Five hundred years after papal authorities burned all copies of the Talmud in Rome, the chief rabbi of that city came to Washington bearing a new Italian translation of that central work of Jewish scholarship.
Rabbi Riccardo Di Segni told a group of more than 30 people at the Library of Congress on Monday that the new translation signals that Italy’s Jewish community is a home for knowledge and cultural exchange.
“Our work in Italy has meaning outside of Italy, and that is why we are here,” he said at a ceremony during which he gave a copy of the Talmud to the library.
Members of the Babylonian Talmud Translation Project, a group of 90 international researchers and translators spent five years on the project. The group developed a software called Traduco, capable of translating the original Hebrew and Aramaic texts into Italian. The Italian government funded the $6 million project.
The original printed Italian copies of the Talmud were published in Venice in 1520. Talmuds were destroyed on Rosh Hashanah 1553 by order of Pope Julius III, according to histories.
“If you want to strike the heart of the Jewish community, strike it by burning books,” said Clelia Piperno, the Talmud project’s director, noting that Jewish books were also burned in Italy during the Holocaust.
Among those who collaborated on the project was Rabbi Adin Even-Israel Steinsaltz, the director of the Steinsaltz Center in Jerusalem and whose Steinsaltz Talmud with commentary in modern Hebrew has been translated into English and other languages.
His son, Rabbi Menahem Even-Israel, who is the director of Shefa, an organization within the Steinsaltz Center devoted to Talmud study, said in an interview that Italian scholars did the translation and his father provided commentary.
“A same word can have eight different meanings on eight different pages, and once you have the core translations it’s much easier to do,” he said.
Another challenge in translating the Talmud arose because Aramaic uses fewer words than most modern languages, Piperno said.
“Aramaic is a very synthetic language, meaning that translating it takes more words,” she said. “One page of Talmud is anywhere from four to 12 pages in Italian.”
Piperno said translating the rest of the Talmud will likely take 10 years, and will fill between 25 and 30 volumes. In leading the project, she said she feels a sense of pride at restoring a piece of Italy’s Jewish heritage that was lost in the 1500s and the Holocaust.
“I think the job, which is very complicated, is something that will explore new ways of opening culture,” she said. “It’s a possibility for humankind and other cultures to get in touch.”
A stronger identity for Italy’s Jewish community of 30,000 is the main hope for Di Segni, who said in an interview that the translation of the Talmud is an act of tikkun, or restoration.
“The Talmud is the key of the Jewish culture and the Jewish religion,” he said. “Without Talmud, there is no development of the future of the Jewish people.”