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A History of Judaism

Author: Salo Wittmayer Baron: Professor of Jewish History, Literature, and Institutions, Columbia University, 1930–63. Author of A Social and Religious History of the Jews

It is history that provides the clue to an understanding of Judaism, for its primal affirmations appear in early historical narratives. Many contemporary scholars agree that although the biblical (Old Testament) tales report contemporary events and activities, they do so for essentially theological reasons. Such a distinction, however, would have been unacceptable to the authors, for their understanding of events was not superadded to but was contemporaneous with their experience or report of them. For them, it was primarily within history that the divine presence was encountered. God's presence was also experienced within the natural realm, but the more immediate or intimate disclosure occurred in human actions. Although other ancient communities saw a divine presence in history, this was taken up in its most consequent fashion within the ancient Israelite community and has remained, through many developments, the focus of its descendants' religious affirmations. It is this particular claim--to have experienced God's presence in human events--and its subsequent development that is the differentiating factor in Jewish thought. As ancient Israel believed itself through its history to be standing in a unique relationship to the divine, this basic belief affected and fashioned its life-style and mode of existence in a way markedly different from groups starting with a somewhat similar insight. The response of the people Israel to the divine presence in history was seen as crucial not only for itself but for all mankind. Further, God had--as person--in a particular encounter revealed the pattern and structure of communal and individual life to this people. Claiming sovereignty over the people because of his continuing action in history on its behalf, he had established a berit ("covenant") with it and had required from it obedience to his Torah (teaching). This obedience was a further means by which the divine presence was made manifest--expressed in concrete human existence. The corporate life of the chosen community was thus a summons to the rest of mankind to recognize God's presence, sovereignty, and purpose--the establishment of peace and well-being in the universe and in mankind.

In nearly 4,000 years of historical development, the Jewish people and their religion have displayed both a remarkable adaptability and continuity. In their encounter with the great civilizations, from ancient Babylonia and Egypt down to Western Christendom and modern secular culture, they have assimilated foreign elements and integrated them into their own socioreligious system, thus maintaining an unbroken line of ethnic and religious tradition. Furthermore, each period of Jewish history has left behind it a specific element of a Judaic heritage that continued to influence subsequent developments, so that the total Jewish heritage at any time is a combination of all these successive elements along with whatever adjustments and accretions are imperative in each new age.

The division of the millennia of Jewish history into periods--a procedure frequently dependent on individual preferences--has not been devoid of theological or scholarly presuppositions. The Christian world long believed that until the rise of Christianity the history of Judaism was but a "preparation for the Gospel" (preparatio evangelica) followed by the "manifestation of the Gospel" (demonstratio evangelica) as revealed by Christ and the Apostles. This formulation could be theologically reconciled with the assumption that Christianity had been preordained even before the creation of the world.

Israelite tradition identified YHWH (by scholarly convention pronounced Yahweh), the God of Israel, with the Creator of the world, who had been known to and worshipped by men from the beginning of time. Abraham (perhaps 19th or 18th-17th centuries BCE) did not discover this God, but entered into a new covenant relation with him, in which he was promised the land of Canaan and a numerous progeny. God fulfilled that promise through the actions of the 13th-century-BCE Hebrew leader Moses: he liberated the people of Israel from Egypt, imposed Covenant obligations on them at Mt. Sinai, and brought them to the promised land.

The distinctive features of Israelite religion appear with Moses. The proper name of Israel's God, YHWH, was revealed and interpreted to Moses as meaning ehye asher ehye--an enigmatic phrase (literally meaning "I am/shall be what I am/shall be") of infinite suggestiveness. The Covenant, defining Israel's obligations, is ascribed to Moses' mediation. Although it is impossible to determine what rulings go back to Moses, the Decalogue, or Ten Commandments, presented in chapter 20 of Exodus and chapter 5 of Deuteronomy, and the larger and smaller Covenant codes in Ex. 20:22-23:33; 34:11-26) are held by critics to contain early covenant law. From them, the following features may be noted: (1) The rules are formulated as God's utterances--i.e., expressions of his sovereign will. (2) They are directed toward, and often explicitly addressed to, the people at large; Moses merely conveys the sovereign's message to his subjects. (3) Publication being of the essence of the rules, the people as a whole are held responsible for their observance (see also covenant).

The conquest of Canaan was remembered as a continuation of God's marvels at the Exodus. The Jordan River was split asunder, Jericho's walls fell at Israel's shout; the enemy was seized with divinely inspired terror; the sun stood still in order to enable Israel to exploit its victory. Such stories are not necessarily the work of a later age; they reflect rather the impact of these victories on the actors in the drama, who felt themselves successful by the grace of God.

