The Burning of the Talmud in Rome on Rosh Hashanah, 1553- Guest Post by Menachem Butler

Last Monday I received a most fascinating email from Chief Rabbi Riccardo di Segni, MD, of Rome, with a picture of a plaque unveiled just the previous afternoon in the market place of Rome to commemorate when, in 1553, the Inquisitors confiscated every copy of the Talmud in Italy; the search took about nine days. On Rosh Hashanah 5314 (9 September 1553), the Talmud and many other Jewish books were burnt in the Campo dei Fiori. Throughout the remainder of the sixteenth-century, a complete edition of the Talmud could not be found anywhere in Italy. Chief Rabbi Riccardo di Segni described this event as “the beginning of the persecution of the Jewish printed book, after that of manuscripts.”

The idea for this plaque placement came after the Boyarin family of Berkeley, California, toured Italy a half-dozen years ago. As Prof. Daniel Boyarin described in remarks delivered at an event celebrating the completion of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’ Talmud translation into Italian at the Campo dei Fiori in November 2010, the idea was conceived “[f]ive years ago when we walked in this beautiful place, [and Chava Boyarin] observed the statue in memory of Giordano Bruno’s martyrdom here, and remarked that there was no memorial for the wagon-loads of Talmud manuscripts and books burnt here in 1553.”

Professor Daniel Boyarin’s entire remarks are transcribed below and a recording is available here. At the event last year, it was announced that a permanent plaque would be affixed at that location in time for this year’s Rosh Hashanah, 458 years after the Talmud was burnt at that very location. Chief Rabbi Riccardo di Segni sent me the picture below of the plaque that now rests on the street of the marketplace in the Campo dei Fiori.

Chief Rabbi Riccardo di Segni told me that in the week since the plaque has been affixed, many tourists and local residents have passed through the marketplace and have stopped to learn about the event that took place at that very location in 1553. “Many tourists who casually crossed the square yesterday were Jewish,” he wrote to me. “One of them told me that he was a young boy who escaped from Berlin in 1938, so he knew what burning of books means, and he was deeply moved by this commemoration. After 458 years, we remember.”

As you can see in the picture, the text of the plaque is in Italian, with two quotations in Hebrew. The first is a quote from the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 18a), which offers the Talmudic account of the martyrdom of R. Hannaniah b. Teradyon. The second passage is from the elegy, Sha’ali Serufah ba-Esh, composed by Rabbi Meir ben Baruch, Maharam of Rothenburg, upon seeing the wagons of Talmudic manuscripts and commentaries burnt in a Paris marketplace in 1242. Sha’ali Serufah ba-Esh is among the most powerful elegies read on Tisha be-Av within Ashkenazic communities worldwide.

The Talmudic account of the martyrdom of R. Hannaniah b. Teradyon, who was burnt alive while wrapped in a Torah scroll, has been described by Moshe David Herr, “Persecutions and Martyrdom in Hadrian’s Days,” Scripta Hierosolymitana 23 (1972): 85-125, esp. 110-119 (Hebrew); Gerald J. Blidstein, “Rabbis, Romans, and Martyrdom: Three Views,” Tradition 21:3 (Fall 1984): 54-62; Daniel Boyarin, Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999); and Daniel Boyarin, “A Contribution to the History of Martyrdom in Israel,” in Daniel Boyarin, Menachem Hershman, Shamma Friedman, Menahem Schmelzer, and Israel M. Ta-Shma, eds., Atarah Le-Hayim: Haim Zalman Dimitrovsky Jubilee Volume (Jerusalem: Hebrew University Magnes Press, 1999), 3-27 (Hebrew); Joseph Dan, “Narrative of the Ten Martyrs: Mysticism and Martyology,” in Hana Amit, Aviad Hacohen, and Haim Beer, eds., Mincha le-Menachem: A Collection of Essays in Honor of Rabbi Menachem Hacohen (Tel-Aviv: haKibbutz haMeuchad, 2007), 367-390 (Hebrew), and broader on The Ten Martyrs, see Jan Wilhelm van Henten, “Jewish and Christian Martyrs,” in Marcel Poorthuis and Joshua Schwartz, eds., Saints and Role Models in Judaism and Christianity (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2004), 163-181; and Ra’anan S. Boustan, “The Hagiographic Vita of a Priestly Rabbinic Martyr: The Figure of Rabbi Ishmael in The Story of the Ten Martyrs,” in Martyr to Mystic: Rabbinic Martyrology and the Making of Merkavah Mysticism (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005), 99-148.

