The Zohar among the Christians in the Renaissance – Conference Zohar Mantua, Kabbalah Beit Hazohar
Zohar de Mantoue

The Zohar among the Christians in the Renaissance

Saverio Campanini

 Car si je connais mal la Psychanalyse de Freud, ou celle de Jung, en revanche j’ai étudié de très près la Kabbale dans le «Zohar». 

Antonin Artaud

 One of the most striking features of the complex attitude of the Christians towards the Jews and their books at the middle of the XVIth century is the ambivalence in their policies concerning, for example, the prohibition and persecution of certain Jewish books, notably the Talmud and the fascination and even promotion of other equally Jewish intellectual products, such as the Zohar. It is quite striking, as I have already pointed out on a previous occasion 1 S. Campanini, On Abraham’s Neck. The Editio Princeps of the Sefer Yetzirah (Mantua 1562) and Its Context, in G. Veltri – G. Miletto (edd.), Rabbi Judah Moscato and the Jewish Intellectual World of Mantua in the 16th-17th Centuries, Brill, Leiden – Boston 2012, pp. 253-278. , to read the report of Sixtus of Siena, who was sent to Cremona in order to burn the Talmud, which he did with devastating success. At the same time, as we also read in his fortunate Bibliotheca Sancta, stumbling upon the staks of newly printed copies of the Vincenzo Conti edition of the Zohar, he was proud to report that he managed to rescue them from the impending risk of being destroyed by the Spanish soldiers occupying the city. One cannot avoid the impression of witnessing the deployment of a definite paradigm of substitution 2 Cfr. A. Raz-Krakotzkin, Ha-tzensor, ha-‘orek we-ha-teqst. Ha-knesia ha-katolit we-ha-sifrut ha-ivrit ba-me’ah ha-shesh ‘esreh, The Magnes Press, Jerusalem 2005; English translation (by J. Feldman) The Censor, the Editor, and the Text. The Catholic Church and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon in the Sixteenth Century, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia 2007. , alternating brutal repression and mellifluous blandishments in order to eradicate one corpus and to promote another one, in order to promote the Zohar over the Talmud as an alternative which was considered capable of bringing about or at least to ease Jewish conversion to Christianity. Even attenuating the polemical exaggerations of Heinrich Graetz, who defined the Zohar a “Schosskind des Papstes” 3 P. Schäfer, ‘Adversus Cabalam’ oder Heinrich Graetz und die jüdische Mystik, in P. Schäfer – I. Wandrey (edd.), Reuchlin und seine Erben. Forscher, Denker, Ideologen und Spinner, Jan Thorbecke, Ostfildern 2005, pp. 189-210, but cfr. G. Y. Kohler, Heinrich Graetz and the Kabbalah, in «Kabbalah» 40 (2018), pp. 107-130. See now G. Y. Kohler, Kabbalah Research in the Wissenschaft des Judentums (1820-1880). The Foundation of an Academic Discipline, De Gruyter, Berlin – Boston 2019, and the review oft he present writer in «Materia Giudaica» XXIV (2019), pp. 655-657.   (a spoiled child of the Pope), a question still deserves to be raised: given that the depreciation or even the aggressive attitude of the Christians against the Talmud had a long and tragic history, where did this preference for the Zohar come from? Moreover, what did the Christians know about the Zohar before it was printed, with a clear participation of Christians in authorizing the printing and even in financing it?


The present essay aims at providing materials for a plausible answer to that question in studying the prehistory of the Christian attitude towards the Zohar, on the footsteps of the pioneering work written in the nineteen fifties of the previous century by François Secret 4 F. Secret, Le Zôhar chez les Kabbalistes chrétiens de la Renaissance, Durlacher, Paris 1958; the volume was reprinted, without changes, in 1964 (Mouton, Paris). and, of course, on the footsteps of the most important recent work dedicated to the fortunes of the Zohar by Boaz Huss 5 B. Huss, Ke-Zohar ha-Raqia‘. Peraqim be-toledot ha-hitqabbelut ha-Zohar u-ve-havnayyat ‘erko ha-semali, Makon Ben Zvi – Mossad Bialik, Jerusalem 2008; English translation, by Y. Nave, The Zohar. Reception and Impact, The Littmann Library of Jewish Civilization, Oxford – Portland 2016. , looking for the earliest attestations of some knowledge of the Zohar among the Christians. This preliminary research is necessary in order to explain a fairly striking phenomenon: the decade following the burning of the Talmud in 1553 and the forcible closing of the Hebrew printing presses in Venice was not, as one might have expected, a desert of repression and compulsory inactivity but rather a unique “window of opportunity”, to use an expression already employed for another epoch by Moshe Idel 6 M. Idel, Chalon ha-hizdamnuyot shel ha-qabbalah 1270-1290, in «Daat» 48 (2002), pp. 5-32; English version The Kabbalah’s “Window of Opportunities”, in E. Fleischer (ed.), Me’ah She‘arim. Studies in Medieval Jewish Spiritual Life in Memory of Isadore Twersky, Magnes Press, Jerusalem 2001, pp. 171-208. , and an age of flourishing. As the silence of the Venetian printing enterprises brought about the expansion and the extraordinary success of the printing houses located in other northern Italian towns, I just recall here Mantua, Cremona, Sabbioneta and Riva di Trento, in the same fashion, the violent suppression of the Talmud and of the Talmudic literature coincided, not by any chance, with the dissemination of the Zohar and the Zoharic literature which was to have a decisive influence on the development of Jewish culture at the dawn of the modern age 7 Cfr. G. Busi, Materiali per una storia della qabbalah a Mantova, in «Materia Giudaica» 2 (1996), pp. 50-56; Id., Mantova e la qabbalah / Mantua and the Kabbalah, Skirà, Milano 2001. .


At the same time, as the beautifully reproduced copy of the Mantuan edition of the Zohar 8 I am referring to the three-volumes facsimile of the editio princeps (Mantua 1558) in the copy once in the collection of Elie J. Nahmias and now at the Library of the Alliance Israélite Universelle in Paris, issued in 2018 by the Beit ha-Zohar with the collaboration of the Éditions de l’éclat.  , among many, abundantly proves, the Christians did not deem the Zohar completely acceptable without interventions, corrections, and even outright censorship: the copy of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, for example, bears the signature of four censors: Domenico Gerosolimitano and Alessandro Scipione (both 1597), Giovanni Domenico Carretto (1617) and Vincenzo da Matelica (1622 9 Cfr. W. Popper, The Censorship of Hebrew Books, The Knickerbocker Press, New York 1899 [repr. Ktav, New York 1969], pp. 102 and 146. ) and it bears also, in accordance with the Sefer ha-Zikkuk, erasures and censorships throughout its three volumes. Only apparently is this case different from that of the Tiqqune ha-Zohar, published in Mantua in 1556, about which, due to an annotation of the hand of Vittorio Eliano 10 Campanini, On Abraham’s Neck, cit., p. 255.  , we know that the procedure of the censorship took place before the publication, so that it was unnecessary, at least according to the censor, to revise the book again after its printing. As a matter of course, any act of censorship is more efficient if not immediately conspicuous.


