On July 3, 1475, Meshullam Cusi Rafa ben Moses Jacob printed the first volume of the important halakhic work “Arba’ah Turim” (“Four Columns.”) It is the second-oldest dated work still in existence, printed in Hebrew a mere 21 years after Johannes Gutenberg printed his first Bible with movable type.
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The only dated Hebrew work that preceded the “Arba’ah Turim” was an edition of Rashi’s commentary on the Torah, whose printing was completed in Reggio di Calabria by Abraham ben Garton ben Isaac in February 1475.
A German-born Jew who trained as a physician, Meshullam Cusi established his press in the northern Italian town of Piove di Sacco, on the outskirts of Padua, earlier in 1475. Piove was apparently the first town in the region to allow Jews to settle in it; it hosted a Jewish-owned moneylending business from as early as 1373. Later, when moneylending was prohibited within Padua, other Jewish bankers relocated to Piove di Sacco.
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“Arba’ah Turim” was compiled in the 14th century by Jacob ben Asher (who died Toledo in about 1340) and is considered one of the most important compendiums of Jewish law. Its name refers to the fact that it is organized in four sections, and also is an allusion to the four rows of jewels on the breastplate of the High Priest in the days of the Temple. The book’s structure also serves as the basis for the organization of the Shulhan Arukh, Rabbi Joseph Caro’s 16th-century codex of Jewish law.
In the colophon of the work, Meshullam Cusi included a short verse, in which he seemed to indicate what he saw as the importance of the new technology whose use he was pioneering:
“Wisdom am I, and crown of all science, / Hidden am I, a mystery to all. /
Without pen stroke, my imprint stands patent, Without scribe, lo! a volume appears. /
One instant, and ink o’er me flowing, / Without guide lines, straight stands every word. /
Do you wonder at Deborah, the mighty. / Who ruled with the pen of the scribes? / Had she seen me displaying my power, / She had taken me, a crown for her head” (as quoted by David Werner Amram, in his 1909 book “Makers of Hebrew Books in Italy.”)
Meshullam Cusi died a short time after completing the printing of the first volume of the “Arba’ah Turim,” and work on the succeeding volumes was taken over by his two sons and his widow. When the sons were imprisoned, their mother finished the project, overseeing the printing of volume four.