This text was prepared by William Gross:
Minhagim books (Yid. Minhogim bukh מינהגים בוך; Heb. Sefer minhagim ספר מנהגים) are collections of religious practices arranged according to the order of the religious year and life cycle. When the genre first appeared in the Early Middle Ages, these volumes focused on local customs, with the purpose of ascertaining their existence and halakhic validity, and preventing them from being forgotten.
Originally written in Hebrew, minhagim books were later translated into Yiddish for the benefit of women and laymen not schooled in Hebrew. The author of the original Hebrew text was the Austrian-Hungarian Rabbi Isaac Tyrnau (c. 1400), but it did not appear in print until 1566, in Krakow. In 1590, a Yiddish translation by Simon Günzburg was printed in Venice by Giovanni di Gara, a member of the (Christian) family who were among the leading producers of Hebrew books in Venice through the second half of the 16th century (despite the periodical bans on printing Hebrew and Yiddish books). Although Yiddish was spoken in Venice, the primary audience was probably the communities in Central Europe.
The earliest printed minhagim books were unillustrated (one or two manuscript editions with illustrations exist). Around the end of the 16th century, however, woodcut illustrations were added to the text to increase the books’ visual appeal and hold the interest of the reader. The earliest published example of such an edition was printed by Giovanni di Gara in Venice, 1593, and employs the same text as his 1590 unillustrated edition. These woodcuts ensured the book’s fame – and popularity – and made it a model for later editions.
A large number of post-1593 printed minhagim books derive their illustrations from the Venice 1593 edition. Most examples are from Amsterdam and Germany, primarily Frankfurt a. M. More than 50 editions of the book were produced between the 16th and 19th centuries.
In this edition 35 woodcuts are distributed throughout the text. Among them are illustrations of the search for leaven, baking matzah, building a Sukkah, and lighting Shabbat lights. These illustrations have been much reprinted, independently and within siddurim and other books.
Shabbetai b. Joseph Meshorer Bass (1641-1718) founded the first Hebrew press in Dyhernfurth, in Lower Silesia (near Breslau), and in doing so, also the first Jewish community there, comprised of families of the workers at the printing press. Bass, a biblical exegete, bibliographer, printer and hazzan, is best remembered today for his super commentary on Rashi, Siftei Hakhmim (Amsterdam, 1680), and his bibliographical work, Siftei Yeshenim (Amsterdam, 1680), which is a list of over 2,000 Hebraica and Judaica titles that he was able to identify in libraries in Poland, Germany, and the Low Countries.
Bass’ love of books brought drew him to printing trade, and he in fact constitutes an important link between printing in Prague, Amsterdam and Poland: he was a native of Prague, learned the printing trade from Uri Phoebus ben Aaron Ha-Levi at Amsterdam, and employed workers who came from Poland.
Bass’ press in Dyhernfurth was active and successful. He did, however, have to cope with the hostility of his non-Jewish neighbors, the partial destruction of his press by fire in 1708, and attempts by Jesuits to interfere with the sale of his books as early as 1694 by bringing charges in Breslau against him for printing books with blasphemous content. He faced the same charges in 1712, and was incarcerated for 10 weeks. He was tried, found innocent, and released. His press continued to publish under the successive management of family members until 1762.