Lot 12
  • 12

The Complete Babylonian Talmud, Printed by Daniel Bomberg in Venice, Comprising tractates from the First (1519/20-1523) and Second (1525-1539) Editions

5,000,000 - 7,000,000 USD
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  • Paper, Ink, Leather
3,472 leaves in 9 volumes (15 1/2 x 10 1/2 in.; 393 x 266 mm). Printed on heavy Royal Folio paper. A crisp clean copy, near-perfect in its preservation, one of, if not the, finest copy extant. Only isolated instances of marginal tears, light stains or the occasional worm track. With thirty-two original blank leaves, including many not recorded by Haberman (for complete collation, inquire of department). Uniformly bound in contemporary calf over heavy oak boards with interior bevelling, paneled in blind, center panel  stamped with the initials of the original owner R[ichard] B[ruarne], panel with multiple fillets and four floral cornerpieces, within a double roll-tooled border, the spines in six compartments with raised bands, later morocco lettering pieces, medieval Latin manuscript leaves used as pastedowns, five volumes with Richard Bruarne's holograph manuscript contents notation on small parchment sheets pasted inside lower boards. Rebacked, original spines laid down, clasps perished, on all volumes. Scattered wormholes on three volumes, a few pastedowns lacking, old scrapes and scratches overall, outer borders of two volumes expertly restored, spine bands. Folding cases with similar spine treatment in calf, ochre cloth sides, lined with rust-colored velvet. 


(1)  Richard Bruarne (his cipher on both covers of each volume; contents notes in his distinctive Hebrew script pasted down on lower boards of five volumes);

(2) Christ Church, Oxford (Bequest of Richard Bruarne);

(3)  Westminster Abbey, before 1629;

(4)  Valmadonna Trust Library, acquired in July, 1980, in exchange for a medieval copy of the charter of Westminster Abbey. 


Edgar Samuel, “The Provenance of the Westminster Talmud” in Transactions & Miscellanies (Jewish Historical Society of England) 27 (1982) pp. 148-150.

David Goldstein, “Hebrew Printed Books in the Library of Westminster Abbey” in Transactions & Miscellanies (Jewish Historical Society of England) 27 (1982) pp. 151-154.

Brad Sabin Hill, Manuscripts and Early Printed Books from the Library of the Valmadonna Trust; an exhibition at the Pierpont Morgan Library (New York, 1989), no. 24;

Abraham Meir Habermann, The Printer Daniel Bomberg and the List of Books Published by his Press, Safed: 1978 (Hebrew);

Marvin J. Heller, Printing the Talmud: A History of the Earliest Printed Editions of theTalmud , Brooklyn:1992;

Raphael Nathan Nata Rabbinovicz, Maamar al Hadpasat ha-Talmud with Additions, ed. Abraham Meir Habermann, Jerusalem: 1952 (Hebrew);

Avraham Rosenthal, "Daniel Bomberg and his Talmud Editions," Gli Ebrei e Venezia: Secoli XIV-XVIII, ed. Gaetano Cozzi (Milan, 1987), pp. 375–416. 

Printing the Talmud: From Bomberg to Schottenstein, ed. Sharon Liberman Mintz and Gabriel M. Goldstein, New York: 2005.

Yitzhak Rivkind, "Dikdukei Sefarim" in: Alexander Marx Jubilee Volume, New York: 1950, pp. 401-450. (Hebrew section)


3,472 leaves in 9 volumes (15 1/2 x 10 1/2 in.; 393 x 266 mm). Printed on heavy Royal Folio paper. A crisp clean copy, near-perfect in its preservation, one of, if not the, finest copy extant. Only isolated instances of marginal tears, light stains or the occasional worm track. With thirty-two original blank leaves. Uniformly bound in contemporary calf over heavy oak boards with interior bevelling, paneled in blind, center panel stamped with the initials of the original owner R[ichard] B[ruarne], panel with multiple fillets and four floral cornerpieces, within a double roll-tooled border, the spines in six compartments with raised bands, later morocco lettering pieces, medieval Latin manuscript leaves used as pastedowns, five volumes with Richard Bruarne's holograph manuscript contents notation on small parchment sheets pasted inside lower boards. Rebacked, original spines laid down, clasps perished, on all volumes. Scattered wormholes on three volumes, a few pastedowns lacking, old scrapes and scratches overall, outer borders of two volumes expertly restored, spine bands. Folding cases with similar spine treatment in calf, ochre cloth sides, lined with rust-colored velvet.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

