The oldest known Hebrew play is a romantic comedy full of sexual innuendo, which makes use of quotes and references from classic Jewish texts as raw comic and dramatic material. Yair Lipshitz researched the play and found that it allowed its audience, Italian Jewry in the 16th century, to view the ancient texts in a new way, which in all likelihood was not possible within the synagogue or the Beit Midrash.
In the world of Hebrew literature, The Comedy of Betrothal, the oldest Hebrew play that we possess, is without doubt a surprising work. The play, written in the 16th century in the style of an Italian Renaissance comedy which heralded the advent of the dell’arte comedy, is a romantic comedy full of sexual innuendo and sophisticated plays on words together with verse fragments from the Bible and Talmudic texts. It presents scandalous halakhic ploys, lust-crazed slaves and an arch-villain who stages a rape scene for monetary gain. And neither was the play’s creator, Leone de’ Sommi (Yehuda Sommi is his Hebrew name), a conventional character in Jewish cultural history. De’ Sommi, an Italian Jew from Mantua, who wrote and directed plays for the aristocratic courts of Italy and who headed the theater productions organized by the members of the Jewish community of Mantua for the Duchess, was involved in all aspects of theatrical endeavor during the Italian Renaissance and was highly respected in the world of the theater during that period.
A comprehensive study of the play by Yair Lipshitz analyzes the use made by de’ Sommi of quotes and allusions to classic Jewish texts as raw comic and dramatic material. He claims in his research that the quotes and allusions to the Bible and the literature of the Sages appear in de’ Sommi’s comedy not merely to be read but rather to be embodied by the actors and in the theatrical space as an integral part of the overall theatrical creation.
Lipshitz stresses that there are no direct accounts describing how this unconventional play was received by the Jewish audience in Mantua. In fact, there is no solid proof that the play was ever performed during this period, even though it was clearly written to be performed on stage (unlike other Jewish plays written prior to the 19th century which were intended primarily to be read). Nonetheless, a prologue to one of the play’s manuscripts, which is dated to no later than 1626 (about 30 years after de’ Sommi’s death), provides evidence that the text was still known to the Jews of Mantua even after the playwright’s death. The writers of the prologue, apparently yeshiva students, state that they received the play from their teacher in order to keep them busy during their vacation so as not to waste “precious time in doing nothing and boredom”. Lipshitz claims that the testimony that a Jewish-Italian teacher did not hesitate to hand over this daring comedy to his students in order for them to be “kept busy” and perhaps even to rehearse it for the purpose of performing it, proves that even if it is not known exactly how the play was received among the Jews of Italy, it certainly wasn’t rejected by them.
Lipshitz claims that The Comedy of Betrothal is not just a refreshing suggestion to deal with the Jewish textual canon and the Hebrew language through theater, which does not require structured, uniform and unambiguous interpretation; it is also an especially fruitful moment of inter-cultural dialogue through which de’ Sommi’s audience could re-examine its canon by way of Italian Renaissance theater and find possibilities within it that would not have been revealed other than by means of a full theatrical performance. The participation of Italian Jewry in the culture of its period, including theatrical endeavor, enabled them, at least in the case of The Comedy of Betrothal, to re-visualize their texts in a way that they probably could not have in other cultural settings, such as the synagogue or the Beit Midrash.