Commentary Magazine

Cedars of Lebanon: The Hebrews Among the Nations

Below we print a second excerpt from Rabbi Simone (Simhah) ben Isaac Luzzatto’s Discorso circa il Stato degli Ebrei, a book of apologetics published in Venice in 1638. Rabbi Luzzatto was born in 1583 and died in 1663, living in Venice all his life. He received a humanistic as well as rabbinical education, and became the exponent of a Judaism whose rationalism surpassed even that of Maimonides—of whom Luzzatto was a follower, being at the same time an adversary of Cabala.

The Discorso is perhaps the first effort at Jewish apologetics in Europe that dispenses with theological arguments and bases itself almost exclusively on economic, social, and political considerations. The frankness with which it invokes material interests would shock many a latter-day apologist.

Nor is Luzzatto sparing in Jewish self-criticism. He characterizes the traits of his own people with a frankness equal to that with which he reminds the Venetian state of the primacy of its material interests, and of how essential Jews are to these. It is the very shortcomings of the Jews as a people—their lack of political power, of spirit, their ignorance of secular learning—that he converts into an argument for Venetian hospitality toward them. And another argument for this hospitality is the fact that they are specialists in commerce and never take up crafts or buy land for farming—precisely the argument which Jewish nationalists today, and others, make such a bitter indictment.

Luzzatto also attempts to explain the Jews to Gentiles and thus he goes into Jewish history and learning and post-Biblical life, about which his readers are presumed to know so little. It is from this section of his book that we have chosen excerpts. The translation, the first into English, is by Felix Giovanelli.—ED.


Consideration XVII

In which the reason for the varying degrees of toleration of the Hebrews is considered, as well as that underlying some expulsions which have befallen the Nation.

In Philosophical Questions and scholastic debates, once arguments and counter—arguments have been marshaled and exhausted, it is customary to resort to the arms of inexorable and sometimes invincible authority. Hence, it occurs to me that some, unable to meet the arguments above advanced, may seek to combat us with a martial array of example and authority, saying that if it be true that Hebrews contribute such and such advantages, wherefore is it that the Hebrew Nation is excluded by Prudent Princes and Wise States, as hath come to pass in Spain, France, England, many cities of Germany, and even in Italy not a few? To which instances it is answered that in Political matters it is of little moment to argue from the ground of Example; and just as it is a vain flourish to adduce authority in Mathematics, which are an exact science, so is it absurd in Political matters, by reason of their contingency and diversity of individual accidents. Each domain and City has its own particular circumstances and properties which are not assimilable to the others.

There is no City in Europe, which, in the province of civil and criminal jurisprudence, has not its particular and local laws; nor does any one point a moral and set an example for the others. Were that the case, the Most Excellent Venetian Senate, in having embraced the Hebrew Nation, should point the moral to all the other States and serve as a Criterion for the admission of Hebrews into their lands; and there can be no doubt that all Sovereigns, as well-wishers of their Populations and as men desirous of incomes and revenues, would also open their gates. But the antagonistic bent and disposition of their Peoples occasion that these Princes yield to them and suit themselves to their caprices, not wanting (nor finding it expedient) to turn to forceful measures. Even the Most Serene Republic [Venice], though allowing the Hebrews domicile in its own City, the Capital of its Dominion, does not do so in Erescia, Bergamo, and several other Cities of the State, this by reason of the wariness and hostility of the Peoples toward the [Hebrew] Nation.

Though it be not possible to reason with any certainty of the many varieties of opinions of People, nonetheless it can be said with probability that in Cities which do not have Sea Ports, numerous inhabitants, an affluence of Foreigners, and commercial relations with all parts of the world—such as has the City of Venice—it is necessary for the Hebrews who live in such Cities to find sustenance in one of the following ways: First, by usury, as they do in some Cities of Italy and Germany; Second, by exercising their skills in the common Crafts of Cities; and Third, by income from lands and houses, as in the Levant.