It is my persuasion that the complex attitude of the Christians towards the Zohar, which led to such contrasting results as its publication, promotion and even rescue on the one hand, and to its censorship on the other, can only be understood on the backdrop of the diffusion of the Zohar (and its pseudo-versions) among the Christians in the XV and XVI centuries. From the very start, in fact, one can easily recognize two trends, which characterize the entire history of the Christian perception of Jewish literature between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. On the one hand there is the tendency to instrumentalize authentic and forged bits of Jewish literature, purportedly confirming the truth of Christianity in order to support the sustained effort towards the conversion of the Jews to Christianity. This trend can be epitomized under the title of the most influential summa and anthology of Jewish (authentic and forged) texts ready to use in predication and controversy, the Pugio Fidei 11 G. K. Hasselhoff – A. Fidora (edd.), Ramon Martí’s Pugio Fidei. Studies and Texts, Obrador Edendum, Santa Coloma de Queralt 2017. For the diputed autheticity of some of its texts, see S. Lieberman, Shkiin. A Few Words on Some Jewish Legends, Customs and Literary Sources Found in Karaite and Christian Works (including an Index of the Jewish books cited in Pugio Fidei of Raymund Martini), Bamberger & Wahrmann, Jerusalem 1939. . On the other hand, in a similar but distinct vein, one witnesses the diffusion, especially towards the end of the XV century, of a Christian fascination for the Kabbalah, once again in the persuasion that it would be entirely compatible with the Christian faith but with no special emphasis on the conversion of the Jews. The Christian Kabbalists of the Renaissance seemed rather persuaded that the Christians should learn Hebrew in order to read Kabbalistic books, from which a unique spiritual benefit, moral edification and even mystical revelations were to be expected. The two attitudes are clearly interwoven so that it is not always easy to keep them separate, one could even argue that the point of view of the Christian Kabbalah represents an evolution of the foundation laid by the Pugio Fidei literature but, since I am convinced that the elements of rupture prevail on the obvious continuities 12 Cfr. S. Campanini, Die Geburt der Judaistik aus dem Geist der christlichen Kabbala, in G. Veltri – G. Necker (edd.), Gottes Sprache in der philologischen Werkstatt. Hebraistik vom 15. bis zum 19. Jahrhundert, Brill, Leiden – Boston 2004, pp. 135-145. , I will try to articulate a more nuanced picture in the following considerations.  


Upon reviewing the vast landscape of the first mention and quotations of the Zohar among the Christians, one might be tempted to establish a distinction between “authentic” and “forged” references to the Zohar and to derive, from this philological criterium a theological nuance, separating the polemicists who were interested, with dubious means if necessary, to reach the conversion of the Jews at any price, and the forefathers of Jewish Studies, who would have rather lost some Jewish souls in order to reach a truthful and exact knowledge of the reality of Jewish tradition in order to convince the fellow Christians of its incalculable value for confirming the truth of Christianity. The divide between polemical tool (ad extra) and true prophecy (ad intra) does not constitute, for tempting that it might appear, the correct historical framework for understanding the phenomenon we are confronted with nor the right path leading us to comprehend the intellectual context allowing and even fostering the printing of the Zohar in the second half of XVI century Italy.

The very concept of “forgery” does not work very well in the case of the Zohar, which has been repeatedly exposed as a forgery in itself, not only for its pseudo-epigraphic nature, but also for the simple reason that, before its canonization coinciding only partially with its appearance in print, since, as for any other canonical text, paralipomena and apocrypha continued to be copied and, in due course, would be also published, there was not a normative “Zohar” allowing the easy decision whether a “new” Zoharic text should or should not be considered part of the Zoharic literature. In fact, even after the publication of the Zohar, the learned ‘Azariah de Rossi 13 Cfr. A. De Rossi, The Light of the Eyes, Translated from the Hebrew with an introduction and annotations by J. Weinberg, Yale University Press, New Haven – London 2001, pp. 116-117; J. Weinberg, The Quest for Philo in Sixteenth-Century Jewish Historiography, in A. Rapoport-Albert – S. J. ZIpperstein (edd.), Jewish History. Essays in Honour of Chimen Abramsky, Peter Halban, London 1988, pp. 163-187: 171; G. Veltri, Renaissance Philosophy in Jewish Garb. Foundations and Challenges in Judaism on the Eve of Modernity, Brill, Leiden – Boston 2009, p. 90. could accept as plausibly authentic, although with a dubitative formula (“if they really have written thus”), a notorious passage about which we will deal again in the following pages, seemingly confirming the Trinitarian interpretation of the “Sanctus” or Trishagion of Isaiah 6 14 Cfr. S. Campanini, Id., Nottole ad Atene. La qabbalah cristiana e la conversione degli ebrei, in «Materia Giudaica» XIX (2014), pp. 81-101. . De Rossi limited himself to note that it would only be a matter of terminological discrepancy, provided that one should not “trespass the limit” and attribute corporeality to the Godhead. After all, he continues, the sage Recanati did write statements that are very similar to that, in other words, there was no need to discard the Trinitarian reading of the Sanctus as a forgery. If one considers that Yehudah Liebes 15 Y. Liebes, Christian Influences in the Zohar, in Id., Studies in the Zohar, State University of New York Press, New York 1993, pp. 139-161; Hebrew original Hashpa‘ot notzriyot ‘al sefer ha-zohar, in «Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought» 2 (1983), pp. 43-74. is inclined to believe that the “normative” passage in question might have been censored by the Jews in order to avoid its Christianizing interpretation, we ascertain that the unstable textual situation of the Zohar before and after its publication opened widely the possibility to vindicate it for divergent, or even opposite hermeneutical receptions.


