What Should We Know About Samuel David Luzzatto? Originally Published August 20-21, 2021

Last week we discussed a prominent Jewish family in Belfast (Sir Otto Jaffé).  This week we travel to Trieste, which is currently in Italy, to meet Samuel David Luzzatto, born on August 22, 1800 (Rosh Hodesh Elul, 5560). His dad Hezekiah descended from a long line of scholars.  Young Samuel wrote his first poem in Hebrew at age nine.  His mother passed away when he was 13, and Samuel went into his father’s business as an artisan to help bolster the family’s finances.  

This young man loved the written word.  He studied Talmud, along with ancient and modern languages and science, at the Talmud Torah school in Trieste, studying Hebrew with his father at home.  When he was reading the Book of Job at school, he decided that the existing commentaries were not good enough and set out to write his own.  In 1811, he received as a reward for his efforts Montesquieu’s Considérations sur les Causes de la Grandeur des Romains, which he read with vigor.  That same year he began writing a Hebrew grammar (in Italian), wrote about the life of Aesop in Hebrew (translating from extant information), and wrote divrei Torah.  When he learned of an unpublished commentary on the Targum of Onkelos (see our previous columns), he studied Aramaic so he could learn from it.

After his mother’s death, despite doing housework and working with his father, young Samuel wrote 37 poems (later published in Kinnor Na’im) and by 1817 had completed writing a work about the vowels in Hebrew.  In 1818, Samuel began writing Torah Nidreshet, a work of theology and philosophy.  To avoid his father’s insistence that he learn a trade, Samuel began tutoring students.  His father died in 1824, and in that same year Samuel became a professor at the Padua rabbinical college.

Professor Luzzatto’s writing increased at the school.  He had indeed found his trade!  Encouraging learning the Syriac language in order to study the Targum, he also demonstrated knowledge of Samaritan in addition to other languages.  He would put forth the opinion that Solomon had not written the Book of Ecclesiastes, but someone named Kohelet had done so several centuries later.  He also asserted that the Book of Isaiah was all written by Isaiah himself, and chapters 40-66 were not written by someone else.  He also decided at a relatively young age that Jewish philosophers were doing no service to the furtherance of scholarship or knowledge.  He would correspond copiously with the great minds of his time.  This all was the beginning of a career with much controversy and very many written works.

Luzzatto wrote in many languages.  Among his utilitarian works was a translation of the Ashkenazi siddur into Italian.  He also translated the Book of Isaiah into Italian (and named a son Isaia), and wrote various commentaries in both Hebrew and Italian.    

Also know by his acronym, Shadal (שד"ל‎), Samuel David Luzzatto left a hefty mark on Jewish scholarship, and passed away on September 30, 1865, in Padua.