For scholarly discussions on the 1553 burning of the Talmud in Campo dei Fiori, see Avraham Yaari, The Burning of the Talmud in Italy (Tel-Aviv: Abraham Zioni, 1954; Hebrew), reprinted in Studies in Hebrew Booklore (Jerusalem: Mosad ha-Rav Kook, 1958), 198–234 (Hebrew); Kenneth R. Stow, “The Burning of the Talmud in 1553, in Light of Sixteenth-Century Catholic Attitudes Toward the Talmud,” Bibliothèque d’Humanisme et Renaissance 34:3 (September 1972): 435-449; Kenneth R. Stow, Catholic Thought and Papal Jewry Policy 1555-1593, Moreshet Series, vol. 5 (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1977), 49-50, 54-59; as well as the more-recent scholarship by Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, “Censorship, Editing and the Reshaping of Jewish Identity: The Catholic Church and Hebrew Literature in the Sixteenth Century,” in Allison Coudert and Jeffrey S. Shoulson, eds., Hebraica Veritas?: Christian Hebraists and the Study of Judaism in Early Modern Europe (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 125-155; Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, “The Burning of the Talmud,” in The Censor, the Editor, and the Text: The Catholic Church and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon in the Sixteenth Century, trans. Jackie Feldman (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), 32-56, 211-222; Fausto Parente, “The Index, the Holy Office, the Condemnation of the Talmud and Publication of Clement VIII’s Index,” in Gigliola Fragnito, ed., Church, Censorship and Culture in Early Modern Italy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 163-193, which was drawn to my attention by Prof. Ariel Toaff; and most-recently (in a volume just published last week), in Piet van Boxel, “Robert Bellarmine Reads Rashi: Rabbinic Bible Commentaries and the Burning of the Talmud,” in Joseph Hacker and Adam Shear, eds., The Hebrew Book in Early Modern Italy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), 121-132 (chapter six), available here.

About the burning of the Talmud during June 1242, see Susan L. Einbinder, Beautiful Death: Jewish Poetry and Martyrdom in Medieval France (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 70-99 (Chapter three: “Burning Jewish Books”), and for the text of Maharam mi-Rothenberg’s Sha’ali Serufah ba-Esh, see Daniel Goldschmidt, ed., Seder ha‐Kinot le‐Tisha be‐Av (Jerusalem: Mosad ha-Rav Kook, 1972), 135-137 (no. 42) (Hebrew), which appears in English translation in Robert Chazan, ed., Church, State, and Jew in the Middle Ages (New York: Behrman House, Inc., 1980), 229-231, and in slightly modified form in Susan L. Einbinder, Beautiful Death, 76-78. The complete entire audio recording of Professor Daniel Boyarin’s remarks at the Campo dei Fiori is available here, and Rabbi Steinsaltz’ remarks are available here.

Five years ago when we walked in this beautiful place, [Chava Boyarin] observed the statue in memory of Giordano Bruno’s martyrdom here, and remarked that there was no memorial for the wagonloads of Talmud manuscripts and books burnt here in 1553.

‘Once these books are removed,’ an advisor to the Roman Inquisition had written, ‘it will soon result that the more that they are without the wisdom of their rabbis, so much more will they be prepared and disposed to receive the Christian faith and,’ what he calls, ‘the wisdom of the word of God.’ This Inquisitor well understood one thing. He understood that the Talmud and the study of Talmud are what have sustained the Jewish People and kept us against all odds alive and thriving. The wisdom of our rabbis is the word of God, and it this that has kept us faithful to the word of God ’till this day.

In Rome, the Inquisition raged while in the Benedictine monastery at Camaldoli near Arezzo, sat the Florentine humanists who studied the Talmud and Kabbalah together with rabbis. Giordano Bruno, whose own martyrdom, some 20 years after that of the Talmud here, was in large part owing to his having been influenced by those humanists and their interest in Jewish holy books. The placing of this plaque today thus closes the circle and indicates to us that it is not the Inquisition that has won the day, but the spirit of Camaldoli. Today in Rome, Jews and Christians study the Talmud and others of our shared holy books, not only with each other but with Muslims as well. Bruno might have dreamed that this would happen.

