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Dante Alighieri


DANTE ALIGHIERI° (1265–1321), Italy's greatest poet. Dante's Divina Commedia (c. 1307–21), generally regarded as the outstanding literary work of the Middle Ages, is in three parts: the Inferno, the Purgatorio, and the Paradiso. From biographical or autobiographical sources it cannot be proved for certain that Dante was in close touch with Jews or was personally acquainted with them. Jews are mentioned in his Divina Commedia mainly as a result of the theological problem posed by their historical role and survival. Such references are purely literary: the term judei or giudei designates "the Jews," a people whose religion differs from Christianity; while ebrei denotes "the Hebrews," the people of the Bible. Dante knew no Hebrew and the isolated Hebrew terms which appear in the Commedia – Hallelujah, Hosanna, Sabaoth, El, and Jah – are derived from Christian liturgy or from the scholastic texts of the poet's day. The Commedia contains no insulting or pejorative references to Jews. Although antisemites have given a disparaging interpretation to the couplet: "Be like men and not like foolish sheep, So that the Jew who dwells among you will not mock you" (Paradiso, 5:80–81), the Jews of Dante's time considered these lines an expression of praise and esteem. In the course of his famous journey through Hell, Dante encounters no Jews among the heretics, usurers, and counterfeiters whose sinful ranks Jews during the Middle Ages were commonly alleged to swell.

In the 19th century, scholars were convinced that Dante was on terms of friendship with the Hebrew poet *Immanuel of Rome. The latter and one of Dante's friends, Bosone da Gubbio, marked Dante's death by exchanging sonnets; and the death of Immanuel gave rise to another exchange of sonnets between Bosone and the poet Cino da Pistoia, in which Dante and Immanuel are mentioned together. Twentieth-century scholars, headed by M.D. (Umberto) Cassuto, showed that there is no basis for the alleged friendship between the two poets, but have proved Immanuel's dependence upon Dante's works. Important points of contact have also been discovered between Dante's conceptions and the views of R. *Hillel b. Samuel of Verona; hypotheses have been formulated on the resemblance of the notion of Hebrew as the perfect or original language in the Commedia and in the works of the kabbalist Abraham *Abulafia , and in general on the common neoplatonic element in Dante's theoretical and poetical works and in Kabbalah. Moreover, the Questio de aqua et terra probably written by Dante has a precedent in the discussion between Moses Ibn *Tibbon and Jacob ben Sheshet *Gerondi on the same subject a century before. Another parallel to Dante's outlook on the world may be found in the writings and translations of Immanuel's cousin, Judah b. Moses *Romano , who, within a few years of Dante's death, made a *Judeo-Italian version of some philosophical passages from the Purgatorio and the Paradiso, adding his own Hebrew commentary. Italian Jews quickly realized the lyrical and ideological value of the Commedia and an early edition was issued by a Jewish printer at Naples in 1477. Like Petrarch, Dante was widely quoted by Italian rabbis of the Renaissance in their sermons, and even by one or two Jewish scholars in their learned commentaries. The first actual imitation was that of Immanuel of Rome. His Maḥberet ha-Tofet ve-ha-Eden is the 28th and final section of his Maḥberot (Brescia, 1491). Here Immanuel also describes a journey to the next world, in which he is guided by Daniel, a friend or teacher who, in the opinion of some scholars, is Dante himself. A slight echo of the allegorical vision dealing with the soul's spiritual delight in the afterlife occurs in the Maḥberet ha-Tene, a rhymed prose work by R. *Ahitub b. Isaac of Palermo. Another important work openly inspired by the Commedia was Mikdash Me'at (written c. 1416), written by R. Moses b. Isaac *Rieti , in terza rima. This poetical meter was used for some decades by Hebrew Italian poets. By the 17th century Dante's influence on Jewish writers had weakened, and there is only a doubtful connection between the Commedia and Moses *Zacuto 's verse-play Tofteh Arukh (Venice, 1715).

To mark the 600th anniversary of Dante's death, Samuel David *Luzzatto composed a Hebrew sonnet that became famous in scholarly circles throughout Europe. Many attempts have been made to translate the Divina Commedia into Hebrew. A translation of the first part by S. Formiggini was published in 1869; S. Sabbadini's Hebrew version of the other two parts remains in manuscript. Other partial translations were made into a more poetic and comprehensible Hebrew by Lelio della Torre (1871), V. Castiglioni (1912), E. Schreiber (1924), and V. *Jabotinsky (Inferno, chaps. 1, 3, 5, 33, in Ha-Tekufah, 19 (1923), 163–92). Immanuel *Olsvanger produced the first complete Hebrew translation of the Commedia (1943, 1953, 1956). Olsvanger also translated Dante's Vita Nuova (1957) while his De monarchia was translated into Hebrew by H. Merḥaviah (1961).

Sources:F. Servi, Dante e gli Ebrei (1893); U. Cassuto, Dante e Manoello (1921, Heb. tr. 1965); J. Schirmann, in: YMḤSI, 1 (1933), 132–47; J. Sermoneta, in: Romanica et Occidentalia, Etudes dédiées à la mémoire de Hiram Peri (1963), 23–42; idem, in: Studi Medievali, 3rd series, 6 fasc. 2 (1965), 3–78; G. Rinaldi, in: L'Alighieri: Rassegna Bibliografica Dantesca, 7:2 (1966), 25–35; A. Cronbach, in: HUCA, 35 (1964), 193–212; R. Mondolfi, Gli Ebrei. Qual luogo oltremondano sia per essi nella Commedia di Dante (1904); H. Rheinfelder, in: Judenthum im Mittelalter (1966), 442–57; idem, Dante e la Bibbia (1988); U. Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language (1995); B. Chiesa, in: Henoch, 23:2–3 (2001), 325–42; D. Bregman, in: Prooftexts, 23:1 (2003), 18–24; G. Battistoni, Dante, Verona e la cultura ebraica (2004); D. Stow, Dante e la mistica ebraica (2004).

[Joseph Baruch Sermoneta / Alessandro Guetta (2nd ed.)]

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