Nevertheless, contrary to what Scholem was inclined to believe 16 Cfr. G. Scholem, Zur Geschichte der Anfänge der christlichen Kabbala, in Essays Presented to Leo Baeck on the Occasion of His Eigtieth Birthday, East and West Library, London 1964, pp. 158-193; French revised version Considérations sur l’histoire des débuts de la kabbale chrétienne, in A. Faivre – F. Tristan (edd.), Kabbalistes Chrétiens, Albin Michel, Paris 1979, pp. 19-46; English translation of the latter The Beginnings of the Christian Kabbalah, in J. Dan (ed.), The Christian Kabbalah. Jewish Mystical Books and their Christian Interpreters, Harvard College Library, Cambridge (Mass.) 1997, pp. 17-51. , the first mention and the first two quotations from Zoharic literature in a Christian context are not forgeries made by a converted Jew, constructing, if we follow the image coined by Johann Widmannstetter and appreciated very much by Scholem 17 On Scholem’s attitude towards Christian Kabbalah, cfr. S. Campanini, Some Notes on Gershom Scholem and Christian Kabbalah, in J. Dan (ed.), Gershom Scholem: In Memoriam, vol. II, «Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought» 21 (2007), pp. 13-33. , a Trojan horse 18 Cfr. F. Secret, Un cheval de Troie dans l’Église du Christ: la kabbale chrétienne, in Aspects du libertinisme au XVIe siècle, Vrin, Paris 1974, pp. 153-166: 160-161. , neither in the camp of the Jews nor in the one of the Christians. To the best of my knowledge the very first quotations from the Zohar are to be found in the Contra Iudaeos, or Tractatus de conflictu Christianorum contra infideles, in three books, completed in 1397 and penned by Maestre (Juan) Pedro Figuerola 19 F. Secret, Les Annotationes decem in sacram Scripturam de Petrus Antonius Beuter, in «Sefarad» 29 (1969), pp. 1-14. . For a long time, one did not know much about this controversialist, not even his name (Joann or Pedro), but it seems rather likely that Klaus Reinhardt should be correct in assuming that he was a physician, most likely of Jewish origin, who, in the aftermath of the campaign lead by Vicente Ferrer in 1391, was charged by the King of Aragon John I, to examine the books of the Jews of Valencia together with three Franciscans 20 K. Reinhardt, Hebräische und Spanische Bibeln auf dem Scheiterhaufen der Inquisition. Texte zur Geschichte der Bibelzensur in Valencia um 1450, in «Historisches Jahrbuch» 101 (1981), pp. 1-37: 12-14; K. Reinhardt – H. Santiago-Otero, Biblioteca bíblica ibérica medieval, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Madrid 1986, pp. 263-264. . The tractate is, as the almost contemporary Victoria Porcheti of the Genuese Chartusian Porchetto dei Salvatici, a reworking of the Pugio Fidei, with the most interesting addition of two quotations from the Zohar, which he must have known from a different source, either from his personal acquaintance with some manuscript containing one of the many versions of the Zohar than in circulation or from the documents turned in or confiscated to the Valencian Jews. His tractate, at odds with the Victoria Porcheti, was not printed, but it enjoyed a distinguished readership, especially on a local basis, since the polemicist Jaime Perez of Valencia, in his Tractatus contra Judaeos, published in Valencia in 1484, quotes his fellow Valencian with respect 21 Cfr. W. Werbeck, Jacobus Perez von Valencia. Untersuchungen zu seinem Psalmenkomemntar, Mohr Siebeck, Tübingen 1959, p. 20. and again, in the 16th century, the distinguished exegete Pedro Antonio Beuter, also a Valencian, mentions and quotes him with praise, in his Annotationes decem in Sacram Scripturam (Valencia 1547) 22 Secret, Les Annotationes decem, cit.  . Figuerola’s tractate, at least in part, was not only preserved in Valencia, at the Library of the Cathedral, where three volumes are still held, but also at the Inguimbertine Library of Carpentras, a sign of the diffusion of this tractate among the libertines of the XVII century such as Nicolas Fabri de Peiresc and Jacques Gaffarel. The two quotations, as Chen Merchavia has shown 23 Ch. Merchavia, Shte muva’ot min ha-midrash ha-ne‘elam bi-ktav yad latini, in «Kirjat Sefer» 43 (1968), pp. 560-568; cfr. Id., Nota sobre citas del Zohar en manuscritos latinos de polémica antijudía, in «Sefarad» 31 (1971), p. 104. , are taken from the Midrash ha-ne‘elam, and have appeared in print, in the original Hebrew, in the Zohar Chadash, that is only in 159724 For a modern print of these passages, see Zohar Chadash, Mossad ha-Rav Kook, Jerusalem 1994, pp. 2d and 25b; for an English translation see N. Wolski (ed.), The Zohar, vol. X, Stanford University Press, Stanford 2016, pp. 7 and 295-296.  . Even the original Hebrew of these quotations, though, had been transmitted, albeit only in a manuscript (at the Escurial Library near Madrid), among the hundreds of quotations collected by the convert Alfonso de Zamora, in his Sefer Chokmat Elohim, published in Spanish translation by Federico Pérez Castro 25 F. Pérez Castro, El manuscrito apologético de Alfonso de Zamora. Traducción y estudio del Séfer Ḥokmat Elohim, Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, Madrid – Barcelona 1950, pp. 81-82; 181-182. and, since they coincide perfectly with their Latin translation in the two manuscripts of the Contra Iudaeos of Figuerola, one has to conjecture that Zamora, in 1532, did have access, in Alcalà, to the original of Figuerola’s quotations, be that the latter’s source, or his very compilation, in the original or in a copy. As Pérez Castro has shown, the two quotations are used to confirm with new materials two arguments brought about in the Pugio Fidei, one concerning the identification of the Messiah with the stone (אבן, even) and one concerning the punishment of the wicked in the seven dwellings of the Hell. It could not be more evident that the first Christian contact with the Zohar, dated to the end of the XIV century, is entirely comprised within the project of the Pugio Fidei (to convert the Jews by their own literature, in the aftermath of the official disputation of Barcelona), the texts are “authentic” and their function is, as Alfonso de Zamora has it, with an obvious pun: כְּדֵי לִתְפּוֹשׂ מְשׁוּבַת הַעִבְרִים שְׁהֵם עִִוְרִים, “in order to facilitate the conversion of the blind Jews”, based on the homophony of “blind” (‘iwrim) and “Jews/Hebrews” (‘ivrim)26 As one reads in ms. Escorial G I 8, f. 1r. Cfr. Pérez Castro, El manuscrito, cit., p. 1. . One point is thereby acquired: the Zohar, together with a large collection of Rabbinic sources, could be used as a valid tool in order to convert the Jews, thus justifying the effort of searching for it, of studying it carefully and even to preserve it in the arsenal of the weapons for controversy with the Jews and for their persuasion to embrace Christianity and receive baptism.


