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Burning the Talmud in Venice

October 29, 2020 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

October 31 marks the tragic anniversary of the end of a golden age of Hebrew books in Venice.

This year, October 31 falls on the 13th of Cheshvan, the anniversary of a horrific event in Jewish history – the burning of the Talmud and other Jewish books in the center of Venice in 1553.

A few years before this massive Jewish book burning, the thought that Jewish books would be hunted down and destroyed in Venice might have seemed impossible. At the time, Venice was the center of the Hebrew publishing industry.

After the printing press was invented in the mid-1400s by Johannes Gutenberg, publishing houses sprang up throughout Europe. This new technology caused a huge revolution: for the first time, books and other printed items could be mass-produced. Families that might have only owned one book before – a laboriously hand-written Bible, perhaps – could suddenly acquire a small library of their own. Learning and education were completely transformed.

Venice discriminated against Jews in the extreme.

In Italy, this new atmosphere of intellectual inquiry was often led by Jews. Historian Solomon Graetz described the key role Italian Jews played in the development of the Renaissance there: “Jewish youths attended the Italian universities, and acquired a more liberal education. The Italian Jews were the first to make us of the newly discovered art of Gutenberg, and printing houses soon rose in many parts of Italy – in Reggio, Ferrara, Pieva di Sacco, Bologna, Soncino, Ixion, and Naples.” (Quoted in History of the Jews: From the Earliest Times to the Present Day, Vol. IV by Solomon Graetz, 1904.)

Venice, however, refused to grant permission for Jews to set up printing presses. Though prosperous and home to a large Jewish community, Venice discriminated against Jews in the extreme. Jews had to wear ridiculous yellow garments and hats whenever they ventured out in public. In 1515, Venice forced all Jews to live crammed into an inhospitable island called the Ghetto (the origin of the term Ghetto in English), where they were locked in each night. Despite their education, Jews could not enter most professions and were barred from sitting on the city’s powerful, secretive leadership council.

Daniel Bomberg, a non-Jewish businessman from Antwerp, saw a market for Jewish books in the city, and requested permission from the city authorities to open a printing press specializing in Hebrew works. (It would have been impossible for a Jew to go into business in this way.) Bomberg moved to Venice and spent years trying to bribe local officials for permission to set up shop. Finally, in 1515, after paying an enormous bribe, he was granted approval. Bomberg hired four local Jewish assistants (including at least one of whom seemingly publicly embraced Christianity) and started setting Hebrew text on his presses.

Bomberg’s first printed work was the Jewish classic Mikraot Gedolot, a version of the Hebrew Bible containing key commentaries by important Medieval rabbis. He then went on to print editions of the Talmud. Bomberg printed books were incredibly high quality: he used only the finest ink and paper, and soon learned Jewish households were clamoring to buy copies of his books. Though there were several Jewish printing presses operating throughout Italy at the time, Venice became synonymous with the new Hebrew printing press industry, setting a standard that many other presses tried to follow.

Even though Jewish life and learning flourished in Italy, it did so despite a terrifying drumbeat of intense anti-Jewish hatred that sometimes flared into violence. As Solomon Graetz notes: “The relatively secure and honorable position of the Jews in Italy did not fail to rouse against them the anger of those fanatical monks who sought to cover with the cloak of religious zeal either their dissolute conduct or the ambitious share with which they took in worldly affairs.” Some priests blamed Jews for all sorts of ills: perhaps the most vocal Jew-baiter in Italy at the time was the 15th Century Franciscan priest Bernardinus of Feltre, who encouraged hatred of and violence against Jews in the generation before the heyday of the Italian Hebrew printing press.

Bernardinus railed against Jews in his sermons, openly trying to foment violence. He was so vituperative that some of the leading princes and aristocrats of Italy forced him to quit a succession of cities and towns across Italy. Duke Galeazzo of Milan forced Bernardinus to leave his city rather than whip up massacres of Jews there. Civic leaders in Florence and Tuscany protected their Jews and forbade Bernardinus from preaching. Bernardinus did manage to incite violence against Jews in Pisa and Venice. He finally left for the north of Italy, where he had his greatest success in the city of Trent: A Christian baby was found dead and Bernardinus blamed the Jews of Trent, who were all thrown into prison, many were tortured. The dead baby was beatified by the Catholic Church as Simon of Trent, and Jews were banished from ever living in the city again. Against this grim background, Jewish learning flourished and Hebrew books were printed by the thousands across Italy. Despite the Jews’ relative prominence, the specter of danger never entirely disappeared.

In Venice, the threat of violence bubbling against the surface would soon erupt. The cause was other non-Jewish businessmen entering the Hebrew printing business, hoping to capitalize on Bomberg’s success and make a fortune printing Hebrew language books for Venice’s large and educated Jewish community.

The first of these was Marco Antonio Giustiniani, an Italian nobleman who set up a Hebrew printing press in Venice in 1545. From the start, Giustiniani was openly hostile to Daniel Bomberg. Giustiniani began printing editions of the very same books that Bomberg was printing, and even seemed to try to provoke Bomberg with the logo that Giustiniani adopted. Giustiniani’s mark, printed in all his books, depicted a picture of the ancient Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, with a quote from the Jewish prophet Haggai, “The glory of this later Temple will be greater than the first….” (Haggai 2:9). His message was clear: his new business would quash Bomberg’s lucrative press.

