It is believed by many, that the first Jews to have traveled to the land now known as Italy came to Rome as ambassadors sent by Judah Maccabee (of Chanukah fame). Certainly it was not long after their successful rebellion against the oppressive Syrian-Greeks that the Hashmonite kings of Judea made an alliance with the up-and-coming Roman Empire. Under the dominion of Rome, the Jewish community began to spread throughout the known world (some by choice, others by force). The Italian Jewish community was established in those ancient times and has remained substantially distinct.

Whereas most Jews are classified as either Sephardim (originating from Iberian Peninsula) or Ashkenazim (originating from Central Europe) – many of whom have settled in Italy throughout history – the Jews of Italy maintained their own distinct nusach (prayer format) known in English as the Italian Rite. These Italian Jews are sometimes referred to as Italkim. It is interesting to note that even among this small, specific community, there is a subdivision that reflects the customs between the Jews of northern Italy – minhag Italiani – and the Jews of Rome – minhag Bene Romi.

That which makes the Italkim community distinct lies in the prayer service. The order of the prayers, the tunes to which they are sung and even the inclusion of certain piyyutim (religious poems) are believed by some scholars to be closely matched to the liturgy followed in the Land of Israel in the days of the Talmudic sages (Ashkenazi and Sephardi liturgies derive from the later traditions of the Babylonian Talmudic Academies). Additionally, because one of the first major medieval Judaica printing presses was located in Italy (Soncino), the Italkim liturgy was better able to be preserved accurately.

This Treat was written in honor of Columbus Day. (Click here to learn about the Jewish community of Genoa.)

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