The loose, decentralized tribal league could not cope with the constant pressure of external enemies--camel-riding desert marauders who pillaged harvests annually or iron-weaponed Philistines (an Aegean people settling coastal Palestine c. 12th century BCE) who controlled key points in the hill country occupied by Israelites. In the face of such threats to the Israelites, local, sporadic, God-inspired saviours had to be replaced by a continuous central leadership that could mobilize the forces of the entire league and create a standing army. Two attitudes were distilled in the crisis, one conservative and antimonarchic, the other progressive and promonarchic. The conservative appears first in Gideon's refusal, in Judges, chapter 8, verse 23, to found a dynasty: "I will not rule you," he tells the people, "my son will not rule over you; YHWH will . . . !" This theocratic view pervades one of the two contrasting accounts of the founding of the monarchy fused in chapters 8-12 of the First Book of Samuel: the popular demand for a king was viewed as a rejection of the kingship of God, which was embodied in a series of inspired saviours from Moses and Aaron, through Jerubbaal, Bedan, and Jephthah, to Samuel. The other account depicts the monarchy as a gift of God, designed to rescue his people from the Philistines (I Sam. 9:16). Both accounts represent the seer-judge Samuel as the key figure in the founding of Israel's monarchy, and it is not unlikely that the two attitudes struggled in his breast.

The essence of the Davidic innovation was the idea that, in addition to divine election through Samuel and public acclamation, David had God's promise of an eternal dynasty (a conditional, perhaps earlier, and an unconditional, perhaps later, form of this promise exist in Psalms, 132 and II Samuel, chapter 7, respectively). In its developed form, the promise was conceived of as a covenant with David, parallelling the Covenant with Israel and instrumental in the latter's fulfillment; i.e., that God would channel his benefactions to Israel through the chosen dynasty of David. With this new status came the inviolability of the person of God's anointed (a characteristically Davidic idea) and a court rhetoric--adapted from pagan models--in which the king was styled "the [firstborn] son of God." An index of the king's sanctity was his occasional performance of priestly duties. Yet the king's mortality was never forgotten--he was never deified; prayers and hymns might be said on his behalf, but they were never addressed to him as a god.

Jeroboam I (10th century BCE), the first king of the north (now called Israel, in contradistinction to Judah, the southern Davidic kingdom), appreciated the inextricable link of Jerusalem and its sanctuary with the Davidic claim to divine election to kingship over all Israel (the whole people, north and south). He therefore founded rival sanctuaries at Dan and at Bethel--ancient cult sites--and manned them with non-Levite priests whose symbol of YHWH's presence was a golden calf--a pedestal of divine images in ancient iconography and the equivalent of the cherubim of Jerusalem's Temple. He also moved the autumn ingathering festival one month ahead so as to foreclose celebration of this most popular of all festivals in common with Judah.

By the mid-8th century a hundred years of chronic warfare between Israel and Aram had finally ended--the Aramaeans having suffered heavy blows from the Assyrians. King Jeroboam II (8th century BCE) was able to undertake to restore the imperial sway of the north over its neighbour, and a prophecy of Jonah that he would extend Israel's borders from the Dead Sea to the entrance to Hamath (Syria) was borne out. The well-to-do expressed their relief in lavish attentions to the institutions of worship and their private mansions. But the strain of the prolonged warfare showed in the polarization of society between the wealthy few who had profited from the war and the masses whom it had ravaged and impoverished. Dismay at the dissolution of Israelite society animated a new breed of prophets who now appeared--the literary or classical prophets, first of whom was Amos, an 8th-century-BCE Judahite who went north to Bethel.

Judah was subjected to such intense pressure to join an Israelite-Aramaean coalition against Assyria that its 8th-century-BCE king Ahaz chose to submit himself to Assyria in return for relief. Ahaz introduced a new Aramaean-style altar in the Jerusalem Temple and adopted other foreign customs that are counted against him in the book of Kings. It was at this time that Isaiah prophesied in Jerusalem. At first (under Uzziah, Ahaz' prosperous grandfather), his message focussed on the corruption of Judah's society and religion, stressing the new prophetic themes of indifference to God (which went hand in hand with a thriving cult) and the fateful importance of social morality. Under Ahaz the political crisis evoked Isaiah's appeals for trust in God, with the warning that the "hired razor from across the Euphrates" would shave Judah clean as well. Isaiah interpreted the inexorable advance of Assyria as God's chastisement; Assyria was "the rod of God's wrath." But, since Assyria ignored its mere instrumentality and exceeded in an insolent manner its proper function, God, when he finished his purgative work, would break Assyria on Judah's mountains. Then the nations of the world, who had been subjugated by Assyria, would recognize the God of Israel as the lord of history. A renewed Israel would prosper under the reign of an ideal Davidic king, all men would flock to Zion (the hill symbolizing Jerusalem) to learn the ways of YHWH and submit to his adjudication, and universal peace would prevail (see also eschatology).

