History of Mediaeval Jews - Maurice Harris

Under the Shadow of the Papacy.

Better Treatment in Italy.

While ecclesiastics persecuted Jews in all European lands, it is remarkable that in the very heart of Christendom, in Italy, they were left comparatively untaxed and undisturbed. Perhaps because the people were "more pious than the Pope." Perhaps also because they saw the papacy, its fallibility and its worldliness at closer range, so that it could not exercise that awe of distance experienced in other lands. But the most probable reason for Israel's better treatment there was due to Italy's superior culture. It is true that Jews were expelled from Bologna in 1171 and that a pope's sister who wished to expel them from Rome on the charge of their insulting the cross, had to be appeased with twenty thousand ducats—but these were in the nature of exceptions to a tolerant rule. The early holders of St. Peter's chair found it politic to humiliate Jews at a distance and convenient to engage as financiers and physicians those near at hand. Italian Jews made a good record and proved themselves deserving of the equal status with their neighbors given them in the courts.

In spite of these favorable conditions, Italian Jews had contributed little to Jewish literature up to the thirteenth century. Yechiel Kalonynos became a Talmudic authority; Joab ben Solomon added to the Liturgy. But these sparse swallows hardly made a literary summer. It was really the visit of Abraham Ibn Ezra, in the twelfth century, that first stirred the sleeping community into life. Many of his works were written in Mantua, Lucca and Rome. He unlocked Arabic literature to them with a Hebrew key; and he left behind him disciples to continue the good work of spreading Jewish knowledge.

Italian Jews were settled mostly in the South, the Northern trade centres fearing their competition. Venice and Rome were their largest communities. In Naples they found an appreciative environment and its well-disposed king, Roger, transplanted some Greek Jews from Messina to introduce the breeding of silk worms.

Frederick II, who became emperor in 1212, induced Anatoli, of the Tibbon family of Provence, to settle in Naples and translate Arabic philosophy into Hebrew, for that was an easy step to the Latin. Many of the clergy studied Hebrew. In this way, the commentary on Aristotle of the great Arabian philosopher, Averroes (Ibn Roshd), became known to the Christian world. Anatoli also introduced the study of Maimonides through Hebrew translation, to Jew and Gentile.

A Jewish Renaissance.

But it was the physician, Hillel, of Verona (born 1220), who did most to foster a spirit of learning among Italian Jews. He translated a Latin work on surgery into Hebrew. So with the appearance of some additional scholars and the translating of some scientific works, a spirit of learning began slowly to develop in Italian Jewry; and, side by side, with an increase in their prosperity.

The Jews were not unnaturally affected by the growing spirit of liberty, political and intellectual, all around fhem—and the general fostering of art, science and poetry in Italy, the land of the Renaissance. King Robert of Naples, one of the most powerful of Italian princes, sat at the feet of Jewish scholars. This monarch was a patron of Shemarya of Crete and induced him to write a commentary on the Bible. Shemarya considered this scholarly atmosphere propitious for a reconciliation between Rabbanites and Karaites. But the latter body had ceased to grow, and reconciliation was coming about naturally by absorption.

So the growing love of scholarship, the translations of the best in science and philosophy and the patronage of learning by the well-to-do, after the fine Spanish precedent, were all blossoms of promise that brought forth its fruit at last.

Italian Jewry now produced many poets, chief of whom were the two great satirists Kalonymos and Immanuel. (It is the function of this type of critic to reveal the foibles of his age.) Through their pages we see the very human side of their prosperous brethren.


Kalonymous ben Kalonymos was a protege of that famous patron of Jewish litterateurs. King Robert of Naples. He was not an Italian but a Frenchman, born in Aries, in 1287; but he settled in Rome and did his chief work there. He contributed his share to the work of translation from Arabic into Hebrew, and also at King Robert's request, from Hebrew into Latin. He translated works on philosophy, mathematics and medicine. His ethics in fact is a partial adaptation of an Arabic original. His great satiric work was "Touchstone," in which he mirrors his age. Here, too, we get a contemporary picture of the persecution of his coreligionists in his native country, France, through the attacks of shepherds and the calumnies of lepers. But banter is his prevailing temper. Here are a few examples of his trifling mood:

The Burden of Jewish Observance on a Male.

Its many laws and regulations,

Which are unknown to other nations,

Every Hebrew must observe

With watchful eye and straining nerve,

E'en though he shares in public functions,

He still must follow their injunctions,

Which I would tell you have been seen

To be six hundred and thirteen.

For he must shun all jest and play,

And brood o'er folios night and day.

Mosaic and Rabbinic lore,

And if in an enlightened age

He'd fain become a cultured sage

He must cram full his suffering head

With languages, alive and dead,

With ethics, logic and philosophy,

Astronomy also and theosophy,

And cabalistic learning, too.

