History of Mediaeval Jews - Maurice Harris

Israel's Further Fortunes in Italy.

In the Italian Republics.

For the next century or so after Kalonymos and Immanuel, the condition of the Italian Jews, comparatively speaking, left little to be desired. It even became one of the lands of refuge for Spanish Israel after the storm broke there. For the separate Italian republics, Venice, Florence, Genoa and Pisa, became such important commercial centres that Church interest and therefore Church dominance had fallen somewhat into the background. The secular and industrial status of society, such as we see around us to-day, as against the clerical and military, was already foreshadowed in mediaeval Italy. Trade with other nations and races gave the Italians breadth of view and a kind of humanizing education. In such a state of society, the Jew, as a man of affairs,—which hard training in the school of adversity had made him—was valued in spite of his creed.

Venice asked the Jews to open credit banks to aid poor traders. It is significant that the word "bank" comes from Italy. In England we noticed that the Caorsini from Italy were already rivals of the Jews as money lenders. Commercial loans on interest gradually ceased to be stigmatized as usury. The words had been treated as identical, as in the Bible. We know of Jechiel of Pisa as the man who controlled the money markets of Tuscany. But we also know him as the generous man who contributed liberally to release the Jewish captives. This sad duty often devolved on mediaeval Israel and it was never evaded.

"Shem in the Tents of Japheth."

While in Italy the Jewish physicians were as renowned as those of other lands, no ban forbade their ministering to Gentiles. In fact, Christians held friendly relations with Jews, at times attended their weddings; and "bulls" against social commingling became dead letters for the time. Even the traveling friars could not turn public opinion against them. Bernardinus of Feltre, a Franciscan monk, fanatic and powerful, who used all his eloquent zeal to stir the hate of the populace against the Jews, was forbidden to continue his incendiary crusade in Italian cities and finally, in 1487, was banished from Florence.

His very different reception in the Tyrol and the awful consequences, best bring out the contrasts of civilization in these respective lands. So, although in alarm, the Jews of Italy called a Synod in Bologna in 1416 to meet the attacks of Vincent Ferrer (another monk of the same bigoted type) it turned out to be unnecessary.

In the classic era of the Medicis the Jews attended Italian universities and had their share in the Renaissance—that is, in its literary rather than in its artistic phase. They were the first Jews to make use of the printing press. Among Jewish scientists and litterateurs worthy of special mention was Judah ben Yechiel, rabbi of Mantua, better known as Messer Leon, who flourished at the end of the fifteenth century. He wrote on philosophy, logic and rhetoric. As a Bible commentator he was daring and original for his day. He ventured to draw comparison between the Hebrew prophets and the Latin classics, bringing out the literary excellence of the Jewish writings. But the world was not yet ready to study "the Bible as literature." His comments on "the virtuous woman" of Proverbs xxxi, leads him to a panegyric on woman in general. He has a word to say on Petrarch's Laura. Yes, the Italian Jews were Italian. As we have seen in other lands, the Jews always showed political, social and literary identification with countries that became homes.

Elias del Medigo.

A far profounder Italian Jewish scholar was Elias del Medigo, born in 1491, the year that Messer Leon died. Educated in the university of Padua, he became an all-round scholar, travelling widely and drinking deeply from all sources of learning. He studied astron omy under Galileo. His mastery of Greek enabled him to make Christian scholars familiar with Aristotle in the original; with Aristotle in the commentary of Averroes, through his mastery of Arabic; and again with Maimonides' interpretation of Aristotle through his mastery of Hebrew. Pico de Mirandola, a versatile Christian scholar, became his pupil and patron. Under Jewish teaching Pico became an adept in Kabala, but he drew from it Christian doctrine—such as the Incarnation and Original Sin. It was not difficult to infer whatever one desired by reasoning from numbers to facts. So the Jews found it a two-edged sword. It enabled the Christian to prove the Trinity from the Hebrew Scriptures. No wonder it came to be a favorite study with Christian theologians, and that they burnt the Talmud and spared the Zohar.

But it was not from Medigo that Pico learned Kabala. His thoroughly rationalistic temperament had no patience with mysticism. He rather inclined to the skeptical, but like Abraham Ibn Ezra he kept his extreme opinions diplomatically in reserve. Chosen by the university of Padua, at the early age of twenty-three to act as umpire in a disputed point of learning, he became a public lecturer in philosophy. So while in some places on the continent Jews were being driven at the sword's point with the cry of Hep, hep (Hierosolyma est perdita, Jerusalem is lost) behind them, in Padua and Florence, Christians gladly sat at the feet of a Jew.

All his scientific and literary pursuits were apart from his main vocation—that of physician. Yet withal he has left behind him works on nearly every science cultivated in his day, from mechanics to optics—and from geography to chemistry. Mathematical astronomy was his great theme. Though he found time to write critiques on Rashi and Ibn Ezra, yet as natural scientist he was most esteemed in his own day and is in ours. The heavens rather than Heaven formed the subject of his research.