His press may be credited with the most tremendous and important accomplishment in the whole history of Hebrew publishing ... His great contemporaries did him honor; his fellow printers acknowledged without question his supremacy as a master artist-printer. No one can again contribute so much to the external and internal advancement of the Hebrew book. As a pioneer in Hebrew printing in Venice he established so high a standard that no one has surpassed his work, even with the aid of modern mechanical improvements, and it is a question whether any Hebrew printing has yet equaled the quality and taste shown in the productions of the Bomberg press.

—Joshua Bloch  


With the advent of printing in the mid-fifteenth century, the Talmud began to find its way into the hands of more people than ever before. Jewish printers in Italy, Spain, and Portugal began to make the Talmud more accessible by publishing individual tractates. Suddenly, almost anyone could purchase a tractate of the Talmud and delve into its content. Beginning with the Soncino press in 1483, Hebrew printers interwove the ancient rabbinic texts with the insights of later commentators, and the Talmud page began to take on the complex, layered format that would become familiar to modern scholars.  It would however take an additional four decades before the first complete edition of the Talmud would be published. This monumental accomplishment, completed in Venice in 1523 by Daniel Bomberg is arguably the single most important event in the annals of Hebrew printing and represents the beginning of a new era in the history of the "people of the book.

Daniel Bomberg, the son of the Antwerp merchant Cornelius Van Bombergen and Agnes Vranex, was born ca. 1483. Sometime in the first two decades of the sixteenth century, Bomberg, a devout Christian, left his native Antwerp and settled in Venice. Despite his non-Jewish origins, Daniel Bomberg was the first printer of Hebrew books in Venice and the first non-Jewish printer of Hebrew titles; he would eventually become the most prominent Hebrew printer of the sixteenth century.

In 1515, Daniel Bomberg first applied to the Venetian Senate for the right to publish Hebrew books. Over the course of the next four decades, Daniel Bomberg produced an amazing corpus of some 240 beautifully printed books. Much of his success must be attributed to his disregard of expense when it came to using only the highest quality papers and inks.

Arguably, Bomberg's greatest achievement was the printing of the editio princeps of the Babylonian Talmud (1519/20–1523). He followed this with two other editions as well as individual tractates. Bomberg also printed the first Jerusalem Talmud (1522–1523), and the first Mikraot Gedolot, a four-volume Rabbinic Bible with commentaries (1515–1517).

When Bomberg was forced to reapply to the Venetian Senate to renew his privilege to print in Venice in 1518, he took the opportunity to petition for the exclusive right to print the Talmud. The Senate approved, possibly because of the need to raise funds for the wars against the Ottoman Empire. Pope Leo X also endorsed the project and granted Bomberg a papal license. With permission secured, Bomberg engaged the services of skilled craftsmen and editors such as Cornelius Adelkind and Jacob ben Hayyim ibn Adonijah whose expertise would vastly enhance the quality of the work being done at Bomberg's press.

A page in the Bomberg Talmud consists of the text of both the Mishna and Gemara, surrounded by the commentaries of Rashi along the inner margin and Tosafot along the outer margin. At the end of the tractate, following the text is Piskei Tosafot (a summary of the Halakhic rulings and conclusions found in the Tosafot)Maimonides' commentary on the Mishnah, and the commentary of Asher ben Jehiel, in that order.

The first Bomberg edition of the Talmud became the standard for subsequent editions. Its foliation and layout are still adhered to today. Its uncensored text, in contrast to the expurgated editions that followed, remained a standard for centuries.

The Bomberg Talmud editions were printed on fine paper with clear type and good ink. The title pages are simple, devoid of ornamentation, family crests, or printers' marks. In contrast to the simplicity of the title page, the first page of each tractate begins with the first word of the text enlarged within a floral woodcut. The word is centered above the text, but not the adjoining commentaries.