Daya le-Chakimah be-Ramiza, “a hint to a Sage is sufficient.” I only had to make the suggestion to the Rabbi of Rome, Rav Riccardo di Segni, and the process was set in motion that has brought us here today. Chazak u-Varukh!

Not only is this a day of mourning; however, it is also a day of celebration. Safadnu Et ha-Talmud Kan, ve-ha-Yom hi-Kimu Yeshiva al-Kivro. We have mourned and memorialized the Talmud in this place, and Rabbi Steinsaltz, shlita, has built a yeshiva on what was intended to be its grave.

The spirit of Bruno has been vindicated, but also the Talmud itself. For while the Inquisition sought to end all Talmud and Talmudic study, more people study the Talmud today than ever before in history, in large part due because of the great, and now completed, Baruch Hashem, project of Rabbi Steinsaltz, shlita.

We mourn the burnt holy books and rejoice together on the completion of this commentary on the Talmud.

Menachem Butler is the co-editor of the Seforim blog. This is his first contribution to the Talmud blog. 

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2 responses to “The Burning of the Talmud in Rome on Rosh Hashanah, 1553- Guest Post by Menachem Butler

  1. A friend living in Rome will go and check where in the square they’ve placed the plaque, whether it’s close to the bookshop. In Campo de’ Fiori you’ve got the best bookshop of Rome—I’m a customer myself. That bookshop is called… Farenheit 451.
    What a moving story.

  2. I work since almost 30 years and censoring and cataloguing the folios and bifolios of Hebrew manuscripts in parchment re-used as ligatures, especially starting from the mid of the 16th century. This phenomenon is a part of the general history of the production of the book, and was caused by the revolution caused by the printing press, when the printed book competition against the manuscript caused the collapse of the manuscript and its exit from the market of the book. This was because the press was able to provide the most requested works at a price fifty or a hundred or even more times cheaper than the cost of a manuscript. Not only the Hebrew manuscripts ended up in such a way, being dismembered and reused as bookbinding, but also any code written on parchment and in every language, including Christian text as the Gospels, patristic commentaries, and other codes written in Greek, Latin, or in vernacular languages as French and Italian. But this general phenomenon, only for the Hebrew book fell in coincidence with the start of a harsher persecution of the Catholic Church against the Jews and their books. The bull of Pope Julius III of 1553, which ordered the confiscation and burning of all copies of the Talmud, after Rome was extended to many other Italian cities. These confiscations produced large quantities of books, either handwritten or printed, to be burned. Of course, since it was started a few before a real business of reusing the parchments of old codes that was no longer interesting, someone escaped from the pyre of books to be burnt those in parchment, in order to get some money in selling them to the binders instead of burn them. This is confirmed by my study of about 370 sheets and bifolios of the Talmud found in bookbindings, I was able to reconstruct in some 160 Talmudic manuscripts otherwise completely lost, and survived only thanks to their reuse to make ligatures. See for that M. PERANI and E. SAGRADINI, Talmudic and Midrashic Fragments from the “Italian Genizah”: Reunification of the Manuscripts and Catalogue, Giuntina, Florence 2004. I studied the folios and bifolios of Talmud according to the date of their re-use that I can know from the first year of the acts of the notary or of the person who compiled the register, bound from the Talmud. I can tell you that for sure there is a connection between the confiscation of Talmud followed the papal bull of 1553 and the abundance of Talmudic codes in parchment to be reused. In fact, a diagram of Talmudic Fragments According to date of reemployment, shows a clear peak in the fifties of the 16th century, corresponding to the Confiscation of the Talmud ordered by Pope Julius III. I’ve seen hundreds of beautiful Sephardic codes, copied from the Jews in the Iberian peninsula one, two or three centuries before the expulsion, which, after being brought from exile to Italy in 1492, after their confiscation they escaped the fire and ended to be reused as a binding material. Similarly, many Ashkenazi Talmud codes, and even rare manuscripts of the Talmud Yerushalmi copied during the 11th century in southern Italy by copyist of the Otranto rabbinic academies, after being transported in northern Italy, they were reused in Bologna in bindings of notaries.
    If someone helps me to put on this site a PowerPoint presentation on this research, I’ll do it gladly, to make it available to everybody, such as an article of mine in English on the reuse of Hebrew manuscripts in parchment as bookbinding. Mauro Perani.

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