Jewish Heritage Europe

The oldest Sefer Torah as a stimulus for the future

Ceiling of the 16th century Italian rite synagogue in Padova, Italy, with the tops of the Ark (l) and Bimah (r)
Ceiling of the 16th century Italian rite synagogue in Padova, Italy, with the tops of the Ark (l) and Bimah (r)

On March 6, 2016 a solemn yet joyful ceremony was held in Biella, in northern Italy, to return to the town’s synagogue what is believed to be the oldest sefer Torah in the world that is in use by a congregation. The scroll was one of several ancient Torahs examined by experts in 2012 on behalf of Italy’s Foundation for Jewish Cultural Heritage and then chosen as the one best suited for restoration.  During the restoration, it was discovered that the scroll can be dated to around 1250.

The story of this nearly 800-year-old Torah leads the Italian Jewish studies scholar Dr. Gadi Luzzatto Voghera to consider the centrality of Jewish cultural heritage (and its preservation) to the contemporary Jewish experience.

How the oldest Sefer Torah can be a stimulus for the future

Gadi Luzzatto Voghera

(A version of this essay was published, in Italian, on the Italian Jewish community web site

PADOVA, ITALY — The discovery and restoration of the Biella Torah, and Its return to use by today’s Jewish community, does not just mean glorying in an unattainable past. Rather, it’s about understanding that the management and enhancement of Jewish cultural heritage can play a fundamental role in today’s Jewish world, giving direction, and a heightened sense of meaning, both to the Jews who lived in Italy in the past and to those who still now are here.

I’m quite sure that without its Jews, whose presence on the peninsula dates back more than two millennia, Italy would be quite different from what it is now. At the same time, I’m also rather sure that without the Italian experience, the Jewish world and its traditions in general would not be the same.

Siena, Italy -- Ark in the 18th century synagogue
Siena, Italy — Ark in the 18th century synagogue

A few examples can serve to demonstrate the mutual impacts.

Without the early printing enterprises of the Soncino family in the 15th and 16th centuries, and that of David Bomberg in Venice, who published the first complete printed edition of the Talmud between 1519 and 1523, the way the Talmud is studied today would likely be quite different, and probably would be carried out without the commentaries of Rashi and the Tosafot.

Without the influence of the Venetian rabbis and their teachings, the Jewish renaissance of the Sephardic crypto-Jews who emigrated to Amsterdam during the seventeenth century would not have taken place as it did; and without that we would not have had the extraordinary richness of the Hebrew printing industry in the Netherlands of that period (not to mention Spinoza, but that’s another story).

From another direction, the Italian art and culture of Humanism and the Renaissance had an overwhelming influence on Italian Judaism, which can be seen in the magnificent decorations found on Italian Ketubbot, in the frontispiece pages of Hebrew books, in the embellishment of Jewish illuminated manuscripts.  Moreover, these influences also shaped the extraordinarily beautiful architectural forms of synagogues and their decorations, including those of the Aron Ha Kodesh.

Stairs leading to the Biimah in the Padova synagogue
Stairs leading to the Bimah in the Italian rite synagogue in  Padova, which dates from the 16th century

Jewish Italy indeed preserves a physical heritage of enormous importance that is not only steeped in history, but also gives meaning to the present.

What’s more, the emergence of new expertise and professionalism, and the recognition of ancient crafts (such as that of the Sofer, the scribe who writes and corrects Hebrew manuscripts) in conserving, preserving and promoting this heritage forms part of an economic and social dynamic that can only have a positive effect on the future of younger generations.

Museum conservators, chemists, experts in communication and web-design, catalogers, art historians, architects, curators, cultural organizers, art restorers, archivists, librarians, photographers, artists, musicians  — all have (or should have) their roles.

These, in fact, are just some of the possible professions that should be fostered if we really want to invest in wide-ranging projects aimed at enhancing a heritage that is here, right under our eyes, but of which – so it seems – it takes very special occasions, such as the return of the Torah to Biella synagogue, to make us truly aware.

We must, however, be serious if we want to make this important economic and political investment.

It is in fact politics (including the internal politics of the Jewish leadership) that must change in order to change prevailing mind-sets regarding cultural heritage.

Photo: Foundation for Jewish Cultural Heritage in Italy
Photo: Foundation for Jewish Cultural Heritage in Italy

Only by giving a strong signal can we think of pulling together private as well as public and Jewish communal funds needed for long-term planning. A start has been made regarding Biella, for example, with an unprecedented crowdfunding campaign, launched by the Foundation, to cover the costs of the restoration of the Torah.

I am convinced that in the long run we will succeed, even in Italy, despite the unjustified resistance of those who think that dealing with Jewish cultural heritage is just a time-worn exercise made by a dying Judaism that focuses on the past as past — rather than on a recognition that conserving the past can serve as a stimulus to engage (and engage with) the present and the future.


published March 13, 2016


Dr. Gadi Luzzatto Voghera is on the board for the Foundation for Jewish Cultural Heritage in Italy. He was instrumental in founding the Museum of Jewish Padova  in 2015.