According to Jeremiah (about 100 years later), Micah's prophetic threat to Jerusalem had caused King Hezekiah (reigned c. 715-c. 686 BCE) to placate God--possibly an allusion to the cult reform instituted by the King in order to cleanse Judah from various pagan practices. A heightened concern over assimilatory trends resulted in his also outlawing certain practices considered legitimate up to his time. Thus, in addition to removing the bronze serpent that had been ascribed to Moses (and that had become a fetish), the reform did away with the local altars and stone pillars, the venerable (patriarchal) antiquity of which did not save them from the taint of imitation of Canaanite practice. Hezekiah's reform, part of a restorational policy that had political, as well as religious, implications, appears as the most significant effect of the fall of the northern kingdom on official religion. The outlook of the reformers is suggested by the catalog in II Kings, chapter 17, of religious offenses that had caused the fall, which the objects of Hezekiah's purge closely resemble. Hezekiah's reform is the first historical evidence for Deuteronomy's doctrine of cult centralization. Similarities between Deuteronomy and the Book of Hosea lend colour to the supposition that the reform movement in Judah, which culminated a century later under King Josiah, was sparked by attitudes inherited from the north.

The survival of the religious community of exiles in Babylonia demonstrates how rooted and widespread the religion of YHWH was. Abandonment of the national religion as an outcome of the disaster is recorded of a minority only. There were some cries of despair, but the persistence of prophecy among the exiles shows that their religious vitality had not flagged. The Babylonian Jewish community, in which the cream of Judah lived, had no sanctuary or altar (in contrast to the Jewish garrison of Elephantine in Egypt); what developed in their place can be surmised from new postexilic religious forms: fixed prayer; public fasts and confessions; and assembly for the study of the Torah, which may have developed from visits to the prophets for oracular edification. The absence of a local or territorial focus must also have spurred the formation of a literary-ideational centre of communal life--the sacred canon of Covenant documents that came to be the core of the present Pentateuch. Observance of the Sabbath--a peculiarly public feature of communal life--achieved a significance among the exiles virtually equivalent to all the rest of the Covenant rules together. Notwithstanding its political impotence, the spirit of the exiles was so high that foreigners were attracted to their ranks, hopeful of sharing their future glory.

After conquering Babylon, Cyrus so far justified the hopes put in him that he allowed those Jews who wished to do so to return and rebuild their Temple. Though, in time, some 40,000 made their way back, they were soon disillusioned by the failure of the glories of the restoration to materialize and by the controversy with the Samaritans, and left off building the Temple. (The Samaritans were a judaized mixture of native north Israelites and Gentile deportees settled by the Assyrians in the erstwhile northern kingdom.) A new religious inspiration came under the governorship of Zerubbabel, a member of the Davidic line, who became the centre of messianic expectations during the anarchy attendant upon the accession to the Persian throne of Darius I (522). The prophets Haggai and Zechariah perceived the disturbances as heralds of an imminent overthrow of the heathen Persian Empire and a worldwide manifestation of God and glorification of Zerubbabel. Against that day they urged the people quickly to complete the building of the Temple. The labour was resumed and completed in 516; but the prophecies remained unfulfilled. Zerubbabel disappears from the biblical narrative, and the spirit of the community flagged again.

During the Hellenistic period the priests were both the wealthiest class and the strongest political group among the Jews of Jerusalem. The wealthiest of all were the Oniad family, who held the hereditary office of high priest until they were replaced by the Hasmoneans; the Temple that they supervised was, in effect, a bank, where the Temple wealth was kept and where private individuals also deposited their money. Hence, from a social and economic point of view, Josephus is justified in calling the government of Judaea a theocracy (rule by those having religious authority). Opposition to the priests' oppression arose among an urban middle class group known as scribes (soferim), who were interpreters and instructors of the Torah on the basis of an oral tradition probably going back to the time of the return from the Babylonian Exile (538 BCE and after). A special group of the scribes known as Hasidim (Greek, Hasideans), or "Pietists," became the forerunners of the Pharisees (middle-class liberal Jews who reinterpreted the Torah and the prophetic writings to meet the needs of their times) and joined the Hasmoneans in the struggle against the Hellenists, though on religious rather than on political grounds.

