Oct 02, 2022
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In March 2015, a Jerusalem book merchant took apart the cover of an old book and found inside it two old printed sheets in excellent condition. According to the merchant’s testimony, while he was drying the pages, an expert in ancient books entered his house and offered a large sum of money for the pages. The merchant did not agree and decided to pass the pages to the experts of the National Library of Israel for examination. He gave the pages to Yitzhak Yudlov, Institute for Hebrew Bibliography, located at the Jewish and National University Library in Jerusalem and a recognized expert.

The Jewish and National University Library kept possession of the pages for about a month and a half for the purposes of carrying out a thorough inspection. At the end of that period of time, Yudlov called the owner, who was abroad at the time. Yudlov told him that the pages were authentic and an especially rare find. The merchant arrived at the  Jewish and National University Library, and Yitzhak Yudlov informed him that he thought these were sheets printed in Avignon, France in 1444-6, when an attempt was made to print a Hebrew book there. According to Yudlov, there are two documents located in the district archives in Avignon that relate details of this attempt at printing a Hebrew book. 

On one of the sheets, a watermark depicting three hills inside two circles can be found. It is a very rare watermark, identified by Yudlov and Ephraim West as a being created in the first half of the 15th century.

In April 2015, Yitzhak Yudlov wrote his scholarly attestation regarding the sheets on a letterhead of the Institute for Hebrew Bibliography. In the attestation, he referred to the endeavor of printing a Hebrew book in 1444 that predated the printing of the Gutenberg Bible in 1455.

“In our opinion, these pages are remnants of that printing,” Yudlov wrote.

The merchant thought it would be good if Dr. Benjamin Richler, the Emeritus Director of the Institute of Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts (IMHM) in the Jewish and National University Library, would also write his opinion and translated the words of Yitzhak Yudlov. Yudlov had shown him the pages and even consulted with him on the matter. Dr. Benjamin Richler agreed to attach his description in English. Below is Dr. Richler’s letter:

(Photo courtesy Moshe Rosenfeld)

(Photo courtesy Moshe Rosenfeld)

It is worth noting that Prof. Malachi Beit Aryeh was also one of the people with whom Yudlov consulted. Prof. Malachi, who was a former director of the Jewish and National University Library, recommended performing a beta-radiography of the watermark which allows getting a picture of the watermark unobscured by the printed text. He put the merchant in touch with Mr. Hominer, the operator of the machine. The merchant paid for the service, and after the merchant took two copies of the beta-radiography of the watermarks, Prof. Malachi Beit Aryeh was given an additional copy.   

Prof. Beit Aryeh also asked the merchant to leave the sheets for him for several days, and he agreed, though the professor did not return the sheets for several weeks.

Later research discovered other examples of the watermark described as “three hills in two circles” in two manuscripts in the National Library in Vienna. The Three Hills watermark was used by a family of paper makers in Fabriano Italy. The other examples of the watermark were dated to 1418 and 1439. It is important to note that no examples of this watermark have been found to have been used anywhere after 1439. Other examples were found in Perpignan in the south of France from 1418, recorded by  Briquet, as well as in Palermo in Sicily. Another example of the watermark was found at the Ambrosiana Library in Milan on a manuscript dating from 1431. 

On August 6, 2018, the antique book dealer, Moshe Rossenfeld published an article signed by the late Yeshayahu Vinograd, concluding that according to all of the experts, the pages were from the oldest known mechanical printing press, produced in 1444-6.

  The pages were subsequently sold and the buyer, who is the current owner, tried to sell it in the United States. He encountered difficulties as some people made anonymous claims that the pages were not authentic.  

The pages were taken to the Forensic Institute in Jerusalem, under the management of Avner Rosengarten, a world-renowned expert in the field of forgery, and a former senior official in the Police Forensic Identification Laboratory. Rosengarten inspected the pages and determined that they were not forged

Further research from archives dating to 1444 revealed that one  Procopius Waldvogel, a silversmith by trade, arrived in Avignon at that period and borrowed money based on his invention of a mechanical printing press. His claim predates that of Johannes Gutenberg from Mainz, Germany who began printing on a mechanical press using movable type in 1450. It is widely recognized by historians that Gutenberg was not the first to do so and did not invent the process but he was, until now, believed to be the first European to do so.

According to the notarial archives in Avignon, Waldvogel and his partners produced “27 Hebrew letters from iron and steel” and also letters in Latin for the purposes of printing a Hebrew book. It is believed that the effort was unsuccessful for reasons that remain unclear but that some samples were produced. The book was to have been a collection of “piyutim”; Jewish liturgical poems sung during selichot, penitential prayers. 

A document from the central archive in Avignon recorded the agreement between the partners leading to the preparation of metal moving Hebrew letters.

“This is neither a small affair nor a personal one,” Moshe Rosenfeld told Israel365. “Before us is a discovery that establishes a connection between Hebrew and the invention of the printing press.”   

Agreement to print Hebrew piyutim 1444 (Photo courtesy Moshe Rosenfeld)