The second appearance of the Zohar in a very similar context is the well-known or, I should rather say, notorious quotation found in the Zelus Christi, of the convert Pedro de la Caballeria, compiled in 1450 but printed much later in Venice in 1592. Once again, the remote context of this quotation is an official disputation, this time the one held in Tortosa, which brought to the conversion of the prestigious family of de la Caballeria. Everything Pedro has to say about the Zohar is of extreme interest for our purpose: he declares that the entire work, called “Cefer Azohar” is very large (liber magni voluminis) and full of great secrets (magnorum secretorum), written in Aramaic (scriptus Caldea lingua) and it is found among private Jews (peculiares Judaeos) in the Kingdom of Castile. Moreover, he honestly confesses that he could not see the whole book (Ego non vidi totum librum), but only a quire. This is a symptom which will characterize the entire reception of the Zohar, the dialectics between the brief portions of text anyone has seen or possesses, and the “whole” Zohar, the large and mysterious book, always to be found somewhere else, in somebody else’s hands. The myth of the complete Zohar, which only could provide the definitive unveiling of the partial, fragmentary secrets it so abundantly contains, affects already the early stages of the dissemination of the Zohar with the archetypical scene, described in a biography of Isaac of Acco, in which the widow of Moshe de León and his daughter, disappointing the “horizon of expectation”, reveal that the “whole” Zohar, or its Vorlage, only existed in the head of Moshe de León 27 G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism, Schocken Publishing House, Jerusalem 1941, pp. 186-187. . It is also well known that in the first decades after the “publication” of the Zohar, many imitations were produced, and some of them made it into the main corpus of the Zohar. It is interesting to note that, precisely when the “myth” of the “whole Zohar” was introduced in the Latin world and in a polemical treatise, of the two supposed quotations produced by Pedro de la Caballeria, one, concerning the equivalence between “Binah”, the third sefirah, and its anagram “Ben Yah”, Son of Yah or “Filius Dei”, can be said to be authentic, since it is found in many passages of the Zohar; the other one, the principal, is not present verbatim in the printed Zohar, nor, for that matter, in any known manuscript of that tantalizing collection of fragments. It is the first known occurrence of a very fortunate (Pseudo-)Zoharic maxim: “Sanctus de 28 I correct the reading of the printed edition (“David”), which is certainly mistaken. Abba, sanctus Dabera, Sanctus da Ruha de Cudsa” 29 P. de la Cavalleria, Tractatus Zelus Christi contra Iudaeos, Sarracenos et infideles, Apud Baretium de Baretiis, Venetiis 1592, p. 34r; cfr. also p. 111v. For a list of the authors who quote the same passage cfr. Campanini, Nottole ad Atene, cit., p. 88. . The existence of a mythical “complete” Zohar, made it impossible for anybody to disprove the authenticity of this or any other fabrication, since any given copy of the Zohar one could produce, could always be suspected of being incomplete. Here we would have, almost in the very days when the printing press was introduced in Germany and some years before the first Hebrew book would be printed, an excellent argument (from a Jewish perspective) in favor of the printing of the Zohar, in order to construct, at least a posteriori, a normative Zohar, in order to stop the proliferation of imitations and all sorts of apocrypha, be they Jewish or, even more dangerous, Christian.


As a matter of fact, although the Zelus Christi remained unpublished in its time, this and other “Zoharic” fragments found their way to press and were vastly distributed. According to the later testimony of Abraham Farissol, there was even a society of Spanish conversos, who fabricated a collection of false Zoharic texts confirming blatantly the main tenets of the Christian faith in a mocking imitation of the Aramaic style of the Zohar 30 cholem, Anfänge der christlichen Kabbala, cit., pp. 187-193; D. Ruderman, The World of a Renaissance Jew. The Life and Thought of Abraham ben Modecai Farissol, Hebrew Union College Press, Cincinnati 1981, pp. 47-49. . In 1487 or 1488 yet another Spanish converted Jew, Pablo de Heredia, in contact with the Dominicans and knowledgeable of the literature of the Pugio Fidei, after having received a small book, as he recounts, from a certain Rabbi Abraham Papur in Jaca (Aragon), containing wondrous secretes and astounding prophecies confirming that Jesus was the Messiah, published in Rome the Epistola de Secretis, confirming the Zoharic passage quoted in the Zelus Christi and adding another one, also very much fortunate, interpreting in a Trinitarian fashion, the authentic wording of the Zohar on the Shema‘ of Deut. 6 31 Cfr. Campanini, Nottole ad Atene, cit., pp. 88-90.  . The Epistola was certainly widely read, but its fortune was limited if compared with the enormous diffusion found by the De arcanis catholicae veritatis of the Franciscan Pietro Galatino, printed in Ortona a Mare by Gershom Soncino in 1518. This voluminous tractate, rehashing for a larger audience the main contents of the Pugio Fidei, was not only reprinted several times during the XVI century and the first half of the XVII century until the Pugio Fidei itself was finally brought to print – first in Paris (1651) and then in Leipzig (1687), – it was also quoted by virtually every polemicist writing against the Jews from the XVI through the XIX century. Among the many texts, reprinted by Galatino in his work, Heredia’s pseudo-Zoharic passages were given a prominent place and reached thus a much broader readership 32 S. Campanini, Quasi post vindemias racemos colligens. Pietro Galatino und seine Verteidigung der christlichen Kabbala, in W. Kühlmann (Hrsg.), Reuchlins Freunde und Gegner. Kommunikative Konstellationen eines frühneuzeitlichen Medienereignisses, Jan Thorbecke Verlag, Ostfildern 2010, pp. 69-88. . Galatino, who was well aware that no Jew would confirm the presence of the Trinitarian interpretation of the Shema‘ in the “authentic” Zohar, hastened to quote, as the convert Paulus Riccius already had done before him in 1507 33 Cfr. P. Riccius, Sal foederis, Jacob de Burgofranco, Pavia 1507, ff. 38v-39r. Secret, Le Zôhar, cit., p. 27. , the Commentary on the Pentateuch by Menachem Recanati, in which one could find the “preemptive” explanation of any censorship the Jews would have imposed to their copies of the Zohar. Recanati, in turn, had referred a passage from the Zohar in which Rabbi Shim‘on ben Yochay had cautioned that specific secrets concerning the Shema‘ prayer would only be revealed after the coming of the Messiah 34 M. Recanati, Perush ‘al ha-Torah, vol. II, Amnon Gross, Jerusalem 2003, p. 15. The reference goes, in turn, to Zohar III 136b. . Moreover, he anticipated the objection by stating that, no matter what the Jews will claim, he himself had seen in Lecce, before the general expulsion of the Jews from southern Italy in 1510, upon consulting a very old Hebrew book in which another contested passage of the Targum should contain a Trinitarian explanation of the Trishagion of Isaiah 35 P. Galatino, De arcanis catholicae veritatis, G. Soncino, Ortona a Mare 1518, f. XXXIr: “In vetustissimis tamen libris, qui rarissimi sunt, ita prorsus habetur, ut ego retuli. Quorum ipse unum vidi, cum essem Licii, qua tempestate Iudaei ex toto Regno Neapolitano, iussu Regi catholici expellerentur”. . In other words, if the texts he quotes are not found in Jewish sources, it must be the result of a campaign of censorship perpetrated by the Jews to avoid the embarrassment caused by such authoritative confirmations of Jewish dogmas.  It can be safely stated that no other polemical work contributed more to the diffusion among the Christians of the idea that the Zohar, if complete and correctly understood, would represent, once printed, a tremendous resource towards the conversion of the Jews. To be perfectly honest, some voices were raised against this astounding “confirmatio catholica”: how could those texts be authentic and “canonical” among the Jews and so ineffective, since the Jews denied their authenticity and were not impressed by them nor had they been motivated to embrace Christianity? Even the Pope, Paul III must have voiced some apprehension, but Galatino reassured him in a letter, in which he stated that the Hebrew original of Heredia’s source was in his hands and that he would translate it anew 36 A. Keleinhans, De vita et operibus Petri Galatini, in «Antonianum» 1 (1926), pp. 145-179; 327-356. . Since the passage of the “Zohar” commenting upon Deuteronomy was not found in the Gale Razaya, the main prophecy of Heredia, but in the Postillae, the alleged original was even more elusive, until, as it is far from surprising, it was fabricated in due course, first in a very poor Hebrew version found in the apologetical book Il Messia Venuto (1659) by Giovanni Maria Vincenti 37 A. Keleinhans, De vita et operibus Petri Galatini, in «Antonianum» 1 (1926), pp. 145-179; 327-356. , and much later back-translated into dubious Aramaic by the notorious convert and forgerer Juan Joseph Heydeck in his Defensa de la religion Cristiana (1793) 38 A. Keleinhans, De vita et operibus Petri Galatini, in «Antonianum» 1 (1926), pp. 145-179; 327-356. .


