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Umberto Cassuto

(1883 – 1951)

Umberto Cassuto (Moses David) was an Italian historian and biblical and Semitic scholar. Born in Florence, son of Gustavo and Ernesta Galletti, Cassuto came from a traditionalist Jewish family, rooted in the Florence Jewish community for generations. He was educated at the University of Florence, where he completed his studies in 1906, and the Rabbinical College, where he was ordained in 1908. S.H. Margulies, the head of the Rabbinic College, had a profound influence on him. After being ordained rabbi, he continued studying at the rabbinical seminary, taught there, and served as secretary and assistant rabbi of the Jewish community until 1922.

When Margulies died in 1922, Cassuto was appointed his successor both in the rabbinate and as director of the Rabbinical Seminary. In 1925 he resigned from the rabbinate to become professor of Hebrew language and literature at the University of Florence, where he taught until 1933. Thereafter he began to withdraw from the domain of Italian-Jewish history and to concentrate on Bible studies, a field in which he had published important papers as early as 1912. In 1933 he received a similar appointment at the University of Rome. While there, he cataloged the Hebrew manuscripts of the Vatican Library. Cassuto, like all the other Jewish professors, was dismissed from the University of Rome with the Racial Laws in 1938.

A life-long Zionist, Cassuto accepted an invitation to fill the chair of Bible studies at the Hebrew University in 1939, where he taught till his death in 1951.

Cassuto's last years were clouded by the tragic loss of two members of his family. The first loss was that of his son NATHAN (d. c. 1945). A successful physician, he headed the Jewish community of Florence during the Holocaust. Nathan was arrested by the Germans in 1943, and soon after he was joined by his wife, who was also arrested. Both were deported to Auschwitz. The other loss was his daughter-in-law, who lost her life when the convoy to Mount Scopus was ambushed in 1948.

The scholarship of Cassuto can be divided in three main fields: the history of Italian Jews and biblical and Ugaritic Studies.

As early as the beginning of the 20th century Cassuto began to make a name in the world of scholarship by virtue of a series of articles on the history of the Jews in Italy, published largely in the Rivista Israelitica which he helped to edit from 1904 on. Some of these papers, e.g., his study on the Italian influences in the writings of Immanuel of Rome, the contemporary of Dante, were major monographs and are still of great significance. Cassuto also published, in various scholarly periodicals, catalogs of the Hebrew manuscripts and incunabula in various Florentine libraries that were models of their type. Cassuto's historical researches culminated in his great work Gli ebreia Firenze nell' età del rinascimento (1918), which displays a remarkable mastery of the source material from both the Florentine archives and Hebrew manuscripts in many countries. This work is the most important ever written in the field of Italian Jewish history. In subsequent years Cassuto continued to publish historical monographs in Italian and foreign periodicals; his series of articles on Italian communities and personalities, in the German Encyclopaedia Judaica in particular, is still considered a primary source. He also contributed articles on Jewish subjects to the Enciclopedia Italiana; those on Jewish literature were republished in book form as Storia della letteratura ebraica postbiblica (1938). In addition, Cassuto published basic articles on the Judeo-Italian dialect, the Hebrew inscriptions of southern Italy, and various allied subjects.

However, Cassuto is mainly known for his contribution to biblical studies. While he appreciated the scholarly basis of Higher Criticism, he was an opponent of the *Graf-Wellhausen theories. In place of the documentary theory, he posited the existence of an oral tradition and a number of ancient poetic epics, which were subsequently woven into the unitary and artistic texts of the Pentateuch and other biblical books. His expositions focused on the existing text, analyzing its spiritual and ethical teachings, pointing out its literary devices, and discussing its exegetical problems, on which he brought to bear comparative literary and linguistic material whenever possible. In that field Cassuto anticipated Scandinavian and German scholars who arrived at the same conclusions at the end of the 1930s and 1940s. His primary contribution, "Shirat ha-Alilah be-Yisrael," was published in 1944 in Knesset 8 (English translation in Biblical and Oriental Studies II). Among his books on biblical research are a critique of the documentary hypothesis of the composition of Genesis in Italian (La questione della Genesi, 1934); and in Hebrew (Perush al Sefer Bereshit, 2 vols., 1944–49; English: A Commentary on the Book of Genesis, 2 vols., 1961–64); a commentary on Exodus (Perush al Sefer Shemot, 1942; A Commentary on the Book of Exodus, 1967); and Torat ha-Te'udot (1941; The Documentary Hypothesis, 1961). He was the chief editor of the biblical encyclopedia Enẓiklopedyah Mikra'it and took an active part in its planning and the preparation of its first volumes.

Cassuto was one of the first scholars who understood the importance of the archaeological finds from Ugarit in Syria, and the similarity between the Ugaritic literature and the Bible. His Ugaritic studies thus throw considerable light on the literary structure and vocabulary exegesis of the Bible. His treatise Ha-Elah Anat (1951, 19654; The Goddess Anath, 1970), a translation with introduction and commentary of Ugaritic texts, particularly the epic of Baal, is of special importance. Other important works are "Il nome divino El nell'Antico Israele," in: Studi e materiali di storia delle religioni, 8 (1932); "Il capitolo 3 di Habaquq e I testi di Ras Shamra, in Annuario di studi ebraici, 2 (1935–37); "Le tre aleph dell'alfabeto ugaritico," in: Orientalia, XVI (1947).


Eretz Israel, 3 (1954), Cassuto volume; Abrahams, in: Essays… I. Brodie (1967), 419–23; The Hebrew University (ed.), Le Zikhro shel… M.D. Cassuto… (1952). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: Necrology, in: Rivista degli studi Orientali, 28 (1953), 225–29; E.S. Artom, "Umberto Cassuto," in: RMI, 18 (1952), 451–62; G. Levi Della Via, "Umberto Cassuto," in: Rendiconti della Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, s. 8, 12 (1957), 74–77.

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.