||R. Azariah (Bonaiuto) b. Moses Dei Rossi (c. 1511–c. 1578), the greatest scholar of Hebrew letters during the Italian Renaissance. He was born in Mantua to the Min ha-Adummim family, one of the most eminent families in the history of Italian Jewry. According to a legend quoted by Rossi himself, the family was one of the few that the emperor Titus brought to Rome from Jerusalem after the destruction of the Second Temple. From the 13th century the family produced a line of scholars, polemicists, rabbis, and artists, many of whom became famous in Jewish and Italian culture, especially during the Renaissance. At that time the family was centered in the court of the Gonzaga princes in the city of Mantua, where the composers Anselmo de' Rossi and his relative Salamone de' Rossi produced their work. Rossi received both his general and Jewish education in Mantua, but spent most of his life outside his native city. He studied medicine and apparently earned a meager living as a doctor throughout his life. He wandered to several cities in Italy, especially in the Papal States, and lived for some time in Ferrara, Ancona, Bologna, and Sabbioneta. When the pope expelled the Jews from his domains in 1569, Rossi settled again in Ferrara, where he wrote his major work. Toward the end of his life he returned to Mantua, where he died after supervising the printing of his Me'or Einayim ("Enlightenment to the Eyes," 1573–75). Rossi did not publish anything until he was 60 years old. It seems that he did not even intend to publish, though a reading of his major work reveals that there is no doubt that he spent most of his time studying classical and medieval Latin and Italian literature as well as Jewish history and literature. An unusual event caused him to write an important book. In 1571, when he was living in Ferrara, the city was struck by a disastrous earthquake which lasted intermittently for about ten days. Rossi, along with the majority of the survivors, fled to the fields outside the city. The event seemed to him to be a direct intervention of G-d in the life of the city and in his own life, and in the first chapter of Me'or Einayim entitled "Kol Elokim" ("The Voice of G-d"), he describes the phenomenon in great detail, giving a vivid description of each phase of the earthquake and its effect upon the citizens, Jews and non-Jews. He added a learned discourse on the reasons for, and the significance of, earthquakes according to classical and medieval non-Jewish scholars, comparing the natural causes given by the non-Jewish writers with the statements concerning the divine origin of this phenomenon found in the Bible, the Talmud, and the writings of medieval Jewish scholars. While outside the city during the earthquake, Rossi met a Christian scholar who was then studying the Greek pseudepigraphical work, Letter of Aristeas. The scholar asked Rossi for the true meaning of some part of the work, assuming that he was familiar with the Hebrew original of the text. When Rossi told him that there was no Hebrew original, and that the work was unknown to the Jews, the Christian scholar was very much surprised. Since the Letter of Aristeas is important to the study of the text and development of the Old Testament (the book describes the translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew into Greek), Rossi decided to translate the work. He entitled his translation Hadrat Zekenim ("The Glory of the Elders"), which became the second part of Me'or Einayim. The two chapters comprising Hadrat Zekenim are quite short, the largest and most important part of Me'or Einayim being the third part, Imrei Binah ("Words of Wisdom"), which is divided into 60 chapters. This latter part is a revolutionary study of the development of the Bible and of Jewish history, chronology, poetry, and culture.
In Imrei Binah he studied the ancient history of the Jews by comparing the Hebrew sources, especially the Talmud, with the classical sources, Jewish and non-Jewish. His methods, essentially those of the critical history which began to be written in the Renaissance, were not applied to all the Jewish texts. Rossi refrained from using the critical method in the study of the Bible, but he applied it to talmudic legends, which many previous scholars had not accepted as absolute religious truth. The novelty of his approach was that although he was a Jewish scholar, Rossi usually accepted the facts given in the non-Hebrew sources rather than those given in the Talmud. (Occasionally where he failed to use critical methods with Greek and Latin sources, he made errors.) In the study of ancient Jewish history, Rossi discovered a more accurate length of the Persian period, i.e., the period between Ezra and Nehemiah and the conquest by Alexander the Great. Talmudic chronology and its medieval followers considered this period to be very short; Rossi attempted to determine its actual span and its importance in Jewish history. He proved that the Josippon, regarded by medieval Hebrew scholars and historians as an authoritative source on Jewish history, is a medieval compilation, which, although making use of writings of Josephus, falsified many historical facts and is therefore unreliable. This disclosure came as a shock to traditional scholars, who for many generations accepted the Josippon as the main authority on the history of the Jews during the Second Temple period. Another important aspect of Imrei Binah is its discussion of the revival of Jewish-Hellenistic literature written in Greek during the period of the Second Temple and after its destruction. Rossi was the first Jewish scholar to make use of these writings in the study of Jewish history, literature, religion, and culture (though Christian scholars used them during the Middle Ages, because they were included in Greek and Latin translations of the Bible).