Besides the standard edition, printed on fine paper, several treatises, and possibly entire sets of the Bomberg Talmud, were printed on colored paper. There were also deluxe sets printed on vellum. This was consistent with the practice of the period, in which special editions of Hebrew and non-Hebrew titles were printed on distinctive materials to distinguish them from the remainder of the run. This was generally done with a major work, or an expensive title, and restricted to a small number of copies. These deluxe editions might be printed on larger or finer paper, colored paper or vellum. These copies were then sold or possibly used for presentation purposes.

Furthermore, and probably most important of all, the correctness of the text has been praised by many bibliographers and historians. Within three years the editors had reviewed and corrected manuscripts for the Talmud, Rashi, Tosafot, the Rosh, and Maimonides' commentary on the Mishnah. It was an awesome task to prepare all of this material for printing within three years, particularly when so much of the work had not been previously printed.

The first Bomberg edition of the Talmud was well received and sold out quickly, necessitating a second edition, which was printed from approximately 1525 to 1539. These editions are very much alike, with only minor variations between most tractates but it is possible to distinguish between the two editions. In the second edition (and the third edition as well) the name of the tractate is to the right and the folio number is next to it on the left at the top of the page, as in later and more recent editions. This is in contrast to the first edition, where the treatise's name either does not appear, or is to the left while the page number is to the right. Other typographical differences include the manner of representing the Tetragrammaton.

The contemporary recognition of the enormity of Bomberg's achievement in bringing the entire Babylonian Talmud to press is perhaps best summed up in the lengthy and moving colophon provided by Cornelius Adelkind to Soferim, the final tractate of the Talmud:

Praise and thanksgiving to He who is the Creator...He roused the spirit of our lord Daniel Bomberg to print the Babylonian Talmud with Rashi's commentary, Tosafot, Piskei Tosafot, and Maimonides' commentary on the Mishnah, and the novellae of the strong hammer, the Asheri (Asher ben Jehiel). And he gathered and assembled the entire Talmud and these commentaries, which had been scattered in every land both distant and near and joined to them many other books. And [so] he accomplished more than his predecessors. He expended his fortune and his wealth and sent couriers, riding swift steeds, to call the finest craftsman that could be found in all these regions to do this awesome work. He designated me, one of the brothers, the sons of Barukh Adelkind, and said to me, "Arise, gird now your loins as a man, and allot, apportion, and divide all these commentaries throughout the Talmud according to the light of your intelligence and they will be consolidated in your hands."  I responded, "My lord behold I am ready and prepared to do your command and to carry out your will as you desire and as I perceive it." And as I saw that one should not refuse and turn away empty handed a person of excellence and nobility, I bestirred myself as God had graced me. ...I separated and established the two great spheres, the prince Rashi and the Tosafot to illuminate the eyes of the readers ... to shield and protect them from the arrows, swords, and spears of [negative] argumentation and dialectics....I divided them in equal parts on every page from the Talmud which begins on the top of the page until the end of the page where it is completed; nothing was added or removed. It reveals that which is hidden round the altar enclosing it from both sides. At the end of each and every Talmud is the piskei tosafot so the reader will have in his hand after studying and waging battle, the halakhic decision which should serve as a balm for his wounds to heal him after [the battle] and also is added the commentary of Maimonides so he will sit in wisdom... All this was achieved through great efforts.  The Lord knows how much pain and great trouble we had as there was much work and numerous commentaries. If I erred or made a mistake in any matter, let the reader judge me meritoriously. He should know that it was not done intentionally. It was an offense done in error, not an offense done in bad faith for the material occasionally made it difficult for the mind to see. I place my supplication before He who gives the weary strength, who bestowed upon me the merit to complete, divide, establish and arrange all the orders of the Babylonian Talmud. So may he grant me the merit with the Jerusalem Talmud, which our lord Daniel Bomberg [may his Rock and Redeemer protect him] prepared to print with the remaining holy books which he has sent to bring from all lands where they are scattered. May the Lord assist our master Daniel, the son of Cornelius Bomberg, make him strong and courageous so that he may go from achievement to achievement and grant him increase and prosperity.


