The following description was prepared by William Gross:
In 1666 there was a great commotion in the Jewish world as a man, Shabbetai Tzvi, a Sephardic Rabbi and kabbalist born in Smyrna, proclaimed himself to be the messiah. With all the terrible troubles that beset the Jewish people in the middle of the 17th century, the hope that he was the true messiah took root. Many Jews enthusiastically embraced him, and began to prepare for the End of Days. When, in 1667, he converted to Islam rather than face martyrdom, the disappointment and shame of those who had believed in this false messiah was palpable.
The hint that this publication was Sabbatean in nature is found in the chronogram on the title page, used for the date of publication: the word "Moshi'a" (Savior). Athias printed several Sabbatean publications, using both the present chronogram, and another: In the year “I will SAVE (moshiah) my people” )Zechariah 8:7). Joseph Athias (c.1635 – 1700) was born in Spain, and via Portugal and Germany, eventually reached Amsterdam. His father, Jorge Mendez de Castro, had been burned alive at an auto-de-fé in Cordova in 1665. At the age of 23, in 1658 Athias opened a Hebrew print-shop (in the same year as Uri Phoebus establish his press) which would be active into the 18th C. A proficient businessman, Athias was able to establish commercial ties with bookmen in Holland and elsewhere. He was the first Jewish printer to be accepted, in 1661, as a member of the Amsterdam Bookprinters Guild.
Among the markets addressed by Joseph Athias, in contrast to other Hebrew printers of that time, was the printing of books for the non-Jewish market, a market with enhanced business prospects. Relying on the stereotype process, in which pages are composed and fixed in an iron frame which can be stored for future use, he was able to print 250 Bibles in four hours. The stereotype method was not employed for Athias’ Hebrew books as that market was insufficient to justify the expense of the process. His popular quarto Hebrew Bible, for example, has a print-run of only 3,000 copies (in contrast to the more than a million copies of an English Bible he claimed to have printed for the English and Scottish market).
Other works published by Athias include: Pentateuch with Megillot and Hafṭarot (1665); Psalms, with Dutch translation and proof-read by J. Leusden (1666-67); and a second edition of his 1659 Bible. More carefully prepared than the first, and with still more beautiful type and decorations, this 1667 edition earned Athias a gold medal and chain worth 600 Dutch florins from the States General of the Netherlands. A cut of the medal appears on the book’s title page.
Athias' business career was marred by his controversy with the printer Uri Phoebus over their almost simultaneous printing of Yiddish translations of the Bible. Phoebus’ edition, a translation by Jekuthiel ben Isaac Blitz, had taken him three years to complete, and proved to be a severe financial drain. Prior to printing it, however, he had obtained from the Polish Council of the Four Lands the privilege that for ten years all reprints were to be prohibited and laid under ban. The rabbis of the Portuguese and German congregations of Amsterdam and elsewhere confirmed this privilege. In addition, through the influence his two Christian partners, the alderman Wilhelm Blau and the jurist Laurens Ball, Phoebus had also obtained from John III. Sobieski of Poland a further privilege that this Yiddish translation was to have copyright in Poland for twenty years. The work was not even completed, however, when one of his compositors, Josel (Joseph) Witzenhausen, himself made a Yiddish translation, for which he secured Joseph Athias as printer and publisher. Through his wealth, Athias possessed certain advantages over his rival, and was also able to obtain privileges for his translation from Holland and Zealand, and even succeeded, through a Jewish agent of the Polish crown in Holland, in gaining still more favorable protection from the Council of the Four Lands. Although Witzenhausen was warned not to compete with Phoebus and Blitz, both he and Athias ignored the injunction, and began to print as early as December 5, 1678. Phoebus’ edition appeared at Amsterdam in 1678; that of Athias, in its complete form, in 1679.
The printers’ dispute embroiled both men in litigation, and, the market being flooded with two translations, brought both Athias and Phoebus to financial ruin. Athias’ press was forced into temporary bankruptcy, and in 1695 both he and his son Immanuel had to go into hiding. Nevertheless, they were able to settle their accounts, resume printing, and prosper again.