And history, old as well as new,

And fill his overloaded brain.

Oh, heavenly Father, who—'tis told—

Didst work great miracles of old.

How truly grateful I should be

If thou hadst but created me

A girl devoid of worldly care.

And blessed with beauty ripe and rare.

From early morn till late at night,

Where shine the moonbeams' silvery light,

I'd spend the hours in peaceful knitting,

Contented to be ever sitting

Amidst a busy, smiling crowd

Of girls that sing and laugh aloud,

When nights were dark, we'd talk together

Of dress and bonnets and the weather,

And then we'd gossip, too, apace,

And end the evening's conversation

With jests, and tales of sweet flirtation.

Yet will I bear with patient grace

What still befalls the Jewish race,

And not forget those wondrous pages,

Composed of old and worthy sages,

Wherein 'tis said that we must bless

Heaven, in woe and happiness.

Here is an instance where he sounds a more serious note in the same work, "Touchstone":

A Metaphor on Life.

"The world is like the vast endless sea, upon which there floats a small and fragile little boat—namely, man. It is of artistic make and form, and looks as if it were the work of a master-hand. It is steered by the power of the divine spirit that directs its course, and keeps it constantly moving onward and onward, together with its heavy load of cargo—that is, man's action during life. After having started from the coast where it first came into existence, it moves ever forward till it reaches the opposite coast, where there lies a new realm called Eternity, which consists of vast regions that shine with eternal light and splendor, and also others that are enveloped in everlasting darkness."

His Purim parody so shocked the rabbis, serious and severe, that they forbade its reading. They may have further considered unorthodox his plea contained in it that the Megillah (Book of Esther) should be read in the language of the country so as to be understood by the majority. So we see that the problem of prayer in Hebrew or in the vernacular, faced that age, too.

Yet Kalonymos, in his "Letter of Response," discourages too daring a criticism of the Bible. He likewise takes occasion elsewhere to warn his wealthier brethren against extravagance and display. We met this same warning by Alami in Spain. He died in 1337.


Kalonymos' greater contemporary, Immanuel di Roma, was born about the same year as Dante (1265). He received the broad education we have seen given in Spain and the Provence—that is to say, it comprised rabbinics, mathematics and astronomy, philosophy, medicine and versification. What was less usual, he acquired a knowledge of Greek and Latin. All of this he supplemented by wide and varied reading.

He was a man of means, who held in the Roman community an office something like that of a congregational president. But what is a little more surprising in a man of his cast of mind, occasionally he even occupied the pulpit. He wrote a commentary on the Scripture, like so many Jewish scholars of that day. Here he took occasion to plead for a more general culture, claiming that every science was originally Jewish. But, as Bible expounder and grammarian, his work was like a hundred others. Immanuel was a poet, and only as a poet wall he be remembered.

We must contrast him rather than compare him with the Spanish poets, for their tone was always lofty and their theme nearly always religious. Immanuel was a humorist and looked at life's playful side. Like the later Heine, his muse was Hellenic rather than Hebraic, notwithstanding that Hebrew was its medium. He wrote novels, riddles and epithalamia; but then so did Jehuda Halevi—but, oh, the gulf of difference! He shocked even while he entranced. He had his seriour moments, and in them he wrote hymns and prayers, some of which found their way into a local liturgy.

But, on the whole, we can hardly blame the Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) for forbidding the reading of his poems. He not only adapted to the Hebrew the Italian rhyme of alternate lines, he also adapted in his tone, the Italian levity.

Dante, the greatest poet of the Middle Ages—whose dialect became Italian and all other dialects patois—was his friend; but in some respects Boccaccio seems to have been his model. He wrote mainly in Hebrew, and for the Hebrew, but even among Italians his Italian poems ranked high.

He moved among the young and liberal spirits of Italy, among those who were breaking away from the old Church thraldom and fathering the modern spirit of Humanism.

Unwisely trusting a friend, he lost his wealth. His heresies, condoned while rich, were now scathingly condemned. He lost his position of head of the community and wandered forth a poor, broken-down exile. Kindly received in the home of a friend, he was induced by his patron to collect and revise all his writings.

This work filled his remaining years. It is called Machberoth, meaning collections. It consists of twenty-eight chapters in verse and rhymed prose. From them we get some pictures of the life of his Jewish contemporaries, their wide scholarship, their material prosperity and also their weaknesses.

Here are some translated extracts:

Two Maids.

Tamar, would I were a flower, tender and sweet,

To be trampled to earth by her pretty feet.

Beriah 'tis from fear of beholding her face

That Messiah delayeth in showing his grace.

Tamar is enchanting, delighting the eyes,

Beriah a nightmare in woman's disguise.

