A New Era

Although Italy was the center of the Catholic Church, it never had an Inquisition or nationwide expulsion of local Jewry. Various cities did expel their Jews, especially in the late 1400s. In Venice, however, they invented a new method of dealing with the Jewish population in 1516—the ghetto, into which all Jews were forced to move. The ghetto concept spread across Europe, and soon replaced outright expulsion as the preferred method of permitting Jewish commerce while preventing too much contact.

Despite the ghettoes, Italy was a major beneficiary when riots and expulsions in other countries drove Jews there to emigrate. By the early 1500s, Jews in Italy could be found worshiping in the old Italian manner, following the German Ashkenazic practice, and using the Sephardic style found in Spain.

The differences in style masked a convergence when it came to Torah learning. In the earlier centuries, the schools in each country were disparate, and communication was difficult. Now travel was becoming less difficult and, as a result, more common. A new invention, though, had an even greater impact than travel itself: movable type.

The Printing Press

While the written recording of the Oral Law ensured its preservation, its transmission relied for hundreds of years upon handwritten copies of the Talmud and other works. It is amazing that earlier writers demonstrate as much access to the writings of predecessors and contemporaries as they obviously had, considering that this meant countless hours on the part of many scribes throughout the centuries.

In the latter half of the fifteenth century, however, the invention of the printing press forever changed access to the written word. Jewish publishers were quick to take advantage, and the first things they printed were prayer and Torah books. The “People of the Book” soon had unparalleled access to its books—tens of thousands of Jewish books were printed in just the first fifty years.

Rabbis and non-Jewish printers often worked together to publish works for the Jewish community. After a dispute between printers in the mid-sixteenth century, however, one printer reported to the Church that the Jewish books contained unfavorable references to Christianity. A wave of book-burnings swept across Italy. After that time, the Jewish community reached an agreement with the Italian Church that ensured Jewish self-censorship, and publication of Jewish texts continued.

The Code of Jewish Law

Another major development sparking the convergence in Jewish thought and discussion was the acceptance of Rabbi Yosef Karo's Shulchan Aruch—with the glosses of Rabbi Moshe Isserles—as “the” definitive Code of Jewish Law (these two Torah giants and their works will be discussed at greater length in the next chapter). The printing and dissemination of their joint work meant that scholars in all countries enjoyed a common point of reference. While difference in practice remained, the scholarship of great Rabbis all across Europe was less likely to differ profoundly based upon where they lived.

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