Within a few years, other non-Jewish businessmen opened yet more Hebrew printing presses in Venice. These businessmen were also cutthroat, vying to put their rivals out of business. (Indeed, Bomberg’s press soon closed.) They behaved with a startling lack of decency, routinely undercutting each other and printing the same volumes that their competitors had already released. And they employed a certain type of worker: men who’d been raised as Jews, who knew Hebrew and could lay out sheets of Hebrew text, but who’d converted to Christianity, making them more attractive as employees in the anti-Semitic atmosphere of the time.

One of these newcomers was a Venetian native named Alvise Bragadin, who founded a wildly popular press called Stamparia Bragadina, printing Hebrew books. One of his first products was an edition of the classic Jewish work Mishneh Torah by Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon (1138-1204). Alvise Bragadin apparently used Bomberg’s edition and added a key new element.

Bragadin approached Rabbi Meir Katzenellenbogen, the Chief Rabbi head of a renowned yeshiva in nearby Padua, and one of the greatest rabbis of the era. Rabbi Katzenellenbogen gave his consent for a penetrating commentary that he wrote on the work to be included in Bragadin’s edition, and even invested some of his own money to finance the work. For Bragadin, this was a master stroke, establishing the Stamparia Bragadin as the most highly regarded of Venice’s Hebrew presses. Rabbi Katzenellenbogen was revered by Jewish readers who clamored to have his commentary; the Bragadin edition of the Mishneh Torah was a huge success.

An angry Giustiniani decided to orchestrate Bragadin’s utter downfall. He began printing copies of the Mishneh Torah of his own, and added Rabbi Katzenellenbogen’s groundbreaking and wildly popular commentary – which he’d given specifically to Alvise Bragadin only – without writing the name of their author. Giustiniani priced these editions lower than Bragadin’s, undercutting his rival. Moreover, Giustiniani began a public smear campaign, claiming that Rabbi Katzenellenborgen’s commentary was being poorly received and was of faulty scholarship.

Facing financial ruin after investing in the Bragadin edition, Rabbi Katzenellenbogen wrote to one of the most prominent rabbis of the time, Rabbi Moshe Isserlis, known as the Rema, who was a cousin of his. Rabbi Isserlis lived in far-away Cracow, but he agreed to adjudicate the conflict in Venice. After hearing all sides of the case presented by Rabbi Katzenellenbogen, Rabbi Isserlis issued a complex legal ruling, appealing to the Talmud’s many injunctions to always be scrupulously honest in business matters. Citing Jewish laws that prohibit unfair competition, underhand dealings, and sloppy work, he instructed Venice’s Jews – and other Jewish customers – to buy only the Bragadin edition of the work until it sold out, at which point Jews could then begin purchasing the Giustiniani editions. Even though Guistiniani was not Jewish, Jewish law was incumbent on him in this matter, Rabbi Isserlis wrote.

Despite this ruling, neither printing press owner was satisfied. Ignoring their many loyal Jewish customers, they turned to Church authorities and each denounced the other for printing “blasphemous” Hebrew texts. Both the Bragadin and Giustiniani Hebrew printing presses had printed editions of the Talmud and now Bragadin and Giustiniani themselves were calling these volumes heretical and accusing the other of violating Church teachings by printing them.

This was no idle threat. Elsewhere in Europe, the Inquisition was actively rooting out heretical material; both Jews and Protestants were targets of the Church’s fearsome Inquisitors. Italian Inquisitors heard the evidence brought by Bragadin and Giustiniani, as well as apostate Jews they marshaled to their cause, men who’d turned their back on Judaism and were all too eager to prove their Christian bona fides by denouncing their fellow Jews.

Finally, in August 1553, the Italian Inquisitors issued their ruling: all copies of the Talmud were to be burned. Anyone found hiding volumes of this Jewish holy work would be imprisoned. Those who informed on their neighbors would receive a financial reward.

The first Italian city to burn its Talmuds was Rome: on Rosh Hashanah, Inquisition authorities forced their way into every Jewish home in the city, confiscating not only the Talmud but every single book in Hebrew they could find. These were burned in an enormous bonfire in Rome’s central Campo di Fiori public square. A couple of weeks later, a similar bonfire consumed the Jewish books in Bologna. One month after that, the Inquisitors set their sights on Venice, the jewel of Hebrew publishing.

The Hebrew month of Cheshvan is sometimes called “Mar Cheshvan,” or “Bitter Cheshvan,” since it is the only Hebrew month to contain no holidays. In the year 1553, the month of Cheshvan was indescribably bitter for another reason: it saw the destruction of an incredible amount of Jewish scholarship in the city of Venice. While some Jews managed to hide treasured volumes at huge risk to themselves, nearly every copy of the Talmud, as well as other Hebrew works, were seized from family homes, schools and synagogues. The Inquisitors built an enormous fire in Venice’s beautiful Piazza San Marco and publicly burned thousands of books. The authorities issued a blanket ban on printing any more Hebrew books in Venice. (The ban was only lifted only a decade later, with severe restrictions.)

The destruction had a profound effect on Jewish life for generations. After thousands of Jewish books were burned, the shutting of Venetian presses meant that there was very little way Jews could rebuild their book collections. Hebrew printing presses in Lublin and Salonika began ramping up production, issuing more printed editions of the Talmud. In Italy, meanwhile, Jewish students focused on the few Jewish books that were available. It was relatively easy to buy copies of books by the great North African Medieval Rabbi Isaac ben Jacob Alfasi ha-Cohen (known as the Rif), in Italy for instance, so his works gained a new prominence among Italian Jews.

Even after the Talmud was allowed to be printed once again in Venice, it was only with heavy edits and under a different name. Venice never again regained its prominence as a center for Jewish printing and scholarship – and the horrible memory of the raging fire in St. Mark’s Square in the heart of the city haunted Italian Jews for years.


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