The most important religious institution of the Jews until its destruction in 70 was the Temple in Jerusalem--the Second Temple, erected 538-516 BCE. Though services were interrupted for three years by Antiochus Epiphanes (167-164 BCE) and though the Roman general Pompey desecrated the Temple (63 BCE), Herod lavished great expense in rebuilding it. The high priesthood itself became degraded by the extreme Hellenism of such high priests as Jason and Menelaus; and the institution declined when Herod began the custom of appointing the high priests for political and financial considerations. That not only the multitude of Jews but the priesthood itself suffered from sharp divisions is clear from the bitter class warfare that ultimately erupted in 59 CE between the high priests on the one hand and the ordinary priests and the leaders of the populace of Jerusalem on the other.

In Egypt the Jews produced a considerable literature (most of it now lost), intended to inculcate in Greek-speaking Jews a pride in their past and to counteract an inferiority complex that some of them felt about Jewish cultural achievements. In the field of history, Demetrius, near the end of the 3rd century BCE, wrote a work On the Kings in Judaea--perhaps intended to refute an anti-Semitic Egyptian priest and author--showing considerable concern for chronology. In the 2nd century BCE a Jew who used the name of Hecataeus wrote On the Jews. Another, Eupolemus (c. 150 BCE), like Demetrius, wrote On the Kings in Judaea; an indication of its apologetic nature may be seen from the fragment asserting that Moses taught the alphabet not only to the Jews but also to the Phoenicians and to the Greeks. Artapanus (c. 100 BCE), in his book On the Jews, went even further in romanticizing Moses by identifying him with the Greek Musaeus and the Egyptian Hermes-Thoth (god of Egyptian writing and culture) and by asserting that Moses was the real originator of Egyptian civilization and that he even taught the Egyptians the worship of the deity Apis (the sacred bull) and the ibis (sacred bird). In his history, Cleodemus (or Malchus), in an obvious attempt to win for the Jews the regard of the Greeks, asserted that two sons of Abraham had joined Heracles in his expedition in Africa and that the Greek hero had married the daughter of one of them. On the other hand, Jason of Cyrene (c. 100 BCE) wrote a history, of which II Maccabees is a summary, glorifying the Temple and violently attacking the Jewish Hellenizers; but his manner of writing history is typically Hellenistic, with emphasis on pathos. III Maccabees (1st century BCE) is a work of propaganda intended to counteract those Jews who sought to win citizenship in Alexandria. The Letter of Aristeas, though ascribed to a pagan courtier, Ptolemy II Philadelphus, was probably composed by an Alexandrian Jew about 100 BCE to defend Judaism and its practices against detractors.

Hellenistic Judaism: Important historical sites of Hellenistic and medieval Judaism.Mention may be made of the Jewish community of Rome. Numbering perhaps 50,000, it was, to judge from the inscriptions in the Jewish catacombs, predominantly Greek-speaking and almost totally ignorant of Hebrew. References in Roman writers, particularly Tacitus and the satirists, have led scholars to conclude that the community--which was influential, to judge from the pagan jibes--observed the Sabbath and the dietary laws and was active in seeking converts.

During this period literature was composed in Palestine in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, with the exact language still a subject of dispute among scholars in many cases and with the works often apparently composed by more than one author over a considerable period of time. Most of the works composed in Hebrew, many of them existing only in Greek--Ecclesiasticus, I Maccabees, Judith, Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, Baruch, Psalms of Solomon, Prayer of Manasseh--and many of the Dead Sea Scrolls are generally conscious imitations of biblical books, often reflecting the dramatic events of the Maccabean struggle and often with an apocalyptic tinge (involving the dramatic intervention of God in history). The literature in Aramaic consists of the following: (1) biblical or Bible-like legends or midrashic (interpretive) additions--Testament of Job, The Martyrdom of Isaiah, Paralipomena of Jeremiah, Life of Adam and Eve, the Dead Sea Genesis Apocryphon, Tobit, Susanna, Bel and the Dragon; and (2) apocalypses--Enoch (perhaps originally written in Hebrew), Assumption of Moses, the Syriac Baruch, II (IV) Esdras, and Apocalypse of Abraham. In Greek the chief works by Palestinians are histories of the Jewish War against Rome and of the Jewish kings by Justus of Tiberias (both are lost) and the history of the Jewish War, originally in Aramaic, and the Jewish Antiquities by Josephus (both written in Rome).