Thine Eyes.

Thine eyes are as bright, O thou sweet gazelle,

As the glittering rays of the sun's golden spell.

And thy face glows as fair in the light of the day

As the red blushing sky when the morning is gay.

Ah, shall I praise the bright charm of thine eyes.

That move every heart, that win all by surprise?

For peerless thy charms, and unequalled thy birth;

Thou art of heaven, all others of earth.

Imitator of Dante.

His best chapter is Paradise and Hell. This is nothing more than an extravaganza on Dante's "Inferno." He chooses it as a clever means of exposing the frailties of his day. Here is an extract:

At times in my spirit I fitfully ponder.

Where shall I pass after death from this light.

Do heaven's bright glories await me, I wonder.

Or Lucifer's kingdom of darkness and night?

In the one, though 'tis perhaps of ill reputation,

A crowd of gay damsels will sit by my side;

But in heaven there's boredom and mental starvation.

To hoary old men and to crones I'll be tied.

Some one has said: "Dante wrote a divine, Immanuel a human, comedy."

Immanuel was the last of the great Neo-Hebraic poets of his age. He tells us that Jehuda Siciliano was a greater poet than he. But we only know him through Immanuel's praise. Moses Da Rieti added some poems to the Italian liturgy, and his "Book of the Temple" earned for him also the title of "the Hebrew Dante."


The quotations from Kalonymos and Immanuel are taken from Hebrew Humour, Dr. J. Chotzner, London: Luzac & Co., 1905.

Morais contrasts the purity of the poet Charizi's style with the occasional coarseness of Immanuel. See "Publications of Gratz College," Philadelphia, Pa., 1897. Emmanuel and Dante:

Professor Paur makes this comparison between Dante and Immanuel's visions of the future world:—

"If we closely examine the sentiments set forth in the little poetic volume (Ha-Topeth-ve-Ha-Eden), we must confess that the Jew Immanuel need not blush in the presence of the Christian Dante. It is true that he, like Dante, condemns those philosophical theories in which the personality of God, the creation of the world by His power, and the existence of a divine spirit in man are denied. But Immanuel shows more courage than Dante by effectively stigmatizing hypocrisy in all its various shapes and forms. He also possesses a greater spirit of tolerance than the latter had shown towards men professing creeds different from his own—a beautiful human naivete in matters of religion—which must be sought after with the lantern of Diogenes among the Christians of that period."

These words have reference to Immanuel's placing in Paradise in a blaze of glory "the pious of all peoples." This reflects the best spirit of Talmudic teaching!

Chess, Dancing:—We learn incidentally from statements in the works of Kalonymos that chess was the popular Jewish game of the period. Also that the rabbis did not permit dancing except between members of the same sex.

Jews and the Popes:—In the survey of Dr. A. Berliner's History of the Jews in Rome, Frankfort a-M: J. Kauffmann, 1894, the late Dr. Schechter wrote:—

"As it seems, toleration of the Jews was a regular tradition with the Popes. Gregory the Great defends their synagogues against the desires of some Bishops to convert them into churches and protects the Jews, too, against compulsory conversions. Alexander III says that the Jews ought to be tolerated for 'reasons of pure humanity'; whilst his successor, Clement III recommends the same treatment by reason of 'pure mercy and compassion,' and even Innocent III, who compelled Jews to wear the yellow badge, thinks that 'the Jews must be considered as the living witnesses of the Christian faith, wherefore they should be tolerated even with their religious practices.' Pope Boniface IX (1392) again calls the Jewish doctor Angelus Manuele his beloved son, and appoints him his familiaris.

"Some years later (1405) another Jewish doctor, Magister Elyas Sabbas, is admitted by the magistrate as a Roman citizen. The brief in which Innocent VII approves of this act contains also the diploma of citizenship, which says, among other things: 'Though the infidelity of the Jews whom the Maker of the world has created is to be condemned, and the obstinacy of their unbelief is to be stamped out, the maintenance of their existence is nevertheless in a certain manner useful and necessary to Christians, especially (the existence) of such Jews who, well schooled in medical knowledge, have proved beneficial to Christians, helping them to regain their former health.' Some Popes even tried their best to protect the Jews against the persecutions of the Inquisitors and to allow refugees from Spain to settle in Rome."

Under Pope Alexander VI (1492) many Jewish refugees from Spain found an asylum in the papal dominions.

Jewish Humor:—The humorous quotations in this chapter are characteristic. A strong sense of humor has been the Jew's salvation in the Dark Ages. It tempered all his misfortunes. Behind it lies his undying optimism.

Theme for Discussion:—Why could the theme of Purgatory not be treated as seriously by a Jewish as by a Christian poet?