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Cambridge University Library

Throwback Thursday: The Constantinople Polyglot of 1546

T-S NS 295.212
T-S NS 295.212 (recto): A leaf of the polyglot Bible printed in Constantinople in 1546, showing the Judaeo-Arabic translation of Saadiah across the top.
Author: 
Melonie Schmierer-Lee
Thu 4 Nov 2021

Our Throwback Thursday this week is taken from issue 60 of the printed edition of Genizah Fragments, published in October 2010, by Ronny Vollandt:

The installation of a Hebrew press at Constantinople in 1503 by David b. Nahmias ushered in a period of prosperity for Jewish printing in the Ottoman Empire. Gershom Soncino, head of the Soncino family and universally acknowledged towering figure of five centuries of Hebrew printing, followed in 1530 and established his Jewish publishing house in Constantinople. Political persecution and commercial competition drove Gershom Soncino to wander constantly, setting up printing shops in Soncino, Casamaggiore, Brescia, Barco, Fano, Pesaro, Ortona, Rimini, and Cesena in Italy; then in Salonica and Constantinople, where he died in 1534. After his death, he was succeeded by his son Eliezer Soncino.
The crowning achievements of Eliezer’s twenty-three years of printing were the two Polyglot Pentateuchs of 1546 and 1547. The first contained the Hebrew text of the Torah, accompanied by Targum Onkelos, Saadiah’s tafsīr, a Judaeo-Persian translation by Jacob b. Josef Tāwūs and Rashi’s commentary. The second exhibits an identical mise-en-page, yet printed in a different letter size and including Judaeo-Spanish and Judaeo-Greek translations.
Eliezer’s printing of Saadiah’s translation was the first time that the work had appeared in print, and, furthermore, represents the very first extant printed Judaeo-Arabic text. Despite the unique importance of Eliezer’s undertaking, few details are known concerning its production, the number of copies or its dissemination. It is fairly certain, however, that the Constantinople Polyglot was a book in great demand.
The provenance of the manuscript(s) used to produce the Polyglots is also unknown. Whereas the text of the Judaeo-Spanish, Judaeo-Greek and Judaeo-Persian versions could have been obtained by Eliezer Soncino via local communities, procuring Saadiah’s translation in Constantinople might have been more difficult. The Judaeo-Arabic version is placed on the upper margins, right above the Hebrew text, and opens with the formula תרגום ערבי לרב סעדיא גאון ז''ל. Even a short examination reveals the rather late and phonetic character of the text, especially in regard to orthography, which indicates that the source manuscript(s) must have been fairly contemporaneous to the printing project. The sporadic vocalisation, with Tiberian vowel signs, was apparently added in the process of editing by an unknown collaborator and exhibits a distinctive North-African character.
At least thirty pages of this important polyglot have been identified in the Collection, which has preserved not only manuscripts but also many early printed works, of which T-S NS 295.212 is a fine example, showing the Hebrew text surrounded by, clockwise from top, the Arabic translation, the Aramaic of Onqelos, Rashi and the Judaeo-Persian version.

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