When Italian Jews Lost the Talmud, but Continued Their Studies

Jan. 14 2022

In 1553, the Roman Inquisition set about confiscating every edition of the Talmud they could find, and then burned them all at the Campo de’ Fiori, a plaza not far from the Vatican. Many other Jewish books were destroyed as well, and for several decades Italian Jews had to make do without the Talmud. Considering this episode from the standpoint of our present era of information overload, Edward Reichman tells a story that involves a surprising finding at the Vatican library, the controversy in 16th-century Venice involving two Gentile Hebrew publishers and the first-ever printing of Maimonides’ code of Jewish law, and Jewish medical studies in Renaissance in Italy:

The impact of the burning of the Talmud on Jewish literature in general has been treated elsewhere, but as my interests lie in Jewish medical history, I conclude by sharing its effect on one of the more prominent figures in Jewish medical history, Abraham Portaleone (d. 1612). Portaleone, descendant of a long line of prominent physicians, and himself physician to dukes and princes, developed a stroke in his sixties, leaving him partially paralyzed on one side of his body. His illness sparked reflection that led him to the conclusion that he had not devoted enough of his life to Torah study. To rectify this deficiency, he set out to compose a comprehensive work on prayer and the Temple service, Shiltei ha-Gibborim, which he dedicated to his children. It is an encyclopedia of Renaissance knowledge, including extensive discussions on the composition of the Temple incense, drawing on contemporary botanical studies, as well as unprecedented research into the instruments and music of the Levites accompanying the Temple service.

In his introduction, Portaleone details the nature of his early education, and . . . the Talmud “being consumed by fire before our eyes.” After the initial burning of the Talmud in Rome, other Italian cities followed suit with their own citywide burnings of the Talmud. Portaleone was witness to one such event. Decades later, as he penned his classic work, Shiltei ha-Gibborim, the Talmud still remained unavailable in Italy. Portaleone was forced to use substitute works that alluded to or quoted the Talmud, if available, but sometimes the information was simply not accessible.

While our ancestors yearned for access to even one miniscule fragment of the Talmud, we have unfettered access to virtually the totality of rabbinic literature literally at our fingertips, from a device likely smaller in size than the one fragment of Talmud Abraham Portaleone was so overjoyed to discover.

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Why the Recent Uptick of Israeli Activity in Syria?

Sept. 23 2022

On September 16 and 17, the IDF carried out airstrikes in the vicinity of Damascus, reportedly aimed at Iranian logistical centers there. These follow on an increase in the frequency of such attacks in recent weeks, which have included strikes on the Aleppo airport on August 31 and September 6. Jonathan Spyer comments:

The specific targeting of the Aleppo airport is almost certainly related to recent indications that Iran is relying increasingly on its “air bridge” to Syria and Lebanon, because of Israel’s successful and systematic targeting of efforts to move weaponry and equipment by land [via Iraq]. But the increased tempo of activity is not solely related to the specific issue of greater use of air transport by Teheran. Rather, it is part of a broader picture of increasing regional tension. There are a number of factors that contribute to this emergent picture.

Firstly, Russia appears to be pulling back in Syria. . . . There are no prospects for a complete Russian withdrawal. The air base at Khmeimim and the naval facilities at Tartus and Latakia are hard strategic assets which will be maintained. The maintenance of Assad’s rule is also a clear objective for Moscow. But beyond this, the Russians are busy now with a flailing, faltering military campaign in Ukraine. Moscow lacks the capacity for two close strategic engagements at once.

Secondly, assuming that some last-minute twist does not occur, it now looks like a return to the [2015 nuclear deal] is not imminent. In the absence of any diplomatic process related to the Iranian nuclear program, and given Israeli determination to roll back Iran’s regional ambitions, confrontation becomes more likely.

Lastly, it is important to note that the uptick in Israeli activity is clearly not related to Syria alone. Rather, it is part of a more general broadening and deepening by Israel in recent months of its assertive posture toward the full gamut of Iranian activity in the region. . . . The increasing scope and boldness of Israeli air activity in Syria reflects this changing of the season.

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More about: Iran, Israeli Security, Syria, War in Ukraine