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© Jeff Matthews   entry June 2010

The Early Settlement of the Jews in Southern Italy

This is my summary of the article, "The Early Settlement of the Jews in Southern Italy" by Adolf Neubauer. It appeared in The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 4, No. 4 (Jul., 1892),  pp. 606-625 and was published by the University of Pennsylvania Press. Neubauer (1831-1907) was born in Hungary and became sublibrarian at the Bodleian Library and reader in Rabbinical Hebrew at Oxford University. The text is well footnoted. Many of the notes and quoted passages in the text, itself, are in Hebrew and the author assumes a knowledge of that language on the part of the reader. Numbered, bracketed notes [like this, in italics] in the summary are mine and not in the original text. They are meant to provide a bit more explanation than that found in the original text. I have placed them at the end of respective paragraphs.

We don't know exactly when Jews appeared in Rome. It is unlikely that a Jewish community was founded by the Maccabean [1] embassies sent between 168  and 139 B.C. by the rulers of Israel to conclude a treaty of alliance with the Roman Republic. Possibly, they were brought to Rome around 89 BC during the Mithridatic Wars.[2]

[1. The Maccabees were a Jewish rebel army who took control of parts of the land of Israel, which had been a client state of the Seleucid Empire. They ruled from 164 BC to 63 BC, reasserting the Jewish religion and expanding the boundaries of Israel.]

[2. The Mithridatic Wars were a series of wars between Rome and the Kingdom of Pontus, one of the successor states of the empire of Alexander the Great.]

Pompey certainly transported Jews as slaves to Rome after the conquest of Jerusalem (63 BC). Some were freed, became Roman citizens, and settled on the right side of the Tiber (Trastevere), organising themselves into a community and continuing to adhere to their religion. In Rome, they had synagogues and their own cemeteries, but no documents have survived to tell us how well acquainted they were with ceremonial laws. They probably followed some rules, passed down by oral tradition, for the order of the prayers, for example. We don't know if prayers were recited and the lessons read in Hebrew or in Greek—probably both, depending on the synagogue. We suppose Greek to have been the predominant language with the Jews at Rome from the early epitaphs, the only authentic documents concerning the early Jewish community in Rome and in Southern Italy. They are nearly all in Greek; a few are in Latin. (The article then contains a list of known Jewish cemeteries in Rome.)

Roman Jews used the synagogue as a house of study, and the Rome community also supported the schools in Palestine with money. Jewish influence was evident elsewhere in Europe although no prayer book was officially written down before the close of the Talmud. As examples of influence: "...Alcuin, the learned friend of Charlemagne, mentions a religious controversy at Pavia in 800 between the Jew Julius and Peter of Pisa. It is probable that the Jew Isaac, who was sent on a mission by Charlemagne to the court of Harun Al-Rashid was a native of Lombardy. In 887 a Jew named Zedekias is mentioned, who acted as physician to Charles the Bald in Upper Italy." By the sixth century there was also a large community in Cagliari on the island of Sardinia due to the earlier (19 AD) banishment under Tiberius of 4,000 Jews to the island.

In the south, there was a "respectable congregation" in Naples, who distinguished themselves in the war against Belisarius (536 AD).[3] There are, as yet, no traces of that community's catacombs. [4] There are a number of extant catacomb inscriptions in nearby Venosa.[5] They are mostly in Greek; some are in Latin, and some are in Hebrew written in the Greek alphabet. One is in Greek written in Hebrew characters. Those and others in Brindisi and Lavello are probably from around the year 800. These others are generally in Hebrew and are a sign that Hebrew was preferred in connection with religious ceremonies.

[3. Belisarius: Byzantine general instrumental in Justinian's attempt to reconquer the Western Roman Empire.]

[4. That situation has changed somewhat since the writing of this article (1892). As noted elsewhere in this encyclopedia, catacombs were discovered in 1908 and 1931. They have, however, to my knowledge not been excavated.]

[5. Venosa is east of Naples, just outside of the Campania region near the town of Potenza in the region of Basilicata. The Jewish catacombs there were discovered in 1853. The Jewish community in Venosa is well-known and there is ample documentation.]

Thus, "from the decrees of Gregory the Great, Pope Honorius, and many Councils, we may conclude that Jews were spread over the whole of Italy, including Sicily, as early as the sixth century and later on." Neubauer refers to Rabbi Tam of Ramerupt [6] who cited as an old saying, "Out of Bari shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Otranto." [7] Both Bari and Otranto were important in Jewish leaning as early as the eighth century.

[6. Tam of Ramerupt lived in the 1100s and was one of the greatest commentators on the Talmud.]

[7. A play on a passage in the Book of Isaiah, substituting "Bari" and "Otranto" for "Zion" and "Jerusalem."]

There follows an account of Rabbi Shephatyah's (of Otranto) saving of five congegations from forced conversion under the rule of Byzantine emperor Basil II. The rabbi is said to have healed the emperor's daughter of insanity and thus brought an end to the persecution of Jews in Otranto. The date of Basil's persecutions is given in a chronicle compiled in the eleventh century as 4628 A.M. [anno mundi/year of the world=868 AD). That chronicle, "important for the Jewish settlement in Southern Italy,"  is in the Cathedral Library of Toledo. There follow some pages of tales from the chronicle on the wanderings of various Jews to Italy after the destruction of the Temple.

Thus Bari and Otranto possessed learned rabbis, certainly as early as 870, and most likely before that time. The saying of R. Jacob Tam is thus justified. Many of these rabbis might have been the ancestors of those killed by the Arabs at Oria, in the Province of Otranto, in 925.[8]

[8. Oria is in southern Italy, in the heel of the "boot" of Italy. It was the birthplace of the medieval scholar Shabbethai Donnolo (913-982), one of the first Jewish writers on medicine. The town was a well-known center of Jewish scholarship in medieval Italy. It was sacked and destroyed in 925 by Arab raiders.]
The author mentions some minor Midrashic treatises composed in Southern Italy around the year 900. Mention of the Jewish War under Titus:[9]

Titus placed governors in the towns which made peace with him, and left them in the land of Judah. The number of prisoners which Titus carried away was 90,000; of those who fell in Jerusalem by sword and hunger, together with those who were spared and returned, was 108,000; of those given to his father and settled at Rome was 1,500; those who settled at Taranto, Otranto and other towns in Puglia, was 5,000. Vespasian gave to his son Titus Africa and Spain, where 30,000 Jews settled in Carthage and in his capital Sevilla on the river Baetis.

[9. Titus was the Roman emperor from the years 79-81. Before that, he was the military commander responsible for the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70.]

And, finally, Neubauer says, "Thus we reach the eleventh century, where we find, if not a great school, at least learned men in Sicily, Siponte, probably also at Salerno, Trani, and more especially at Rome, where the Talmudic Lexicon by Nathan,[10] still in use, was finished about 1100."

[10. Nathan: reference to Nathan ben Jehiel of Rome (1035-1106), lexicographer and liturgical poet.] 

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