Isaac ben Aaron Prostic, part 1

Prostějov (Prossnitz)[1] in Moravia is a small town (now less than 50,000 inhabitants), which played a prominent role in the history of Jewish printing in Poland and the Czech Republic. The reason is that it was here, in the year 1527, in the printing house of Kašpar Aorg that the first ever book was printed in Moravia. It was also here that Isaac ben Aaron, known as Prostic (of Prostějov), was born, and who later became a printer in Krakow and also here, in Prostějov.

Prostějov (Prossnitz)

The Jewish community of Prostějov was established in the second half of the fifteenth century by the Jewish exiles from Olomouc, and until the mid-nineteenth century was the second largest Jewish community in Moravia – the only bigger one was the one in Mikulov (Nikolsburg)[2] – at the end of the sixteenth century there were about 600 Jews living in Prostějov. Among the rabbis of the local community were Rabbi Menachem Krochmal, Rabbi Gershon Ashkenazi, and at the end of the eighteenth century the principal of the local yeshivah was Chatam Sofer.[3] The town was an important center of textile and clothing industry and the local Jews played a significant role in its development.

Isaac ben Aaron

Isaac ben Aaron Prostic was born in the mid-twenties of the sixteenth century. As a teenage boy he was sent by his father[4] to Italy to learn the art of printing. He apprenticed in several Italian printing houses and finally ended up in Venice, where he worked for Giorgio di Cavalli and Giovanni Griffo. It was there that he met the already recognized proofreader and editor of Hebrew text named Samuel ben Isaac Böhm[5], who was previously working in the printing shops of Cremona and Padua. When Giorgio di Cavalli closed down his Venetian printing house Prostic purchased all the equipment and together with Böhm moved to Krakow in 1568.

In Krakow

He settled in Kazimierz, the Jewish quarter of Krakow, and turned to King Sigismund Augustus to issue a privilege to print Hebrew books. On October 15, 1568 the king issued a privilege for Isaiae, filio Aronis Judaei Itali de Casmiria apud Cracovian, allowing him to print Hebrew books, including Talmud, for a period of fifty years. The actual printing started only in the summer next year – on the 15th day of the month Av 5329 (July 29, 1569) the works started on the first part of the publication, which was the commentary by Rabbi Naftali Herc ben Menachem of Lviv (Lemberg) on the midrash Chamesh Meggillot Rabbah, and its printing was completed on 29th of Av, so only two weeks later. But already on the 1st of Elul (14th of August) Prostic had started the works on the second book by the same author. This time it was a commentary on the same Midrash on the Torah. Printing of this publication was completed on 25th of August (12th of Elul). It seems like both of these books were simply two parts of a larger work, where the second part was printed first.

Withdrawal of the privilege

After that, Prostic printed a haggadah for Passover titled Zevach Pessach and soon later Torat Hachatat by Rabbi Moses Isserles (Remuh)[6], printing of which was completed on 25th of Cheshvan 5330 or November 5, 1569. Eearlier on, however, an official complaint was issued to the King by a group of higher clergy and professors of the local Academy (which mostly meant the same people). In said complaint they claimed that Prostic’s works were insulting the Christian religion, which was forbidden by the Council of Trent, and its authors requested the king to revoke the printing privilege for Isaac ben Aaron. The King acceded to the allegations and with the decree of November 2, 1569 he withdrew the granted a year earlier privilege. Entrusted with the execution of the decree was Stanislav Myszkowski, Voivode of Krakow and also the Starosta[7]. Even though he confiscated all the fonts and completed books as well as any printed sheets found in the printing house, they still managed to finish the printing of both the Torat hachatat as well as a of the small booklet Sefer hamefuar by Solomon Molko[8] (the printing was completed on the 21st of Kislev or 30th of November). In the beginning of the month Tevet (early December) they even started the preliminary works on Shulchan Aruch with glosas (comments) by Rabbi Moses Isserles but they were unable to complete their work before the fonts got confiscated, which must have happened around that time, in December 1569.