The already mentioned Alfonso de Zamora who, as we have seen, did copy authentic passages from the Midrash ha-ne‘elam, could not refrain from quoting in his apologetic, bilingual letter to the Jews of Rome (published as an appendix to the second edition of his Hebrew Grammar, which appeared in Salamanca in 1526), with only small variants, the Trinitarian Trishagion 39 A. De Zamora, Introductiones Artis grammatice Hebraice nunc recenter edite, In Edibus Michaelis de Eguia, Complutum 1526, f. CC4r. Cfr. Pérez Castro, El manuscrito, cit., p. LXXII; F. Secret, Les kabbalistes chrétiens de la Renaissance, Archè, Milano 1985, p. 219; F. J. Perea Siller, Los inicios de la cábala humanista en Alcalà: Alfonso de Zamora y Cipriano de la Huerga, in «Helmantica» 191 (2013), pp. 153-180: 163-164.

קדיש אבא קדיש ברא קדיש רוחא דשמיא


One of the most striking features of the numerous quotations from the Zohar in the Christian polemical literature between the end of the XV and the first half of the XVI century, but already remarkable since Pedro de la Caballeria, is the coexistence of “authentic” and “forged” Zoharic texts. Alfonso de Zamora, in fact, is certainly not alone in this category: the influential physician of the Emperor, the already mentioned Paulus Riccius in several of his works quotes both authentic passages from the Zohar and the “forgery” on Deuteronomy. François Secret has supposed that Riccius knew and was influenced by the Epistola de Secretis, but this view seems to me quite questionable, and it is more than likely that, through Recanati’s Commentary, since it is far from assured that Riccius had direct access to a manuscript of the Zohar, this suggestive reding of the Zohar could have been “discovered” anew by yet another baptized Jew 39 On Riccius in general B. Roling, Aristotelische Naturphilosophie und christliche Kabbalah im Werk des Paulus Ritius, Max Niemeyer, Tübingen 2007. The question of the source of Riccius’ Trinitarian interpretation of the Zohar and of Menachem Recanati’s Commentary on the Pentateuch has to be left for another occasion which, hopefully, will present itself in the near future. .  


Even more interesting is the case of Ludovico Lazzarelli, who, in his Crater Hermetis (written in 1494 published in 1504), attributes to the Zohar a speculation on Adam’s sin, which is not to be found in our editions. Moreover, he quotes a passage on the shemot shel tum’ah, authentically Zoharic, but attributes to the Midrash Bereshit Rabba by Moshe ha-Darshan the well-known passage on Deuteronomy 6 which, as we have seen, is ascribed to the Zohar by Heredia 40 Cfr. E. Norelli, Nota sulle fonti ebraiche del Crater Hermetis, in C. Moreschini, Dall’Asclepius al Crater Hermetis, Giardini, Pisa 1986, pp. 218-219.. In the biography of Lazzarelli, written by his brother Filippo, it is stated that he used precisely this passage in a public discussion with a Jew in Teramo, and that this quotation helped him to win the controversy 41 Cfr. W. J. Hanegraaf – R. M. Bouthoorn (edd.), Ludovico Lazzerelli (1447-1500). The Hermetic Writings and Related Documents, Arizona Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Tempe 2005, pp. 300-302; Campanini, Nottole ad Atene, cit., p. 87-88. . The attribution of this “Zoharic” passage to Moshe ha-Darshan is a clear indication that all these pseudepigrapha and apocrypha are still very much indebted to the ideological and doctrinal framework of the Pugio Fidei since Ramón Martí, or his team of translators, quote him most frequently as the source of texts of doubtful authenticity.


In the first decades of the XVI century the Zoharic literature penetrates Jewish and sometimes Christian libraries so much that it can even happen to quote the Zohar inadvertently, such as in the case of the most prominent Christian Kabbalist of the Renaissance. Johannes Reuchlin, who did not master Aramaic enough to be able to read the Zohar, if at all, in the numerous quotations found in Menachem Recanati’s Commentary on the Pentateuch, does quote, without noticing it, the Midrash ha-ne’elam (a passage missing from modern editions but assigned to that work by Chayim Vital), attributing it, nevertheless to Todros ha-Levi Abulafia, whose name Reuchlin misspelled as Tedacus Levi. This quotation and wrong attribution have been reproduced in the ensuing centuries by dozens of authors, comprising eminent personalities such as Jean Bodin 42 S. Campanini, Ut neminem latere possit. Riflessi dell’ebraismo nel Colloquium Heptaplomeres, in K. F. Faltenbacher (ed.), Der kritische Dialog des Colloquium Heptaplomeres. Wissenschaft, Philosophie und Religion zu Beginn des 17. Jahrhunderts, Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Darmstadt 2009, pp. 259-284. and Athanasius Kircher, before Scholem 43 G. Scholem, Die Erforschung der Kabbala von Reuchlin bis zur Gegenwart, Selbstverlag der Stadt, Pforzheim 1969, reprinted in Id., Judaica 3. Studien zur jüdischen Mystik, Suhrkamp, Frankfurt am Main 1973, pp. 247-263. and Idel 44 M. Idel, Qeta‘ lo yadua‘ mi-midrash ha-ne‘elam, in «Jerusalem Studies in Jewish Thought» 8 (1989), pp. 73-87; French translation Id., Fragment inconnu du Midrach ha-Néélam, in C. Mopsik, Le Zohar. Le Livre de Ruth, Verdier, Lagrasse 1987, pp. 205-216. were able to reconstruct the origin of the mistake 45 Cfr. W. Schmidt-Biggemann, Geschichte der christlichen Kabbala. 2. 1600 bis 1660, Frommann-Holzboog, Stuttgart-Bad Cannstatt 2013, p. 91; G. Busi, Francesco Zorzi, a methodical dreamer, in J. Dan (ed.), The Christian Kabbalah. Jewish Mystical Books and their Christian Interpreters, Harvad College Library, Cambridge (Mass.) 1997, pp. 97-125: 119; S. Campanini, Tedacus Levi, the many lives of a bibliographic ghost, in A. Speer (ed.), Die Bibliothek. Denkräume und Wissensordnungen, De Gruyter, Berlin, in print. . The most relevant point for the present survey is the acquisition of the fact that Zoharic literature permeates Christian writings from the late XV century onwards in many forms: as correct citations, as forged pseudo-epigraphic texts and also as unrecognized quotations.


