Almost every Torah Jew has a living monument of the lost “Yerushalayim of Lita” sitting on the bookshelf – the famed Vilna Shas completed by the Widow and Brothers Romm in 5646/1886. Most of our plastic bound Gemaras are feeble copies of the magnificent, leather bound third edition of their Vilna Shas.
The Romm printing shop had humble beginnings. It was founded by Boruch ben Yosef Mass (“Mass” is the initial letters of Mocher Seforim) when King Stanislaus Augustus of Lithuania authorized his primitive wooden press in 5549/1789. At that time, he was running the business from Grodno, while his press cranked out small seforim in the small town of Aziar nearby. After ten years of struggle, Boruch Mass branched out to Vilna, sending his son Menachem to take charge of the new shop. One of Boruch’s watershed achievements was his introduction of the famous Vilna typeset which remains wildly popular until this day.
A NEW SHAS
In 5595/1835, Menachem and his partner, Simcha Zimmel of Grodno decided to print a brand new Shas.
Their plan aroused fierce opposition from the Slavita printing house of the saintly Shapiro brothers who had been granted a twenty-five year monopoly on printing Shas. Although the Vilna printers claimed that the Slavita monopoly was invalid because the Shapiros had already sold their stocks of Gemara and were now printing new editions, the Shapiro brothers vehemently disagreed. Dinei Torah failed to defuse the issue even after almost all the gedolei hador became involved.
The controversy was cynically exploited by Maskilim who were already doing their best to discredit seforim in the eyes of the Russian government, claiming that they engendered ignorance and civil disobedience, and the battle reached a climax when a gentile bookbinder hanged himself in the Slavita printing shop in 5595/1835.
After a showcase trial, Czar Nicholas I personally closed down almost all the printing shops in his empire and
ordered the destruction of thousands of seforim. Only two printing houses were permitted to survive, one in Vilna and one in Kiev. Fortunately, Menachem received the Vilna license and his Shas project continued, although 800 Polish subscribers discovered they could not receive their copies when the government forbade exporting seforim to Poland. Other subscribers cancelled their orders when Russian censors insisted on giving masseches Avoda Zara a new name – masseches Avodas Kochavim uMezalos.
In 5601/1841, Menachem passed away and his son, Yosef Reuven continued the giant Shas project.
In 5614/1854, the colossal printing of the first Vilna Shas was completed and Yosef Reuven became a wealthy man selling the fruits of his labors. After his passing in 5618/1858, his three sons, Dovid, Chaim Yaakov and Menachem Gavriel were not content to sit on their laurels, but decided to print a second, more beautiful and comprehensive Shas, which was completed in 5626/1866.
In the middle of its printing in 5620/1860, Dovid, the oldest brother passed away of a heart attack leaving his widow and six children. The company was now headed by his widow and her two brothers-in-law and this is how it got its famous name, the “Widow and Brothers Romm,” or, “Witwe und Bruder Romm.”
THE VATICAN COOPERATES
The third Vilna Shas, printed in six years from 5640/1880 to 5646/1886 and arguably, the finest Shas ever printed, is the prototype from which most modern Gemaras are offset.
As the printers explain in Acharis Davar the end of masseches Nidah: “Over four hundred years have passed since printers began printing Shas, and they produced about fifty editions, and in all those many years they did not innovate anything significant or important, and it remains almost exactly as it was hundreds of years ago! Go and see what printers did to develop and improve the Shas. Many of them imitated their fellows before them… and innovated nothing except that they added more errors to those that had preceded them.
“Hashem let 400 years pass and all those years He did not merit one of those printers to do anything new and left this … until this day for our printing press alone!”
The labor to collect all the new commentaries was immense.
As the printers write in Acharis Davar: “How heavy the labor was on us and how vast! How we labored to find these hidden luminaries. How much money we spent on them! They were spread and scattered in libraries at every end of the world. and most of them were worn out from age and covered with rust. The writing was faded and almost illegible. A few were eaten by worms and chemicals and the paper was so worn and decayed that the mere touch of a hand almost turned them to dust. The script was mainly Italian or Sefardi, which most modern Jews can barely read.”
