Ancient Talmud

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Scott "Israel" Seldowitz's picture
Joined: 7 May 2007 - 12:08pm
Ancient Talmud

The ancient Talmud is as old as the Jewish Bible. According one of the greatest thinkers of all times, the Talmud actually corresponds to the Bible, and explains to us the meaning of the very words and innuendos.

Maimonides writes this in the Introduction to his final work, called: משנה תורה, which means a concise review of everything found in the Torah, or Bible.

During his generation, Maimonides was cast as a heretic for suggesting that his work could an easy to read summary of the encyclopedic Talmud. Later, all his writings, from medical, philosophical, mathematical, and Talmudic, were recognized until this very day as truthful, unrefutable, and utterly amazing. Few humans that have walked this earth can compare to Maimonides, including, Jesus, Einstein, and contemporary Jewish leaders.

Getting back to the Talmud, the Talmud is consideration the most profound wisdom of the Jewish people, being comprised of the writings and teachings of the most brilliant 1% of Jewish leaders of all times.

Even the very great reconstructionist, reform, conservative, or even modern Orthodox have never made it into the Talmud. They simply are not great and profound enough to fit into the ranks of the Talmud's greatest 'stars'.

Scott "Israel" Seldowitz's picture
Joined: 7 May 2007 - 12:08pm

Recently, a new generation of intelligent people, who claim to be scholars (and they truly are scholars in their own eyes,) has risen up and assert that they are experts about the printing of the Romm family Talmud, and the typeface technology that was employed about 200 years ago.

Their statements are ludicrous, suggesting that they either do not know how to read Hebrew (to be facetious. they are truly great Talmud experts who read the ArtScroll Talmud in English), or never even read the account published in back of the every printing of a complete Romm Talmud or in the beginning of the famous Meorus Talmud.

What is source of the ridiculous words? Wikipedia?

Scott "Israel" Seldowitz's picture
Joined: 7 May 2007 - 12:08pm

The Romm Talmud was an outgrowth of the earlier Shlavita Talmud of the late 18th century, printed in Poland by two brothers, the sons of a very great Chassidic rabbi. It was originally financed by the Baron Gansbourg, himself a reknown Chassidic Jew, and extremely wealthy.

The Romm family itself were also extremely wealthy, and thought that they did not need any benefactor to produce the first edition of the Talmud.

The first edition of the Talmud took seven years to produce before the the Romm family went totally bankrupt, and had their dream of producing a Lithuanian Talmud absolutely shattered. The Romm family did not know what to do. The Talmud was not completed, and they became paupers.

The Romm family then consulted with the sons of the Vilna Gaon and the great Rabbi Akiva Eiger, the Vilna's Gaon's brilliant son-in-law, and Rabbi Chaim Halevy, the Voloziner (not to confused with his grandson, Rabbi Chaim the Beis Levy of Volozhim, later known simply as the Grach). They advised to approach the greatest and richest benefactors, particularly my great-grandfather's great-father, Rabbi Boruch Halevy Zeldovich zatzal, Mr. Horenstein zal, and Rabbi Gurary zatzal, even though they were Lubavitchers and members of the hated Ket, or cult.

Gurary paid for the binding, and distribution. Horenstein and others finished paid for the typesetting. And Zeldovich who had a massive wood and paper enterprise sold the Romm family an exclusive contact for all their future paper needs, with a 100 year payment plan. In exchange for a graphic dedication depicting two lions, representing Boruch and his brother Rabbi Dovber Halevy, Zeldovich shipped to the Romm family the best possible paper, representing about 60% of the Romm family's overall cost to produce the Talmud.

Yaronimus Maximus's picture
Joined: 11 Sep 2005 - 12:38am

would you care to elaborate - what kind of ludicrous statements are being said by the new generation of intelligent people?

Scott "Israel" Seldowitz's picture
Joined: 7 May 2007 - 12:08pm

There is a historical account of how the previous Talmud was produced by the Romm family in ~Vilna, Lithuania, during the early 19th century.

This is published at the end of the 20th volume in the Hebrew language, known appropriately as the "Acharit Davar", which means "The Latter Matter".

Recently, scholars by their own perception have suggested a fantasy account of these matters which contradicts those which are reported by the children of the publishers themselves in the English language. These so-called scholars assume that their readers do not study the Talmud in its original, not even read Hebrew. As a result, they advance their nonsense as if were a great work of scholarship.

In my view, these so-called scholars harm both the stature of modern scholarship, and their very intelligent readership.

