locally-cut or -poured movable type which was never used again in any other book. Hebrew type was introduced again from 1882 by several educational presses serving the Bene Israel and the Baghdadis. Many of the books for the Bene Israel were largely or partly in Marathi, this language printed in Marathi characters.

Hebrew Printing and Graphic Art on the Malabar Coast

Short-lived Hebrew presses established at Poona, beginning with lithography in 1870 and followed by type until 1888, and at Cochin in 1877, stand out in their linguistic variety, their content, and their graphics. Products of the former include texts in Hebrew, Aramaic, Judeo-Arabic and Marathi, some of them kabbalistic tracts, others narrative diwans from the Arabic, and most significantly an illustrated Haggadah, one of the few authentic examples of Indo-Judaic art. Three of the Hebrew books printed in Cochin include parallel text in Malayalam, in its own characters, comprising a combination of types which is unique in printing history. (The first page of Piyutim [hymns], with pointed Aramaic facing the Malayalam text, is especially peculiar.) It is ironic that Jews from Cochin played a significant role in the introduction of Hebrew printing in Bombay and Calcutta, but made no efforts to establish any Hebrew press in their native town.

Cochin and Amsterdam

Cochin figured in other ways, too, in the history of writing and printing relating to the Jews of India. This oldest of the Jewish communities on the sub-continent, where only six Hebrew books were printed in the 19th century, in fact possessed the earliest written records relating to Jewish settlement in India. The community's own books and manuscripts were entirely destroyed when the Jewish quarter was burned by the Portuguese in 1663, but the ancient copper-plate 'privileges' granted to the Jews by the Hindu ruler of Malabar, redacted in Tamil in the late 10th century, were preserved in the synagogue. Moreover, the earliest printed texts about Indian Jewry (though not printed in India) deal with Cochin. During the period of Dutch rule, contacts were initiated with the Jews of Amsterdam, where in 1687 an account of this far-flung community, Notisias dos Judeos de Cochim by the traveller Moses Pereyra de Paiva, was published in Portuguese. In the same year the text also appeared in Yiddish under the title Tsaytung oyz Indya, one of the first 'orientalist' works in this language.

In the following year, in 1688, there appeared at Amsterdam the first publication of, or for, the Jews of Cochin (and thus the first real publication of Indian Jewry), a collection of liturgical poems according to the Cochin rite, Seder Azharot, by Elijah Adeni. In 1757 the local liturgy of the Cochin Jews, - including a unique text for the manumission of slaves, - was printed in Amsterdam, subsequently reprinted in the same town in 1769 and in Leghorn in 1849. This was thus the second printed work of the Cochin Jews (long believed to be the first), later followed in 1791 by a remarkable calendrical treatise by Ezekiel Rahabi, Ohel David, produced in Amsterdam in 50 copies, all sent to India. This book, with its parallel tables of the Jewish, Muslim and Hindu months, is a singular reflection of the Indian religious and cultural milieu. Before the discovery of Adeni's Azharot, Rahabi's Ohel David was considered the first printed book by a Jewish author from Cochin or from anywhere in India.

The Valmadonna Collection in London

The Valmadonna Trust Library of Custodian Jack V. Lunzer, housed in London, is the world's foremost private collection of early and rare Hebraica, especially printed books from Italy, Ottoman Greece and Palestine, Turkey, Baghdad and India. In 1999 the Trust acquired the remaining rarities from the celebrated collection of oriental Hebrew books and manuscripts assembled by the Indian-born bibliophile D. S. Sassoon (1880-1942). The books in the Sassoon collection, together with those in the Jewish National and University Library in Jerusalem, had served as the basis for Yaari's panoramic history Hebrew Printing in the East .

The Hebrew imprints from India in the Valmadonna Library are unequalled both in their number and in their quality. Among them are numerous unrecorded titles and unica - unique surviving copies - of Hebrew-character texts, as well as other Jewish texts in Marathi and Malayalam, printed in India in the principal centres of Jewish settlement and publishing. Their content ranges from rare oriental liturgies, poetry, biblical, medieval and kabbalistic texts in Hebrew or Aramaic, to the Passover Haggadah, ritual law, dictionaries, story-books and other original compositions, many in Judeo-Arabic or accompanied by Judeo-Arabic translation. Indian Jewish illustration and graphic art are also represented here in flawless lithographs. The collection includes the most complete surviving text of one of the great curiosities of Indian Jewish literature, an illustrated edition of the classic Hindustani drama Inder Sabha, printed in Calcutta in 1880, in Urdu transcribed in oriental Hebrew script.

The Hebrew, Judeo-Arabic, and Marathi Jewish books from India comprise a little-known dimension of the huge linguistic and literary diversity of printing and lithography in Asia and the Orient. They are also an invaluable resource for the history of Hebrew liturgy, Judeo-Arabic literature and journalism, Jewish art and folklore, and the cultures of the distinct Jewish communities of India. These bibliographic treasures, in all of their linguistic and graphic variety, are reproduced here together for the first time.

Brad Sabin Hill
The George Washington University, Washington, DC

Material from:
The Valmadonna Trust Library, London

Cite this page

Hebrew, Judeo-Arabic, and Marathi Jewish Printing in India Online, advisor: B. Sabin Hill, Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2007 <http://brc.brill.semcs.net/browse/hebrew-printing-in-india>