Altrove/Elsewhere – The Talmud in Italy

Catalan_Atlas_caravan_drawingBy Daniel Leisawitz*

The latest edition of Pagine ebraiche featured a series of articles dedicated to the progress of the years-long Babylonian Talmud Translation Project. Earlier this month a ceremony was held at the Accademia dei Lincei in Rome to celebrate the completion of the first tractate of the Talmud to be translated fully into Italian.

It is striking to reflect on the fact the this massive initiative to translate the entire Babylonian Talmud into Italian, which began in 2010, is moving forward thanks to the contributions of “roughly 50 scholars, translators, editors, and curators,” the financial support of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities and the Italian government, and the utilization of a computer program developed specifically for this project by Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche’s Institute for Computational Linguistics.

Although this is a momentous occasion it is not the first time that a large-scale and coordinated publishing project of Jewish texts has taken place in Italy. Almost 500 years ago, a great flowering of Hebrew printing took place in central and northern Italy, centered around the city of Mantua. However, in this case the initiative was set in motion not by the help of the state, but by the repressive policies of the Counter Reformation Church, exemplified by the banning and public burning of the Talmud ordered by Pope Julius III in 1553. As a result of this threat to their culture, Italian Jews sought to rescue their cultural and religious patrimony from erasure by disseminating texts through the burgeoning technology of the printing press. In the years following 1553 large folio editions of Hebrew legal compendia and commentaries, which were able to slide past the religious censors, were printed as replacements for the banned Talmudic texts.

This massive publishing project quickly spread beyond volumes of law and commentary to the controversial printing of kabbalistic texts, which had until that point been reserved only for advanced scholars. Suddenly this esoteric knowledge was available to anyone who could buy a relatively inexpensive printed copy of the Zohar or the Sefer Yetzirah. And much like the Talmud translation endeavor taking place right now in Italy, the publishing project of the mid-sixteenth century was born at the intersection of societal need, the availability of a new technology, and a creative and intellectual effort coordinated by Jewish scholars with the practical help of Christians. And like the Hebrew publishing effort of the sixteenth century, the Babylonian Talmud Translation Project has the potential to make Jewish learning accessible to a wider and appreciative public.

*Daniel Leisawitz, professor at Muhlenberg College (Allentown, Pennsylvania, USA). The artwork is by Abraham Cresques a 14th-century Jewish Spanish cartographer.