I think the very first step of true scholarship about the history of the printing of the Talmud in Vilna, Lithuania, is read the writings of the account printed by the Romm family, in the Romm Vilna Talmud.

John Hudson's picture
Joined: 21 Dec 2002 - 11:00am

Recently, scholars by their own perception have suggested a fantasy account of these matters which contradicts those which are reported by the children of the publishers themselves in the English language.

Israel, you have not said either who these scholars are or what it is that they have said that is so wrong or ridiculous. Without citing references to which the rest of us can refer, you give us no way to understand about what you are talking or to what you are objecting. Which is a pity, because it all sounds quite interesting.

Scott "Israel" Seldowitz's picture
Joined: 7 May 2007 - 12:08pm

John: "Israel, you have not said either who these scholars are or what it is that they have said that is so wrong or ridiculous."
"Without citing references to which the rest of us can refer, you give us no way to understand about what you are talking or to what you are objecting."

OK, I am sorry for being vague.
Let me do some due diligence.
OK, on the next post, I cite the article.

Scott "Israel" Seldowitz's picture
Joined: 7 May 2007 - 12:08pm

Romm Family

When Yosef Re’uven died, his eldest son, David (1825–1860), inherited the business, though the title pages continued to use the phrase “In the Printing Shop of Yosef Re’uven Romm.” In 1858, publication of a new edition of the Talmud was begun by the Shapira family in Zhitomir; a year later, David Romm also began publication of an edition of the Talmud. The Zhitomir edition was completed in 1864; the Romm edition in 1866. Sales of the latter proceeded slowly. After David’s death, his widow, Devorah (d. 1903), began to manage the company, assisted at first by her scholarly father, Yosef Betsal’el Harkavy (d. 1864). The company’s income was divided among Devorah, who received 40 percent, and David’s brothers, Ḥayim Ya‘akov and Menaḥem Gavri’el, who each received 30 percent. (Menaḥem also took over the Russian-language printing business when the Russian authorities demanded the separation of the Russian and Hebrew printing operations, for purposes of taxation and so that the government could more easily control the number of books published.) From 1871, the title pages of books published by the company carried the words “The Printing House of the Widow and the Brothers Romm” (see image at left).

Alexander II rescinded the limitations on Hebrew printing in 1862: in exchange for an annual tax of 20 rubles for every manual printing press, the industry was open to all. (For rapid, steam-driven presses, the price was 120 rubles for a small press, 240 for a large one.) Three former Romm employees thereupon opened their own, rival press in Vilna together with Shemu’el Fuenn. Fuenn wanted to print Haskalah literature, but the production of daily and holiday prayer books—in direct competition with the Romms—proved more lucrative. In response, the Romm house, which was on a firm financial footing, lowered the prices of their books almost to their cost. Thus, the price of the prayer book Korban Mosheh was reduced from 2.5 rubles to 0.5 rubles. Romm also began to print Haskalah books, but these generally had poor sales.

Competition with rival printers in Vilna, however, did less harm to the Romm firm than an internal rivalry that broke out in 1866 between the brothers and Devorah. Eventually the business was divided among them, and it dwindled considerably in importance. Devorah turned to Feigenzohn in 1867 and asked him to take over management of the firm. He worked to resolve the differences among the owners and simultaneously to overhaul and modernize the technologies and procedures. Feigenzohn introduced stereotype printing, the process by which pages are cast in sheets of lead, making it possible to preserve editions of books and reprint them rapidly if demand arose without having to set the text in type again. He traveled to Berlin to buy the new machinery and hired professionals to operate it. A six-week strike by typesetters, alarmed at the prospect of losing their jobs, was resolved by means of an increase in their salary.

Feigenzohn also worked to overcome the obstacles posed by the censor—at that time, the convertIakov Brafman—by providing him with a regular “salary,” in exchange for which Brafman would examine every book intended for publication before it was printed. Feigenzohn introduced the policy of proofreading material three times to ensure the accuracy of the texts. Books were redesigned to attract buyers, and a policy of acquiring exclusive rights to publication was put in place.

Feigenzohn directed the project of what came to be known as the Vilna Talmud, a production characterized by scrupulous proofreading and the addition of many variant readings and commentaries. At his behest, manuscripts held by various libraries were copied in order to add early, previously unpublished commentaries to the new edition. At the height of its production, more than 100 printers and 14 learned proofreaders were involved in the project.