In 1956, Mr. Jack Lunzer, the custodian of the Valmadonna Trust attended an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum celebrating 300 years of Jewish resettlement in England. There, he first became aware of Westminster Abbey's magnificent complete copy of the Talmud. For nearly a quarter century, Mr. Lunzer courted the abbey in an attempt to acquire it. Eventually, he purchased a 900-year old copy of Westminster Abbey's original charter and presented it to the abbey, along with supporting endowments. In grateful recognition of this singular act of largesse, the abbey awarded the custodian its magnificent copy of the Bomberg Talmud.

The amazingly fresh condition of the nine-volume Valmadonna Talmud is complemented by its distinguished provenance and magnificent contemporary binding. The Valmadonna copy is bound in blind-panelled calf incorporating the central cipher of Richard Bruarne, Regius Professor of Hebrew at Oxford from 1546 to 1556. After Bruarne's death, the Talmud eventually passed to Westminster Abbey, in whose library it resided practically undisturbed for four centuries. In terms of importance, rarity, and condition, the Valmadonna copy of Daniel Bomberg's Babylonian Talmud is one of the finest extant. If the first half of the sixteenth century is the "golden age" of Hebrew printing, then the Bomberg Talmud is undoubtedly the pinnacle achievement of the period. 


VOLUME 1 (418 leaves) comprising eight tractates: Yoma, Sukkah, Beitzah, Rosh ha-Shanah, Ta'anit, Megillah, Mo'ed Katan and Hagigah;

VOLUME 2 (337 leaves) comprising four tractatesNazir, Sotah, Gittin, and Kiddushin;

VOLUME 3 (248 leaves) comprising three tractates: Zevahim, Mishnayyot Kodoshim, and Hullin;

VOLUME 4 (419 leaves) comprising three tractates: Yevamot, Ketubbot, and Nedarim;

VOLUME 5 (478 leaves) comprising four tractates: Shabbat, Eruvin, Shekalim, and Pesahim;

VOLUME 6 (524 leaves) comprising three tractates: Bava Kamma, Bava Metzi'a, and Bava Batra;

VOLUME 7 (366 leaves) comprising five tractates: Berakhot, Mishnayyot Zera'im, Halakhot Ketannot, Mishnayyot Tohorot, and Niddah;

VOLUME 8 (332 leaves) comprising twelve tractates (in six parts): Menahot, Bekhorot, Arakhin, Temurah, Keritot, [Me'ilah, Kinnim, Middot, Tamid, Semahot, Kallah, Soferim] 

VOLUME 9 (350 leaves) comprising eight tractates (in seven parts): Sanhedrin, Shevu'ot, Eduyyot with Maimonides' commentary, Eduyyot with commentary of Ra'avad, Avodah Zarah, Avot, Horayyot, Makkot

Complete collation available upon request


Only a dozen complete sets of the printed Bomberg Talmud which were assembled during the sixteenth century remain extant: most of these were acquired by Christian collections, mainly noble libraries and humanist scholars, who also saw to their binding. The sale of the Valmadonna Talmud affords us the opportunity to review and present the available details concerning each of the other eleven known complete sixteenth century sets. These details, to the extent known, include: provenance, current whereabouts, editions included in each set, and binding information, and are presented here as a prelude to the description of the magnificent Valmadonna Trust Library copy.

1. Of the several sets which were originally in Germany, two were in the Thüringer Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek at the University of Jena. The first, in six volumes, bears the ex-libris of Elector Johann Friedrich I der Groẞmütige and was in his Bibliotheca Electoralis in Wittenberg in 1545.  The set is uniformly bound in blind-tooled pigskin over wooden boards with beveled edges, showing evidence of chains and clasps.  When the Elector was stripped of his title he moved the library, first to Weimar and then to Jena in 1549.  This set contains mostly first and second edition tractates with only two, Ketubbot and Hullin from the third edition.  The Bibliotheca Electoralis was used by Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560) great-nephew of the Hebraist Johann Reuchlin, and Melancthon, while professor of Greek from 1518 onward, at two points in his career was concomitantly interim professor of Hebrew at Wittenberg.  It is entirely possible that Melancthon consulted this Bomberg Talmud. This set was later housed in the Burke Library of Union Theological Seminary in New York which had acquired it sometime in the mid- to late nineteenth-century from Jena. This set was then purchased for a Private Collection in 2002. Aside from the copy of the Valmadonna Trust Library, this is the only original sixteenth century set in private hands. It was the centerpiece of the 2005 Yeshiva University Museum exhibition: "Printing the Talmud: From Bomberg to Schottenstein."