Reuchlin is also important since, in his very influential bibliography of Kabbalistic literature 46 S. Campanini, Wege in die Stadt der Bücher. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte der hebräischen Bibliographie (die katholische bibliographische „Dynastie“ Iona-Bartolocci-Imbonati), in Schäfer – Wandrey (edd.), Reuchlin und seine Erben, cit., pp. 61-76. , printed in his De arte cabbalistica in 1517, he did not fail to mention the Zohar 47 Cfr. J. Reuchlin, L’arte cabbalistica (De arte cabalistica), a cura di G. Busi e S. Campanini, Opus, Firenze 19962, p. LX. , and the same did Augustinus Riccius 48 A. Riccius, De motu octavae spherae, In aedibus Johannis de Ferrariis alias de Jolitis, Trino 1513, f. fVv; also Id., De motu octavae sphaerae, Simon Colineus, Lutetiae 1521, p. 47v. , thus contributing to create a bibliographic curiosity, an expectation, mobilizing the readers to search for this valued Jewish source.


The power of bibliography, although often based on second hand references and more often than not relying on a very vague acquaintance with the titles it so carefully lists, should by no means be underestimated. I will quote, in this context only one example 49 One could also point to Konrad Gesner’s Bibliotheca Universalis, under the name Symeon ben Ioachim: all the information gathered by the most famous bibliographer comes straight from Pico and Reuchlin. : the Christian Kabbalist Francesco Zorzi listed the Zohar in the vast bibliography of his De harmonia mundi 50 S. Campanini, Le fonti ebraiche del De Harmonia mundi di Francesco Zorzi, in «Annali di Ca’ Foscari», XXXVIII, 3 (1999), pp. 29-74. , although, judging from the few quotations he offers, his knowledge of the Zohar in 1525 was still minimal, as it seems that he only had obtained a fragmentary manuscript on Leviticus and he recalls it only rarely 51 F. Zorzi, L’armonia del mondo, a cura di S. Campanini, Bompiani, Milano 2010, pp. XCVII-XCVIII. . In any event, the few mentions of the Zohar contained in this prestigious text found resonance even in relatively popular literature, such as in the miscellany of the physician Federico Crisogono, published in Venice in 1528. Crisogono, in a chapter dedicated to the pursuit of happiness, offers a list of the indispensable books promising to attain that coveted goal, that is intellectual and contemplative happiness, and the very first book on his list is none other than the Zohar (liber Zoar a Simone ben Jochai editus) 52 F. Crisogono, De modo collegiandi, prognosticandi et curandi febres, Johannes Antonius de Sabbio, Venetiis 1528, f. 23v. . Although he denies that the Kabbalistic books would maintain this promise, it is significant that Crisogono felt necessary to mention them, a clear sign of the “popularity” of these arcane tomes, or at least of their titles among a prophane readership. It would be easy to multiply the occurrences and the range of the pure mentions of the Zohar in Christian books before the publication of the original Zoharic corpus, but the ones we have referred to should suffice to show that the Zohar, when it finally appeared in print, could not fall upon deaf ears.


The popular dimension of the expectations connected among Christian readers with the Zohar has been confirmed recently by a fortuitous discovery I have made in the flyleaves of a Soncino Bible held at the Vatican Library 53 I have published it in S. Campanini, Un frammento sconosciuto dello pseudo-Zohar nella Roma del Rinascimento, apparso in «Materia Giudaica» XXII (2017), pp. 3-14. . There one reads an interesting example of yet another Zoharic pseudephigraphon in a very poor Aramaic wording, prophesizing the birth of Jesus from a “matronita” (translated as Empress), the duration of his life (33 years), his death and resurrection. It seems a fairly good example of the type of forgeries described by Abraham Farissol and, as a matter of fact, the text, although purportedly coming from the Orient, was brought to Rome by a converted Jew named Hieronymus of Tudela, according to the notice written on the same flyleaf by the owner of the Bible, a certain Veriano da Toscanella, a canon of the Church of the saints Celso and Giuliano in Rome. We know that he bought the book in 1508, but the inscription could have been written some years later. In any case it documents eloquently that the fascination for the Zohar, understood as a prophetic book confirming the essential tenets of Christian faith was widespread well beyond the cultivate and erudite circles of the Hebraists and reached larger strata of the Christian readership.


This diffusion and expectation, based on a quite vague acquaintance with the actual contents of the Zoharic corpus, reaching back typologically to the Pugio Fidei model, was certainly not the only, unchallenged modality of penetration of the Zohar among the Christians prior to its publication. As I have already hinted, a completely different modality of approach to the Zohar acquired an increasing importance in the same decades: between the end of the XV and the first half of the XVI century, an alternative conception of the Zohar became relevant: the Christian Kabbalistic approach. As a matter of fact, it was the father of Christian Kabbalah, Giovanni Pico della Mirandola, in his Conclusiones, printed in Rome at the end of 1486, the very first to mention, in a printed work, the title of the Zohar 54 It is the thesis n. 24 of the second series of Kabbalistic conclusions (according to his own opinion). . In his mention of the Bahir, in fact, he was preceded by Marsilio Ficino, who in turn depended from Pablo de Santa Maria 55 For a sketch of the history of the reception of the Bahir among the Christians, see S. Campanini, The Book of Bahir. Flavius Mithridates’ Latin Translation, the Hebrew Text, and an English Version, Aragno, Turin 2005, pp. 86-98 and 112-122. . As Wirszubski 56 Ch. Wirszubski, Pico della Mirandola’s Encounter with Jewish Mysticism, The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Jerusalem 1989, p. 163. has shown, Pico’s knowledge of the Zohar was derivative, mediated as it was through the Commentary on the Pentateuch by Menachem Recanati. Upon studying the manuscripts of the Latin translations of Kabbalistc books made for Pico by Flavius Mithridates, it is easy to find out that the Zohar is quoted by many of his sources, not only Recanati on the Pentaeuch and on the daily prayers 57 Cfr. M. Recanati, Commentary on the Daily Prayers. Flavius Mithridates’ Latin Translation, the Hebrew Text, and an English Version, Edited by G. Corazzol, Aragno, Turin 2008. , but also Judah ben Nissim Ibn Malka 58 S. Campanini, Una fonte trascurata sul rapporto tra qabbalah e combinatoria lulliana in Pico della Mirandola: il Commento alle preghiere di Yehudah Ibn Malka, in «Studia Lulliana» 55 (2015), pp. 83-127. , the Yeriah ha-gedolah (where it is called “Zohar Magnus” 59 S. M. Bondoni – G. Busi – S. Campanini (edd.), The Great Parchment. Flavius Mithridates’ Latin Translation, the Hebrew Text, and an English Version, Aragno, Turin 2004. ), an anonymous commentary on the Aggadot of the Talmud 60 Cfr. S. Campanini, Pici Mirandulensis bibliotheca cabbalistica latina; sulle traduzioni latine di opere cabbalistiche eseguite da Flavio Mitridate per Pico della Mirandola, pubblicata in «Materia Giudaica», 7,1 (2002), pp. 90-96. , etc. In this large corpus we find no trace of interpolations or of apocryphal Zoharic texts, although Mithridates, in his earlier career, did use materials from the Pugio Fidei and other similar dubious sources 61 F. Mithridates, Sermo de Passione Domini, ed. by Ch. Wirszusbki, The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Jerusalem 1963. . Pico stands at the beginning of a completely different approach to the Zohar, still dependent on anthologies and isolated quotations and incapable of reading them without the help of his translator. Nevertheless, it was in his footsteps that some Christian Kabbalists searched, and found, authentic Zoharic manuscripts, and published some fragments also in the Aramaic original, and large paraphrases of the Zohar many decades before its printing in Mantua and Cremona, contributing thus to a radically new evaluation of the potential usefulness of this fundamental text.


