Sunday, 4 February 2018


First edition of Meor Einayim, Mantua, Italy 1574.
Rabbi Azariah ben Moshe dei Rossi (1511-1578) was an Italian rabbi, archaeologist, historian and physician. His family, according to an old tradition, had deep roots in Italy as his ancestors were one of four noble families taken to Rome from Jerusalem at the time of Titus, after he destroyed the Second Temple in 70 AD.
He was known as Azariah min haAdumim (of the red family), which was probably a play on his surname, Rossi, which is Italian for red.[1]
After an earthquake destroyed his home, he went to live in the countryside and there he became acquainted with a certain Christian scholar. R. Azariah became particularly interested in history and even studied Christian religious records.

Earthquake in Italy 2017
The scholar asked him if there was a Hebrew translation of the Letter of Aristeas (a Second century BCE text belonging to the Apocryphal literature[2] describing the Septuagint - the translation of the Torah into Greek. The Septuagint was commissioned by the librarian of Alexandria[3], and seventy[4] Torah scholars were sent from Jerusalem to Egypt to work on an accurate translation. The Letter of Aristeas, gives details of the event.)

Latin translation of the Letter of Aristeas, 1480.

No Hebrew translation of the Letter of Aristeas existed at that time, but within twenty days, R. Azariah prepared a translation for the Christian scholar. He called the work Hadrat Zekenim or Glory of the Elders.
R. Azariah dei Rossi is best known for his controversial work Meor Einayim, or Light of the Eyes.[6] In it he openly takes to task some of the Aggadic (non-legal) sections of the Talmud and questions their historical and factual accuracy.
One such example is the Talmudic account[7] of the death of Titus at the age of forty-two, as he returned from Jerusalem to Rome, where a gnat was said to have entered his nose and then consumed his brain. The Talmud says:   “The gnat was like a one year old pigeon...Abaye said its mouth was of copper and its nails of iron.”
The questioning of Talmudic anecdotes such as these was no light matter as many regarded everything, including the non-halachik statements recorded in the Talmud as sacrosanct (even though the Talmud itself often acknowledges its frequent usage of ‘guzma’ or exaggeration, which was common during that milieu).
R. Azariah dei Rossi tied to harmonise the Talmudic teachings on natural science, mathematics and astronomy, with the sciences as they were known in his day, more than a thousand years later.
Other sections of Meor Einayim deal with issues of Jewish history, archaeology, the Septuagint, a commentary on parts of Josephus, quotes from Philo and interesting anomalies like the Queen who converted to Judaism, Heleni haMalkah.
R. Azariah dei Rossi also questioned the accuracy of the rabbinical account of history - particularly the Persian era, following Ezra and Nechemiah - and claimed that they had left out and not accounted for a period of one hundred and sixty-six years.
He upset some of his rabbinical colleagues because he was prepared to rely on non-Jewish sources for his chronicling of Jewish history. He had to do this because since Josephus (37-100 AD) there were hardly any Jewish historians. In a sense, he had reclaimed writings like Philo and parts of the Apocrypha from Christian custodianship and brought them back to Judaism.[8]
David Michael Rosenberg-Wohl writes about the lack of interest in history, prevalent in the Jewish world at that time: “It should not be underestimated just how difficult it was for Jewish scholars interested in exploring Jewish history in the greater non-Jewish culture to convince non-Jews of the importance of their task. There were no established libraries of Jewish material, no courses of study in the universities and no academic careers possible to pursue.[9]
R. Azariah dei Rossi continued ruffling feathers by pointing out that the calendar used in his time which dated of the age of the world from the time of creation, was relatively recent and had not been used in either Talmudic or even Gaonic times. This view got him into a lot of trouble because effectively he was saying that the common Jewish calendar was untraditional and false. Shortly before he died, he wrote a book entitled Matzref laKesef, supporting his views about the calendar.
In one section of Meor Einayim he strongly rejects the messianic fervour that had swept across the Jews of Italy who believed the Messiah was to come in the year 1575 (which corresponded to the Jewish year 5335, ‘shalah’- or Shiloh, which also means Messiah).
In one very bold comment, R. Azariah dei Rossi attacked R. Moshe Isserless (the Rama 1520-1572) who is famous for his notes to the Shulchan Aruch, for his “apparent failure to embrace the truth from whatever source it might come from.”[10]

1570 edition of Torat haOlah by R. Moshe Isserless (Rama).