There was a substantial response to the appeal for subscribers in the fall of 1879. Demand for the new edition was so great that 22,000 copies of the first volume were sold in the first year (1880). Sales were hindered by pogroms in southern Russia the next year and by fires that damaged the plant and books in the warehouses. A decline in the number of subscribers and sales ensued, but there were still 13,000 subscribers when the final volume was printed in 1886.

Menaḥem Gavri’el transferred management of the Russian-language press to outside administrators in 1901. When the new managers gave printing materials to revolutionaries, the authorities became aware of the practice. Badly frightened, Menaḥem Gavri’el sold the Russian part of the business for a pittance.

After Feigenzohn left the printing house in 1888, it had gone into a period of decline, producing just a single new edition, the prayer book Kolbo (1895). Subsequently, Feigenzohn resumed management of the firm in 1903, the year of Devorah’s death. At the time of his return, the printing house held thousands of folio pages of the most important canonical works in stereotype, 15 presses were still in operation, and the firm held the rights to print classics of Jewish literature. What it lacked was capital.

A small investment came from Bentsiyon Aharonovitsh, who financed the printing of several orders of the Mishnah, but more than his assistance was needed. At a meeting of Jewish leaders in Saint Petersburg, the rebbe of the Lubavitch Hasidic movement, Shalom Dov Ber Shneerson, horrified at the prospect of the closure of the Romm house, persuaded Baron David Gintsburg to rescue the shop, and Gintsburg invested 75,000 rubles. Feigenzohn paid the debts of the firm, but additional backing dissolved when Gintsburg died in 1910. World War I caused a further decline in the firm’s fortunes, and it passed into the hands of its creditors, who operated it until 1940. - this needs a proven source because it contradicts many established facts.

The importance of the Romm press in the cultural history of the nineteenth century cannot be overstated. During its existence, the Romm printing house published more than 1,400 books in both Hebrew and, to a lesser extent, Yiddish, in a variety of literary genres. Books devoted to Kabbalah andhalakhah appeared alongside the novels of Avraham Mapu and the stories of Ayzik Meyer Dik. Romm published Yitsḥak Ber Levinzon’s prolegomenon, Igeret ha-besorah (1824), to his extended program for the reform of Jewry, Te‘udah be-Yisra’el (1827, 1856). ‘Azaryah dei Rossi’s sixteenth-century translation into Hebrew of the Letter of Aristeas (Greek, second century BCE) was printed in 1818 and entitled Haderat zekenim. Translations from world literature into Hebrew and Yiddish soon followed. The first of these was a translation of the journal of a seventeenth-century Dutch traveler to the Far East, W. Bontekoe, into Hebrew, apparently by Menaḥem Mendel Lefin, Oniyah so‘arah (1823), published together with a translation of one of Joachim Heinrich Campe’s works, Masa‘ot ha-yam, byMordekhai Aharon Gintsburg. The latter’s translation of Campe’s Masa‘ Kolumbus was published the same year, but the name of the publisher did not appear on the title page. A year later, Romm published Gintsburg’s Yiddish translation of the same work.

Romm published Sefer ha-berit by Pinḥas Eliyahu Hurwitz (1765–1821) in 1818. This was an idiosyncratic, encyclopedic work combining philosophical and kabbalistic topics with reports on scientific discoveries. It was an important source of scientific information for many readers who knew only Hebrew and Yiddish. Much farther from normative literature was the introduction to algebra,Mosde ḥokhmah by the maskil Ḥayim Zelig Słonimski (1834). Much of the Haskalah literature failed to find a wide market, often remaining unsold.

The Romm house continued to print rabbinic literature alongside works calling for reform. Several collections of the teachings of Eliyahu, the Gaon of Vilna, were printed as well as a number of editions of Ḥaye adam (1810, 1819, 1834), the popular halakhic work by Avraham Danzig. All this was in addition to canonical works such as the Talmud and the Shulḥan ‘arukh, prayer books, and Pentateuchs.

Romm printed some Yiddish books as well, including Eli‘ezer Paver’s Gdulas Yoysef, which they reprinted several times (1817, 1822, 1833). Tkhines were published in Tikun shelosh mishmarot(1833). A complete list of Romm publications would reflect well the trends and cultural developments of East European Jewry in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Scott "Israel" Seldowitz's picture
Joined: 7 May 2007 - 12:08pm

