Heaven or Hell?

As the year 2021 marks the 700th anniversary of the death of the distinguished Italian poet Dante Alighieri (1265-1321), it is only appropriate to ponder heaven and hell. Indeed, what is yet to come for us: is it going to be heaven or hell? This question is also relevant to Jewish self-perception. After all, the Hebrew Bible places the first man and woman in the garden of Eden, that became known as paradise - παράδεισος - through its Greek translation of the Septuagint; and later, due to their sins, Adam and Eve were expelled from that exotic garden. Several Jewish rabbinic authorities and scholars consider the central concept of paradise to be either terrestrial or celestial; on the other hand, what came to represent later, in rabbinic literature a destination of punishment of the wicked (hell, of sorts), was originally a mere small valley in Jerusalem, called gehenna in the Hebrew Bible.

The very theme of afterlife comes up again strongly in Italy in early fourteenth century. However, what happens to the traditional form and format of this Jewish theological discussion is very different this time. Immanuel ben Solomon ben Jekuthiel (ca. 1261-ca.1335) was an important medieval Jewish scholar and poet from Rome who introduced some critical changes to Hebrew poetry. Immanuel had a broad education in Jewish disciplines, as well as the sciences, medicine and philosophy, all well reflected in his writings. Although a number of Immanuel’s biblical commentaries survive, he became best known for his poems which stand out in their humour and elegant style. While well-versed in the traditional maqāma genre of poetry, Immanuel chose to experiment with the form of a sonnet in Hebrew, thus becoming the first non-Italian poet to use this new format. Moreover, Immanuel also wrote a few sonnets in Italian.

Immanuel’s collection of poems in Hebrew, Maḥbarot, includes 28 individual pieces that vary from satire, stories of love and friendship, riddles, epistles, prayers, to biblical and talmudic teachings, and are replete with quotes from these sources. The first edition of Immanuel’s Maḥbarot was printed with woodcuts by Gershom Soncino in Brescia, Northern Italy, on the 30th of October in 1491, in the incunable period, that is, the cradle years of the printing press. These Hebrew sonnets must have gained popularity because another edition followed in 1535, this time printed in Constantinople. Rabbinic authorities, however, did not necessarily approve of its fame and so Joseph Karo (1488-1575), author of the great halakhic code Shulkhan Arukh, banned the reading of Immanuel’s poems on Shabbat. This prohibition though did not bring an end to the publication of Immanuel’s poetry. On the contrary, new editions appeared on the book market; significant among these is a reprint of the last poem in his Maḥbarot, under the title Tofet ṿe-ʻeden (Hell and Paradise). Tofet ṿe-ʻeden as an entire book was first published in Prague in 1613, soon after which its Yiddish translation גיהנם וגן עדן ביכל (Gehenom ve-gan-eyden bikhl) was issued in 1660. Another early edition of Immanuel’s Hell and Paradise in Hebrew came out in Frankfurt am Main in 1713.

As a contemporary of Dante in Italy, Immanuel was undoubtedly inspired by the Divine Comedy when writing his Tofet ṿe-ʻeden: written in rhymed prose, it comprises Immanuel’s journey, led by his charming and wise guide Daniel (possibly a reference to Dante), through Hell and Paradise. During Immanuel’s wanderings, the reader is offered detailed descriptions of both worlds and (re)introduced to villains and heroes, as well as to long-forgotten figures from the Bible and post-Biblical times, and invited to witness momentous scenes and marvel about fantastic beasts. What is Immanuel’s Hell about, where Aristotle, Plato, Galen, Hippocrates and Avicenna dwell? And how do their conversations evolve? Or, is it still preferable to venture into the paradise garden of Eden and join the company of the likes of king David, Rabbi Akiva and Maimonides? In our current time when very little physical travelling is possible, Immanuel’s Tofet ṿe-ʻeden becomes a highly recommended illustrated travel-guide! Hermann Gollancz’s (1852-1930) English translation with his introduction and notes makes it an especially easy and enjoyable read.

Christ Church Library has a copy of yet another edition of Tofet ṿe-ʻeden, printed in Berlin by Aryeh Leyb ben Zeʼev Ṿolf in 1778. This edition is special because it includes a poem by Solomon ben Joel Dubno (1738-1813) who was one of the pioneers of the Jewish Enlightenment (haskalah) movement. It is impressive that the early enlightened Jews took so much interest in medieval Hebrew poetry and considered Immanuel’s marvellous adventures worthy to be presented to their own generation of new Hebrews.

With this in mind, it is reassuring to think that there are many other gems of medieval Hebrew poetry, as well as haskalah literature still to be explored at Christ Church. According to Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Paradise will be a kind of library’.  I have a feeling that bibliographic discoveries still to come will be heavenly, and I look forward to meeting you soon in my paradise, Christ Church Library.

Dr Rahel Fronda
Hebrew Antiquarian Cataloguer
Christ Church Library

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