Origin of Christianity: the early Christians and the Jewish community

Though it attracted little attention among pagans and Jews at the beginning, the rise of Christianity was by far the most important "sectarian" development of the Roman period. With the revision, largely due to the discoveries at Qumran, of the view that Pharisaic Judaism was to be considered normative, primitive Christianity, with its apocalyptic and eschatological interests, has come to be viewed by many scholars as no longer "sectarian" or peripheral to Jewish development but, at least initially, as part of a broad spectrum of attitudes within Judaism. Jesus himself, despite his criticisms of Pharisaic legalism, may now be classified as a Pharisee with strong apocalyptic inclinations; he proclaimed that he had no intention of abrogating the Torah, but of fulfilling it. It is possible to envision a direct line between Jewish currents, both in Palestine and the Diaspora in the Hellenistic Age, and Christianity, particularly in the traditions of martyrdom, proselytism, monasticism, mysticism, liturgy, and religious philosophy, especially the doctrine of the Logos (Word) as an intermediary between God and the world and the synthesis of faith and reason. The Septuagint, in particular, played an important role both theoretically, in the transformation of Greek philosophy into the theology of the Church Fathers, and practically, in converting Jews and Jewish "sympathizers" to Christianity. The connection of nascent Christianity with the Qumran groups may be seen in their dualism and apocalypticism; but there are differences, notably in the conception of the Incarnation, in the relationship of the Son and the Father, and in Jesus' vicarious suffering for sinners as against the direct suffering of the Qumran Teacher of Righteousness. Again, the Qumran group constituted an esoteric movement, militant, with enforced community of goods, concerned with strict observance of the Torah, especially with its calendar, whereas Christianity was pacifist, was open to all, and represented a New Covenant, with stress away from the Torah ritual and with voluntary community of possessions. In general, moreover, Christianity was more positively disposed toward Hellenism than was Pharisaism, particularly under the leadership of Paul, a thoroughly Hellenized Jew.

With the defeat of Bar Kokhba and the ensuing collapse of active Jewish resistance to Roman rule (135-136), politically moderate and quietist rabbinic elements remained the only cohesive group within Jewish society. With Jerusalem off limits to the Jews, rabbinic ideology and practice, which were not dependent on Temple, priesthood, or political independence for their vitality, provided a viable program for autonomous community life and thus filled the vacuum created by the suppression of all other Jewish leadership. The Romans, confident that the will for insurrection had been shattered, soon relaxed the Hadrianic prohibitions of Jewish ordination, public assembly, and regulation of the calendar and permitted rabbis who had fled the country to return and reestablish an academy in the town of Usha in Galilee.

A project by History World International

Virtual Jewish World: Rome, Italy

The Jewish community in Rome is known to be the oldest Jewish community in Europe and also one the oldest continuous Jewish settlements in the world, dating back to the first century BCE.

The Jewish community in Rome is known to be the oldest Jewish community in Europe and also one the oldest continuous Jewish settlements in the world, dating back to 161 B.C.E. when Jason ben Eleazar and Eupolemus ben Johanan came as envoys of Judah Maccabee. Other delegations were sent by the Hasmonean rulers in 150 and 139 B.C.E. After the Romans invaded Judea in 63 B.C.E., Jewish prisoners of war were brought to Rome as slaves, Jewish delegates came to Rome on diplomatic missions and Jewish merchants traveled to Rome seeking business opportunities. Many of those who visited Rome stayed and the Jewish population began to grow.

The Arch of Titus was built by the Roman commander to commemorate his Judean victory in 70 C.E. It shows the triumphal parade with the Temple vessels carried aloft.

While the treatment of Jews by the Romans in Palestine was often harsh, relations with the rulers in Rome were generally much better. Julius Caesar, for example, was known to be a friend of the Jews; he allowed them to settle anywhere in the Roman Empire. According to historians, when Caesar was assassinated by Brutus in 44 B.C.E., Roman Jews spent day and night at Caesar’s tomb, weeping over his death. His successor, Augustus, also acted favorably toward the Jews and even scheduled his grain distribution so that it would not interfere with the Jewish Sabbath. Two synagogues were founded by slaves who had been freed by Augustus (14 C.E.) and by Agrippa (12 B.C.E.).

Twice in the Classic period, Jews were exiled from Rome, in 19 C.E. and in 49-50 C.E. The first exile took place due to the defrauding of an aristocratic Roman woman Fulvia, who had been attracted to Judaism. The second exile occurred because of disturbances caused by the rise of Christianity. It is not certain, though, that these measures were fully carried out or that the period of exile lasted a long time.

During the Roman-Jewish wars in Palestine in 66-73 and 132-135, Jewish prisoners of war were brought to Rome as slaves. A number of the oldest Jewish Roman families trace their ancestry in the city to this period. Jewish scholars from Israel came to Rome in 95-96. In 212, Caracella granted the Jews the privilege of becoming Roman citizens.

From the second half of the first century C.E., the Roman Jewish community became firmly established. A majority of the community were shopkeepers, craftsman and peddlers, but other Jews became poets, physicians and actors. Satiric poets of the time, such as Juvenal and Martial, depicted the raucous activities of the Jewish peddlers and beggars in their poetry. Evidence has been found that twelve synagogues were functioning during this period (although not at the same time). Unfortunately, none of those synagogues have been preserved.