Suggested Reading
Samuel Shraga Feigensohn, “Le-Toldot Defus Rom,” in Yahadut Lita, vol. 1, pp. 268–302 (Tel Aviv, 1960); Bernhard (Ḥayim Dov) Friedberg, Toldot ha-defus ha-‘ivri be-Polanyah (Tel Aviv, 1950), pp. 99, 125–131; Zeev Gries, Ha-Sefer ke-sokhen tarbut ba-shanim 460–660 (1700–1900) (Tel Aviv, 2002), pp. 117–126, 133–134, 179–180, also in English as The Book in the Jewish World, 1700–1900 (Oxford, 2007), pp. 113–123, 129–130, 173; Pinḥas Kahn, “‘Al devar ha-defus shel Rom be-Vilnah,” Kiryat sefer 10 (1933–1934): 249–250; Pinḥas Kahn, “Le-Korot Bet ha-Defus shel Rom be-Vilnah,” Kiryat sefer 12 (1935–1936): 109–115; Ḥayim Lieberman, “‘Al defus ha-‘almanah veha-aḥim Rom,” Kiryat Sefer 34 (1959): 527–528; Raphael Nathan Neta Rabbinovicz, Ma’amar ‘al hadpasat ha-Talmud; Toldot hadpasat ha-Talmud (Jerusalem, 1951/52), pp. 134–135, 156–180, 223–245, 250.

Zeev Gries

Translated from Hebrew by Jeffrey Green

Scott "Israel" Seldowitz's picture
Joined: 7 May 2007 - 12:08pm

These are important publications:

Samuel Shraga Feigensohn
“Le-Toldot Defus Rom,” in Yahadut Lita
(Tel Aviv, 1960)
vol. 1, pp. 268–302

Bernhard (Ḥayim Dov) Friedberg
Toldot ha-defus ha-‘ivri be-Polanyah
(Tel Aviv, 1950)
pp. 99, 125–131

Zeev Gries
Ha-Sefer ke-sokhen tarbut ba-shanim 460–660 (1700–1900)
(Tel Aviv, 2002)
pp. 117–126, 133–134, 179–180

also in English as
The Book in the Jewish World, 1700–1900
(Oxford, 2007), pp. 113–123, 129–130, 173

Pinḥas Kahn
“‘Al devar ha-defus shel Rom be-Vilnah,”
Kiryat sefer 10 (1933–1934): 249–250

Pinḥas Kahn
“Le-Korot Bet ha-Defus shel Rom be-Vilnah,”
Kiryat sefer 12 (1935–1936): 109–115;

Ḥayim Lieberman
“‘Al defus ha-‘almanah veha-aḥim Rom,”
Kiryat Sefer 34 (1959): 527–528;

Raphael Nathan Neta Rabbinovicz,
Ma’amar ‘al hadpasat ha-Talmud;
Toldot hadpasat ha-Talmud
(Jerusalem, 1951/52)
pp. 134–135, 156–180, 223–245, 250.

Scott "Israel" Seldowitz's picture
Joined: 7 May 2007 - 12:08pm

Please post these articles. Apparently, the sources may be compromised, or I may have misunderstood my own source material, actually printed in Vol. 20 of the Romm Talmud. But why was this important document not cited?

Scott "Israel" Seldowitz's picture
Joined: 7 May 2007 - 12:08pm

Note: Many hundreds of different editions of the classic Babylonian Talmud were published over the years since the conclusion of World War II.

The largest in size is known as the "Chosen Shas", named after the very old custom for the father of the bride to gift a large beautiful set as a wedding gift to his new son-in-law. There are many other smaller sets used by yeshiva students, and other adults in their Talmud studies. Not all of these smaller sets have included the "Acharis Davar", written by the Romm descendents, cited earlier.

Perhaps, in their jealous research, this important document was neglected by honest error, and not by intentional rewriting of history, as I earlier suspected.

I found most questionable in this information presented as factual is that much of it, if not all of it, is composed and published long after the events occurred. If so, are they not theories and speculations, and not actual facts?

Scott "Israel" Seldowitz's picture
Joined: 7 May 2007 - 12:08pm

The “Vilna Shas” and East European Jewry
by Michael Stanislawski

I N 1880 the first volumes of an extraordinary edition of the Babylonian Talmud were
published in Vilna, the center of rabbinic learning in eastern Europe for almost half a
millenium. Known colloquially as the “Vilna Shas”
(the latter term an acronym for shishah sedarim, literally the six orders of the Mishnah, but
used since the late-sixteenth century to refer to the entire Talmud),

this edition, published by the firm
of “The Widow and Brothers Romm” and completed in 1886, has been used to this day throughout
the Jewish world as the authoritative, traditional edition of the Talmud and its commentaries.1

1. The most important
study of the history of the
publication of the Talmud,
including the Slavuta and
Vilna editions, remains
Raphael Rabbinovicz,
Maamar al Hadpasat ha-
Talmud (Munich, 1877).
This was supplemented
by the posthumously published
memoir of the director
of the Romm Press, in
Yahadut Lita (Jerusalem,
1960), which also contains
the editor’s bibliographical
citations of other twentieth-
century studies on the
Romm Talmud. Very valuable,
too, is the entry on
“Romm” in the Russian-
Jewish encyclopedia, Evreiskaia
Entsiklopediia (St.
Petersburg, n.d.), vol.13, pp.

