Roth, Cecil

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ROTH, CECIL (Bezalel ; 1899–1970), Jewish historian; editor in chief of the first edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica. Roth, who was born in London, the son of a manufacturer of building supplies, saw active service in the British infantry in 1918 before being educated at the City of London School and at Merton College, Oxford, obtaining his doctorate in 1925. He was trained as a general historian, with a special interest in Italy, his first major work being The Last Florentine Republic (1925). A traditional, observant Jew who learned Hebrew from his father and under Jacob *Mann, he was from the first interested in Judaica: as an undergraduate in 1920, he produced a paper identifying the convert Duarte Brandao with the military adventurer Sir Edward Brampton. In that same year, under the influence of Herbert *Loewe, Roth also translated a number of the Kinot (liturgical poems for the Ninth of Av), foreshadowing a continuing interest in Jewish liturgy, especially of the more recondite rites. He subsequently devoted himself to Jewish subjects, first as freelance writer and lecturer, and from 1939 to 1964 as reader in Jewish Studies at Oxford.

Roth combined naturally English ways and loyalties with Jewish nationalism. When he retired from his Oxford appointment in 1964, he settled in Jerusalem, taking up a visiting professorship at Bar-Ilan University. Soon after his appointment he was accused of unorthodoxy by a pamphlet which quoted his citation (in the Short History of the Jewish People) of doubts expressed by others about the historicity of Moses but omitting Roth's refutations of these doubts. Although supported by the university authorities and other Orthodox spokesmen, Roth, who had suffered a heart attack, resigned from Bar-Ilan. For the rest of his life he divided his time between Jerusalem, where he edited the Encyclopaedia Judaica, and New York, where he lectured at Queens College, City University, and at Stern College.

Roth's remarkable facility as a writer is shown by an immense literary output. A bibliography compiled in 1966 by O.K. Rabinowitz lists 572 items, and his total output numbered at least 779 items, including translations into many languages. His lasting influence was as writer, lecturer, and collector, rather than as teacher, for conditions in Anglo-Jewry, where he spent most of his academic life, precluded cultivating disciples, though he was both an inspiring and painstaking teacher. Roth wrote the standard modern histories of: the Jews of England (19643) and Italy (1946); a history of the *Marranos (19592); a history of the Jews in the Renaissance (19642); The House of Nasi (2 vols., 1947–48); and popular works such as the Short History of the Jewish People (1936) and The Jewish Contribution to Civilization (1938). He edited the successful Standard Jewish Encyclopaedia (1959, and several later editions), and was from 1966 until his death editor-in-chief of the Encyclopaedia Judaica. He had a vivid literary style and a taste for picaresque characters, but this was combined with precise erudition, as in his bibliographical works, such as the Magna Bibliotheca Anglo-Judaica (1937); in his studies of Jewish printing; and in detailed monographs such as his Intellectual Activities of Medieval Anglo-Jewry (1949). Three volumes of his collected essays appeared: Gleanings, Essays in Jewish History and Art (1967), Essays and Portraits in Anglo-Jewish History (1962), and Personalities and Events in Jewish History (1953).

The *Dead Sea Scrolls controversy led Roth to contribute a historian's approach to the examination of the evidence. His identification, on historical evidence, of the Qumran Sect with the *Zealots, while not accepted by the supporters of the Essene theory, was cogently expounded (Dead Sea Scrolls, 19652) and, after initial doubts, won the support and collaboration of the Semitic philologist Godfrey *Driver.

Roth's artistic flair led him to Jewish art, including the scientific study of illuminated Passover Haggadot. He edited a record number of Haggadot and collaborated with the artist Arthur *Szyk on what was probably the most sumptuously illustrated Haggadah ever printed (1940). He assembled Jewish art objects, including a remarkable menorah collection and rare Hebrew books and manuscripts (of which he published a catalog, in A. Marx Jubilee Volume, 1950). His collection of ketubbot combined both his literary and artistic interests. These collections formed the setting of his Oxford home, which served as a center of hospitality both for local Jewish undergraduates and visiting scholars. Roth's extensive library and manuscripts were bequeathed to the University of Leeds, England, and his art collection now forms a museum attached to the Beth Tzedec Synagogue, Toronto, Canada.

During his life in Britain, Roth worked devotedly for Jewish culture in the Anglo-Jewish community, although he viewed its future with realistic pessimism. In spite of the warmth and friendship of some of Anglo-Jewry's leading figures, he did not receive the recognition in Britain which he achieved in other countries, where his brilliance as a lecturer won him an enthusiastic reception on several wide-ranging tours. His services to the *Jewish Historical Society of England, which he kept alive during the difficulties of World War ii, were recognized by his reelection as president a number of times and the presentation of a festschrift (Remember the Days) in 1967. Elected a member of Italian learned societies before 1939, Roth resigned his membership as a protest against Mussolini's anti-Jewish legislation. After 1965 he was reelected a corresponding member of the Accademia Colombaria of Florence, and in 1969 he was appointed a commendatore of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic for services to Italian culture.

Roth's "meliorist" view of Anglo-Jewish history, implicitly contrasting the liberal evolution of Jewish life in Britain with the horrors of the Continent, won wide acceptance at the time. Recently it has been challenged by younger Anglo-Jewish historians who see more hostility to the Jews than Roth admitted; this view has itself been challenged more recently still. Roth's greatest achievement was unquestionably his editing of the Encyclopaedia Judaica, an effort which would have taxed the abilities of a superhuman. That the Judaica has been the standard reference work of the entire Jewish world for more than a generation is fitting testimony to his ability.

He was a brother of Leon *Roth, the philosopher. Roth's widow, Irene Roth, wrote a biography, Cecil Roth: Historian Without Tears (1982).


C. Raphael, in: Commentary, 50 no. 3 (Sept. 1970), 75–81. add. bibliography: odnb online.

[Vivian David Lipman]