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Jews Built Roman Coliseum After Destruction of Second Temple

A Historical Background of Italian Jewry

by Sarina Roffé

     Sarina Roffé is a career journalist and holds a masters in Jewish Studies. She has researched numerous genealogies including the Kassin and Labaton rabbinic dynasties ans is considered an expert in Aleppan Jewry. She is a member of Brooklyn's Syrian Jewish community and the Jewish Genealogical Society, Inc. of New York.

   Today tourguides at the Roman Coliseum, probably the most visited tourist site in Rome outside of the Vatican, casual mentioned that it was built by 20,000 Jewish slaves brought back after the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Second Temple.

   The emperor Titus brought 20,000 Jewish slaves to Rome, slaves used to bulid the Roman Coliseum. Proof of this lies in the Arch of Titus, which depicts a menorah as part of the bounty from Jerusalem. To this day, the Talmud forbids Jews from walking under the Arch.. After Titus destroyed Jerusalem, Babylonia arose as the new Jewish center.

   Academics generally agree that the Jewish presence in Italy began in 161 BCE when Judah Macabee sent a delegation to the Roman Emperor. Four families of Jewish nobility settled in southern Italy and were dependent on Jerusalem for law and prayer. To this day Italian Jews remain loyal to the Jerusalem Talmud.

   This is significant because it shows the why the earliest Italian Jews placed heavy emphasis in the study of Tannach; had different Hebrew grammar; learned cabala and Midrash; and wrote Piyutim, when those who followed the Babylonian Talmud did not write piyutim or learn midrash. For example, Israel allowed the recital of the piyutim in the first three verses of piyutim, while Babylonia forbid this practice. Jews in Italy, as later in Ashkenaz, followed the Jerusalem practice. In addition, Italian Jews gave extra significance to custom, to the extent that at times it could over ride Halacha, something that ould never happen in Bablylonia. Few people understand that the roots of minhag in Ashkenazic Jewry originate from the first Jews to arrive in Italy.

   In 632, Islam began to spread and 90 percent of the world’s Jews come under Islamic rule by the end of the 7th Century. Eliezer ben Yehudah of Worms, a descendent from the four original families to come to Italy, wrote that there was major migration from 914 to 957 of Italian Jews moving north who found communities along the way.

   Italiani Jews moved from southern Italy north to Germany and France, bringing with them the Jerusalem Talmud. In 1276, Spain took control of Sicily and in the 1280s, the French invaded southern Italy, bringing with them anti-Jewish legislation. Italiani Jews moved to north central Italy, settling in small groups. In 1306, Ashkenazic Jews were expelled from France and moved into the Piedmont area of western Italy. In 1348, the Black Plague came to Germany, killing more than 60 percent of the population, and Jews were blamed. Life became intolerable in Germany and resulted in a population shift into eastern Italy.

   And in 1492, when Spain expelled its Jews from its empire, which included Sicily, Sephardic Jews begin to settle in western Italy. So by the end of the 14th Century, Italy became a mix of French and German (Ashkenazic), and Spanish Jews (Sephardic), competing against the original Jewish settlers (Italiani), each with its own customs and language.

   However, life in Italy during the Middle Ages was extremely unstable for Jews, who negotiated their stay in each city under a contract called a condutta, which allowed a certain group to stay for a limited amount of time.The condutta could be annuled at any time as as a result Jewish life was unstable. No synagogues or mikvehs were built and because the Jews were legal citizens, they could not be given autonomy. As a result of the condutta, Jews lived in small numbers, usually not enough for a minyan, in hundreds of localities and in isolation from organized Jewry.

   Between the 9th and the 13th century, it is estimated that there were 50,000 Jews in southern Italy and in Sicily. The expulsion of the Jews in 1492 from Spain and its Italian possessions included Sicily and Southern Italy. From that time until the emancipation of the 19th century, Jewish life was not different from that of other European communities.

Prominent Rabbis

   Italian Jewry produced a few prominent rabbis of note. Rabbi Joseph Cologne aka the Maharik (1420-1480), writes rabbinical responsa clearly show the conflict between German and French influences on Italian Jewry. Rabbi Judah Messer Leon was an Italiany with a profound secular education. He was an accomplished physician and philosopher receiving the title Messer (sir) and Leon (Lion – Lion of Judah). He was anointed a knight and was given the rights to give doctorate degrees.

   R. Messer Leon established a Yeshiva in Ancona, had many disciples and in 1473 was the first Jew to see his own book published while he was still alive (Mantua). Nofet Tsofim (which was translated into English as The Book of the Honeycombs Flow, trans. A. Lesley), is an analysis of language and how rhetoric can be used for convincing others based on ancient rhetoric models of Cissero and Quintilian. Leon measured the Torah against their models to show how the Torah is perfect and embodies every kind of ideal rhetoric. However, Messer Leon shows that one can have a lot of culture as well as being strict on religious matters.

   In the second half of the 15th Century, Rabbi Elijah Capsali (1490-1560) was born to a German Jewish family that migrated to Crete (ruled by Venice). He was a Rav and he was a historian, who wrote Seder Elijah Suda (The lesser order of Elijah), a book of Venician chronicles that provides the history of Torah Study in Venice. Other rabbis of note include Rabbi Yehuda Minz and Rabbi David Provencal.


   In 1516, the first Jewish ghetto in Europe was established in Venice and Jews had to live behind its walls. In Italian the word ghetto means foundry and was used because the Venice Ghetto sat on the land of a dormant foundry. TheBull of Pope Paul IV in 1555, caused other cities to follow Venice’s example and start ghettoes in much of western Europe.

