Azariah de Rossi

Medieval Italian scholar pioneered the 'scientific' study of the Jewish past.

Reprinted from The Jewish Religion: A Companion, published by Oxford University Press.

Azariah de Rossi was an Italian scholar, physician, and historian (c. 1511- c. 1578). He is chiefly renowned for his Meor Eynayim, a study of aspects of Jewish history in which the author, a typical Renaissance man, used Greek and Latin sources in his research.

Eclectic Sources

In addition to his numerous references to traditional Jewish literature, Rossi quotes extensively from Philo, Josephus, Plato, Cicero, Aquinas, and even the Church Fathers. The work is rightly seen, therefore, as the first attempt by a Jewish scholar to study the Jewish past ‘scientifically’ by using comparative critical methods, a pioneering effort to write real Jewish history as distinct from the mere chronologies compiled before Rossi’s time.

It is no accident that scholars of the Judische Wissenschaft school, such as Zunz, utilized the Meor Eynayim extensively in their objective studies of the Jewish past.

Among other original contributions, the work offers a correction of errors in Jewish chronology. Included in the work is a translation into Hebrew of the Latin version of the Letter of Aristeas, which tells how the Septuagint came to be written.

Is the Talmud the Best Historical Record?

Rossi was also the first Jewish scholar to point out that some statements in the Talmud about historical personages cannot be accepted as factual since they contradict known historical records. For instance, the Talmud (Gittin 56b) says that the emperor Titus who destroyed the Temple was punished by a gnat which entered his nose and grew in his head into a bird of brass with claws of iron.

We know, Rossi observes, that Titus died a normal death. What the Talmud is saying is that a tiny gnat of remorse pecked away at Titus’ conscience because he had destroyed the Temple, growing ever stronger until he could no longer live with his guilt.

Rossi, in other words, recognizes that Talmudic and Midrashic legends are just that, legends told not as sober history but as pious tales intended to convey moral lessons. But Rossi goes further, following some earlier teachers who held that while the Talmudic Rabbis are to be accepted as authorities in matters of law and tradition, in scientific and historical matters they had only the scientific and historical knowledge of their day and could have been mistaken in these areas.

Although Rossi was a strictly observant Jew, his work aroused the ire of the traditionalist Rabbis, who saw his questioning of Talmudic statements as sheer heresy. The attempt to impose a ban on Rossi’s book failed but the result was that the work was largely ignored by learned Jews until the rise of Judische Wissenschaft in the nineteenth century.

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