Usury makes them to be equally ill-esteemed by all the orders of the City; the exercise of the Crafts, by the commonalty; the possession of lands and houses by the nobility and the powerful. These are the true and effective reasons that many places are not inhabited by Jews. These considerations do not hold for the City of Venice because Usury is limited to 5 per cent and the Banks have been established for the convenience of the Poor, not for the profit of the Bankers. The exercise of the Crafts is forbidden them, together with the possession of lands and houses; their needs are met by commerce and trafficking, wherefore no estate or order of the City finds the Jews a burden or a nuisance.

But beyond all this, it is possible, with great probability of arriving at the truth, to inquire into the causes of some notable expulsions of the Jews.



In many Cities of Germany, in the time of Gottfried [Godfrey of Bouillon] and upon the occasion of the Crusade for the deliverance of the Holy Land, it befell that the soldiery, who were made rabid against whatsoever Nation differed from the Christian, did execute upon the helpless Jews an unforgettable and piteous slaughter, from which there was hardly a way of escape; for which reason, hatred and aversion for the Nation gradually made themselves at home in the soul of the population.

In France, at the time of the slaughter of the Knights Templar, the Jews too were struck down by exile and confiscatory decrees, for reasons to be found in the Histories.

From Spain they were expelled in the time of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, after the subjection of the Granadan Moors. And if some other cause concurred thereto other than pure Religious zeal, it may be conjectured that since their Kingdoms swarmed with Moors and seemingly Christianized Mohammedans, it did not suit their purposes to maintain in their Kingdoms so considerable a mass of Hebrews and Moors outside their Religion. As I have said, the Hebrews alone numbered half a million; whence it may be readily seen that betwixt these two Nations could have arisen some compact for mutiny, both being equally in subjection and malcontent. And if such were not really the fact, there was appearance enough to waken suspicion in those Sovereigns; and acting upon these considerations, they resolved to diminish envy and suspicion. They saw fit to banish the Jews rather than the Moors, since the latter, given, as the Jews were not, to Agriculture and the Crafts, were more necessary to their Kingdoms. Moreover, they had no wish to irritate that People, because it still retained its first ferocity and enjoyed a most powerful Head in its own Religion.

As for the King of Portugal, who, a short time after, acted likewise against the Nation, there was more behind this than the constant exhortation of the Spanish Sovereigns. His was an act which had for its aim, not so much exclusion and exile, as conversion. This came about because, possessing, through navigations, many Countries on the African Coast, and. designing to make new acquisitions in the Indies, thus to expand his dominions even further, he had great need of many people to supply such navigations and Populations. Having been exhausted of subjects and having considered the tinyness and narrowness of his Kingdom, which was a modest and only moderately fertile portion of Spain, he essayed to convert to the Christian Religion a great number of Hebrews who had found themselves in his Kingdom following upon their Expulsion by Ferdinand and Isabella.

He acted thus to annex them to his own People and swell its numbers, to use them for his undertakings, navigations, and Colonies. And heedless of the violence exercised in the name of Faith and Religion, he promulgated a fierce and cruel edict of sudden exile and total confiscation of goods against whoever should not consent to conversion, as is recounted in the History of the Eloquent Osorio. He was successful to the degree that hundreds of thousands prepared and resolved themselves to obey him. A minority broke ranks and elected for voluntary exile.

The foregoing is the sum of what can be said concerning the causes of such events, which are now well behind us, and locked up in the inscrutable hearts of Sovereigns.


Consideration XVIII

The dispersion of the Jews is considered and an account given of their Estate and numbers under divers Potentates.

Peoples and Nations have their days numbered no less than all other sublunary things. Once they have reached the very apogee of their grandeur, their plunge into the abyss of oblivion is not far:

Muoiono le Città, muoiono i Regni
Copre i fasti e le pompe arena e herba

(Cities die, Kingdoms die
And under sand and weeds
Their pomp and ostentation lie)

Since things come to their end in one of two ways, either by decaying utterly, or by transforming themselves, i.e., retaining their essence while breaking into fragments and losing their simple configuration (as in the instances of shattered glass and divided waters), so, in the same wise, are Nations unmade and their existence concluded. Chaldea, Persia, Greece, Rome, and all the Gentilic Nations were utterly abolished; they were dissolved and transformed by new metamorphoses; only the names of some of these have come down to us; and of others, only an occasional fragment of their history, which has been preserved for us like stray timbers from some shipwreck.

