A Note on the Latin Dedication in the Rabbinic Bible of Venice 1517
by: Jordan S. Penkower
In response to the recent post at the Seforim Blog about approbations of Hebrew books, a correction is in order concerning the footnote about the intent of the remarks of Felix Pratensis in his dedication of the Venice 1517 Rabbinic Bible to the Pope. In footnote 3 of the recent post, a conjecture was offered to explain Felix Pratensis' remarks.
In addition, Pratensis claims that this edition was unique as the prior editions "hav[e] almost as many errors as words in them" and that "no one has attempted [such an edition] before." Ginsburg in his discussion about this edition shows, however, that in fact previous editions were (close) to error free. Ginsburg bemoans the fact that "Felix Pratensis should have been betrayed to resort to such unfair expedients." But, it is possible that Pratensis' claim regarding the novelty of the work was necessary in part due approbations. Not Rabbinic approbations but the approbation of the Venetian Senate. This is so, as in 1517 the Senate passed a law that would abolish all printing monopolies (copyrights) and hence forth would only grant monopolies for works which "are new or which have never been printed before." Horatio Brown, The Venetian Printing Press (London 1891), 74. Indeed, Bomberg, the printer of this edition had appealed to the Senate for a monopoly when he began printing in 1515 and which the new law abolished. See Meir Benayahu, Copyright, Authorization & Imprimatour for Hebrew Books Printed in Venice (Israel 1971), 17 (Hebrew). Thus, it is possible that Pratensis claim of novelty was to argue implicitly that this book qualified for a monopoly even under the new law as it was a "new" book.
I would like to clarify a number of points about Pratensis' remarks.
(1) Among his remarks, Pratensis makes the following statements: (a) no one before him had collated a great number of manuscripts to prepare a Bible edition; (b) the errors in the manuscripts are almost as many as their words, and only in this printed edition has the text been restored to its purity (See my PhD, p. 282 and nn. 20-21 for text and translation).
(2) Previous scholars have pointed out the problem with Pratensis' remarks, which seem to be mere hyperbole. C.D. Ginsburg, in his Introduction (pp. 946-947), who explained Pratensis' remarks as referring to the text, noted that he found several manuscripts similar to Pratensis' edition, and on the other hand, never found any manuscripts whose errors were as numerous as its words. P. Kahle, in numerous places, e.g. Cairo Geniza, p.123, offered an explanation of Pratensis' remarks: Pratensis was referring to the vocalization found in the manuscripts, specifically those manuscripts with "expanded-Tiberian vocalization", a system that he rejected.
(3) Neither of the above explanations of Pratensis' remarks is satisfactory. Ginsburg – he himself noted that if Pratensis refers to the text, there are several manuscripts similar to Pratensis' printed edition. Kahle – his explanation is unsatisfactory because Pratensis said that ALL mss - and not some specific sub-type - were replete with errors. I have offered an explanation several years ago in my doctoral thesis (pp. 187-188) that avoids the shortcomings of these suggestions. In chapter four of my thesis, I presented a detailed comparison of the variants between the Venice 1517 and the 1525 Rabbinic Bibles – in Genesis, Joshua, and Proverbs - both with respect to the text, as well as to the vocalization, accentuation, and ga'ayot. In light of the results of the comparisons between the two editions, I suggested that one should explain Pratensis' remarks as referring both to the text, as well as to the vocalization, accentuation, and ga'ayot.
(4) I have shown in my fourth chapter that with respect to the TEXT, Pratensis relied mainly on accurate Sefardi manuscripts. These manuscripts do NOT mark the "light ga'aya" consistently; do NOT use qamatz together with shewa to note the qamatz qatan (but only the sign of the qamatz alone); do NOT have a special sub-system of accentuation in Proverbs; and do NOT write "bin-Nun" with a dagesh in the first nun of the name Nun. With respect to all of these latter four phenomena – found in the Rabbinic Bible of Venice 1517 – Pratensis relied upon Ashkenazi manuscripts, which also vary widely from the accurate Sefardi manuscripts with respect to the details of plene-defective spelling (these Ashkenzai manuscripts also vary among themselves with respect to the above four phenomena). From these details it follows that according to Pratensis every manuscript that he saw, its errors were like the number of its words: Ashkenazi manuscripts with respect to the plene-defective spelling (and other topics), and the Sefardi manuscripts with respect to vocalization, accentuation, and ga'ayot.
(5) Thus we see that Pratensis indeed thought that his edition was unique and was the first accurate Bible edition. In his edition, he gathered for the first time phenomena from the above noted Sefardi and Ashkenazi manuscripts, and in his opinion his edition thereby "restored the splendor to the crown" with regard to all of its components: text, vocalization, accentuation, and ga'ayot. In reality, he created a new hybrid that never existed in the manuscripts.
Bibliography: Christian D. Ginsburg, Introduction to the Massoretico Critical Edition of the Hebrew Bible, London 1897, reprint: New York 1966; Paul Kahle, The Cairo Genizah, Oxford 1959; Jordan S. Penkower, Jacob ben Hayyim and the Rise of the Biblia Rabbincia, PhD dissertation, 2 vols, Jerusalem 1982 (Heb.); idem, "Rabbinic Bible", in: Dictionary of Biblical Interpretation, vol. 2, Abington Press, Nashville Tenn 1999, pp. 361b-364a.