Shabbetai Bass – Bibliographer and Printer

Shabbetai ben Joseph was born in Kalisz in 1641. We do not know his family name. His parents died when Shabbetai was only 14 years old. Orphaned Shabbetai moved to Prague, where he studied at a yeshiva and sung in the Old-New Synagogue (Altneushul) choir. The choir (of course comprised of male members only) would sing during the prayers welcoming Shabbat (Kabbalat Shabbat). And hence his nickname – since he sang bass he became known as The Bass Singer, The Bass or in Hebrew simply The Singer (Meshorer).

It is unknown if he came in contact with the printing craft already in Prague, but we do know that in the year 1674 he left the city and travelled for a few years. First he went northward, to Glogow, his hometown Kalisz, Krotoszyn, Leszno and Poznan, after which he went westward – passing by Worms he arrived in Amsterdam in the year 1679. The city was at the time a thriving center of Jewish printing and it is quite likely that it’s here where Shabbetai learned his craft.

Already in 1680 he published his first work – Sifte Yeshenim. It is historically the first Hebrew bibliography, containing information on approximately 2.200 books, including 825 manuscripts and almost 150 Jewish-themed books by non-Jewish authors. The book had an index of names and topics.

Shabbetai Bass divided the entire Jewish literature known to him into two large groups: Biblical and post-Biblical (Talmudic), and each of those he farther divided into ten smaller categories. The bibliographical entries were arranged alphabetically by titles, providing also the author’s name, place and year of publication (writing) and a brief description of the content. The vast majority of the books the author mentioned he knew first-hand, and the knowledge on others he borrowed from the work of Buxtorf and Bartolocci.

Several years later Shabbetai left Amsterdam (after buying first quite a substantial stock of books for sale) and headed east, specifically to Brzeg Dolny (Dyhernfurth). It was there where he decided to start his own publishing house, probably seeing a significant market for Jewish books in Poland, which at the time did not have any Jewish printing house. The only printing house of the kind in Central Europe existed in Prague. Subsequently he bought the printing privilege from the town’s owner and in the year 1688 he opened his small business. Together with Shabbetai Bass there were coming to Brzeg other workers for his printing house: typesetters, proofreaders, printers (13 families in total) who established a Jewish community in the town (in 1689 they acquired a land plot allocated for the cemetery).

The first book that came out from the printing presses in Dyhernfurth was a commentary to one of the volumes of Rabbi Joseph Karo’s Shulchan Aruch, titled Beit Shmuel, and written by Rabbi Shmuel ben Uri Shraga Phoebus. It was printed in August of 1689 and soon after Bass published a commentary to another part of Shulchan AruchMagen Avraham by Rabbi Avraham Gombiner. In the same year at least three other books were published in Brzeg. In the following years some of the books that were published there included, among others, complete Babylonian Talmud (for the first time there were included in this edition comments by Rabbi Yeshayahu Berlin to Masoret HaShas), Mishne Torah by Rambam and Shulchan Aruch, as well as four editions of Chumash and the Book of Psalms, seven editions of Siddurim, four editions of Machzorim, and five editions of the Selichot prayers.

The books printed in Brzeg by Shabbetai Bass were addressed to the buyers in Poland, therefore they were mostly authored by Polish Rabbis. The quality of those publications was quite high (Bass tried with all his strength to imitate the Amsterdam printers – at the time perhaps the best ones in the world), and the prices were affordable, so it is not a surprise that they enjoyed considerable popularity. Large quantities were sold especially during a fair in Wroclaw (Breslau), where Shabbetai would go to sell them himself. All the time, however, he had to struggle with reoccurring accusations by the Wroclaw Jesuits of printing “blasphemous and anti-Christian” books. Perhaps that was the reason why Shabbetai was not allowed to enter the city in the summer of 1706 to attend the fair and was forced from the time on to sell his books in this city through intermediaries. Another blow fell on him two years later, when much of the printing house was consumed by a fire. Eventually, no longer young, Shabbetai Bass forwarded his business in 1711 into the hands of his son, Joseph.

His retirement wasn’t calm, though. In the year 1712 a Jesuit teacher of the Hebrew language at the University of Prague, father Franz Kolb, accused both Basses – the father and the son, of publishing in 1705 an anti-Christian book Shaarei Tzion by Rabbi Nathan Hannover. This little book comprised of a collection of mystical prayers and ascetic meditations, and was first published in Prague in 1662, and since then was reprinted multiple times in response to its significant popularity. Nevertheless, Kolb caused both Basses to be arrested and their books confiscated. After ten weeks in prison, though, they got cleared of all the charges and released.

Shabbetai devoted the rest of his life to the work on a new edition – revised and expanded – of his bibliography Siftei Yeshenim. He died before he finished this project, in 1718. The printing house in Dyhernfurth continued to operate, and since the year 1717 it was led first by Berel Nathan from Krotoszyn, who married Shabbetai’s granddaughter, Esther, and then, after 1729, by the widowed Esther.

Siftei Yeshenim was not the only book written by Shabbetai Bass. He was also the author of a very popular commentary on Rashi’s commentary to the Pentateuch and Chamesh Meggilot, titled Siftei Chachamim (Amsterdam, 1680). It was probably not a coincidence, that the titles of both his books contain the word “siftei” (שפתי), which is a word play on the author’s name – Shabbetai (שבתי). They only difference between them is one letter.

But the most peculiar position in his achievements is without a doubt the small booklet Mesechet Derech Eretz. Written in Yiddish, it contains a description of the seventeenth century European roads, distances between cities, postal links between them, as well as descriptions of coins in circulation, weights and measures used in contemporary Europe.


Herbert Cecil Zafren, Dyhernfurth and Shabtai Bass: a typographic profile, Ktav Publishing House, New York 1971

Translated from Polish by Rochel Joanna Czopnik 

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