April 22, 2024
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Attitudes of the Rabbis Toward the Study of Jewish History

Part 4

The post Spanish expulsion era saw a renewed interest, among Jews, in the history of the gentile nations (e.g. Seder Eliyahu Zuta; Dibrei Hayamim Lemalkay Tzarfat U-beit Ottoman; Tzemach David; Ha-India Hachadasha; Sefer Cortez; Sefer Yuchasin; Shaleshelet Hakabala et al). Yerushalmi calls this phenomenon “an incipient recognition that Jewish destinies are affected by the interplay of relations between the certain of the great powers.”

As mentioned in previous installments, in most of the works there seems to be an unease with the fact that it is dealing with a topic that on the one hand could be considered a frivolity, and on the other a matter of great significance. As Yerushalmi put it, “It is as though the [rabbinic] historian is saying in the same breath, “Dear reader, although both of us know that what I am writing is unimportant, nevertheless it is important”

I am overall inclined to agree with the sentiment, but I think that while Yerushalmi succeeds in formulating his view on the difference between history and memory, he fails to convey in a thorough and precise manner the apparent tension between the rabbinic imperative of studying Torah day and night, as reflected in the Talmudic passage in Tractate Brachot 8A, “From the day the Temple was destroyed, the Holy One, Blessed be He, has nothing in this world but the four cubits of Jewish Law”—and the rabbis’ recognition that Jewish (and in many cases non-Jewish) history is very important.

Not a few rabbis throughout Jewish history felt strongly that studying Jewish history and establishing the correct text and proper chronology is part of Torah. Dr. Joanna Weinberg, in her essay on the previously mentioned controversial 16th-century Italian Rabbi Azariah De Rossi, “The Beautiful Soul: Azariah De Rossi’s Search for Truth,” writes, “His exploration into Jewish ancient history have no practical bearing on the life of the Jew, and are actually of supreme irrelevance. He [De Rossi] writes: “The fact is that from the very outset, I can imagine you dear reader saying to yourself that this investigation is a type of halacha suitable for Messianic times or of an even lesser significance. For what relevance does it hold for us? After all, what happened happened thousands of years ago or seven times again. But you could answer your own objection once you take into consideration the following points: First, the truth itself, which is the quest of thousands of sages, in investigations more obscure than this one, is in fact like a seal of the true God, the characteristic of the beautiful soul and the good to which all aspire.”

Two other advantages are then described: “The interpretation of Scripture, for which reward is always forthcoming דרוש וקבל שכר (literally, study and collect your reward) and the eradication of current Messianic speculation about the imminent year 1575—if the true date cannot be known because all computations are to a certain extent arbitrary; all calculation of the end of days can only be speculative. But these two justifications of his scholarship are subordinated to one overriding goal: the truth.”

Some historians from that era attempted to reach perhaps a compromise to the potential problem of “bitul Torah,” for instance, the aforementioned Tam ibn Yahya seems to try to appeal to the unlearned when he writes in his introduction to his edition of Yossifon that “especially the merchants who are immersed in temporal success and who have not turned to Torah in their leisure time will delight in reading this.” Similarly, 17th-century Rabbi Joseph Delmedigo (Yashar) of Crete, in a letter to his Lithuanian Karaite friend, Zerach ben Menachem of Trakai, writes, “To distract yourself in an hour of depression, you have available to you Yosifon; Tzemach David; Sefer HaKabbalah; Sefer Yuchasin, Shevet Yehuda…”


An extremely rare 16th-century edition of Samuel Usque “Consolation for the Tribulations of Israel.”

Photo and description from the Kestenbaum Judaica House:

Born in Portugal of a Marrano family, the author (c. 1500 – c. 1565) was a man of great culture, thoroughly versed in both Jewish and secular literature. Written in limpid Portuguese prose, the Consolacam was dedicated to the great patroness of Jewish art and culture, Dona Gracia Nasi. Its avowed purpose was to persuade Marrano refugees from Spain and Portugal, and perhaps also Marranos still present in those two countries, to return wholeheartedly to Judaism. To this end, the author, in a sweeping review of Jewish history, based upon traditional Jewish apologetics, demonstrated that the Jews, despite their centuries of hardship and persecution, had not been abandoned by God; they were rather, he declared, standing on the threshold of a golden messianic age.” EJ, XVI cols. 21-2.

…Written in the aftermath of one of the greatest upheavals in Jewish history, Usque’s historic and philosophic narrative attempts to explain the Divine reasoning behind the expulsions from Spain and Portugal, the sufferings of the Marranos during the Inquisition and the immense challenges that faced the Sephardim who did indeed leave the Iberian peninsula…

By Joel S Davidi Weisberger


Joel S. Davidi Weisberger is the founder of the Jewish History Channel and an independent researcher. His forthcoming books deal with the history and historiography of the Medieval Karaite movement and the story of the Sephardic Diaspora in Central and Eastern Europe. He resides in Fair Lawn, New Jersey, with his wife Michal and would love to hear from you at [email protected].

 

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