Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

The Place of Paradise in Renaissance Jewish Thought

Academic journal article Journal of the History of Ideas

The Place of Paradise in Renaissance Jewish Thought

Article excerpt

In the sixteenth century, some Jewish scholars believed that the Garden of Eden existed on earth and could be found. Renaissance Jewish visions of this place incorporated traditional motifs: it contained material riches, housed the righteous, and featured bejeweled thrones. But there was another aspect of Eden that received attention: its salubrious vegetation produced by the location's temperate climate. The idea that fertility was Eden's distinguishing feature had roots in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Exploring how this idea flowered in the sixteenth century requires isolation of those roots and analysis of their growth. Hebrew texts of the late Renaissance that advance naturalistic arguments to explain the Bible's narrative about Paradise present an opportunity to assess how certain trends in dominant Christian thought fertilized less conspicuous fields of Renaissance culture.

In sixteenth-century Hebrew texts the notion that fertility was the Garden of Eden's defining characteristic derived from three main sources: medieval literature, natural philosophy, and writings about the New World. Poetic descriptions of the Garden, from Dante to Pope Pius II, provided a stock of images from which Renaissance Jews drew. Medieval natural philosophers such as Pietro d'Abano, whose works were freshly printed and widely read in the sixteenth century, put forth environmental, rather than theological, explanations for the Garden's bounty.1 Many writings about the New World compared the fertility of newly discovered places like Brazil and Hispaniola to biblical Paradise. These sources of image and insight were tapped and transported to other fields, such as Hebrew literature, by a new preoccupation: dietetics. In the sixteenth century the popularity of treatises on dietetics stimulated curiosity about the New World as a fertile garden. This tendency to explain the Bible's remarkable claims about the Garden in naturalistic terms furthered the conception of Paradise as a physical, rather than an imagined, place.

Renaissance Jews who wrote about Eden shared a common goal. Like many of their Christian counterparts, they wished to prove that natural philosophy and new geographical knowledge confirmed rather than complicated the Bible. Situating Eden was a crucial component of this effort. Several Hebrew works from Renaissance Italy emphasize the Garden of Eden's natural, and especially horticultural, qualities. Some of these are available in print, and have found expositors among modern historians.2 They include Abraham Farissol (ca. 1451-ca. 1525),3 Ovadiah Sforno (ca. 1470-ca. 1550),4 and Yehiel (Vitale) Nissim da Pisa (d. 1574).5 The following pages introduce a largely unknown Italian Jewish writer of the late Renaissance: Judah Saltaro (1550-1629). Even more than his predecessors and contemporaries did, Saltaro dwelt on the fertility of the Garden as its defining characteristic. He penned an eighty-folio manuscript, the sole copy of which is held in Oxford's Bodleian Library, entitled Sefer Sha'arei Gan Eden (Book of the Gates of the Garden of Eden). It endeavors to identify and describe the Garden's earthly location.6

Of the sixteenth-century Hebrew sources that analyze Eden's natural properties, Saltaro's is the richest. Sefer Sha'arei Gan Eden was written, or at least completed, in 1574. Its title page announces that the work consists of four sections: "on the existence of the soul"; "on the terrestrial Paradise and the desire to know its location and where it may be found"; "on the delights of the soul in terrestrial Paradise and in the heavenly Paradise"; and "on the world to come after resurrection."7 The composition explicitly addresses the best-known Hebrew work of the sixteenth century that dealt with New World exploration: Abraham Farissol's Iggeret Orhot HaOlam (Letter on the Pathways of the World), printed in Ferrara in 1586 but completed years before, in 1525.8 The title page of Sefer Sha'arei Gan Eden states that the work "mentions our honored master and teacher Abraham Farissol and his book Orhot HaOlam. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.