The Vilna Shas followed the classic layout of the printed Talmud, with the text of the Talmud—
both the Mishnah and the Gemara—in the center of the page, and with commentaries running
down the length of both margins. Within these margins and at the back of the volumes of each tractate
there appeared an unprecedented number of rabbinic exegeses, glosses, and interpolations to
the ancient text, ranging in time and place from tenth-century Kairouan, Tunisia, to mid-nineteenthcentury
Posen, Germany. Thus, although the Talmud is usually spoken of as having been completed
(or “sealed”) in the sixth century, it in fact remained the site of a continuing conversation
among Jewish scholars lasting to our very times, most recently aided and abetted
by new computer technologies that were inconceivable even a decade ago.2

2. See for example, www., which allows
one to access any page of
the Talmud in its original
format, as well as an English
translation of the page.

The story of how the Vilna Shas appeared, the controversy surrounding it, and the
history of the Romm publishing house as a whole, is but one crucial episode in the
long and fascinating history of the printing of the Talmud—a tale full of mystery
and intrigue, as well as remarkable scholarship and piety. The inventiveness and
ingenuity of the fifteenth-century German Catholic Johann Gutenberg and his successors
made possible a reality that the leaders of rabbinic Jewry in earlier centuries
had only dreamt of in their wildest dreams—the spread of talmudic study not only
among the learned elite, but also to the broad spectrum of the (male) laity of Jewish
society. With the advent of printing, the rabbinic dictum, “ve-talmud Torah ke-neged
kulam” (conventionally interpreted as “the study of Torah is equal to all the other
commandments”), was now within the reach of multitudes of Jews throughout the
world, including the lands of eastern Europe, which from the sixteenth century on
constituted by far the largest Jewish community in the world.

The Jews of eastern Europe were also the most politically secure Jewish community
in Christendom, enjoying the support of the Polish monarchy against pressures
both domestic and foreign, including the attacks on the Talmud from the Vatican
and, by extension, the Polish Catholic Church. Thus, the papal assault on the Talmud
that began in 1553, and which led to the burning of the Talmud in Rome two years
later, was responded to in Lublin by the publication of a new edition of the Talmud
in 1559. This enterprise lasted a decade and a half, but resulted (for reasons we do
not know) in only two tractates being issued. To the best of our knowledge, in the second half of the
sixteenth century, Polish-Lithuanian Jews were, like their brethren in other lands, using the several
excellent editions of the Talmud published in Salonika and Constantinople, far outside the orbit of
the Roman Catholic Church.

Yet these editions were soon outdone by the first east European publication of the entire, and
unexpurgated, Talmud, issued in Cracow in 1602–1605, with a second edition published in 1616–
1620. This milestone of east European Jewish publishing history remained in use throughout the
world, even as its homeland was devastated. At precisely this time, the region experienced wave after
wave of violence, culminating in the 1648 Cossack uprising led by Bogdan Chmielnicki in which
hundreds of thousands of Jews and Poles were slaughtered. This was followed by multiple invasions
from Russia, Sweden, and other powers. In these di¥cult decades, known in Poland as the “Deluge,”
it is not surprising that there were no new editions of the Talmud published in eastern Europe, as
opposed to the relatively more peaceful west, which produced the important Amsterdam (1644–
1648 and 1714–1719), Frankfurt-am-Oder (1697–1699), and Frankfurt-am-Main (1720–1722)
editions of the Talmud. These printings were in large measure based on the earlier Cracow editions,
and thereby obviated the need for a new, east European edition.

