THE place is Constantinople, capital of the Ottoman Empire; the date December 1493. Elia (Elijah), son of Benjamin ha-Levi, is writing the concluding lines to the almost complete edition of Jacob ben Asher's great early fourteenth-century religious compendium Arba'ah Turim ('The Four Rows'), a title referring to the four rows of gemstones on the breastplate of the High Priest. The work is completed on Friday 13 December. It is a folio volume of about eight hundred pages, divided into four parts and printed in two columns of mostly forty-nine lines. The four parts, respectively entitled 'Way of Life', 'Teacher of Knowledge', 'Stone of Help' and 'Breastplate of Judgement', deal with such subjects as prayer, blessings, the Sabbath, holy days and fasting, laws relating to ritual slaughter of animals, unclean food, idolatry and mourning, marriage, the marriage contract, and divorce. The book can without a doubt be called a bestseller among the Hebrew incunabula: including editions of its separate parts, at least thirteen editions of this work appeared within twenty years.
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