The Jewish position in Rome began to deteriorate during the reign of Constantine the Great (306-336), who enacted laws limiting the rights of Jews as citizens. Jewish synagogues were destroyed by Christian mobs in 387-388 and in 493-526 (during the reign of Theodoric). When Rome was captured by Vandals in 455, spoils of the Jerusalem Temple were taken to Africa.

Once Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, emperors further limited the civil and political rights of the Jews. Most of the imperial laws dealing with the Jews since the days of Constantine are found in the Latin Codex Theodosianius (438) and in the Latin and Greek code of Justinian (534). Some of the relevant decrees in these codes include prohibitions against making proselytes, intermarriage, owning slaves (slave labor was very common and this prohibition severely restricted the economic life of the Jews), holding any esteemed position in the Roman state, building new synagogues and testifying against Orthodox Christians in court.

During this period there was a revival of Hebrew studies in Rome, centered around the local yeshiva, Metivta de Mata Romi. A number of well-known scholars, Rabbi Kalonymus b. Moses and Rabbi Jacob "Gaon" and Rabbi Nathan b. Jehil (who wrote a great talmudic dictionary, the Arukh), contributed to Jewish learning and development. Roman Jewish traditions followed those practiced in the Land of Israel and the liturgical customs started in Rome spread throughout Italy and the rest of the world.

From the 1200's to the mid 1400's, treatment of the Jews varied from pope to pope. For example, in 1295, Pope Bonifice VIII humiliated a visiting Jewish delegation that was sent to congratulate him on his ascendancy; whereas, Pope Boniface IX (1389-1404) treated the Jews benevolently. He favored a succession of Jewish physicians and recognized the rights of Jews as citizens. On the other hand, Eugenius IV (1431-47) passed anti-Jewish legislation in the Council of Constance.

The Jews of Rome fully participated in the flourishing economic and intellectual climate of the Renaissance. They became merchants, traders and bankers, as well as artisans. During the reign of Pope Alexander VI (1492-1503), however, a special tax was imposed on the Jews of Rome to pay for his military operations against the Turks. Later popes during the first half of the 16th Century were more sympathetic to the Jewish community than Alexander VI. The Medici Popes, Leo X (1513-1521) and Clement VII (1523-1534), treated the Jews well. Leo X abolished certain discriminatory levies, did not enforce the wearing of the badges Jews had been forced to put on in the 12th century and also sanctioned the establishment of the Hebrew Printing Press. Leo X, as well as other popes from this period, such as Sixtus IV, retained Jewish physicians in Rome.

During the Reformation, in 1555, Pope Paul IV decreed that all Jews must be segregated into their own quarters (ghettos), and they were forbidden to leave their home during the night, were banned from all but the most strenuous occupations and had to wear a distinctive badge — a yellow hat. More than 4,700 Jews lived in the seven-acre Roman Jewish ghetto that was built in the Travestere section of the city (which still remains a Jewish neighborhood to this day) If any Jews wanted to rent houses or businesses outside the ghetto boundaries, permission was needed from the Cardinal Vicar. Jews could not own any property outside the ghetto. They were not allowed to study in higher education institutions or become lawyers, pharmacists, painters, politicians, notaries or architects. Jewish doctors were only allowed to treat Jewish patients. Jews were forced to pay an annual stipend to pay the salaries of the Catholic officials who supervised the Ghetto Finance Administration and the Jewish Community Organization; a stipend to pay for Christian missionaries who proselytized to the Jews and a yearly sum to the Cloister of the Converted. In return, the state helped with welfare work, but gave no money toward education or caring for the sick. These anti-Jewish laws were similar to those imposed by Nazi Germany on the Jews during World War II.

During the Reformation, talmudic literature as a whole was banned in Rome. On Rosh Hashana 1553, the Talmud and other Hebrew books were burned. Raids of the ghetto were common, and were conducted to insure that Jews did not own any "forbidden" books (any other literature besides the Bible and liturgy). It was forbidden to sing psalms or dirges when escorting the dead to their burial place. Every Saturday, a number of Jews were forced to leave the ghetto and listen to sermons delivered in local churches. Also, whenever a new Pope was ordained, the Jews presented him with a Torah scroll. Jews continued to live in the ghetto for almost 300 years.

In 1870, Italy was united as a nation under King Victor Emanuel, who decreed that the ghettos be dismantled and gave the Jews full citizenship. Following the end of the papal states, Jews fully integrated into Italian society. They comprised a significant percentage of the university teachers, generals and admirals. A number of Jews were involved in government and were close advisors of Mussolini; they convinced Mussolini to intervene in the First World War. Five Jews were among the original founders of the fasci di combattimento in 1919 and were active in every branch of the Fascist movement. Both Mussolini’s biographers, Margharita Sarfatti, and his Minister of Finance, Guido Jung, were Jews.