The Hebrew Nation did not undergo such mutation and change, but rather was shattered and divided into an infinity of pieces, and dispersed over the Orb. Yet it retained in great measure its essential identity. We cannot doubt that of itself it could not have summoned up the strength to stay the ravening appetite of Time, successfully to withstand its fierce onset over a space of 1600 years; but that it depended upon the will of Divine Majesty to preserve it, for ends best known to Itself.

Though captivity and dispersion be the worst scourge that can befall a People or Nation, rendering it lowly and abject, and the scorn and mockery of others, it is nonetheless a sovereign remedy for its duration and preservation, for it relieves the ruling Princes of their envy and suspicion, and the distracted people of pride and vanity, making them to become humble and compliant. The Ancient Hebrew Doctors observed that Balaam, aforetimes a fierce enemy of the Hebrew People, desiring to bless it in order thus to make a semblance of obedience to God, likened it to the robust and stately Cedar; whereas Hachia Silonites the Jew, prophesying some enormity to befall them, represented it as a marsh reed that bends before every wind. Whereupon the Doctors pointed out that the threats of Silonites the Prophet were preferable, his execration more pious and veracious, for comparing them to the yielding and flexible Reed which remains intact while bowing to every violence, than was the blessing of the accursed pseudo-Prophet who had likened them unto the Cedar, which, making a great show of resistance to the fury and onset of winds and whirlwinds, oft is torn from its roots.

The Diaspora not only served them [the Hebrews] well by rendering them obedient to those more Mighty than they, but it saved them from dogmatic new Fangles, which cannot easily penetrate and invade the whole of the Nation, since the integrant parts are divided and dispersed.

As for the number of Hebrews, it cannot be precisely ascertained, for there is not even a trustworthy record at hand of the places they inhabit. As for the Ten Tribes who were led into Captivity by Shalmanezer before the destruction of the First Temple, no certain news of them is to be had, though by now the world has been thoroughly investigated and discovered.

Beginning with the Eastern parts, we know that under the King of Persia a great number of Hebrews have found asylum and a small measure of liberty. In the Turkish State is the principal Domicile of the Nation, not only because they have long been there, but also because the vast concourse of Hebrews dismissed from Spain found their way thither. The cause of such an influx rested, first and foremost, on liberty to practice their Religion, for the Turk is tolerant toward alien faiths. Also, because there is to be found there an infinite quantity of Greeks, who also practice alien Rite; hence, no reflection is made on those of the Hebrews. Beyond this, they are allowed to own houses and lands, to lend money, and to exercise whatsoever other profession. No obstacle is placed in the way of owning lands, since there is no nobility. Though the Greeks own a considerable portion of lands, most of them busy themselves with the crafts, whilst the Turks apply themselves to the Militia and Government of the People; whence it comes about that no occasion is given for hatred and conflict.

It might be supposed that like customs of Circumcision must occasion a certain friendly Correspondence. Such is not the case, for experience has shown that peoples whose religious practices are in part alike, in part dissimilar, are less congenial to one another than those absolutely divided and distinct therein. In Constantinople and Salonica, there is a greater number of them [the Hebrews] than in other Cities. It is thought that these two Cities alone have some 80,000; and it is estimated that in the Turkish Empire, they count more than 1,000,000. In the Holy Land and in Jerusalem, in particular, there come annually not only a considerable number of Hebrews from all the Nations of the world, but also vast sums in annual revenues which are offered there for the nourishing of the Poor and the support of Academies.

In Germany, under the Emperor, are also a considerable number, but many more in Poland, Russia, and Lithuania, where there are Academies and Universities whither thousands of youths repair to study the Civil and Canon Law of the Jews. In those Regions they are freely empowered to pronounce upon any difference or dispute, whether civil or criminal, that may arise amidst the Nation.