The settlement of some German rabbis in Italy, refugees from persecution, brought with it their narrower aspect of religious life. Actual clashes now occurred between liberal and conservative. Indeed something of the same change occurred in the Jewish atmosphere in Italy that occurred in Spain after the advent of the Asherides (p. 249). If then the literary scepter was passing from Spain to Italy, so too this less advantageous experience was going with it. Thus does history repeat itself in many ways.

Although by the middle of the fifteenth century, friar preaching and popish bulls gradually reduced the Italian Jews to much the same social level as those of Germany, we at least have no record of tragic massacres.


We will append here, a few words about Yedaya Baderisi, a poet and philosopher. Not that he belonged to Italy. The historians are not sure whether this contemporary of Immanuel was born in Spain or in France and driven from the latter in the expulsion of 1306. Of his life we know very little, but his great work Bechinath Olom (an Examination of the World) has been translated from the original Hebrew into many tongues, has passed through at least forty-four editions and has been honored with commentaries upon it by many writers.

The following illustrations show his use of metaphor in conveying ethical lessons:

The World a Sea.

"The world is as a boisterous sea of immense depth and width, and time forms a fragile bridge built over it. The upper end thereof is fastened to the ground by means of weak ropes, and its lower end leads to a place which is shone upon by the rays of the divine light, emanating from God's majesty. The breadth of the bridge is but one short span and has no balustrade work to save one from falling over it. Over this narrow path, thou, O son of man, art compelled to go, and notwithstanding all thy might and glory, thou canst not turn either to the right or to the left. Now, threatened as thou art on both sides with death and destruction, how canst thou maintian thy courage, and how can thy hands remain hrm?

"In vain dost thou pride thyself on the possession of vast treasures obtained by thee through violence and wickedness; for of what avail are they to thee when the sea rises and foams, thus threatening to wreck the little hut (the body), wherein thou liest? Canst thou boast thou canst calm and subdue the powerful waves, or wilt thou try to tight against them? Drunk with the wine of thy vanity thou art pushed hither and thither, until thou sinkest into the mighty abyss; and tossed about from deep to deep, thou wilt at last be merged in the foaming waves, and none will bring thee to life again."


"Can earth's uttermost bounds circumscribe that faculty whose seat is a chamber small as the palm of a man's hand? Such is man's portion from God, the divine portion from the spiritual world. God is in Heaven, and this the only being on earth that goeth to approach Him. He explores the registers in the scriptures of truth, and great are his acts in law and justice. Were it not that the accidents of life confuse him, and the spirit of his times confound him, nothing would withhold riian from soaring to the skies to embrace the universe, until he resembled the angels in the true knowledge of excellence.

"Is it meet that a beautiful piece of sapphire, like this [man] should be exposed to accidents and plagues, as a target to the arrow?

"Although exposed to subversion by worldly accidents, shall man, like the animals of the field and beasts of the forest, die, and be no more?

"Will this precious and sacred stone be assimilated with clods of earth, and cast into shades of oblivion?"

The Soul.

"But nature, through the wisdom of its Creator, has prepared within us a source of eternal life, and left to us the blessed consolation of a residuary immortal soul.

"The Heavens for height, the Earth for depth; but the extent of a comprehensive heart is unfathomable.

"For thine association with time passeth away more rapidly than the evening twilight; and thou art like the child who endeavors to collect a handful of the sun's rays, but who stands astonished, on opening his hand, to find nothing within it.

"Behold now a sore evil, almost irremediable; lo, an intelligent being, evincing desires for purposes of no avail!

"Is such the act of a wise man? Ought so paltry a dish of lentils to be deemed an equivalent for the noble spiritual birthright?

"What profit has he who, during the vision of a night, imagines himself a king, when, at the very summit of his power and pride, he awakes, and finds it but a dream!

"If my whole travel and journey be yet short of the desired port, what avails the length of time employed in the passage?

"Where is the good or wisdom of dwelling in this frail mortal habitation, be it for a long or short time, if in beholding the good and the evil I neither comprheend nor exert my knowledge how to make choice of the good?

"Shall I become powerful because my imagination has anointed me a king?"

Baderesi has written many other shorter poems, essays, a commentary on the "Ethics of the Fathers," a medical treatise and some miscellaneous writings. A broad scholar, he naturally opposed the attempt to limit scientific study. He says:

"We cannot give up science, it is the breath of our nostrils. . . . Maimonides' example is our precedent."


Baderesi:—The quotations from "Examination of the World" are from the translations of the Hebrew Review and Dr. Chotzner.

Averroes:—This great Arabian translator and commentator of Aristotle was chiefly studied by Jewish philosophers, and the preservation of his writings is entirely due to them. See article vol. ii, Jewish Encyclopedia.

Israel Abrahams in his Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, has two chapters on the occasional congenial relations between Jews and Christians.

Jewish Physicians and Their Contributions to the Science of Medicine, Friedenwald, Gratz College Publications, 1897.

Theme for Discussion:—Why was medicine a favorite study of the Jew?