Littman Library of Jewish Civilization

Rabbis and Jewish Communities in Renaissance Italy

Robert Bonfil
Translated from Hebrew by Jonathan Chipman

'Comprehensive and exhaustive . . . Bonfil's great proficiency in Hebrew and Italian sources, as well as his careful analysis and scholarly precision make for a penetrating study and discussion. This is a well balanced representation of social and intellectual history, motivated by internal developments while giving due recognition to the contribution of outside influences upon the cultural and communal life of Italian Jewry.'
Moshe Idel, Immanuel

'Masterly work . . . undoubtedly a major study on the rabbinate. His controversial stand on many issues related to the Italian Renaissance has and will continue to stimulate fertile discussion.'
Joanna Weinberg, Journal of Semitic Studies

'A penetrating analysis of religious, intellectual, cultural, and communal issues carefully placed in their social and economic context . . . should long remain the basic treatment of a subject central to the Jewish experience.'
Benjamin Ravid, Brandeis University

A vivid picture of Italian Jewry and the rabbinate during the Renaissance that describes the development of the cultural, religious, and intellectual life of the community against the backdrop of developments within the wider Catholic environment.

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'The multitude of detail, and the richness and diversity of the source material . . . is the attainment of a seasoned historian with an impressive familiarity with his sources. It is also the product of a scholar with a broad knowledge of the intellectual and social context of Christian Italy who is capable of applying his knowledge to a greater understanding of the Jewish community . . . a major work which should become a standard interpretation of an important period in Jewish history.'
David Ruderman, Association of Jewish Studies Newsletter

'Masterly work . . . undoubtedly a major study on the rabbinate. His controversial stand on many issues related to the Italian Renaissance has and will continue to stimulate fertile discussion.'
Joanna Weinberg, Journal of Semitic Studies

'A penetrating analysis of religious, intellectual, cultural, and communal issues carefully placed in their social and economic context . . . should long remain the basic treatment of a subject central to the Jewish experience.'
Benjamin Ravid, Brandeis University

Focusing on the figure of the rabbi, this book provides a vivid picture of Italian Jewry during the Renaissance. The author discusses Jewish life of the period (c. 1450-1600) in its social, institutional, and cultural aspects, placing them against the backdrop of the wider Catholic environment to give an original interpretation of how Jewish cultural and religious life developed in the Renaissance context. Particular attention is given to changes in the status and functions of the rabbis and to the relations between the rabbinate and the lay leadership. Of special interest is the exploration of the cultural world of the rabbis and the broader issue of intellectual developments at the time.

Essentially a translation of Part I of the Hebrew edition, which won wide acclaim for its perspective, Rabbis and Jewish Communities in Renaissance Italy has been carefully adapted for an English-speaking readership. Substantial excerpts from the appendices have been incorporated into the text so that the evidence necessary to support the arguments is easily accessible.

 

About the author

Robert Bonfil is Professor of Jewish History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is the author of Jewish Life in Renaissance Italy (1994) and of several articles and translations in different languages.

Contents

Preface & acknowledgements
Introduction

  1. The Socio-Cultural Background to the Emergence of the Rabbis The Yeshivah * The Emergence of the Rabbi
  2. The Social Meaning of Rabbinic Ordination The Status of the Ordained Rabbi * The Demand for Status * Jewish Society and the Rabbinate: Suspicions, Reservations, and Regulations * Authority and Privileges * Ordination and the Doctorate * The Decline in the Prestige of Ordination
  3. The Community-Appointed Rabbi When and How was the Office Created? * The Office of Appointed Rabbi within the Structure of the Communal Organization * Communal Ordinances and the Promulgation of Bans * Local Conditions * R. Moses Basola's Critique * The Sephardic Model of 'Torah Teacher' * Different Approaches among Ashkenazim and Sephardim * Special Tasks * The Salaries of Community- Appointed Rabbis * Etiquette and Prerogatives * The Absence in Large Communities of the Office of Appointed Rabbi * The Community of Rome * Conclusions
  4. Outside Sources of Rabbinic Income 'With his soul he earns his bread' * What are Itinerant Rabbis?
  5. The Judicial Function of the Rabbis Christian Opposition to the Establishment of an Autonomous Jewish Juridical System * Means of Establishing a Jewish Judicial System on the Basis of Arbitration * Strengthening the System of Arbitration * Communal Ordinances * The Establishment of the Rabbinic Court in Ferrara * Arbitration as the Basis for Jewish Law in Italy * 'The Law of the Land is Law' * Some Reflections on the Responsa of Italian Rabbis during the Renaissance
  6. The Cultural World of the Rabbis Torah and 'Wisdom' * The Libraries of the Jews * Philosophy and Kabbalah * Sermon and Midrash * Theory and Practice

