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Commentary on Chapters of the Fathers
Library of Congress

Commentary on Chapters of the Fathers by Rabbi Judah ben Samuel Lerma Sephardi (Sabbioneta, 1554).

The introduction to this volume, which was printed in Sabbioneta, gives a fascinating eye-witness account of the burning of Hebrew books carried out by Papal command in Venice, 1553. Among the books destroyed that night were copies of the author’s book, already at press. The author movingly describes how he was left without a single copy of his book, and how he wrote it from memory all over again. He also relates that a few pages of the original edition were rescued from the bonfire by an Italian gentile, who sold it back to him for a hefty sum of money.

The burning of the Talmud in Italy was not limited to that work, many other unrelated books being swept up in the mindless fury of destruction. A notable example is Leḥem Yehudah (Figure 5), a commentary on Pirke Avot by Rabbi Judah ben Samuel Lerma Sephardi, of whom little is known except for the events related to the publication of his book.

That work is a commentary of a philosophic but traditional nature, based on the writings of Rabbi Joseph Albo, Don Isaac Abrabanel, and Rabbi Isaac Arama, as well as Talmudic and Midrashic sources.

Nevertheless, Lerma is an original thinker, often expressing his own views. First printed in Venice at the Bragadin press in 1553, Leḥem Yehudah was reprinted by Israel Cornelius Adelkind at the Sabbioneta press of Tobias Foa (1554). Lerma has entitled his commentary Leḥem Yehudah, because “the bread [leḥem] from which I have bene tted is the bread of Torah, for we nd the Torah is called bread, as it states, ‘Come, eat of my bread, and drink of the wine which I have mixed’” (Proverbs 9:5).

He continues in the introduction to the reprint, recounting what befell the first edition of his book: I printed my book [Leḥem Yehudah] in Venice at the beginning of “for the Almighty Shadai [in gematira = 1553] has dealt very bitterly with me” (Ruth 1:20) and the ruler of Rome [the Pope] decreed that throughout the kingdoms of Edom should be burned and they burned the Talmud and the aggadot of the Talmud of R. Jacob ben Habib. In Venice, in the month of Marheshvan [bitter Heshvan], which is as its name, it was decreed that the Talmud, the aggadot mentioned above, and Rav Alfasi and mishnayot should be burned on the Holy Shabbat, and with them they burned all of my books, of which 1,500 copies had been printed. I lost all that was in Venice and not even a single copy remained to me, not even a single leaf from the original for a remembrance. I was forced to rewrite [my book] from memory from the beginning. After I had completed three chapters, I found one copy from the original press in the hands of non-Jews who had saved it from the re. I acquired it at a dear price, and when I looked into it, may His name be blessed, I saw that the second [copy] was more complete than the first. 

References: Marvin J. Heller, Unicums, Fragments, and Other Hebrew Book Rarities, 2014