Producing this third Shas with superlative proofreaders who included the famed Rav Shlomo haCohen (the “Cheishek Shlomo”) and many new meforshim threatened to hike its cost to almost double that of a normal Shas. When the family decided that they would only go ahead if a thousand subscribers were willing to sign up in advance, ten times that many – ten thousand Jews signed the dotted line to buy the Vilna Shas volume by volume as it came off the presses.
The Romm printers ran into an obstacle adding Rabeinu Chananel to their list of new meforshim.
Although they had copied a manuscript of Rabeinu Chananel on masseches Shabbos and seder Nezikin, the rest of Rabeinu Chananel on Seder Moed was in the Vatican archives, which house about 800 Jewish manuscripts theorized to have been handed to the Vatican by a Catholic ruler in Germany after a pogrom; it also held hundreds of charred fragments. Another building in Rome had and continues to house a collection of confiscated seforim that apostates used to dig up information for the Church to use in its debates against Jews.
As chief editor, Shmuel Shraga Feigensohn, wrote,
“At the very first, we determined to copy a manuscript of Rabeinu Chananel bar Chushiel z”l on many tractates of the Talmud Bavli that were found in the Vatican library in Rome. It was written in Rashi script in Italian form which most Jews of our time cannot read. When the time came to copy the commentary of Rabeinu Chananel on Eiruvin, a new obstacle arose, because the library closed four months for summer vacation, not allowing anyone to enter during that time.
“We were very worried, because preventing copying this commentary for a few months could sabotage the whole schedule of printing the Shas and distributing it to those who had signed to buy it in the times we had promised.”
“Against our will, we printed masseches Sanhedrin after masseches Shabbos. But this did not save us, because the library was still not open, and we had still not copied the manuscripts for Eiruvin and the other massechtos of Moed, and the printing would be held up for a long time.”
They got over this obstacle with the help of Rav Refoel Nota Rabinowitz of Munich who contacted a German politician and German professor who had connections with two cardinals in Rome.
As Feigensohn wrote, “These two cardinals made efforts to open the door of the library all the days it was closed, for Rav Rabinowitz alone or for his agent, and he appointed the copier in his place to copy Rabeinu Chananel for us. All we had to do was to pay the salary of the library guard during that time. They did even more for our copying purposes, nullifying two other unbroken laws of that library – to close it in the afternoons and during festivals. But they allowed our copier to work in it both in the afternoon and also on minor festivals.”
The only person available in Rome capable of doing the work was the 70- year-old Rav Mordechai Yosef of Corfu, the chazzan and gabbai of the Rome Kehilla.
Feigensohn marveled at this unprecedented cooperation of the Catholic Church.
“Looking retroactively at this Vatican that was a source of deathly hatred to Yisroel, and even more to our literature in all Christian countries, and because of it kings decreed countless decrees of apostasy, massacre, sword and destruction and difficult exiles until… and above all often confiscated and burnt Jewish seforim and also sometimes decreed to burn the Jew together with his Jewish sefer in fire.
“Now, wonder of wonders, out of that same fire in which they threw Jewish seforim, kindness and goodwill unparalleled even towards Christian rulers are extended to those very seforim.
The only explanation is that Rabeinu Chananel’s great merit. helped him and his commentary so that his powerful light could shine from the darkness to illuminate the Talmud and light the eyes of its learners to see the Torah’s truth.”
A GIANT PROJECT
In total, this new Shas with its 103 new commentaries consisted of 37 volumes printed on 5,894 folios. (A folio is a sheet of paper folded once to make two leaves, or four pages, of a book or manuscript.)
As the printers wrote in the Acharis Davar: “We began the work in 5640 on the 18th of Iyar, and finished this great labor, with Hashem’s help, on the 13th of Nissan 5646. And we were very afraid lest we could not ascend to the top of this awesome mountain, because its heights reached the heavens!”
The Romm printing shop continued printing for many years until the Russians destroyed it in 5700/1940. For the past decade, activists have been trying to return the stolen seforim in the Vatican archives back to their rightful owners – the Jewish people.