In 1931, approximately 48,000 Jews lived in Italy. By 1939, up to 4,000 had been baptized, and several thousand other Jews chose to emigrate, leaving 35,000 Jews in the country. During the war, the Nazi pressure to implement discriminatory measures against Jews was, for the most part, ignored or enacted half-heartedly. Most Jews did not obey orders to be transferred to internment camps and many of their non-Jewish neighbors and government officials shielded them from the Nazis. Some Jews were interned in labor camps in Italy.

After the north was occupied by the Germans in 1943, the Nazis wanted to deport Italian Jewry to death camps, but resistance from the Italian public and officials stymied their efforts. A gold ransom was extorted to stop the S.S. commanding officer in Rome from killing 200 Jews. Still, nearly 8,000 Italian Jews perished in the Holocaust, but this number was significantly less than in most countries in Europe. Roughly 80 percent of the Italian Jews survived the war. In 2000, a stone plaque was unveiled at the Tiburtina train station, the site of the deportations, to honor the memory of Rome's Jews, whom the Nazis deported from the city on Oct. 16, 1943.

Today, a diverse community of 15,000 Jews lives in Rome (communita Ebraica di Roma). The Jewish community’s organization, based in Rome, the Unione delle Comunita Ebraiche Italiane, is directly involved in providing religious, cultural, and educational services and also represents the community politically. The monthly publication Shalom is the Roman community's key publication, and Rome also has Jewish cultural clubs and several schools.

In 1987, the Jewish community obtained special rights from the Italian state allowing them to abstain from work on the Sabbath and to observe Jewish holidays At least 13 synagogues can be found in Rome, including a special synagogue for the Libyan Jews who immigrated to Rome after the Six-Day War in 1967. Three of thirteen synagogues are located under the same roof at Via Balbo 33 (Itlaki, Sephardic and Ashkenazi). The Italian chief rabbi officiates at the Great Synagogue of Rome and heads the country's rabbinical council.

The continual presence of a Jewish community in Rome for more than two millennia has produced a distinctive tradition of prayer — comparable to the Sephardic or Ashkenazi traditions — called the Nusach Italki (Italian rite). The nusach has its own order of prayer and tunes. A number of synagogues in Rome, including the Great Synagogue, follow this tradition. Most synagogues in Italy are Sephardic.

In October 2013, Rome's Jewish community gathered in the city's main synagogue to commemorate the October 16, 1943, roundup of Jews from the Rome Ghetto. The Jews were bound for Auschwitz; only a dozen survived. The community also discussed the passing of Nazi criminal Erich Priebke who was convicted for crimes against humanity from the massacre at the Ardeatine Caves outside Rome in which 335 civilians, mostly Jews, were slaughtered in cold blood.

Roman archaeologists announced that they had found remnants of a Jewish cemetery dating back to the 14th-17th century, in March 2017. Gold rings and a scale, as well as 38 well-preserved skeletons were recovered from the site following a 6-year excavation. The only recognizable marker found for the gravesite was a tombstone fragment etched with a few Hebrew letters, which convinced leaders of the expedition that they had found a Jewish burial site. Experts who examined the skeletons concluded that they all showed telltale signs of malnutrition and starvation.

Among the places worth visiting is Ostia Antica, the ancient seaport near Rome. Jews in Ostia were middle class and participated in a variety of trades, such as blacksmiths, tailors, butchers and actors. They were better off than the Jews in Rome and permitted to build and maintain a fine synagogue.

The synagogue of Ostia Antica is among the oldest in Europe and one of the oldest in the world. The remains of a 4th-century synagogue constructed on the site of a synagogue from the 1st century B.C.E. and the catacombs in Rome was discovered in 1961-62. Near the entrance courtyard of the synagogue is an area that contained a large oven, storage jars and a marble-topped table decorated with menorahs. It is believed this was a kitchen and/or dining room. Next to this room is one that includes benches that might have been used as beds by traveling merchants.

Another interesting synagogue to visit is the Synagogue of Rome, Longotevere Cenci, which was built from 1874-1904 after the emancipation of the Italian Jews following Italy’s unification. It has a unique Persian and Babylonian architectural design that contrasts with the rest of the city, which uses an ornamental baroque style. Inside the synagogue, a museum chronicles the history of Rome’s Jews.

