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1492: The First Mishna Is Printed

Joshua Solomon ben Israel Nathan Soncino, the first member of the distinguished family of printers, completed publication of the work in 1492.

David Green
David B. Green
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Pages from the Soncino Talmud
Pages from the Soncino TalmudCredit:
David Green
David B. Green

On May 8, 1492, Joshua Solomon ben Israel Nathan Soncino completed publication of what is believed to be the first printed edition of the Mishna. The text is accompanied by Maimonides’ commentary on the Mishna, in Hebrew translation.

Joshua Solomon Soncino (died 1493) was the first member of the distinguished Soncino family of printers to publish a book, a tractate of the Talmud (Berakhot), which he created in 1484. (Johannes Gutenberg had produced his first block-printed Bible in 1455.) The family took its name from the Italian town of Soncino, in northern Italy, east of Milan, where it lived for some time, but it could trace its origins to a German Jew called Moses of Speyer, in the 14th century.

The family moved its press around frequently, depending on the political situation it encountered, so that Soncino was just one of its homes. For example, Joshua Solomon Soncino was based in Soncino from 1483 to 1488 and in Naples from 1490 to 1492, when the Mishna was published. That year, many Jews expelled from Spain found a refuge in Naples, whereas by 1495, Naples was under French control, and things were far less comfortable for Jews. By 1510, Spain had conquered the city, and began expelling the Jews outright. By then, however, the Soncino press was operating out of Pesaro, to the southeast, on the Adriatic coast.

The most prolific and accomplished member of the family was Gershom ben Moses Soncino (died in 1534), the nephew of Joshua Solomon. He set up a press in Thessaloniki in 1527, and another in Istanbul three years later. Gershom published more than 100 different volumes, branching out from Hebrew into Greek, Latin and Italian. The last book produced by the family was issued in Cairo in 1557.

The Mishna comprises part of the book we know today as the Talmud. It is a collection of rabbinic commentaries and explications of the commandments as delineated in the Torah, and was redacted (edited) early in the 3rd century C.E., by Rabbi Judah Hanasi. Its six “orders” break down into 63 tractates that organize the commandments according to topic, for example Sabbath or the laws related to sacrifices in the Temple.

During the three centuries that followed the completion of the Mishna, the rabbis supplemented the Mishnaic text with additional commentaries. These commentaries constitute the Gemara. Together the Mishna and the Gemara make up the Talmud, which was edited into two versions, the Jerusalem -- or Palestinian -- Talmud, finalized around the year 400, and the more definitive Babylonian Talmud, completed about a century later.

The 1492 Soncino Mishna also contained the commentary of Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, who lived 1135 to 1204. The Rambam’s Commentary on the Mishna was composed in Judeo-Arabic, and finished in 1168. In it, he takes into account not only the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds, but also the Tosefta and midrashic works.

The Soncino Naples edition of the Mishna was followed by a Prague version, edited by Yom Tov Lipman Heller, with his own commentaries, in 1614-17. But the basis for most Mishnaic study today is the Romm publishing house edition, published in Vilna in 13 volumes in 1908.

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