June 18, 2019

Is Pizza a Jewish Invention?

“In 1983, the Italian-Israeli professor Sandra Debenedetti Stow stunned the scholarly world with an explosive article that proposed that Jews introduced pizza to the European diet.

She cited Yehuda Romano, a 14th-century Hebrew scholar from Italy, who translated Maimonides’ use of the word “hararah” (a type of flatbread) in the Mishneh Torah with four simple Hebrew letters: peh, yud, tzadi and heh, or “pizza,” arguably the very first time the word was ever used in any language.

Before the leaven could rise, a new scholarly sub-field was born.

I tripped over this appealing historical fact while reading the catalog of the new National Museum of Italian Judaism and the Shoah in Ferrara on the intermediate days of Passover (no doubt that my gustatory interest was partially fueled by the holiday). I was intrigued by the possibility that while oblique references to the aromatic staple of adolescent diets can be traced to ancient times, it was the Jews who first gave a name to the global delicacy.

The connection to Maimonides was also quite tempting – was his “hararah” really an Egyptian antecedent of Chicago deep-dish? A thousand questions erupted. Did Maimonides hold, asked Yechiel Goldreich on Twitter, with the “one slice mezonos, two slices hamotzi rule”? And if Rambam ate pizza, wondered Professor Jared Ellias, how did we Ashkenazim get stuck with gefilte fish and stuffed cabbage? Even my wife chimed in: “Finally — the end of challah tyranny!””

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