Date of this Version
Hebrew printing was an important channel of cultural and religious expression for the Jews of early modern Europe. Printed service books aided public worship, and works of popular piety, often written in Yiddish or Ladino, enabled “women and ignorant men” to learn the rudiments of halakhic practice. The printing press also made it possible for rabbis to own their own copies of talmudic tractates, responsa collections and books of sermons. Printing helped Sephardic refugees from Spain to maintain their distinctive intellectual and religious identity and some of their traditions in their lands of exile. While printing was a powerful means for supporting Jewish life, it was also a heavily regulated one. In most of Europe, notably in Germany, Jewish printers were not permitted to publish any book unless they were able to satisfy a Christian censor that it was “fit to print.”
Hanau’s Jewish printers enjoyed a remarkable degree of freedom in what they were allowed to print. The efforts of Jewish writers, editors, and community leaders provided them with more books even than they were able to print. Advances in Hebrew learning among Christians, especially after Hebrew language instruction became more widely available in schools and universities, provided a pool of potential censors who could evaluate these Jewish books independently of Jewish teachers or assistants. It was, in the end, the confidence of Keuchen and his superiors that he could evaluate these books properly that made Hebrew printing in Hanau possible. Jewish printing was allowed in Hanau only because it posed no threat to Christian religious dominance in Germany; and it could at times benefit the Christian community.