2. The second of these sets remains at the Thüringer Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek at the University of Jena.  In eight volumes, it bears the ex-libris of Johann Andreas Danz (1654-1727), theologian and professor of Semitic languages in the faculty of Jena.  Bound in brown leather, all of the volumes have metal clasps and decorative corner studs in each corner of both the upper and lower boards.  The university purchased his library after his death. 


3. There is a nine volume set in the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich that had been in the possession of the sixteenth-century Catholic humanist Johann Albrecht Widmanstetter (1506-1557).  He was an Austrian statesman, humanist, and Orientalist who became chancellor of Lower Austria and rector of the University of Vienna.  He may have purchased his set as early as 1527, as the latest tractate in his set was printed in 1526. That tractate (Shevu'ot) is the only one from the second edition, all other tractates being from the first edition. Widmanstetter's library was acquired by Duke Albrecht V (1528-1579), the founder of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in 1558.  The leather bindings bear the coat of arms of Bavarian Elector Maximilian III Joseph (1745-1777) as supralibros. 


4. Another six volume set at the Universitätsbibliothek Leipzig, bound in sixteenth-century monastic leather-covered wooden boards stamped with rolls and bearing evidence of chain fastenings, is a mixture of Bomberg's first and second editions.  Though we lack any provenance details, it is possible that Elias Hutter (1553-1609), who studied Oriental languages at the University of Jena and was appointed professor Hebrew at Leipzig and published polyglot editions of the Bible as well as editions of the Hebrew Bible alone, may have been instrumental in the Universität acquiring the set and he surely had occasion to consult it.


5. An additional set that originated in Germany was acquired for the library of the Count Palatine (later Elector) Ottheinrich (1502-1559), who invested heavily in Hebrew, Greek and Arabic manuscripts, for the benefit of scholars in his domains, even though he himself could not read them.  The Bibliotheca Palatina, served as the Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg, and the presence in Heidelberg of scholars of the caliber of Sebastian Münster (1488-1552), who taught Hebrew there until 1536, fostered a scholarly climate that would have begged for the acquisition of such a set.  It contains tractates from all Bomberg editions, and was bound by Jörg Bernhardt at Heidelberg between 1553 and 1556, in brown calfskin in seventeen volumes, and bears Ottheinrich's gilt supralibros.  This copy is currently in the collection of the Vatican Library, to where the Bibliotheca Palatina was relocated in 1622/23. 


6. Another six volume set which likely originated in Germany, went to Great Britain and finally to the United States, where it is held in the collection of the Klau Library of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. The exact provenance of this set is not known, but by the end of the nineteenth-century it was in the Bibliotheca Lindesiana of the earls of Crawford. The set was purchased for Hebrew Union College by that institution's renowned librarian, Adolph S. Oko in 1923/4. It contains tractates from all the Bomberg editions. The bindings, blind-stamped pigskin over wooden boards, with foliate and floral tooling, are German and likely contemporary with the printing, with sixteenth-century annotations in German and Latin.


7. Known colloquially as the "Oppenheimer Bomberg," this set was in the collection of Rabbi David Oppenheimer (1664-1736) who served as rabbi in Moravia and later Prague, but is perhaps best remembered for his unparalleled library of rare books and manuscripts.  Comprising  nearly all first edition tractates, save two (Bava Kama and a second copy of Makkot are from the second edition), it is bound in twenty-two volumes.  After Oppenheimer's death, the library languished until it was eventually acquired by the Bodleian Library of Oxford University in 1829 where it was cataloged by Moritz Steinschneider.  It is, to the best of our knowledge, the only complete sixteenth-century Bomberg Talmud set with a Jewish provenance.  Nevertheless, its binding, blind-stamped white pigskin over wooden boards with remnants of clasps, does not suggest original Jewish ownership and it is probable that it passed through the hands of an unknown sixteenth century German Christian Hebraist.