Probably the most important part of Imrei Binah is that devoted to the study of Jewish chronology. In a very detailed study, Rossi proved that counting the years from the creation and basing a calendar on this count is a relatively recent Jewish usage; none of the ancient sages in the talmudic or geonic period, and certainly not in the Bible, used a calendar reckoned from the creation. Even in the early Middle Ages more ancient calendars were used, especially one based on the conquest of Palestine by Alexander. Thus he exposed the fact that the calendar accepted in his day was not of ancient origin. In addition, he tried to prove that the Bible and the other ancient sources are insufficient for reconstructing the chronology from the creation to the present time. He thereby indicated that the calendar was not only untraditional, but that it also made a false claim. These findings seemed heretical to his traditional contemporaries, and even his friends among the Italian Renaissance scholars could not accept such a radical point of view. In the same critical manner Rossi dealt with countless other subjects - archaeology, Jewish coins, the development of the Hebrew language and the use of Aramaic by ancient Jews, Hebrew poetics and poetry, etc. Although modern scholarship does not accept many of his conclusions, some are scientifically sound, and, in any case, there is no doubt that Rossi's scholarship was more than 200 years ahead of its time.
The advanced critical spirit and method of Me'or Einayim made the work a subject of controversy for a long time. While it was being printed in Mantua, rabbis who heard about its contents raised objections, some of which Rossi answered in the work itself. When the work was published, the traditional rabbis in Italy were shocked, especially by Rossi's attitude toward talmudic and midrashic legends and his denial of the validity of the chronology claiming to date from the creation. Even his friend and associate, R. Moses b. Abraham Provencal, fiercely criticized Rossi's attitude toward the calendar, as did R. Isaac Finzi of Pesaro. In 1574, even before the printing of Me'or Einayim was completed, the rabbis of Venice, headed by R. Samuel Judah Katzenellenbogen, published a proclamation of herem against possessing, reading, or using the book, unless one received special permission from the rabbis of his city. Rossi was not personally attacked, the impeccable conduct of his private life easily meeting Orthodox standards of behavior. The herem was followed by similar declarations in such cities as Rome, Ferrara, Padua, Verona, and Ancona, in which rabbis warned their congregations against reading the work. The controversy spread to other Jewish communities; in Safed a proclamation of herem was prepared for the signature of R. Joseph b. Ephraim Caro, the great halakhist, but R. Caro died before signing it, and the herem was published by the other rabbis of Safed. R. Judah Loew b. Bezalel of Prague, who defended the absolute truth of the talmudic legends and traditions, dedicated a major part of his work on the oral tradition, Be'er ha-Golah (Prague, 1598), to direct attacks against Rossi and his teachings. Even in Mantua, where the author was well known and where the book was printed, persons under 25 were forbidden to read it. Before his death, probably in 1578, Rossi wrote a reply to his critics, Mazref la-Kesef (1845; "The Purification of Silver"), which deals especially with the problem of the calendar and chronology. Later, Mazref la-Kesef was printed together with Me'or Einayim. The ban on Me'or Einayim persisted for more than a hundred years, during which time few scholars dared to use or even mention the work. Renewed interest in the book was aroused only with the beginning of the Haskalah period late in the 18th century, when maskilim found in Rossi's work ideas similar to their own. The first modern printing of the work (after the Mantua edition) was published by the maskilim of Berlin in 1794.