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.