8. The Bodleian Library is the only institution which has more than one set. The second Bodleian copy is bound in ten volumes. It is already described in the 1605 Bodleian catalogue, though we have no pre-Bodleian provenance details for the set.  All of the tractates in this set come from the second and third Bomberg editions.  The bindings appear to be eighteenth-century Bodleian leather, but based on the 1605 description the set clearly was assembled in the sixteenth-century.


9. There is an entirely first edition twelve volume set of Italian provenance in the Biblioteca Casanatense in Rome.  The library was established, under the will of Cardinal Girolamo Casante (1620-1700), in 1701 by the Dominicans of the Convent of Santa Maria sopra Minerva in Rome.  Originally held in the monastery of San Salvatore in Bologna, the set was already in Rome when the librarian Giovanni Battista Audiffredi (1714-1794) described it in his catalogue. The volumes are covered in mottled green vellum, typical for this library in the late eighteenth century.


10. Another set with Italian provenance arrived in England sometime before 1628 when it was described by Henry Featherstone (1582-1648), London bookseller of St. Ann's Parish, Blackfriars, in the earliest printed catalog of an English bookseller.  It was acquired on behalf of the Sion College Library in 1629, with the £26 required to purchase the set, raised by George Walker, the incumbent of the parish of St. John the Evangelist, Watling Street. On the closure of Sion College Library in 1996, the Talmud was transferred to Lambeth Palace Library, the Palace being the London residence of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The tractates, many from the last Bomberg printings, are annotated in a late-sixteenth or seventeenth-century Italian hand, and were originally bound in eighteen volumes as described by Featherstone. They were later rebound at Sion into twelve volumes, and stamped with the donor parish emblem, SIEW, and had chains affixed.

11. The twelve-volume, entirely first edition, set now in the British Library was in the library of Isaac Casaubon (1559-1614), the Geneva-born classicist who migrated to Great Britian around the year 1610.  The set was acquired by the Royal Library after Causabon's death, and presented, as was the rest of the Royal Library, to the British Museum by George II in 1755.  The volumes were rebound in the nineteenth-century (erroneously), as books from the library of Henry VIII. This nineteenth century binding is certainly one of the contributing factors which helped to disseminate the popular, though mistaken notion that Henry had been responsible for importing the Talmud to England (see the next entry, #12, the Valmadonna Talmud). 


12. The amazingly fresh condition of the nine-volume Valmadonna Talmud, comprised of first and second edition tractates, is complemented by its distinguished provenance and magnificent contemporary binding. For some time it was believed, on the basis of the letters RB on its binding that this set derived from the royal library (Regia Bibliotheca) of Henry VIII, who, it was formerly posited, consulted it during divorce proceedings against his first wife, Catherine of Aragon.  In truth, the Valmadonna copy is bound in blind-panelled calf incorporating the central cipher of Richard Bruarne, Regius Professor of Hebrew at Oxford University from 1546 to 1556. Five of the volumes still have Bruarne's original contents notes, written in both Latin and in his very distinctive Hebrew script, affixed to their inside rear boards.  Bruarne died in 1565, probably leaving his books to Christ Church, Oxford.  His Bomberg Talmud was at Westminster Abbey by 1629, in whose library it resided practically undisturbed for nearly four centuries.  On March 4, 1629, John Selden (1584-1654), reportedly the most learned man in England, was imprisoned in the Tower of London on charges of conspiracy and sedition against King Charles I.  In a letter to Sir Robert Cotton, first baronet (1570-1631), and Member of Parliament, dated July 4, 1629, Selden requests that Cotton arrange for him to borrow the "Talmud of Babylon" from Westminster Abbey, a request which was apparently granted. Indeed, Selden's may have been the last hands to turn the Talmud's pages until 1956. Early in that year, the Talmud was displayed at London's Victoria and Albert Museum as part of an exhibition commemorating the "Tercentenary of the Resettlement of the Jews in the British Isles, 1656-1956." Among those who visited the exhibition was Mr. Jack Lunzer, Custodian of the Valmadonna Trust Library. Having now been made aware of Westminster Abbey's magnificent complete copy of the Talmud, Mr. Lunzer spent the next twenty-four years courting the abbey in an attempt to acquire it. In June of 1980, Lunzer finally acquired the Westminster Talmud from the abbey, in exchange for a 900-year old copy of Westminster Abbey's original charter, along with supporting endowments. Since its return to Jewish ownership, it has become universally known as the Valmadonna Talmud

There are two more complete sets of the Bomberg Talmud of which we are aware and which we may eventually be able to authenticate as having  been original sixteenth-century sets rather than later, collected editions, but for the time being in both cases we lack the details necessary to be able to formally include them in this census. 

