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Kohen

KOHEN

KOHEN , first major family of Hebrew printers in Prague and all of Central Europe. Hebrew printing began in Prague – before anywhere else in Central or Eastern Europe – no later than 1512, when four craftsmen and two backers produced a prayer book. By 1514 the group had been joined by gershom ben solomon kohen (d. 1544), who was evidently a man of means and destined to dominate the group, and two others. From then until 1522 they issued four works of prayers and a handsome Pentateuch.

Kohen's importance and dominance in the group is indicated by two facts: in all these works, the colophons list him first; and an ornamental border on the opening page of the Pentateuch, used again in the 1522 mahẓor, shows a pair of hands held in position for the priestly blessing – a symbol for him, since he was a kohen. He was to use this as his printer's mark in later works also, with his name added.

After 1522 the group broke up in order to open several Hebrew printing shops in Prague. Together with his brother gronem kohen, Gershom produced a Passover Haggadah (1526). Set in large, handsome type and lavishly illustrated with over 60 woodcuts (mostly by Hayyim Shahor, a fellow printer), this earliest printed, illustrated Haggadah is a masterpiece. Each double page has a harmonious unity and balance of its own. A facsimile edition appeared in Berlin in 1926 (but by error the order of facing pages was not kept), and two others in the latter 1960s – one (Shulsinger, New York) a faithful, splendid replica, the other (Universitas, Jerusalem) in colors.

In 1526 Ferdinand i became king of Bohemia, and Kohen applied to him for a privilegium (royal decree), to make him the exclusive Hebrew printer in Bohemia. This was granted him in 1527 and his competitors had to close their shops. He engaged Meir Michtam, the typographer of the original group of printers of 1512, as his assistant to instruct his sons in the craft. With his sons solomon and mordecai (d. 1592) Kohen produced a steady stream of prayer books and Pentateuchs, as well as learned and talmudic works. In time his sons moses (d. 1549) and judah (d. 1593) also joined the firm. Printing more volumes than the Prague community could absorb, the Kohen family appointed the *Halicz brothers of Cracow as its agents in Poland; in 1535 Mordecai Kohen, the strongest and most talented businessman among Kohen's sons, went to the Frankfurt trade fair to arrange for distribution there.

The 1540s was an unsettled time for Prague's Jews. An edict of expulsion left only 15 families in the city, until the decree was lifted in 1543. In 1544 the resulting economic difficulties forced Mordecai Kohen to travel about in an attempt to sell some of the stock. Toward the end of the year Gershom Kohen died, and shortly afterward his son Moses Kohen applied to Ferdinand i for the same privilegium that his father had enjoyed. In 1545 his request was granted. In the 1550s, however, life for all Prague Jewry was unusually difficult. Fire ravaged the ghetto and expulsion threatened. Beset in any case by competition from Hebrew works imported from Italy, Mordecai Kohen left printing and devoted himself to the communal welfare, acting as shtadlan. His brother Moses Kohen died, and for years no volumes were issued from the Kohen family press, except for a small prayer book (afternoon and evening services) printed by Judah Kohen. In 1566, however, Mordecai Kohen resumed the craft with his five sons. Yet conditions brought another interruption of activity for seven years (1571–77), after which Mordecai's sons continued, while he himself remained immersed in communal affairs until his death. The firm was then named in his memory. In 1589 Kohen's son Bezalel died. In 1590 his son Solomon requested, and received, yet another royal privilegium, enabling the Kohen firm to remain the sole Hebrew printers in Prague until the very early 1600s.

From 1592 the firm was managed by Solomon Kohen and his son moses (d. 1659). Afterward, Moses continued alone for over 50 years, personally supervising proofreading and corrections. The Thirty-Years' War, however, brought the press to a standstill when Moses was already old; when he died, his grandsons israel and moses continued under the firm name of "the Grandsons of Moses Katz" (= kohen ẓedek, "the righteous kohen"). They were succeeded in time by this latter Kohen's son aaron (d. 1701), who managed the press until his death. After 1701 Aaron Kohen's son david carried on, until 1735, under the firm name of "the descendants of Moses Katz." The press continued sporadically thereafter, until economic conditions moved the Kohen family to merge with the *Bak firm in 1784, thus bringing its long course of independent printing to an end.

bibliography:

S.H. Lieben, in: B'nai B'rith, Die Juden in Prag (1927); J. Volf, Geschichte des Buchdrucks in Boehmen und Maehren bis 1848 (1928), includes bibliography; B. Friedberg, Toledot ha-Defus ha-Ivri… be-Eiropah ha-Tikhonah (1935); A. Freimann, in: zhb, 21 (1918), 30ff.; A. Yaari, Diglei ha-Madpisim ha-Ivriyyim (1943), index; C. Wengrov, Haggadah and Woodcut (1967), index.

[Charles Wengrov]

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