The first authentic sentences of the Zohar published in print are, to the best of my knowledge, the seven quotations found in the glosses to the polyglot Psalter published in Genua in 1516 by the Dominican, bishop of Nebbio in Corsica, Agostino Giustiniani 62 Here follows a list of the glosses to the Psalms followed by the passages of the Zohar quoted in the Aramaic text and in Latin translation: Ps. 1 (Zohar III 143v); 3 (III 130r-v); 5 (143r); 140 (III 138r); 144 (III 133r); 145 (III 142r); 150 (I 94r-93r). . It is most likely that Giustiniani had at his disposal only a partial copy of the Zohar since his quotations are taken, with only one exception 63 A passage from Zohar I 94v. , from the Idra rabba 64 That is to say Zohar III 130r-143v. . It is also noteworthy that Giustiniani never mentions the name “Zohar”, speaking rather, most likely in accordance with the copy at his disposal, of a commentary on the Book of Genesis, “written in the esoteric language of Jerusalem”, and he shows also some skepticism as to the author of the Book, attributed sometimes to Shimon ben Jochai (creditur) and sometimes as anonymous (quicumque fuerit).  To this day no one could identify the Hebrew manuscript from Giustiniani’s legendary library, which served as a basis for his edition but, upon studying anew his quotations, I have been lucky to find Giustiniani’s Zohar in the Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana 65 Sign. Plut. II,48. in Florence. The manuscript is abundantly glossed in Latin on the margins by the very hand of this Christian Kabbalist 66 A specimen of Giustiniani’s characteristic handwriting is found in Agostino Giustiniani annalista genovese ed i suoi tempi, Atti del convegno di studi Genoca 28-31 maggio 1982, Compagnia dei Librai, Genova 1984, ill. n. XVI. I have found yet another rich specimen of Giustiniani’s hand in a kabbalistic mnuscript, now preserved at the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York and I have expanded about it in my forthcoming article Transmission and Reception of Isaac Ibn Sahula’s Kabbalistic Commentary on two Psalms, in A. Paluch – P. Koch (edd.), Kabbalah and Knowledge Transfer in the Early Modern World, in «Kabbalah», in print. . Even if the hand of Giustiniani would not confirm abundantly that precisely this Hebrew manuscript, written in an Italian hand datable to the XIV century, served as his basis, the textual peculiarities that characterize it, especially the fact that, only in this manuscript, the section called Idra Rabba is found immediately before the parashiot Noach and Lekh Lekah a peculiar textual inversion (Zohar I,94 preceding I,93), exactly reproduced by Giustiniani in his quotation, would have sufficed to indicate that precisely this fragmentary copy of the Zohar must have been consulted by Giustiniani for the princeps before the princeps, as it were. Since I plan to publish a separate study on the topic, I will not delve here into the philological details of this interesting finding, nor on the peculiar interpretation of this “authentic” piece of Zoharic literature he displays in his glosses, albeit subsumed under the title Yerushalmi, also attested in the Jewish tradition 67 But not in the Monstrador de Justicia by Alfonso de Valladolid / Abner of Burgos, as claimed by its editor Walter Mettmann. The referenced to a Yerushalmi (Gerussalmi/Jerussalmi) found in that polemical work are invariably from the Palestinian Talmud or from the Targum and not from the Zohar. Cfr. W. Mettmann (ed.), A. de Valladolid, Monstrador de Justicia, 2 voll., Westdeutscher Verlag, Opladen 1994-1996, vol. I, p. 192; vol. II, p. 44; 89; 179; 228. The erroneous attribution is not corrected in the appendix, containing Verbesserungen zur Ausgabe des «Monstrador de Justicia», in W. Mettmann (ed.), A. de Valladolid, Těšuvot la-Měharef. Spanische Fassung, Westdeutscher Verlag, Opladen 1998, p. 147. Moreover, the same confusion between “Yerushalmi” (Jerussalmi) and the Zohar is repeated on p. 53. In general see R. W. Szpiech, From Testimonia to Testimony: Thirteenth-Century Anti-Jewish Polemic and the Mostrador de Justicia of Abner of Burgos/Alfonso of Valladolid, PhD Thesis, Yale University 2006, pp. 543-555. , but I will limit myself here to a brief observation. In line with Pico’s ideology Giustiniani was able, with some exegetical tour de force, to say the least, to confirm the dogma of Trinity or the Incarnation by using a genuine Zoharic anthology. The method indicated by Pico only by way of allusion and by Giustiniani in more detailed terms, was followed by other Hebraists in the Renaissance. Cardinal Egidio da Viterbo, to name the most prominent, acquired a manuscript of the Zohar copied in Tivoli in 1513, had it translated into Latin only to find out that it must have been incomplete and thus wrote to the Augustine friar Gabriele della Volta in 1514 in order to start a search for a “complete Zohar” in the Orient 68 Cfr. E. da Viterbo, Lettere familiari, II 1507-1517, a cura di A.M. Voci Roth, Institutum Historicum Augustinianum, Roma 1990, p. 183. . Egidio spoke with the highest respect of the Zohar (labore magno quaesitus, maiore inventus maximo rescriptus), which he quoted repeatedly in his works on the letters of the Hebrew alphabet and on the state of the Church and the possible new coming of the Messiah, foreseen for the year 1530 69 F. Secret (ed.), E da Viterbo, Scechina et Libellus de litteris hebraicis, Centro internazionale di studi umanistici, Roma 1959. . On his footsteps Johann Albrecht Widmannstetter ordered from the convert Francesco Parnas in 1550, with the help of Jacob Mantino’s more complete copy, an eclectic Zohar with marginal Latin excerpts, still preserved in three volumes at the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich 70 Cfr. M. de Molière, Johann Albrecht Widmanstetter’s Recension of the Zohar, in «Kabbalah» 41 (2018), pp. 7-52. .


