Relationship between print and manuscript was a long divorce, but never finalized for the Jews

In his Print, Manuscript, and the Search for Order, David McKitterick characterizes the relationship between print and manuscript in the early modern period as a long divorce. For Jews, one might posit that the divorce was never finalized: The composition of texts in manuscript never disappeared from Jewish culture. The writing of a Torah scroll, the composition of a mezuzah, and other such sacred objects continues uninterrupted. Even beyond these basic ritual functions, manuscript writing continued to play a crucial role in Jewish societies for centuries after the invention of printing, and manuscripts continue to exist in persistent tension with printed books. One could write an entire work on manuscript culture among early modern Jewry along the lines of Brian Richardson’s recent study. Such a book would unearth a range of intellectual activities that have either been studied in isolation from one another or not studied at all. Here, too, the history of the Shulhan ‘arukh proves particularly instructive. In his discussion of the Ashkenazic tradition of glossing the Shulhan ‘arukh, Elchanan Reiner concluded: “The Ashkenazi halakhic book at the beginning of the modern era retained certain features inherited from the medieval scribal tradition of knowledge transmission. In certain respects it was a kind of printed manuscript, that is, a text which, in the way it took shape, rejected the new communicative values of print culture and created a text with esoteric components, thus protecting its elitist position.” Reiner’s concept of a “printed manuscript” neatly dissolves the distinction between print and manuscript so beloved by historians fixated on rupture. It should also serve as the point of departure for the study of several aspects of early modern Jewish culture: the spread of kabbalistic books, the development of Jewish reference works, the study of marginal annotations, and the history of collections to name only a few.

Yaacob Dweck, “What is a Jewish Book?”, AJS Review 34:2 (November 2010), 371-372.

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