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Law and Architecture: The Pollution Crisis in the Italian Ghetto

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Much has been written about the establishment of ghettos in Italy and some attention has been paid to social structures and cultural forms that emerged during the ghetto period, but there is a great deal more to be learned about how living in a ghetto affected the Jewish family, society and culture. The present study sheds light on the ghetto’s physical presence, specifically on the impact on religious life of the architecture and urban development of this uniquely Jewish space.

Rabbinic responsa published in the Pahad Yitzhak, an encyclopedia of Jewish law published by Isaac Lampronti of Ferrara in the mid-eighteenth century, represent an eruption of anxiety, expressed in a flurry of intense literary activity, about the ostensible impossibility of escaping “tent pollution,” contracted by anyone present under the same roof as someone deceased. The pollution seemed inescapable because the architecture and urban layout seemed to allow for it to pass from building to building across the entire ghetto. The tent pollution material is thus an instance of the interplay of architecture, urban development and Jewish law.

Tent pollution particularly exercised the Jews of early modern Italy. Jews living both before and after the age of the Italian ghetto evinced virtually no interest in the tent pollution problems posed by urban development. There is a smattering of writing on the subject from northern Europe and the Ottoman Empire, which only underscores that this was a particularly Italian problem.

The present study spotlights this moment in early modern Jewish life, which stands out for the agitation it aroused among Italy’s Jews, and explores its implications for the social and cultural concerns of Jews in the early modern era. Lampronti’s encyclopedia affords us entrée, serving as a kind of seismograph to draw attention to areas which were the focus of heightened concern and activity in his historical setting.


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