The single Christian Kabbalist who did more for the diffusion of the Zohar among the Christians in the first half of the XVI century was the already mentioned Francesco Zorzi who, after a slow start in his De harmonia mundi, as we have recalled, must have found and thoroughly studied a more complete copy of the Zohar between 1525 and 1536, when he published his 3000 In Scripturam Sacram Problemata, a commentary on the Bible and selected ancient authors organized according the principle of question and answer. Hundreds of questions concerning crucial points of Christian theology found thus a stimulus, and more often than not, a straightforward answer in the venerated text of the Zohar. The polemical dimension is here almost completely absent, as in general his attitude towards Kabbalah is far removed from the shrewd fabrications of the Pugio Fidei and its humanistic tradition. The main aim in Zorzi’s vast usage of the Zohar was not so much to convert the Jews to Christianity, an activity in which nevertheless, he was quite successful, but to convert his Christian readers, as it were, to the venerable and “authentic” tradition of Kabbalah. His enthusiasm, in a time of deep crisis for Christianity, conquered many followers, even among the Cardinals, such as in the case of Federico Fregoso, who hired a “personal Kabbalist”, a Jewish physician, to help him study Kabbalistic literature 71 S. Campanini, Utriusque linguae egregie peritus atque prudens. Federico Fregoso cardinale ebraista e l’identità del suo familiaris ebreo «grandissimo cabbalista», in «Materia Giudaica» XX-XXI (2015-2016), pp. 29-44., but also even more vocal adversaries.


The previous survey should contribute to understand the complexity of the Christian attitudes towards the merits and the dangers of the publication of the Zohar at the eve of its final double printing, in Cremona and Mantua, between 1558 and 1560. The echo of the burning of the Talmud, which was decreed in 1553 and continued to resonate through Italy in the ensuing years, was still deafening for any Jewish soul, as it is vividly recorded by one of the correctors of the Mantuan edition, Abraham ben Meshullam da Sant’Angelo 72 S. Campanini, Anima in itinere. Un’orazione funebre di Avraham da Sant’Angelo, in M. Perani (ed.), La cultura ebraica a Bologna tra medioevo e rinascimento, La Giuntina, Firenze 2002, pp. 129-168. . This tragic act of repression at the climax of Counter-Reformation did not have only a negative dimension, it was also, de facto, a powerful incentive to spread a text such as the Zohar, considered, if not holy, certainly more apt to open the eyes of the “blind Jews” to the splendor of Christian faith. Within the Christian camp at least three attitudes were represented. The enthusiasts, such as Guillaume Postel, who translated the Zohar twice 73 Cfr. J. Weiss, Mashiach notzri-qabbali ba-Renaissance: Guillaume Postel we-sefer ha-zohar, Hakibbuz Hameuchad, Tel Aviv 2016; see also S. Campanini, Le Zohar dans le Dictionarium Syro-Chaldaicum de Guy Le Fèvre de la Boderie, in G. Dahan – A. Noblesse-Rocher (edd.), Les hébraïsants chrétiens en France au XVIe siècle, Droz, Genève 2018, pp. 341-361. and who, if we believe his own testimony, convinced Moshe Basola to take a decisive stand in favour of the much-debated printing of the Zohar; on the other hand there were many who were aware of the polemical potential of the Zohar, provided that it be complete, for the goal of bringing about the conversion of the Jews; finally some maintained an attitude of suspicion, fearing, not without reasons 74 One can refer, cum grano salis, to E. D. Haskell, Mystical Resistance. Uncovering the Zohar’s Conversations with Christianity, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2016. , that the Zohar could contain anti-Christian passages, or that it might be printed in a way as to censor the passages which could be read as confirming the truth of Christianity. It is therefore far from surprising that both printing enterprises of the Zohar, more openly in Cremona, but also in Mantua, were the result of an objective convergence of Christian and Jewish aims, not solely from a commercial point of view. There was certainly a Jewish interest in disseminating this masterpiece of literary and spiritual creativity in the most complete, stable and authoritative version but, at the same time, many Christians, on different levels and with different functions, were involved: promoting, financing, and even surveilling with both negative and positive censorship, since the imprimatur came close, in the case of the Zohar, to an outright endorsement.


The printing of the Zohar can be described as a luminous example, though not without its dark spots, of what Wilhelm Wundt called once the “heterogony of ends”. We are in the position for better understanding, thus, the words of Immanuel of Benevento, who was instrumental for the printing press in Mantua, and especially for the Zoharic collection. In his preface to the 1558 Mantua edition of the Ma‘areket ha-Elohut, he countered the objection of the ones who feared that the Christians, if the Zohar would be printed, could learn about it and use it for their purposes, after having remarked, once again, that the loss of the Talmud and of the halakic commentaries, could lead to the paradoxical result of the Jews being forced to apprehend the glory of God from “the works of Boccaccio or from history books”, he counters the objection levelled against the printing of the Zoharic literature on the basis of the risk that the Christians might take offence at it, with the following rhetorical question, with a remarkable dose of lucidity and “optimistic realism”:75 Preface to the Ma‘areket ha-Elohut, Ha-shutafim [Meir ben Efraim of Padua and Jacob ben Naftali of Gazzuolo], Mantua 1558, f. 4r. Cfr. I. Tishby, Ha-pulmus ‘al sefer ha-zohar ba-me’ah ha-shesh ‘esreh be-Italia, in Id., Chiqre qabbalah u-sheluchoteah, vol. I, Magnes, Jerusalem 1982, pp. 79-139: 90.

  Do they not own already these books, in manuscripts as well as in print, in their language, far more abundantly than we do?

The printing of the Zohar was both at the end of a long process of consolidation of a literary tradition and at the beginning of the struggle for establishing it at the core of Jewish self-identification. At the same time the elegant portal of its frontispiece can be seen as the threshold and the meeting place of Jews and Christians discussing, once more, about their shared and bitterly contested heritage. The Zohar with its obscure radiance had already proven to be capable of supporting diverging and even incompatible readings.  

Frontispice du premier volume de l'édition Princeps du Zohar, Mantoue 1558 (Fonds E.-J. Nahmias, Alliance Israélite Universelle, Paris)
Frontespizio del primo volume dell’editio princeps dello Zohar, Mantova 1558 (Fonds E.-J. Nahmias, Alliance Israélite Universelle, Paris)

This paper was published in english in Materia giudaica : rivista dell’associazione italiana per lo studio del giudaismo : XX/XXI, 2015/2016 – La Giuntina (torrossa.com)The Zohar among the Christians in the Renaissance, in «Materia Giudaica» 25 (2020), pp. 511-524.”

Saverio Campanini/Le Zohar chez les Chrétiens à la Renaissance.
Saverio Campanini/Le Zohar chez les Chrétiens à la Renaissance.


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