For further information on the provenance of original sixteenth century sets of the Bomberg Talmud, see:  Milton McC. Gatch and Bruce E. Nielsen, "The Wittenberg Copy of the Bomberg Talmud," Gutenberg Jahrbuch 78 (2003) 296-326.



Even by sixteenth-century standards these Talmud volumes were expensive, so it seems we should expect more than a bibliophile's interest to explain why these particular publications were so desirable.  A brief survey may be useful to establish that these volumes would have been considered a luxury, where the scudo, ducat, aurea and florin/gulden were all roughly of the same value. (For reference purposes, it may also be noted that 20 solidi = 1 lira; 1 ducat = 124 solidi (or 6 ¼ lira ).  Already at the end of the fifteenth-century, legal and academic texts, in folio, regularly sold for between 1 and 2 ducats.  Similar prices for folios printed at other Venetian printing houses continued to be seen throughout the sixteenth-century.  Specifically concerning Bomberg imprints, in 1518 Philip Melanchthon purchased a Bomberg first edition Rabbinic Bible for 14 aurei, and two years later Johannes Reuchlin purchased one for 8 aurei.  Elijah Levita wrote in the second of his two poems following the colophon at the end of the fourth volume of Bomberg's second edition Mikra'ot Gedolot, that the price for the set was six golden ducats, or 1½ ducats per volume.  In fact, Damian Irmi (a wealthy Basel merchant trader with Italy) purchased a copy of Bomberg's second edition Mikra'ot Gedolot for Konrad Pellikan for eleven gulden.  The price for this Rabbinic Bible in Gesner's 1545 list was 10 ducats; Alfasi, three volumes, 18 ducats; Rambam, two volumes,10 ducats.  In a list written sometime after 1532 of books available from Koberger's bookshop in Nürnberg: Bomberg's first edition Mikra'ot Gedolot sold for 14 fl., or approximately 10 ducats.  Finally, it is interesting to note that Johannes Buxtorf the Elder (1564-1629, Basel) and Sebastian Beck (1583-1654, Basel), state that circa 1617 one of the old Bomberg Rabbinic Bibles cost between 30 and 50 Reichsthalers, which was the equivalent of 75-125 fl.

In general, books printed in Italy were considered expensive already by mid-sixteenth century, as we note that "in 1554 the jurist [Georg] Tanner wrote to Bonifacius Amerbach in Basel that the high price of Italian books prevented many buyers from making purchases."  And specifically about the Bomberg Talmud, we know from an entry dated 25 April 1541, in a daybook concerning purchases in Venice, that a Talmud set was not purchased for the University of Wittenberg because it was felt that the price was exorbitant.

Based on the examples cited above, it is safe to say that in the sixteenth century, each of the forty-four tractates in the Bomberg Talmud (allowing for two editions of Mishna Tohorot, one with the commentary of Maimonides and one with the commentary of Shimshon of Sens), if and when they were available, would have cost at least 1½ -2½ ducats.  Given Bomberg's standard for the highest quality both with regard to materials and workmanship, his folios likely were priced at the upper end of this range.  This results in the contemporary price for a full set to be somewhere around 110 ducats, plus the cost of binding.  For copies printed on heavy watermarked 'royal' paper such as the Valmadonna (#12) and Wittenberg (#1) sets, it is reasonable that they would have garnered two or three times that amount.  In order to put these figures in perspective, there is rather specific wage and income data available for sixteenth-century Italy and this data demonstrates the luxury of owning a complete Bomberg Talmud set. 

