Tag Archives: Italian Jews

Jew of the Week: Elia Levita

The First Yiddish Novel and Hebrew Dictionary

Cover Page of a 1541 Edition of ‘Bovo-Bukh’

Eliyahu “Bachur” haLevi (1469-1549) was born near Nuremberg, the youngest of nine children. When the Jews were expelled from the region, his family settled in Venice. Throughout these years, Eliyahu spent most of his time in the study of Torah, Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), and Hebrew grammar. In 1504, he settled in Padua and took on a job as a teacher of Jewish studies. He wrote a textbook of Hebrew grammar for his students, and the book quickly spread far and wide. It became especially popular among Christian scholars, many of whom were then trying to learn Hebrew in order to understand the Bible in its original language. Meanwhile, inspired by other Renaissance authors, Eliyahu wrote a romance novel in Yiddish, the Bovo-Bukh, history’s first Yiddish novel. Hugely popular, it has been continuously published until this day, going through some 40 editions over the past five centuries. It was also translated to other languages, including German and Russian. The book’s title is the origin of the well-known Yiddish phrase, bube mayse, an “old wives’ tale”. Eliyahu wrote two satires in Italian as well. By the time he resettled in Rome in 1514, he was quite famous, and became close with Cardinal Egidio da Viterbo. The two made a deal in which Eliyahu and his family could live in the Cardinal’s palace, in exchange for Eliyahu teaching him Hebrew and Jewish mysticism. (At that time, Jewish mysticism was very popular in Europe, and had many famous non-Jewish students, too, including Michelangelo and Pico della Mirandola.) Eliyahu lived with the Cardinal for the next 13 years. During this time, he composed several more textbooks on the Hebrew language, including one of the first Hebrew dictionaries. He also translated various Jewish texts, mainly Kabbalistic ones, into Latin. Rome was sacked in 1527, so Eliyahu had to relocate again. King Francis I offered him to become a professor of Hebrew at the University of Paris, but Eliyahu declined because at that time Jews were banned from living in Paris and he refused to live in a city where his brethren were not welcome. Eliyahu would return to Venice and passed away there. Today is his yahrzeit. Former British Prime Minister David Cameron is one of his descendants.

Words of the Week

To have a second language is to have a second soul.
– Charlemagne

Jew of the Week: Ramchal

The Unparalleled Kabbalist Who Became the Father of Modern Hebrew

Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (1707-1746) was born in Padua, Italy to a wealthy Sephardic family. He studied under some of the great Italian rabbis of the time and was quickly recognized as a prodigy, receiving rabbinic ordination himself while still a teenager. He also took up studies at the University of Padua, and by the time he was just 20 years old had complete mastery of Torah, Talmud, and Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), as well as philosophy, medicine, and alchemy. He had also written a textbook on Hebrew language and grammar, Leshon Limmudim (predating Eliezer Ben-Yehuda by some two centuries!) Meanwhile, Luzzatto wrote several plays including a dramatization of the Biblical story of Samson. Around the same time, he started writing a book of 150 psalms to mirror the 150 Psalms of King David in the Tanakh. His Hebrew and poetry were of such a high level that people had a hard time distinguishing between the psalms of Luzzatto and the psalms of David! This drew the anger of many rabbis, who banned the work. The final straw was when Luzzatto revealed that he had been visited by a maggid, an angel that taught the mysteries of the Torah. He started writing these teachings down, and relaying them to a small mystical circle. When word got out, the Italian rabbis sought to excommunicate him for good. To avoid the decree, Luzzatto agreed to stop teaching and leave Italy. He resettled in Amsterdam and made a living as a diamond cutter and lens grinder. During this time he produced his greatest works, which would become classics of Judaism and standard textbooks in yeshivas to this day: Mesillat Yesharim (“Path of the Just”), a manual for personal development and character refinement; Derekh Hashem (“Way of God”) on the fundamentals of Jewish theology; Da’at Tevunot, a unification of Kabbalah and rationalism written in the form of a conversation between the Soul and the Intellect; and Derekh Tevunot, a manual for Talmudic study. He also wrote a number of commentaries on the Zohar (the central text of Kabbalah) and countless other discourses, most of which have been lost. After being barred from teaching in Amsterdam as well, he headed to the Holy Land and settled in Acco. There he helped build the Jewish community and a new synagogue (destroyed by Bedouins in 1758). Sadly, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto (or the Ramchal, his initials, by which he is better known) perished in a devastating plague that broke out several years later. One of the early Hasidic leaders, Rabbi Dov Ber of Mezerich, would later say of the Ramchal that “His generation did not have the merit of this great man.” The Vilna Gaon famously stated that had the Ramchal still been alive, he would have walked all the way from Lithuania to Amsterdam just to meet him, and that the Ramchal was the only person to understand Kabbalah since the Arizal. The Ramchal was seen as a hero and inspiration by secular Jewish and Haskalah leaders, too, who crowned him the “father of modern Hebrew literature”. Today, the 26th of Iyar, is his yahrzeit.

Words of the Week

He who confronts himself with the paradoxical, exposes himself to reality.
– Friedrich Durenmatt

Jews of the Week: Abraham Garton & Gershom Soncino

The First Jewish Printers

Abraham Garton (c. 1450-1510) was born in Spain and moved with his family to Calabria, Italy sometime before the Spanish Expulsion of 1492 (which took place on Tisha b’Av). Little is known of his life. Inspired by Johannes Gutenberg, who produced the first printed book in Europe in 1439, Garton established his own printing press to produce Jewish books. His first publication was the Torah commentary of the great Rashi, produced in 1475. In order to avoid using the holy script of the Torah itself, and to be able to fit more letters on a page, Garton decided to use a special cursive Hebrew font previously developed by Sephardic rabbis. This went on to become the standard font for printing the commentary of Rashi on the Torah and Talmud, as well as the commentaries of other sages, and is referred to as “Rashi script” – even though Rashi himself never used it!

Rashi script, originally developed by Sephardic rabbis in Spain (top) compared to regular Hebrew script (bottom).

Emblem of the Soncino family and printing press

Several years later, Yehoshua Shlomo (the son of Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants to Italy) established a Hebrew printing press in the town of Soncino, and later in Naples. He undertook the publication of the entire Talmud, starting with the first tractate, Berakhot, in 1483. The work was taken over by his nephew, Gershom Girolamo Soncino (c. 1460-1533). A scholar in his own right, Gershom was fluent in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. In addition to the Talmud, he published books of Torah and the Megillot, as well as various rabbinic texts. He traveled all over Europe to find manuscripts that he could publish. He also produced non-Jewish books, and became famous among Italians for the high quality of his work. All in all, he produced some 200 works, and was the first to use illustrations in a Hebrew book. Soncino later established printing presses in other cities, the last in Constantinople, where he lived out the remainder of his life. He became wealthy, and used his funds to assist Sephardic Jews following the 1492 Expulsion from Spain, and the Portuguese Expulsion in 1497. The Soncino family printed Jewish books until 1557, playing a key role in the wide-spread dissemination of Jewish wisdom, and opening up the study of Jewish texts to the masses. Soncino Press was reestablished in London in the late 19th century, and continues to publish Jewish books today.

How to Observe Judaism in Outer Space  

Words of the Week

Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.
– George Bernard Shaw