Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Did Italian rabbis change shabbos to Sunday, permit shaving with a razor, eating pork and women showing their hair in 1796?

In 1796 the European media reported that a rabbinical synod in Florence, Italy had met to consider questions of reform, and they had permitted eating pork, shaving with a razor, working on Yom Tov, women uncovering their hair and moving shabbos to Sunday. Needless to say, this was a hoax. It didn't happen. Nor, as Lois Dubin argues in her article on the reception of Reform in Italy, could it have happened - in Italy of all places. I don't think it's entirely clear who perpetuated the hoax, but it does seem to have originated in Germany. As it has been pointed out numerous times, German Jews with modernizing sensibilities idealized Italian Jews who had no need of modernizing, being that their traditional Judaism was itself close to the kind of modern Judaism they envisioned. Of course in reality it was totally ortodosso, as well as modern, which meant that for more moderate modernizers it really was a model to emulate, while for more radical ones only their perception was. Such a synod in Italy was in reality unthinkable.

However, all of this is with hindsight. When the rumors swirled, the rest of Jewry were astonished at the news. Italian Jews were outraged and embarrassed. An investigation was launched by Hamburg Rabbi Raphael Kohen and Prague maskil Baruch Jeiteles. Letters of denial began arriving from Italy, some of which were published in Hameassef. A group of Italian rabbis sent a letter, including the Chida and my favorite-named-rabbi of all time, Rabbi Laudadio Sacerdote of Modena (one of the great Italian posekim, R. Yishmael Kohen, author of the responsa Zera Emes) and others. You can read their letters here (to my surprise it seems to be signed by Zechariah Padova, whom I blogged about a couple of days ago here, who thus seems to have moved past the unfortunate incident of nearly 20 years before). Their letters were published as a pamphlet, and that same year it was also translated and published in German.

Thus far that. But what did the reports of the Florence Reform Hoax look like in European newspapers? It's alway refreshing to see history through the eyes of the contemporaries. Below are some accounts as they appeared in English newspapers:

1) London Packet or New Lloyd's Evening Post, Friday, April 29, 1796

2) Morning Post and Fashionable World, Monday, May 2, 1796

3) Morning Post and Fashionable World, Saturday, May 28, 1796

4) Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, Friday, May 27, 1796

5)From the book Analysis of researches into the origin and progress of historical time from the creation to the Accession of C. Caligula (1796) by Robert Walker.

Finally, below is the Chida's recollection of the incident in his responsa Yosef Omez (1798):



  1. The Onion, a few years ago, did a similiar piece.,992/

  2. Very interesting research.
    Here in Firenze (Florence) I never hurd about this story reported by
    European newspapersin 1796.

    Thank you



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