A Torah.
A Torah. Photo by Alon Ron
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AP
A mountain of books to choose from. Photo by AP

On September 9, 1553, the Roman Inquisition burned copies of the Talmud and other Jewish texts in the city's Campo de Fiori. The order to hunt down and collect all extant copies of this essential Jewish book in Italy had been issued at the start of the month, with the hope being, as one adviser to the Inquisition wrote, that when the Jews are “without the wisdom of their rabbis … they [will be more] prepared and disposed to receive the Christian faith.”

But the investigation that led to the decision to ban the book had its origins in a more prosaic commercial rivalry between two non-Jewish printers of the Talmud. Their conflict was heard at the court of Pope Julius III, and was accompanied by the presentation of testimony from several apostate Jews about the supposedly heretical contents of the ancient text. This led to the order to destroy the book, with the day chosen for the burning in Rome being Rosh Hashanah of the Hebrew year 5314 (also a Sabbath). Ironically, it was only 33 years earlier that the first printing in Venice of a complete version of the Babylonian Talmud had been made possible, and that was in the wake of a 15th-century disputation held before Pope Benedict XIII over the religious message of the text.

Subsequent to the 1553 public burning, the pope ordered the censorship of the Talmudic text, so that when it was published again, it was in an abridged version, with portions considering inimical to Christianity deleted. And in 1565, Pope Pius IV ruled that the name “Talmud” could no longer be employed, which is the origin of the practice of calling it the Shas, a Hebrew acronym for the term “Six Orders [of the Mishna].”