By the turn of the nineteenth century, the twin dynamics of Talmud printing came into play once
more. There was the need for an intersection of a su¥cient body of new commentaries deemed
authoritative (and all-but canonical) to be included either on the margins of the Talmud text itself
or in appendices to the main text. Equally crucial was the existence of economic, political, and religious
realities that made a new publication of the Talmud possible. Thus, right at the
start of the nineteenth century, a new edition of the Talmud was printed in Slavuta,
Ukraine, in 1801–1806, 1808–1813, and 1817–1822, and a competing edition in
Vilna in 1835.3

3. My remarks on the Slavuta
Press and its Talmud follow
Shaul Ginzburg’s essay, “Tsu
der geshikhte fun der yidisher
drukvezn,” in his Historishe
Verk (New York, 1937), vol.1,
pp. 48–62. His popularized
series on the subject, published
in the late 1930’s in the
Forverts, has recently been
translated into English as Saul
Moissevich Ginsburg, The
Slavuta Drama, translated
from the Yiddish by Ephraim
H. Prombaum with introductory
and concluding remarks,
glossary, and suggested readings
(Lanham: University
Press of America, 1991).
Although clearly an act of
filial piety by a descendant of
the Shapira family, this translation
is a further popularization
of an already popularized
text, and should be used with
this in mind.

Behind these raw facts, however, there lies a compelling and to some extent mysterious
drama. First and foremost, by the time the Slavuta Talmud first appeared,
the political conditions that had existed for the previous centuries were no longer
extant. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was destroyed by its three powerful
neighbors, Russia, Austria, and Prussia, in the partitions of Poland of 1772, 1793,
and 1795. Thus, the area in which approximately a million and a half Jews resided
was now annexed to the Russian Empire, the Habsburg Empire, and the growing
Prussian state. This political change, and especially the fact that now the largest
and most rapidly growing Jewish population in the world was under the control
of the Russian tsars, was to have far-reaching implications on all aspects of Jewish
life, including the history of Talmud publishing. At the very same time, the internal
life of east European Jewry was utterly transformed by the religious and spiritual
revolution brought about by the rise of Óasidism, which spread rapidly from its
origins and base in the Ukrainian lands to all other regions of eastern Europe,
including Congress Poland, Belorussia, and Lithuania. As is well known, even the
bans of excommunication levied against the òasidim by the rabbinic leadership of
Lithuanian and Belorussian Jewry, including the greatest talmudic authority of the age, Elijah Gaon
of Vilna (1720–1797), ultimately had little e√ect.

Paradoxically, perhaps, the victory of Óasidism is evidenced by the fact that its opponents now
came to be called mitnagdim (opponents) by both groups, the clear implication being that Óasidism
was in late-twentieth-century parlance the default position of east European Jewry.4

4. This was entirely parallel
to the adoption, several
centuries earlier, of the term
“Protestant” by those who
rebelled against the Roman
Catholic Church. They were
first derided as those who protest—
the protestants—and
then came to call themselves
by this very same term.

To what extent
Óasidism’s many theological and sociological innovations derived from or caused a diminution of
the role of Talmud study in traditional Jewish life has been a subject of scholarly analysis and debate
for more than a century.5

5. See the excellent collection
of articles on Óasidism
edited by Gershon Hundert,
Essential Papers on Hasidism:
Origins to Present (New York:
NYU Press, 1991).

What seems clear is that two processes were taking place simultaneously,
which appear at first to be contradictory but were in fact actually complementary. On the one hand,
it is indisputable that the core of òasidic theology in its many manifestations and permutations
regarded mystical experience and theosophical teachings as the highest stages of religious life, leading
to the greatest goal of all, union with, or cleavage to, the divine. Most revolutionary was the possibility
that this salvific state could be reached by ordinary (though once again, only male) Jews, and
not simply by the elite that had throughout Jewish history studied not only the Talmud and other
halakhic works, but also mystical and esoteric Jewish texts. However, the rabbinical elite through the
centuries had clearly understood the danger posed by mystical exegeses of the Bible and other sacred
texts. Teachings that asserted that the meaning of a word or the fulfillment of a commandment were
to be found not in their obvious definition or performance, but rather in their esoteric interpretation
or motivation, could undermine the very foundations of rabbinic civilization, leading to nonnormative,
and even antinomian, behavior. Therefore, they limited the study of Kabbalah and the
performance of mystic rites to those already ensconsed within the talmudically-trained elite. Even
then further guidelines were established permitting access to this realm of knowledge only to those
who were, among other things, married and over forty years old. Thus, the very core of the òasidic
revolution, the popularization of kabbalistic study and mystic observance, not only departed from
previous traditions, but also invariably led to a diminution of traditional talmudic study in òasidic
Judaism. “Talmud Torah,” as previously understood, hardly remained “ke-neged kulam.” This displacement
of the ontological status of Talmud study has often been misunderstood or deliberately
mischaracterized as a “democratization” of Judaism. Not only was the concept
of democracy unknown to the leaders of Óasidism (and extraordinarily di¥cult,
if not impossible, to conceive of in regard to women), it was also utterly belied by
perhaps the central tenet of Óasidism. This core sociological innovation was the
belief that there was a special type of Jew, the tzaddik, who by divine selection was
empowered with extraordinary supernatural powers and wisdom unobtainable to
the average man. Indeed the role of the tzaddik was precisely to serve as spiritual
master to ordinary Jews, who were charged with emulating, as far as was possible,
their master’s teachings and actions. Crucial was the fact that these teachings did
not need to be, and generally were not, based on talmudic or other rabbinic texts
expertly interpreted. Many òasidic masters were not, and never pretended to be,
talmudically trained; and many were never ordained as rabbis, as opposed to their
charismatic status as “rebbes.”

