So I received a request to tell a more detailed version of my “How the Vilna Edition of the Babylonian Talmud was a 19th Century Kickstarter” story from Facebook. Never let it be said that I neglect my friends.
Two notes, before I begin.
- This is a narrative. I did my best to keep it historically accurate, but it’s a narrative about events that happened 150 years ago. I don’t have transcripts and I don’t have a time machine. The dialogue has…some contemporary flavor added, but it is mostly reconstructed from memoirs.
- M y main sources are Ze’ev Gries’s article in the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, “Romm Family” and Shafan HaSofer’s memoirs of the Romm press, “A History of the Romm Printing Press” (alias of Shmuel Shraga Feigensohn), which is available online to anyone with an NYPL library card and a hankering to read pixellated Hebrew published posthumously in 1960.
Let me set the stage. We’re in Vilnius, Lithuania and it’s the 1860s. For the past 30 years, the Russian government has refused to grant printing licenses to all but two printing houses in the entirety of Lithuania. One of them is a little firm called the Romm printing house.
Then things take an interesting turn. The law gets LESS anti-semitic and Czar Alexander II removes the ban on Jewish printing houses. Around the same time, David Romm, head of the firm, dies.
His widow, Deborah, looks at her husband’s surviving brothers and says the 19th century equivalent of “I am NOT trusting these goons with MY business. My dad (R’ Harkavy, who subsequently dies in 1864) and I are running this joint.” So Deborah gets the plurality of the money and the name of the firm is changed to The Widow and Brothers Romm.
Her brothers-in-law are not pleased with this development and, by 1867, the in-fighting is getting pretty hairy. Deborah decides that they need a director who can get the firm back on its feet and she pulls in Shmuel Shraga Feigensohn.
Feigensohn, based on the number of exclamation points he uses in his memoirs, runs around excitedly screaming about how to fix everything. He convinces the brothers Romm to grow up and then sets out to modernize the press.
“You are the actual biggest printing firm in the entire city, how are you operating with five hand-operated presses? Haven’t you heard of the copy machine? This is the 19th century, we have steam, damn it!” (Feigensohn probably didn’t say damn it, but only because Yiddish has far more eloquent curses).
Fast forward a few years—with Deborah’s blessing, Feigensohn goes to Berlin, buys the new-fangled stereotype machines (”The goyim have had these for decades now, what is wrong with you!?”). With the old presses, every time they wanted to reprint a siddur (prayer book) or chumash (5 books of Moses), they had to redo all the layout and the type. With the new machines, they could make plaster molds of every page and use that to make full-page metal casts. Basically, when a book ran out, they could just pull out the stereotypes and reprint the books from those without dealing with the fiddly type-setting business ever again. Once a book was typeset once, it was good to go.
Now, obviously, you don’t stereotype everything. Of course, that didn’t stop the type-setters from going on strike as soon as they heard about the new machines. Feigenzohn tried to reassure them that someone needed to do the typesetting to MAKE the stereotype copy and there would always be new books… In the end, the staff found a salary raise to be far more reassuring.
Stereotyping, I speculate, gave them an idea. They were going to use this new technology to make the biggest, bestest, most complete edition of the Babylonian Talmud EVER. And Feigensohn had the bright idea to just put the Russian censors on the payroll (yes, seriously) so that the censors would look at the books before printing. That meant that once a book went to press, it was safe to sell.
By 1879, the employees of the Widow and Brothers Romm had gone hunting through 1,000 years of Talmudic commentary and were ready to start printing the greatest Talmud ever. The thing would be comprehensive. It would have everything and it would be proofread up the wazoo. Other books would be jealous!
They showed it to the rabbis. The rabbis looked at it and said “This is amazing and beautiful and no one in their right mind would pay this much money just to get an edition of the Talmud with Rabbeinu Hananel.”
And Deborah Romm had to admit, they had a point. They were printing a 20 volume oversized Talmud and that could bankrupt the firm if it didn’t make back cost. She talked to Feigensohn who was not going to let a little thing like scaredy-pants rabbis get in his way.
“I’ll make a deal with you,” says Feigensohn. “If I can get 4,000 people to subscribe to our Shas—that’s 4,000 people who sign up to buy this thing—we can go to press.” The thinking was that even if fewer than half of them come through, they’re already in the black.
And thus the Kickstarter for the Vilna Edition of the Babylonian Talmud was born. They made mock-up pages and advertised the Shas in the newspapers right around Rosh Hashana time. They promised 40 new commentaries! They had 14 dedicated proofreaders working on this thing!
Over 10,000 people signed up to buy it.
And in 1880, the Widow and Brothers Romm published the first volume. In 1886, they released the last one. In that time, they moved up from their base goal of 40 additional commentaries to meet a stretch goal of over 100 additional commentaries from the 8th century to the 19th. They did this despite a warehouse fire interrupting production in the middle.
And now, I guarantee it, go pick up any copy of the Talmud, any one at all, and you will find, in Hebrew, on the title page:
“Printed and Published by The Widow and Brothers Romm”