Jewish Historiography

The emergence of Jewish history--part two.

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Historiography encompasses the techniques, theories and principles of historical research and presentation—all of which have changed over time. Thus, for all historians, including historians of the Jewish experience, their own attitudes as well as the scholarly standards of the age influence the way that they write history. The first article in this series, The Emergence of Jewish History I, addresses the way in which Jewish attitudes toward time affected Jewish perceptions of history from the ancient world through the sixteenth century. This article examines why and how Jewish historians wrote Jewish history from the sixteenth century to the present day. It is reprinted from A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People edited by Eli Barnavi and published by Schocken Books.

In the sixteenth century, the influence of the Renaissance brought about a significant change: curiosity and an interest in novelties [among Jewish and non-Jewish scholars alike] was now no longer necessarily regarded as frivolous. In 1525, for example, Abraham Farisol in Orhot Olam--a book on geography, cosmology, and history--explicitly expressed his intention to amuse the melancholic reader with “true stories, old and new” (denouncing, however, at the same time, licentious poetry and tales recounting ancient battles which had never taken place.) David Gans of Prague wrote in 1592 a Hebrew chronicle entitled Zamah David which addressed “many old and new” topics. A desire to amuse and entertain was clearly one of his intentions: in his introduction, Gans notes that the second part of the book, devoted to universal history, as written in order to provide “householders like myself” overburdened with everyday worries, with a tale to lighten their load.

In other words, history was acknowledged as a form of literature which could alleviate the fatigue of individuals encumbered by the hardship of earning a living and supporting a family, just as it could relieve the anguish of a nation exhausted by the tribulations of exile. History, suggests the Renaissance historian, is not only a legitimate form of entertainment, but also a source of consolation: the historian or chronicler would choose for his subject a particular period of history in which the cycle of persecution and deliverance evidenced the constant presence of Divine Providence.

Yet in many cases curiosity drove the historian to overstep the boundaries outlined in his introduction. In their address to the reader, sixteenth-century Jewish historians listed several reasons for the study of history, similar to the justifications advanced by non‑Jewish Renaissance humanists. They were also quick to adopt the new methods of research and exposition.

Elijah Capsali wrote Seder Eliyahu Zuta as a form of distraction during the plague of 1523 in Crete. This work is a survey of the history of the Ottoman Empire down to Capsali's day, with special reference to the Jews. Capsali's presen­tation is lucid, methodical and well structured, and he even acknowledges his sources, many of which were oral. David Gans, while faithful to the style of medieval chronicles, cites his writ­ten sources precisely, and is meticulous where chronological accuracy is concerned. Gedaliah ibn Yahya, born in the papal city of Imola to a distinguished family of Portuguese exiles, published in 1586 an erudite compendium of information about the history of the Jews, and many other topics as well: the plan of the Temple in Jerusalem, weights and coins, the origins of languages, a history of the sciences, heaven and hell, magic and angels. Finally, Azariah de Rossi, one of the most eminent Jewish scholars in the Renaissance, employed in his work enti­tled  Me’or Einayim (1573) a technique of digression and embellishment, including in it a broad range of' vignettes in order to facilitate the reading and comprehension of complex histo­rical questions.

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Eli Barnavi is the Director of the Morris Curiel Center for International Studies and a Professor of Jewish History at Tel Aviv University