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Theological debate

Published: December 9, 2011 at 1:34 pm
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Back in the Middle Ages, the Pope decreed that all the Jews had to leave Rome. Naturally the Jewish community protested, so the Pope proposed a compromise. He would have a religious debate with a member of the Jewish community. If the Jew won, the Jews could stay. If the Pope won, the Jews would leave. The Jews, who had no choice but to accept, picked an elderly rabbi named Moshe to represent them.


Moshe asked for one addition to the debate. To make it more interesting, neither side would be allowed to talk. The Pope agreed.

The day of the great debate came. Moshe and the Pope sat opposite each other for a full minute before the Pope raised his hand and showed three fingers. Moshe looked back at him and raised one finger. The Pope waved his fingers in a circle around his head. Moshe pointed to the ground where he sat. The Pope pulled out a communion wafer and a glass of wine. Moshe pulled out an apple.

The Pope stood up and said: "I give up. This man is too good. The Jews can stay."

An hour later, the cardinals were all around the Pope asking him what happened. The Pope said: "First I held up three fingers to represent the Trinity. He responded by holding up one finger to remind me that there was still one God common to both our religions.

"Then I waved my finger around me to show him that God was all around us. He responded by pointing to the ground and showing that god was also right here with us.

"I pulled out the wine and the host to show that God absolves us from our sins. He pulled out an apple to remind me of original sin. He had an answer for everything. What could I do?"

Meanwhile, the Jewish community had crowded around Moshe. "What happened?" they asked.

"Well," said Moshe, "First he said to me that the Jews had three days to get out of here. I told him that not one of us was leaving. Then he told me that this whole city would be cleared of Jews. I let him know that we were staying right here."

"And then what?" asked a woman.

"I don't know," shrugged Moshe. "He took out his lunch, so I took out mine."

The story

Obviously that's just a joke, a rather clever bit of Jewish humour your correspondent dug out after being inspired by watching Old Jews Telling Jokes on BBC4.

The actual facts of Jewish life in Rome are rather different, and somewhat less amusing.

There had been a Jewish community in the city of Rome since the days of the empire, and from ancient times until the 16th century its history was a long and complex patchwork of periods of toleration, periods of persecution or low-level harassment - but an almost continuous history of being taxed for being Jews.

In 1555 Pope Paul IV decreed that all the Jews in the city of Rome - there were probably 1,000–2,000 at the time - had to live in a walled-off area which would be closed at night. The same Papal bull imposed a range of new restrictions on Jews - Jewish doctors could no longer treat Christians, for instance - and they had to listen to a compulsory sermon from a Catholic priest on every Jewish shabbat. Each year they had to swear an oath of loyalty to the Pope on the Arch of Titus (which commemorates the Roman sack of Jerusalem in AD 70). Other humiliations included having to wear yellow cloth when outside the ghetto. The word 'ghetto' is Italian, probably originating in Venice after Jews there were obliged to live in a separate quarter in 1516.

Since they were excluded from most trades and professions, most of the inhabitants of Rome's ghetto were very poor. It was close to the Tiber and frequently flooded. Overcrowding meant disease was rife, and plague usually struck harder here than elsewhere in the city.


The ghetto was not formally abolished and its walls torn down until the 1880s, some years after the Papal States had been incorporated into the new Italian nation. It was the last remaining ghetto in Europe until the Nazis came along.


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