Word of the Day Dfus: One Ancient Grecian's Mold Is Another Man's Printer

How 15th century Bible publishers came to create a word describing their craft.

Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad
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Elon Gilad
Elon Gilad

The Hebrew word for print - dfus - comes from the Greek. Before the world goes completely digital and the word becomes obsolete, let's see how this happened.

The ancient Greek verb for print was tipto, from which arose the ancient Greek noun for a punch – tiptos. That in turn later became the word for any shape embossed in metal. Yet later, the word became even more generalized to refer to any shape, not just done in metal – at roughly which time it also became the word for "formula".

It was this last meaning that Hebrew adopted, back in the time of the Mishnah, morphed into the form tofes. Nowadays tofes is the modern Hebrew word for "standard form" of the kind you fill in at your doctor’s office or at the DMV, but I digress.

Back to our story: A few generations passed and during Talmudic times Hebrew adopted the same Greek word again, but this time in the form dfus - meaning mold. Not some slimy greenish thing eating your bread, but the kind of thing into which one pours molten metal. This meaning of dfus endured into the Middle Ages.

Meanwhile, Hebrew wasn’t the only language to adopt the Greek word tiptos. So did the Latin, in the form typus (no relation to typhus: that illness gets its name from a different Greek word).

In Latin the word typus took on a myriad of meanings but the main one, and the one that was adopted in nearly every European language was "type" (English, Dutch and French), tipo (Italian, Portuguese and Spanish), and so on.

Thus by the time Johannes Gutenberg printed his Bible in 1436, it is not surprising that the new art had taken the name "typography" – shape, or type, writing.

Writing without pen

The first Hebrew printer was Abraham Ben Graton, a Spanish Jew, who thought to make his fortune from the new technology. In 1475 he travelled to Italy, where the science of printing had taken an early hold. Settling in Reggio di Calabria, a town on the Mediterranean coast where the Italian boot kicks Sicily, he set out to print 300 copies of Rashi’s commentary on the Bible, the No. 1 book for Jewish schoolboys at the time.

Meanwhile, as Ben Graton was making his fortune selling his books back in Spain, Dvorah - the widow of Rabbi Meshulam Beker Jacob Kuzi - and her two sons were finishing the task set by her late husband: to print the first of the four volumes of the Arba'ah Turim, an important compilation of Jewish law.

The rest of the three she finished on her own, as her sons were imprisoned and later died. The fourth of these volumes she signed with a poem celebrating the new art:

“I am the wisest, to all the sciences I am the crown
I am secret closed in mystery
Without pen the writing is apparent
Without scribe was this book formed
Without tracing the writing is straight
Woe to the lady Dvorah
In the tribe of scribes she is bound
On her head I’ve been placed as a crown
.”

It is no coincidence that the word dfus is absent from Dvorah’s poem - the word had yet to enter use in this meaning. This would happen in 1477, when the printer Abraham Ben Haim of Pesaro used it to describe his job - sofer mahir dfus - roughly “fast mold scribe.” Evidently he was aware of the etymological connection between the word dfus and type.

The word dfus for the craft of printing was adopted by the Soncino family, which would take the practice of printing the Hebrew letter and raise it to an art-form, in the process becoming a printing empire.

The Soncinos were the first to print the Bible with niqqud (diacritical signs used to represent vowel). They were also the first to print a portion of the Talmud - Masekhet Brakhot, their first book - in 1484.

In the introduction to that tome, they explained their decision to go into printing.

“And [Israel Nathan Ben Shmuel] called upon his son… and ordered him ‘You will build a building for the world, you will raise the corners of wisdom and will make books by print (dfus) to serve two uses: One, you will quickly fill the land with wisdom. Second, they will be cheaper than manuscripts written by quill or pen. And those who cannot afford to buy the highly price will buy the cheap instead.’ And the son quickly followed his father’s orders.”

Soncino books filled the globe and carried the word dfus with them everywhere they went. The word was fully adopted in Hebrew by the end of the 15th century.

Cast metal type pieces and a composing stick for printing.Credit: Wikimedia
Embossing involves using a combination of heat and pressure on sheet metal. The technique goes back millennia.Credit: Dreamstime.com
An "Old Testament" Gutenberg Bible photographed at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York.Credit: AP

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