An illustrated Minhagim book printed in Amsterdam
JEWISH LIFE IN the Northern Netherlands is first recorded in the 1590s,
when Portuguese Marrano merchants settled in Amsterdam and gradually resumed
their faith. After the arrival of the first Sephardi Jews Ashkenazi Jews
began to arrive from Germany and Poland too. Although granted some legal
rights, the Jews were banned from all guilds, except for that of the booksellers,
publishers and printers.
The first Jew to print Hebrew in the Northern Netherlands was Menasseh ben Israel, who was later succeeded by Elijahu Aboab. Aboab was the local pioneer of illustrated Hebrew and Yiddish books, In 1645 he printed Simeon Levi Gunzburg's Yiddish version of Sefer Ha-minhagim, embellished with woodcuts. The first illustrated edition of Gunzburg's Book of Customs had been published in Venice by Giovanni di Gara in 1593. Apparently, the anonymous artist of the Amsterdam edition aimed to replicate the iconographic scheme of the Venetian prototype to the minutest detail. Nevertheless, this edition of 1645 became a model in its own right for both the second and third editions of the Amsterdam Minhagim, published by Uri Fayvesh ben Aaron Halevi in 1662, and 1685, respectively.
Uri Fayvesh's Minhagim edition of 1685 is, in many ways, revolutionary.
lts title-page is solely in Hebrew, without a trace of Yiddish, and it
includes only twelve Minhagim illustrations. Yet this specific edition
raises a much greater question, pertaining to the readers for which it
was published, for it is here that the illustrations appear for the first
time in a Hebrew book.
So far, four Hebrew books using these illustrations have been recorded: the Minhagim of 1685, the edition by Solomon Proops of 1708, and two editions by Solomon Levi Maduro, dated 1768 and 1774. In fact, Maduro published three different editions of the Minhagim in 1768, with identical title-pages, layout, and woodcuts. One of them, with Spanish insertions, was apparently intended for a Spanish-speaking public, Another version of this book deviates from the Spanish edition in three instances, where the Spanish text was replaced by a Hebrew one.
It is highly plausible that the leaders of the Sephardi community felt the need to provide manuals of conduct similar to the Ashkenazi Sefer Ha-minhagim for the Marranos, who wished to re-embrace Judaism. Yet while the text was abbreviated and adapted for this specific clientele, the illustrations accompanying it were taken from the Ashkenazi source unaltered. Moreover, in later editions of the Sephardi books, the Ashkenazi iconography was retained, even when some or all of the woodblocks needed replacement.
All the known books from Amsterdam that include the Minhagim illustrations are customals, whether Ashkenazi or Sephardi. Only in one instance were they incorporated in a broader context, and that in a non-Jewish context.
Among the prominent Dutch Hebraists and theologians was Johannes Leusden, from the University of Utrecht. One of his most important studies, the Philologus Hebræus (editio princeps, Utrecht, 1656), goes far beyond a philological research of the Hebrew language and is a comprehensive study of Judaism and Jewish life. Of the other works by Leusden, one is of interest here. Entitled Philologus Hebrao-Mixtus, it appeared in 1663 with eight illustrations based on the Minhagim. Leusden's woodblocks, however, are not identical to any known set. One should, therefore, assume that he either commissioned new blocks or borrowed existing panels from some source.
In 1660-1662, Leusden cooperated with Amsterdam printer Joseph Athias
in the publication of the first Hebrew Bible with verse enumeration. Jointly
with two Jewish correctors, he was asked to proof-read the text. Athias
and Leusden maintained similar contacts for a number of years. It is possible
that some time after establishing his printing press in 1652, Athias published
the Minhagim with newly carved illustrations according to the traditional
iconography. These could have been lent to Leusden later, for the publication
of the Philologus of 1663.
Whether these illustrations stem from an unknown edition of the Minhagim or not, the woodcuts have apparently been utilized only in this edition of the Philologus. Later editions boast copper engravings, according to the artistic taste of the time.
The appearance of the Minhagim illustrations in a book on the customs of the Jews by a Christian author and their repeated use both by the Ashkenazim and the Sephardim in Amsterdam exemplify the interrelations between these socio-religious groups. Furthermore, the illustrations which have been uprooted from their original cultural-historical milieu in Ashkenazi Venice of the late sixteenth century, were transplanted into a realm both chronologically and geographically distant. Woodcuts that may have reflected contemporary Venetian-jewish life thus lost their validity as a historical source.