This Day in Jewish History

1565: The Maharam Dies, Would Live Long Enough to See the Talmud Burned

A low-grade spat over a book of commentary by Meir of Padua culminated in the Vatican ordering Jewish law books burned throughout the Catholic domain.

Padua, painted by Giovanni Antonio Canal called Il Canaletto (1697 - 1768) – Venice.
Wikimedia Commons

January 12, 1565, is said to be the date on which the great rabbinical figure Meir ben Isaac Katzenellenbogen died. The Maharam, as he is also known (a Hebrew acronym for Moreinu Harav Meir -- Our Teacher Rabbi Meir), is remembered for his leadership, his knowledge of Jewish law, and also for a lawsuit he undertook that had significant repercussions.

Meir of Padua – yet another of Katzenellenbogen’s designations -- was born in 1473, depending on the source, either in Prague or in Katzenellenbogen, the latter a town in the Rhineland-Palatinate region of southwest Germany. He is the first figure known to bear the name of the distinguished “Katzenellenbogen” family, a line whose descendants have included Moses Mendelssohn, Marcel Proust and the Lubavitcher Rebbe.

His father was Rabbi Yitzhak, and his mother was Julia-Malka Luria, the daughter of Yehiel Luria, the first rabbi of Brest-Litovsk.

Meir studied in Prague with Rabbi Jacob Pollak and later in Padua, Italy, with Rabbi Judah ben Halevi Eliezer Minz. It was the granddaughter of the latter, Hannah, whom Meir married.

When Hannah’s father, Rabbi Abraham ben Judah Halevi, died, it was Rabbi Meir who took his place as rabbi of Padua’s Ashkenazi synagogue, and as head of the local yeshiva.

In addition, Meir also became head of the council of regional rabbis, which was based in nearby Venice, where he was also recognized as head of the rabbinical court. His home, however, was in Padua. It was a time when many Ashkenazi Jews were moving east from western Europe, resettling in Italy or Poland, and Rabbi Meir’s prowess extended to the entire community, wherever its members resided.

When, in 1554, rabbis of the seven of the most significant Jewish communities in Italy met to agree on common takkanot (legal amendments), it was he who led the proceedings. (The name plate affixed to the seat in the Padua synagogue where he sat remained there long after his death. According to Isaac Hayim Kohen, a cantor who visited the synagogue 120 years later, “no man has sat there till this day.”)

A fateful fit of pique

In 1550, Katzenellenbogen was the plaintiff in an early Jewish case related to copyright. Although the case was apparently set off by little more than human pettiness, it would have far-reaching implications for Judaism in Europe.

The story began when he took legal action against Marc Antonio Giustiniani when the non-Jewish printer republished the rabbi’s newly edited and annotated version of Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah. The case is described in some detail by UCLA law professor Neil Weinstock Netanel, in his recently published book “From Maimonides to Microsoft: The Jewish Law of Copyright since the Birth of Print.”

When he prepared a new, critical edition of the 12th-century code of Jewish law, Katzenellenbogen negotiated with Giustiniani to print it. The two were unable to agree on terms and the rabbi then contracted with the printer Alvise Bragadini, also a non-Jew, for the job.

The incensed Giustiniani not only proceeded to print a pirated version of the Katzenellenbogen edition: he preceded it with an introduction that characterized Rabbi Meir’s annotations, and pledged to undercut Bragadini’s price by one gold coin.

Wanting to take action against Giustiniani, but having limited options, Katzenellenbogen appealed to his relative Moses Isserles, a respected but younger scholar in Krakow, for a ruling against the printer for interfering with his livelihood. Isserles responded, in August 1550, with a decree forbidding Jews in Poland from buying the pirated edition until the Bragadini edition had sold out.

Rabbi Isserles’ ruling was directed at Jews, not at the publishers, and Netanel stresses that it did not relate to an infringement of Katzenellenbogen’s intellectual property per se, but more as a form of wrongful competition.

But the story did not end there. A vengeful Giustiniani hired an apostate Jew to attack Katzenellenbogen’s commentary as anti-Christian, something that, writes Netanel, “seems to have reverberated in the highest echelons of the Church.”

In September 1553, Pope Julius III ordered the collection and burning of all copies of the Talmud, first in Rome and then across the Catholic world. The decree also included, for a time, other books of Jewish law, including the Mishneh Torah.

Rabbi Katzenellenbogen had the misfortune of living to witness these events. He died in Padua on this day in 1565.