Restoration of privilege

Prostic’s efforts to regain the lost privilege and to be exonerated of all charges lasted over a year. It was not until November 15, 1570 that the King once again granted a permission “to Isaac the Italian, the Jew” for printing Hebrew books, but this time with the exception of the Talmud and other works detrimental to the Christian faith. It also ordered the return of seized fonts, but did not mention anything about the confiscated books – it is possible that Prostic had regained them earlier on, when no one found anything “detrimental” in them.

Isaac began to work again, but it wasn’t until February 4, 1571 (9 Adar 5331) that he managed to complete printing of the first volume of the work he started working on before the fonts were confiscated, which was the Shulchan Aruch. In the same year Prostic released a set of ritual rules titled Haaguda by Alexander Zuslin Hakohen from Frankfurt (the printing was completed on erev Sukkot, i.e. the 3rd of October). By the year 1578, over a dozen titles were released from the Krakow printing house. During that time, Prostic’s shop won a dominant position on the Hebrew book market in Poland, mainly winning with its quality over the much older and estimable printing house of Kalonymus ben Mordechai Jaffe of Lublin[9]. It is quite certain that such fast assuming of a dominant role on the Polish market by the Krakow printer was facilitated by his technological experience gained in the Italian printing houses, as well as the help of Samuel ben Isaac Böhm in substantial issues.


[1] Prostějov is a city in the Olomouc Region of the Czech Republic. The town came into existence in 1141 as a small settlement of Prostějovice, deriving its name from Lord Prostěj. The first written records about the town, also referred to as the "Jerusalem of Hana", date back to the 1st half of the 12th century. Today the city is known for its fashion industry and special military forces based there.

[2] Mikulov is a town in the South Moravian Region of the Czech Republic. The beginning of the Jewish settlement in Mikulov dates as far as 1421, when Jews were expelled from Vienna and the neighboring province of Lower Austria.

[3] Menachem Mendel ben Avraham Krochmal (1600 – 1661), born in Krakow, a student of R. Joel Sirkes (BaCh), Rabbi in Mikulov, author of Tzemach Tsedek collection of responsa.
Gershon Ashkenazi (1618 – 1693), born in Ulf, a student of R. Joel Sirkes, dayan of Krakow, Rabbi in Prostějov, Hanau, Mikulov, Vienna and Metz. An author of a collection of responsa, commentaries to the Torah and Shulchan Aruch.
Chatam Sofer – in fact Moses Sofer (1762 – 1839). Born in Frankfurt am Main, his first wife was the daughter of a Prostějov Rabbi. Rabbi in Pressburg (Bratislava), where he founded a famous yeshiva; halachic authority, an ardent opponent of the Reform movement and the Enlightenment.

[4] Maier Balaban, in his Zur Geschichte der hebraischen Druckerein in Polen, introduced a very interesting hypothesis about Aaron of Prostějov. He supposed that Isaac Prostic’s father also was living in Krakow, where he ran a bookstore and in the year 1566 he received from Sigismund August a trade privilege for imported Jewish books.

[5] Although he was mentioned in the books’ colophons as a magiha (a proofreader), it is known that he was also responsible for the selection and preparation of manuscripts for publication.

[6] Torat hacḥatat is a commentary on the popular works of Isaac ben Meir of Düren, Shaarei Dura (The Gates of Düren) on the laws of kashrut. This was the first edition of this book (editio princeps). It is worth remembering that the first edition of Shaarei Dura was also printed in Krakow – in the printing house of the Halicz brothers, in the year 1534.

[7] Voivode (derived from Old Slavic, literally meaning "warlord") is a Slavic title that originally denoted the principal commander of a military force (warlord). The word gradually came to denote the governor of a province.
Starosta (it can be translated as "elder") is a title for position of leadership that has been used in various contexts through most of Slavic history. The administrative official of a specific territorial unit: either the representative of the King (Grand Duke) or a person directly in charge.

[8] Solomon Molko (Molcho), originally Diogo Pires (1500 – 13 Dec. 1532) was a Portuguese mystic. A "New Christian" who converted back to Judaism, Molko was burned at the stake for apostasy.

[9] Prostic received commissions on printing books even from Lublin itself – the sons of the local Rabbi Solomon Luria commissioned the printing of his book Chochmat Shlomo to Prostic precisely because of the “excellent printing quality” of the Krakow printing house.

Translated from Polish by Rochel Joanna Czopnik

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