Appendices Bibliographical abbreviations
Selected bibliography
Index

 

Reviews

'Bonfil's chapter on the function of the rabbis within the Jewish legal system in Italy is an important contribution to an understanding of the actual authority and legal basis of the fledgling Jewish communities of fifteenth-sixteenth century Italy . . . There is so much that is praiseworthy about Bonfil's achievement. The reader of the book is immediately struck by the multitude of detail, and the richness and diversity of the source material utilized by the author . . . it is the attainment of a seasoned historian with an impressive familiarity with his sources. It is also the product of a scholar with a broad knowledge of the intellectual and social context of Christian Italy who is capable of applying his knowledge to a greater understanding of the Jewish community . . . It is indeed refreshing to read an historical work with such integrative and synthetic powers, especially when written in a crisp, lively style . . . splendid contribution . . . it is a tribute to a major work which should become a standard interpretation of an important period in Jewish history . . . the book will remain a major frame of reference for all future research.'
David Ruderman, Association of Jewish Studies Newsletter

'L'important ouvrage . . . dont on espère rapidement une traduction française.'
Dominique Bourel, Bulletin de Judaïsme Moderne/Recherches de Science Religieuse

'The translation by Jonathan Chipman has captured the style and opened it to the English-speaking public . . . one can welcome the clear print and illustrations and the appendices which contain important material for the history of that time. There is a sound bibliography.'
European Judaism

'Comprehensive and exhaustive . . . Bonfil's great proficiency in Hebrew and Italian sources, as well as his careful analysis and scholarly precision make for a penetrating study and discussion. This is a well balanced representation of social and intellectual history, motivated by internal developments while giving due recognition to the contribution of outside influences upon the cultural and communal life of Italian Jewry.'
Moshe Idel, Immanuel

'This work has been acclaimed as a "penetrating analysis of religious, intellectual, cultural and communal issues", a "vivid picture of Italian Jewry and the rabbinate during the Renaissance" and "the attainment of a seasoned historian" . . . it introduces and serves to whet the appetite regarding a whole area of studies . . . The work is well laid out . . . As yet, no other work on this subject has brought such incisive analysis and detail, succeeding in presenting a complex period in a new light.'
David Schonberg, Jerusalem Post Magazine

'A most erudite and painstakingly thorough work, shedding much new light on the history, conditions, authority and religious outlook of the rabbinate in sixteenth-century Italy, and the relationship of individual religious leaders with their communities . . . will be read with great interest by community Rabbis in particular, striking chords of recognition of many issues that still lurk beneath the surface . . . It will also be of great interest to all involved with synagogal and communal administration.'
Jeffrey M. Cohen, Jewish Book News & Reviews

'Masterly work . . . By means of a probing and thorough examination of archival material and both manuscript and printed sources, he has revealed the full complexities of this institution which brooks no simple generalization . . . undoubtedly a major study on the rabbinate. His controversial stand on many issues related to the Italian Renaissance has and will continue to stimulate fertile discussion.'
Joanna Weinberg, Journal of Semitic Studies

'As comprehensive as it is thorough . . . Bonfil has made a significant contribution to the study of the spiritual world of Italian Jewry in the sixteenth century . . . innovative in its application of quantitative techniques in analysing intellectual developments.'
Mordehai Breuer, Kiryat Sepher

'The Jerusalem volume by Robert Bonfil has already told us much that we did not know about the Italian rabbis of the Renaissance.'
Arnaldo Momigliano, New York Review of Books