It is possible to visit the old ghetto in the Travestere section. The first stop in the ghetto should be the Museo del Folklore, which contains paintings depicting 19th Century Roman ghetto life. Also in the ghetto, on Via Della Regiella, there is a narrow street lined with seven-story buildings where the ghetto was so small Jews were forced to build upward.

The place where Jews were sent for deportation during the German occupation is in the piazza (square) between Portico d’Ottavia and Tempo Maggiaore. A plaque on one of the buildings reads, "On October 16, 1943, here began the merciless rout of the Jews. The few who escaped murder and many others, in solidarity, pray for love and peace from mankind and pardon and hope from God."

Many of the Christian churches offer magnificent artwork that contain biblical subjects and themes. Among Michelangelo’s many magnificent works in Rome is the statue of Moses in the Church of San Pietro in Vincoli. This is the sculpture with horns coming out of the head of Moses. The depiction was apparently based on a mistranslation of the Bible, which speaks of "rays" shining from Moses when he emerged from Sinai with the Ten Commandments. The Hebrew word for "rays" is similar to the word for "horns."

One important relic that ties Rome and Israel together is the Arch of Titus (opposite the Roman Forum). It was built by the Roman commander to commemorate his Judean victory in 70 C.E. It shows the triumphal parade with the Temple vessels carried aloft. A replica of the arch is in Beth Hatefutsoth, the Museum of the Diaspora in Tel Aviv.

In 1645, Pope Urban VIII began construction on a defensive perimeter wall for Rome that was going to interfere with the city's main Jewish cemetery of Porta Portese. In April of that year, the new Pope Innocent X arranged for the Jewish Society of Charity and Dead to purchase an area of land in Cerchi and the cemetery was moved to this plot. As this area began to fill up, in 1728 Pope Benedict XIII gave the Jewish Society permission to buy neighboring land in order to expand, and once this plot was full as well, Pope Pius VI in 1775 pressured another landowner to sell a plot for the expansion of the cemetery.

All that remains of the cemetary is a road and a rose bed

In 1934, more than a century and a half later, the government of Rome expropriated all land in the area of the 250 year old Jewish cemetery and began construction on a road that ran right through the heart of the burial ground. The cemetery was decided to be transferred to a part of the Campo Verano and working quickly to finish the road, the city exhumed and transferred bodies from the cemetery in a hurry, often times working on Jewish holidays and without religious Jewish supervision.

A total of 7,800 corpses were recovered from the cemetery, but unfortunately not all of the bodies were properly identified. Additionally, in the rush to finish the project, many bodies were recovered as late as two days before the road was inaugurated while some areas were not searched and others were so haphazardly investigated that it is likely that thousands of corpses remain buried.

In 1950, the city built a rose garden in the area, just a short distance from Circo Massimo and the Aventine hill. The president of the Jewish community at the time gave his consent for the construction of The Roseto Comunale of Rome with the condition that a single star be placed above the entrance to remind visitors of its sacred origin.

The other evidence of the Jewish connection to the site is the central staircase, which is in the shape of a menorah.

Over two millenia, the Jewish community of Rome has left behind some of the most compelling records and artifacts ever found in Europe. Many of these archaeological finds are showcased in Rome's newly renovated Jewish museum, the Museo Ebraico di Roma. Although the museum has been open and functioning since 1959, a new European Union-funded $2 million renovation gave the museum a complete remodeling. Instead of merely exhibiting artifacts, the museum incorporates them with photographs and documents to narrate the history of Rome's Jewish community, the oldest community of its kind in Europe.

The museum is host to several exhibits which highlight the Jewish connection to Rome. The Gallery of Antique Marbles is a collection of precious marbles from the synagogues of the Ghetto of Rome. The Gallery contains over 100 inscriptions and architectural elements that vary in size and content. According to the museum,

“The subjects of the inscriptions vary but together they illustrate the social fabric, daily life and history of the Jewish Community and its presence in Rome. They commemorate donations from wealthy families and the purchase of cemetery plots. They forbid bringing leavened bread into areas where unleavened bread is baked and record the activities of the confraternities of charitable works. There are also family coats of arms decorating objects that the families donated to the community.”

Another permanent exhibit is the textile collection, which contains around 800 quality textiles from the 15th to the 19th centuries. The museum has planned to build a Textile Preservation Center, which will house some of the museum's most important finds. The fabrics will be placed in air-tight storage containers to prevent dust and sunlight that could be harmful to the antiques.

Lachter, Lewis Eric. "When in Rome, feast on beauty and history," Washington Jewish Week, May 4, 2000.

"Rome" Let’s Go Europe 1990, Harvard Student Agencies, Inc.

JTA, (December 14, 2005);

David, Ariel. Archaeologists in Rome uncover medieval Jewish cemetery, and its history of persecution, Haaretz (March 26, 2017).

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