   Italian Jews were always citizens with equal rights until the Venice ghetto opened. By comparison, citizenship was not granted to the Jews in France and Germany until the Emancipation of the 18th and 19th Centuries.

   In the Venice Ghetto Sephardic, Ashkenazic and Italiani Jews had five different houses of prayer. Synagogues were opened in the top floor of existing buildings. There were three parts to the Venice ghetto. The New Ghetto, dates from 1516, and was the first section occupied; the second section is called tthe Old Ghetto and dates from 1541. The Newest Ghetto was added in 1633.

   All that exists of the Venice ghetto walls today is the portico, through which guests enter. There is a huge square and tall buildings that surround the long narrow streets. Three of the synagogues – the Spanish School (Sephardic), the Levantine School (Sephardic)and the Italian School (Italiani) - surround the same square. They can only be accessed today by taking a a tour of the Ghetto. There are two Ashkenazic synagogues in the Venice Ghetto. One is the Canton School, aptly named for the German Canton family.The other is the Great German School.

   It is not until 1590 that Jews in the rest of Italy began to live in walled communities and ghettos, which created larger Jewish communities where Judiasm can thrive with schools, minyanim, live autonomously and where the population could regenerate itself. In addition, condutta were no longer needed. As a result, the first Italian synagogues are built after 1590.


   The Leghorn Jewish community was not established until late in the 16th century, largely due to the ghetto restrictions in most of Italy. Cosimo Medici, a wealthy industrialist who did not always bow down to church policy, had regained the ports in Pisa and the free port of Leghorn and issued an invitation in 1548 to attract people who would make the ports into trade centers. He also issued incentives, such as religious freedom and tax exemptions, thus providing a magnet for Jews.

   In 1593 Fernando de Medici renewed the invitation via a public manifesto to merchants of every nation, especially persecuted Jews. He promised them incentives such as tax exoneration, freedom of religion and trade, amnesty. He also promised that they wouldn’t have to bear the badge, listen to sermons or be subjected to forced baptisms. Thus a larger group of Sephardic Jews flowed in, followed a few years later by Italiani Jews and Germans. Medici allowed them citizenship, an autonomous tribunal and the freedom to build synagogues.

  The Jews there became the richest and most important community. It also became the center for the printing of Hebrew books. By the end of the 17th Century there were 3500 Jews in Leghorn, a number that doubled in the next century. The Sephardic Jews dominated not just in numbers but in trade, real estate, Torah study and culture. The community lasted until the time of Napoleon and was unique in Italy.


   As previously mentioned, the Jewish community of Rome was the oldest in the Diaspora, dating back to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 AD. Roman Jews, to be differentiated from Italiani Jews, who date themselves from the time of Judah Maccabee. The Jews who came as slaves of Titus, were freed and established themselves in the area of Rome known as Tratavere. Caesar allowed them public meetings; Cicero recognized their importance as traders and artisans. Historical record indicates 13 synagogues.

   Jews were subject to different rules and regulations, largely dependent on the Church. In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council under Pope Innocent III required Jews to live in a separate living area as well as clothing to indicate they were Jews. The Jews of Rome were subject to a variety of problems during much of the 13th and most of the 14th centuries.

   By 1555, the Bull of Paul IV required Jews to live in a ghetto, sell their real estate, have only one synagogue, trade only in secondhand goods and wear a yellow cap. The Rome Ghetto was on the banks of the Tiber River and had five entrances, but was expanded to have two more. There were five squares eight streets and lanes, all of which rose upward for lack of space. For 200 years, the ghetto caused over 6,000 Jews to live in squalor and degrading humiliation. By the end, there were five synagogues (three Italiani and two Spanish) in a single building, but each had rich furnishings. In 1893, the synagogues were destroyed by fire.


   When France’s emperor Napoleon invaded Italy in 1796, he granted the Jews their first emancipation which lasted until his fall in 1815. At the time, the Jews of Italy still lived in ghettos, 9,000 of them in the Papal States, 6,000 in the Republic of Venice, about 5,000 in the Grand Duchy of Tuscany where they enjoyed, especially in the harbor city of Leghorn, very favorable conditions. Six thousands lived in the area of Trieste and Milan, which was under the Austrians and another 6,000 in the territories under the House of Savoy, which included Piedmont, Savoy, the coastal area from Nice to Genoa and the island of Sardinia, where there were no Jews.

Late 19th and Early 20th Century

   The relief was short lived. The French “new international order” granted freedom but imposed heavy taxes and in some cases made the Jews the scapegoats after Napoleon’s defeat. By the late 19th century, Jews in Rome were forbidden to follow their dead in procession, or to sell goods to non Jews; they were obliged to wear yellow stripes on their clothes and their rabbis were made responsible for bringing them to listen to conversion lectures.

   In 1885, the Rome ghetto was demolished completely, thereby erasing all historical evidence of its existence. In 1904, the community built the great synagogue, a symbol of splendor and decadence, probably to recapture its role as the first Jewish community in Italy. Underneath is the Spanish synagogue. In an adjacent building, there is a museum to the Jewish Community of Rome.

  At the start of War World II, 40,000 Jews lived in Italy, most of them for centuries. Of those some 10,000 disappeared through conversion, another 12,000 emigrated abroad (including 2,000 to Palestine) and more than 7,000 died during the Holocaust. As a result, about 10.000 Jews of old Italian origin remained.

  The Italian Jewish community as we know it today has a different and varying history, one which is heavily influenced by population shifts from France, Germany, and Spain, as well as their languages and customs.

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