As Óasidism spread and conquered vast segments of east European Jewry, it became as much a
part of the “establishment” of east European Jewry as rabbinic Judaism, and not surprisingly, its
more radically kabbalistic and anti-intellectual trends were significantly muted. Indeed, the appearance
of the Slavuta Talmud in 1791 already signaled the possibility of the intersection of Óasidism
and Talmud study. Not only was Slavuta located in the heart of the overwhelmingly òasidic Ukraine,
but the founder of this press, Moses Shapira, was the son of the great òasidic master, Rabbi Pinòas
of Korets (1726–1791), who himself hailed from the more rationalist north but soon became one of
the most devout and enthusiastic adherents and masters of the new movement. It was only natural
for the Slavuta press to publish, alongside the Talmud and other halakhic, homiletic, and liturgical
works, hundreds of òasidic titles, covering the entire spectrum of òasidic genres, from simple (or
seemingly simple) tales of rebbes to the most arcane and esoteric mystical texts, including the Zohar.
This extraordinary publishing e√ort contributed, in turn, to the popularization of òasidic beliefs
and practices, including the acceptance by a large proportion of east European Jews of the so-called
Lurianic liturgy (Nusaò ha-Ari), spread through the publication of prayerbooks. In and of itself,
this liturgical departure from the centuries-old traditions of Polish-Lithuanian-Ukrainian Jewry was
one of the cardinal points condemned as heresy by the mitnagdic leaders from the late-eighteenth
century on. This essentially became more widely accepted as Óasidism spread throughout eastern
European Jewry.

Thus, by the 1820’s, the battle between the mitnagdim and the òasidim had all but died down, but
there were still many cases of mitnagdic figures denouncing Óasidism to the Russian and Austrian
governments as a dangerous, superstitious, radical, and untrustworthy sect. Óasidim answered in
kind with denunciations of the mitnagdic leaders to the tsarist regime, usually on the count of corruption
of the communal leadership, and especially fraudulent management of taxes and military
conscription. Russian authorities confessed that they saw no essential di√erence between one brand
of Jews and another; they were all perfidious enemies of Christianity, and hence were to be treated
the same. It was only far later in the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth century that
there emerged an unstated coalition between the tsarist regime and representatives of traditionalist
Judaism in Russia, both òasidic and mitnagdic, as they faced the revolutionary movements so prevalent
among the Jews.

From the 1820’s on, however, followers of the nascent Haskalah, the Hebrew Enlightenment
movement, entered into the fray. They attacked Óasidism with even greater fervor than the traditionalist
mitnagdim, and sent petition after petition both to the provincial and central governments
condemning the òasidim as obscurantist and dangerous fanatics. Indeed, in the second quarter of the
nineteenth century it was often di¥cult to distinguish between mitnagdim and maskilim, and this
confusion was especially important in the realm of access to printing presses and publishers.
By this time, there were a remarkable number of printing presses and publishers among eastern
European Jewry, from Vilna in the north, Warsaw in the center, and Odessa in the south. Of these
Hebrew publishers, only one dared to confront the Slavuta press on its most prestigious turf, the
publication of the Talmud. In 1789, the Romm press was founded in Grodno (its actual plant was
in a village outside town) by Barukh ben Yosef Romm. This press soon became famous throughout
100 p ri n t i ng t h e tal m u d: f rom bom be rg to sc hot t e nst e i n
the Jewish scholarly world for its many publications of halakhic and homiletic, but decidedly not
òasidic, works. Following its move to Vilna in 1799, and under the ownership of the founder’s son,
Menaòem Mann Romm, the Romm publishing house embarked on a period of astonishing growth
and prestige, merging with and acquiring several other publishing houses in Vilna, Grodno, and
environs. Now, alongside its halakhic and homiletic works, the Romm publishing house began to
print maskilic books as well, albeit those approved by local rabbinic figures.
In 1835, the appearance of the first Romm Talmud led to a fierce battle with the Slavuta press and
the Shapira family, which claimed that the Romms had infringed upon their rabbinically endorsed
monopoly on publishing the Talmud. Soon, a war of rabbinic opinions ensued, with literally hundreds
of rabbis involved on both sides, and with no clear resolution possible. The outcome of this
fight came from a distinctly di√erent source, the Russian government. First, the body of one of the
workers at the Slavuta press was discovered in its plant. The Shapira family claimed that this was
a tragic suicide, but others believed it to be a murder, since the worker in question had allegedly
denounced his bosses for publishing books without the permission of the local state censor. A formal
inquiry was launched, which led to the conviction of the Shapira brothers, their subjection to corporal
punishment, and their banishment to Siberia. The famous Slavuta Hebrew publishing house
was no more.