And according to Gotthard Deutsch, R. Azariah was a staunch critic of the Rama’s Torat haOlah, as “an unsystematic, incoherent collection of arbitrary ideas...and... it is unintelligible how the author of such a book should enjoy a reputation of a scholar.”[11]
R. Azariah dei Rossi wrote and composed many piyutim, or of liturgical poems which are included in the Shabbat and Tom Tov prayers of Italian Jews.
While the Meor Einayim was still in the process of being printed, there were already murmuring against his radical work. R. Rossi got wind of some of the objections and systematically dealt with them. He had sufficient time to incorporate his responses back into his book before the publishing process was completed.
Some, like the Maharal of Prague (1520-1609)[12], took great umbrage and severely criticised R. dei Rossi, calling him a ‘mevazeh divrei Chazal’, someone who ‘disparages the words of the Sages’.
Then there were those who did not just criticise R. Azariah dei Rossi views but went so far as to declare his Meor Einayim to be a work of outright heresy.
Among those who regarded the book as heretical was the author of the Shulchan Aruch, R. Yosef Karo (1488-1575). He ordered his student R. Elisha Gallico to enact a law requiring all copies of Meor Einayim to be burned. But R. Karo passed away before he had a chance to sign the decree, so instead of burning the books, a ban was placed on anyone under the age of twenty-five, prohibiting them from reading them.
The Christians, on the other hand, were fascinated by Meor Einayim and translated parts of it into Latin!
Even while the Meor Einayim was in the process of being printed, the rabbis of Venice under R. Katzenellenbogen placed the book under a ban, unless one had obtained special permission them to read it. Interestingly enough, R. Azariah was not personally attacked as his conduct certainly met with the orthodox standards of his day.
R. Azariah dei Rossi even agreed to publish and append the critiques of his book together with his writing in an attempt to get his work unbanned – but his efforts were in vain.
He even agreed to remove a number of leaves from his printed work but that too was to no avail – to this day some editions still have more leaves than others.
The various bans against him persisted for over one hundred years with hardly anyone bold enough to even quote him during that time.
Later on, the Meor Einayim fell back into favour when the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797) studied it and quoted from it.
Even the Chassidic Master, Rav Tzadok haCohen (who was related to the Vilna Gaon and traced his ancestry to the Maharal of Prague – who had criticised R. Azariah!) had studied Meor Einayim, and spoke highly of it. See KOTZK BLOG 135.
R. Yaakov Emden cites the Meor Einayim and alternately praises and challenges his views.
It is astounding to see the diverse array of reactions to the Meor Einayim: R. Yosef Karo wanted to burn the book, yet the Vilna Gaon was happy to read it.
As we have seen regarding R. Delmedigo and the Pri Chadash, R. Azariah dei Rossi joined the ranks of radical Italian rabbis who weren’t afraid to speak their minds. Perhaps it was the influence of the Italian Renaissance (14th -17th century) which accounted for this spirit of theological openness and honest intellectual investigation.
Another factor may be the apparent small number of yeshivas in Italy during this time[13]. Serious scholars were therefore forced to go to the great Italian universities in order to supplement their Torah studies. It is known that the University of Padua was one of the few universities to allow Jews to attend and even employed Jewish professors during this time. [14]
If this assertion is correct it may explain, why some of Italy’s leading rabbis were so expansive in their thinking. 
On the other hand, we do see intense opposition from other Italian rabbis – raised in the same country at the same time - to this spirit of openness.
Perhaps the answer lies in the notion that a stimulating secular intellectual environment does one of two things to a Torah scholar: it either causes certain personalities to become more insular – or it allows other personalities to thrive and create new (or rediscover old?) Hashkafic[15]precedents.

[1] Or, possibly from the fact that Rome is known in Jewish tradition as Edom (Adom - red). The Edomites descended from Esau.
[2] Or possibly the Pseudepigrapha (falsely attributed works to an author earlier in history). The Apocrypha refers to the body of literature contemporary to some Biblical texts but which were not formally accepted into the canon of the Bible.
[3] According to some accounts it was Ptolemy II.
[4] Septuaginta in Latin means seventy. Some accounts put the number at 72, which equated to six scholars from each of the twelve tribes. The work of translation was said to have taken place within 72 days.                  
[5] Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1989), 69.
[6] Not to be confused with the more recent Meor Einayim by the student of the Baal Shem Tov, R. Menachem Nachum Twersky of Chernobyl.
[7] Gittin 56b.
[8] He wasn’t unique in this regard as Rav Saadiah Gaon also studied Apocryphal literature such as Ben Sira.
[9] Reconstructing Jewish Identity on the Foundations of Hellenistic History: Azariah de’ Rossi’s Me’or ‘Enayim in Late 16th Century Northern Italy, a dissertation by David Michael Rosenberg-Wohl, p. 14.
[10] See Historical Dictionary of Judaism, by Norman Solomon.
[11] Deutsch cites: ‘Chapter II, ed. Benjakob, p. 165, Wilna 1863.’
[12] In his Be’er haGolah.
[13] In 1467 R. Yehudah Minz established a yeshiva in the university city of Padua, Northern Italy.

[14] The Torah Ark in Renaissance Poland: A Jewish Revival of Classical Antiquityby Ilia M. Rodov, p. 88.

Regarding the famed university of Padua. It “was not only the foremost center for training Jewish physicians between the sixteenth and eighteenth century, but it aslso afforded the oppoetunity for socialising between jewish and non-Jewish students. The Jewish physicians, many of them rabbis as well, were a definable social and cultural group of Jewish intellectuals that maintained close contacys among themselves and with their non-Jewish colleagues also after their return to their communities where they propagated the scientific culture assimilated during their Paduan stay.
On the other hand, from themiddle of the sixteenth century, jews went from Italy to Poland as physicians, merchants or in order to study in the flourishing Yeshivot of the country after the talmud was prohibited in Italy.
See: Judah Moscato Sermons: Edition and Translation, Volume Four
edited by Gianfranco Miletto, Giuseppe Veltri, p. 324.

[15] Theological and philosophical Weltanschauung (worldviews).


  1. Dei Rossi is said to have translated the "letter of Arestias" (which I understand forms part of his collection of three books called Meor einyanim. This letter tells the story of the sages translating the Torah into Greek. This letter seems to be the basis for the Gemorrah version of the translation. It is generally believed that the letter was actually written by Jews creating an unlikely origin for the translation.Having seen plates of pages of the Septuagint. The are material differences between it and the Torah. = Maybe the Letter should only have remained as a reference in Josephus's book