In the dominions separated from the Roman Church, Jews do not reside for the most part. It is a certainty that the Hebrew Nation inclines more toward the Roman opinion than that of others. The Jews hold that Holy Writ is in many passages impenetrable without the light of tradition, by which last they set great store, as I have already shown. Further, they believe that good works are very important in the sight of God, and they practice them diligently, though ever joining them to Faith. They affirm free will and judge it to be the chief article of their belief. They affirm, similarly, that the merits of others may be a prop to those deficient in virtue; hence, the living pray for the Dead. They believe the purification of the Penitent to be real—not putative, as Calvin hath held. And though the word Purgatory rarely figures in their Authors, they make a three-fold distinction among souls: the beatified, those condemned to finite Temporal punishment, and those eternally so condemned; for they hold that God absolves Guilt yet exacts the penalty. Their sermons are in the Hebraic, not in the vernacular. The which things are discussed in the treatise on Dogmas and Rites.

In the Low Countries they are treated with great charity and affection, notably in Amsterdam, Rotterdam, and Hamburg. They are lands where mercantile pursuits are so flourishing that all may find an asylum there.

In the Western lands there remains only Italy; and on the African littoral, the Kingdoms of Fez and Morocco. As for Italy, they are universally protected and favored by Princes; and their rights and Privileges are inalterably respected. These are things under the eyes of all, and I speak no further of Italy. I believe I may give 25,000 as the number [of Jews in Italy].

In Morocco, Fez, and other nearby Cities not subject to the Sway of the Turk, there are a great number, many of them having removed thither from Castile and Portugal because of the short distance.

A vast number of Jews are reputed to inhabit the Interior countries of Africa, but about these regions so little is known that no number can be determined with any certainty.

Though divided, riven, and dismembered, the opinions and dogmas of the whole of this Nation are uniform, the ceremonial Rites identical, and in certain non-essential things barely dissimilar. Whence Haman, an enemy of the Nation, once said to King Ahasuerus: “Est populus unus dispersus per omnes provincias regni (One people it is dispersed among all the provinces of the kingdom).” Along with many Libels, he added it could not hide that condition of uniformity, having diversity only in its costumes—such diversity being considerable for reasons already set forth.

The foregoing is what I have been moved to report concerning this Nation and those aspects thereof which appertain to the interest of the Princes and Peoples who harbor it; in particular, to the Most Serene Venetian Republic, which receives the Jew within her State with such benignity and protects him with wonted Justice and Clemency, showing by her every action how she detests and abhors that unjust and monstrous sentiment voiced by the Impious Statesman Photinus to the young and inexperienced King Ptolemy—as Lucan sings [in his Pharsalia]:

Dot poenas laudato fides, cum susitinet
Quos fortuna premit, fatis accede deis-
Et cole felices, miseros fuge, sidera
Ut distant, et flamma mari, sic utile

(We praise loyalty but it pays the price when it supports those whom Fortune crushes. Take the side of destiny and Heaven, and court the prosperous but shun the afflicted. Expediency is as far from the right as the stars from earth or fire from water.)

The which utterance brought about the betrayal of the Greatest Captain of that Century; I mean the murder of Magnus Pompey, whose decapitation strangled and severed the neck of Roman Liberty, and reared a monument of eternal infamy to him who assented to that execrable utterance. The admonitory Prophecy (as feigned by Virgil) and uttered by a most prudent father to a pious son who was to give birth to the grandeur and the glory of the Roman People—this I would commend to this Serene Republic, so that perhaps one day, through the benevolence of Heaven, she may be the emulator of the Triumphs, too, of that Republic with whose virtues she vies:

Tu regere Imperio populos Romane
Hae tibi erunt artes pacisque imponere
Parcere subiectis et debellare superbos.

(Remember, O Roman, with might to rule the nations. These be thy arts: to impose the ways of peace, to spare the humble, to humble the proud.)



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