This cause célèbre contributed to the decision of the Russian government to shut down all the
existing Hebrew presses in the Empire as a means of better controlling the obviously fractious Jewish
population. The monopoly on Hebrew (and Yiddish) publishing was then assigned to two publishing
houses, one in Vilna and one in Kiev, to service the mitnagdic-cum-maskilic north and the òasidic

6. On this decision, as well
as the overall policy of the
Russian government regarding
the Jews, see my Tsar
Nicholas I and the Jews: The
Transformation of Jewish
Society in Russia, 1825–1855
(Philadelphia: Jewish
Publication Society, 1983).

These monopolies were to be funded by a bidding process in which the winning firm would
agree to pay a stipulated tax to the government, raised from the already existing candle and koshermeat
taxes, as well as by tari√s on Hebrew and Yiddish books imported from abroad. Since the
reading audience of east European Jews was enormous—the population grew from one and a half
million in 1800 to approximately six million by the end of the century—obtaining these monopolies
was a guarantee of very substantial income. Not surprisingly, the Vilna monopoly was successfully
bid for and obtained by the Romm family. However, all was not well for this family, as their plant
burned down (for reasons unknown) in 1840. Nevertheless, the brothers Romm (now led by Yosef
and then by his son David) persisted and rebuilt an even larger and more modern publishing house.
David Romm died in 1862, and his place was taken, rather remarkably for this patriarchal society,
by his widow Deborah. The name of the firm changed to the “Widow and Brothers Romm.”

Meanwhile, in the south, the site of the one legal Hebrew publishing house was
quite sensibly moved by the government from Kiev, which at this time had a very
small legal Jewish population due to the restriction of Jewish settlement in the
city. It was moved to Zhitomir, which was far more central to the huge Ukrainian
Jewish population and, not coincidentally, the site of the second governmentsponsored
Rabbinical Seminary (the first was in Vilna). Given this de facto connection
between the Rabbinical Seminary and the projected publishing house,
the prospect of entering into a formal relationship with the Russian government
was anathema to the òasidic leaders. The Seminary’s book publishing needs were su¥ciently met
by the Hebrew presses across the various borders in Warsaw, Lemberg, and Czernowitz, where new
editions of the Talmud were printed as well.

However, none of these editions could compete with the Vilna Shas, which soon added commentaries
that only increased its centrality to traditional Jewish learning across the world. The last
edition of the Vilna Talmud was published in 1897—the year in which the Zionist movement was
founded in Basle, Switzerland, and the Jewish Labor Bund was founded in Vilna. Clearly, eastern
European Jewry had entered a new phase of its history, during which traditional Judaism, whether
mitnagdic or òasidic, had to fight an uphill battle against the forces of modernity. After the death
of the “Widow Romm” in 1903 and the emigration of three of her sons to New York, the Romm
press continued to function. The remaining heirs had no interest in continuing in the publishing
business, however, and the press was sold in 1910 to Baron David Guenzburg, the learned scion of
the richest and most powerful Jewish family in the Russian Empire. For the next three decades the
firm still called “The typography of the Widow and Brothers Romm” continued to publish Hebrew
and Yiddish books, both traditional and modernist, until it was destroyed in 1940 in the Soviet
occupation of Vilna.

Through these turbulent times, as the Romm Talmud’s plates and templates were transferred both
to the Land of Israel and to the United States,7

7. See Yahadut Lita (n.1 above).

the Vilna Shas retained its centrality throughout the
Jewish world, still referred to and honored by its original site of publication, the
“Jerusalem of Lithuania.”