The prices we have calculated were realized at a time when a master craftsman earned 30-50 solidi/day, and a semi skilled laborer in construction earned 20-37 solidi/day.  In the mid- to late-fifteenth-century Italian typesetters earned 3 ducats/month, a press operator earned 2½, and a foreman earned 5-9 ducats/month.  Contemporary Jewish sources also give a glimpse of wages for rabbis and teachers.  Elijah Capsali tutored Rabbi Isserlein for a sum of 37 ducats per year plus board.  Isaac Corcos, rabbi to the community in Otranto (southern Italy) received 70 ducats per year, Rabbi Azreil in Sulmona (central Italy) received 80 scudi (approximately 73 ducats), and Don David Ibn Yahya was to have received 100 scudi (approximately 92 ducats) as rabbi in Naples (though the promised sum never materialized).  For laborers, rabbis or teachers these wages range between 3 and 7⅔ ducats per month, and an income of anything more than 10 ducats per month would have been considered relative affluence.  And only with some level of affluence would an individual have had sufficient disposable income to purchase Bomberg folios.  Put in more descriptive terms, "a folio volume retailing for 6 or 8 lire, i.e., the equivalent of 3 to 6 days pay for a master, would be difficult but not impossible to buy."  However, while individual folios may have been within the price reach of a skilled laborer, he could not purchase such items on a regular basis and clearly that laborer would not be purchasing multi-volume sets all at once.  Finally, we bring these wage figures only to demonstrate the relative worth of the volumes, since the likelihood that laborers would have actually purchased such texts is negligible, not only due to the issue of disposable income, but we have said nothing of sixteenth-century literacy rates.

Dr. Bruce E. Nielsen, 
Judaic Public Services Librarian and Archivist,
University of Pennsylvania

references for “A Note about Book Prices in the Sixteenth Century”

Currency:  20 solidi = 1 lira; 1 ducat = 124 solidi; 

General folio prices: M. Lowry, "The Printer, the Reader and the Market," pp. 173-206 in, Nicholas Jenson and the rise of Venetian publishing in Renaissance Europe (Oxford, U.K.; Cambridge Mass.:  Blackwell, 1991) 179-180; P. F. Grendler, The Roman Inquisition and the Venetian Press (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1977) 12-14; S.Z. Baruchson-Arbib, "The Prices of Printed Hebrew Books in Cinquecento Italy," Bibliofilia 97.2 (1995) 149-61;

Melancthon: R. Wetzel, ed., Melanchthons Briefwechsel, 15 volumes (Stuttgart: Frommann-Holzboog, 1991), Bd. 1, 75 letter #24; 

Reuchlin: H. Scheible, ed., Willibald Pirckheimers Briefwechsel, 4 (Munich: C.H.Beck, 1997) 251, letter #693; 

Irmi: B. Riggenbach, ed., Das Chronikon des Konrad Pellikan (Basel: Bahnmaier's Verlag (C. Detloff), 1877) 116; 

Gesner: C. Gesner, Bibliotheca Universalis, vol. II (Tiguri: Christophorum Froschouerum, 1548) 41b-43b; 

Koberger: O. Hase, Die Koberger (Leipzig: Breitkopf u. Härtel, 1885) 386, where one florin = one rheinische Gulden, and 40 ducats = 55 gulden; 

Buxtorf: S. G. Burnett, From Christian Hebraism to Jewish Studies (Leiden:  Brill, 1996) 172 n. 12; 

Tanner: F. Kapp, Geschichte des deutschen Buchhandels (Leipzig : Börsenvereins, 1886) 1:312; 

Wittenberg: W. Friedensburg, Urkundenbuch der Universität Wittenberg (Magdeburg : Selbstverlag der Historischen Kommission, 1926-7) 1:225;

Wages: M. Lowry, "The Printer, the Reader and the Market," in Nicholas Jenson and the rise of Venetian publishing in Renaissance Europe (Oxford, UK ; Cambridge, Mass., USA : Blackwell, 1991) 187; Baruchson-Arbib, op.cit. 157-58 with comparison to consumables; R. Hirsch, Printing, Selling and Reading, 1450-1550 (Wiesbaden : Otto Harrassowitz, 1967) 36; 

Capsali et al.: A. Marx, Studies in Jewish History and Booklore (New York:  JTSA, 1941) 137, 164-65; 

Descriptive terms: P. Grendler, The Roman Inquisition and the Venetian Press, 1540-1605 (Princeton : Princeton University Press, 1977) 14.