PARIS 1242 - THE BURNING OF THE TALMUD
In the middle of the series of Kinot known as the "Tzion’s", i.e. those that demonstrate literary apostrophe by speaking, as it were, to the destroyed city of Jerusalem and lamenting its fall, is a Kina that begins with the words "Sha’ali serufa ba-eish," literally translated as ‘that which I requested (or desired, a reference to Torah) was burned in the fire.’ This Kina recalls one of the darker moments in the history of Jews in Medieval Europe, the burning of twenty-four cartloads of the Talmud in Paris, France. Of all of the horrible events that transpired during this era, this is one of the few that we specifically recall on this day, largely due to its overall significance within the spectrum of tragedies that afflicted the Jews.
The story of the burning begins several years before the event actually occurred. In 1240, an apostate (convert from Judaism to Christianity) named Nicholas Donin challenged the great Rabbis in France at that time to defend the Talmud from his charges that it was a work that demonstrated a hostility towards Christianity and thus could not be allowed to exist in a Christian state. What resulted from this challenge was one of the first recorded disputations, debates between Jews and Christians which effectively amounted to Judaism on trial. Setting a pattern that was to be imitated by subsequent disputations in several countries in Europe over the following few centuries, this disputation was held before the King and Queen, in this case King Louis IX, and the Christian side was argued by a former Jew. This was an important fact as it tended to add to the insidiousness with which the case was tried. As we shall see, the questions posed to the Jews tended to stem from a superficial reading of the Talmud, focusing on passages that could only be read in context and with further explanation as passed down from generation to generation. The apostate accusers were generally well-versed in the traditional Rabbinic interpretations, and thus they were somewhat prepared for what they were going to hear. The Jewish defenders were aware of this fact, and thus their answers are often not the standard answers that they would have given had they been lecturing to their students in the Beit HaMidrash, but rather are answers designed to placate the attending royalty and to prove in any way possible that the Christians were not singled out by the Rabbis of the Talmud as a nation that must be reviled.
Four Rabbis were called upon to defend Judaism in Paris, most notablyRav Moshe of Coucy, the author of Sefer Mitzvot Gadol (Semag), and Rav Yechiel of Paris, father of the author of the Tur and the main speaker in the debates. Two accounts of this disputation still exist - the Latin record, which was the official record of the court, and the Hebrew record, written by Rav Yechiel or by another Rabbi in attendance. The two accounts disagree on many of the finer points of the debate, and it is possible that the Hebrew version includes things that were not actually said, but that would have been said had the Jews actually had complete freedom of speech in the context of the debate.
A look at two of the questions posed to Rav Yechiel will serve to illustrate, if only a little, the approach utilized by Donin is his attempts to prove his loyalty to the Church and his hatred of his former religion. He refers to a passage which states that a certain "Yeshu" has been condemned to spend eternity boiling in scalding hot feces. "Yeshu" being the Hebrew translation of "Jesus," Donin concludes that this can only refer to one person, and that this alone constitutes a grave offense against Christianity. Rav Yechiel’s defense focused around the fact that "Yeshu" was a common name in the times of the Talmud, and that the individual referred to here was actually a student of Rav Yehoshua ben Perachia, who preceded Jesus by roughly a century, and who was said to have received this punished in return for his own heretical activities. Not satisfied with this answer, Donin and the priests in attendance continued to push Rav Yechiel, still attempting to prove that the Yeshu in question was actually their lord. Finally, their rabid anti-Semitism reached a point that the Queen, apparently shocked at what she was witnessing, ended this line of questioning, asking the accusers why they were trying so hard to prove that there was something negative being said about the one whom they worshipped - better that he should be left unmentioned!
The second question focused on a passage in Masechet Soferim (one of the "minor tractates" that are of a later time period than the Talmud itself). The phrase "the best of the nations shall be killed" was obviously a statement that alarmed Donin, and he insisted that it applied specifically to Christianity. Rav Yechiel’s defense was again an easy one. He merely read the statement in context, noting that it was the conclusion of a discussion about the Egyptians during the ten plagues. When the Jews left Egypt, the Torah informs us that the Egyptians chased them on horseback. However, we know that several of the plagues killed off the animals of Egypt, and thus how were there any horses left for them to use to pursue the Jews? The answer given is that these horses were those of the Egyptians who heeded the warning of Hashem and took their animals in when informed of the impending plagues. However, despite their fear of Hashem at that time, they still were more than willing to donate their animals to the Egyptian army so that they could overtake the escaped Jews. Thus, the Talmud claims that even the best ones from among the nations are not purely good and thus, in a situation of war, should not be spared and thus should be put to death. Even further, Rav Yechiel noted not only the general prohibition against murder, but that even in wartime the Jewish army must first offer the option of peace to the city that it is approaching, and only if that offer is refused may they attack.
The underlying common denominator of these two questions is that the explanations given by Rav Yechiel were not particularly erudite responses. Both required merely a basic knowledge of the text and perhaps a bit of history, knowledge possessed by Donin but not necessarily by the royal family or the priests (or perhaps they had the same approach to it as did Donin). One of the more poignant tragic aspects of this affair is the rabidness with which one Jew led the charge to destroy the religion which he had abandoned.
As was inevitable from the outset, the Talmud was burned by the cartload in 1242 (or perhaps 1244), despite an attempt by a local bishop to put off the burning. However, this event had several major impacts on the course of Medieval European Jewish history. First, this event marked a change in the attitude of the Church towards the Jews living in its midst. While that attitude had previously been one of relative tolerance, and sometimes even of welcoming (such as the Charter of Rudiger, bishop of Speyers, inviting the Jews to live in his town in 1084), this event was the beginning of a new trend. As already noted, this disputation was merely the prototype for later ones, which grew more and more virulent every time. The Barcelona disputation (1263), pittingRamban against the apostate Pablo Christiani, and the two-year long Tortosa disputation (1413-14), in which St. Vincent Ferrer and the apostate Geronimo told the Jewish leaders that they were allowed only to affirm or deny that certain Talmudic passages meant what the accusers claimed that they did, were two of the more famous of these "debates" that took place right up until the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 and from Portugal in 1496 (the Jewish community in France barely made it out of the fourteenth century), events that effectively ended the era wherein Western Europe was the center of Jewish life.
A second impact is perhaps more positive. As we noted in one of theChaburas on Chanuka, Rav Yitzchak Hutner has expressed the idea that there are times when the destruction of Torah actually serves as a part of the burgeoning strength of Torah and of Jewish adherence to it. Bearing in mind that the printing press had yet to be invented and that the 1,200 copies of the Talmud that were burned were essentially irreplaceable, the magnitude of this tragedy cannot be underestimated. This was realized by the Rabbis at that time, and they responded with typical Jewish resiliency. Rav Yechiel, in an attempt to save the Talmud, taught it from memory to a group of 300 students and attempted to recall and record all of the writings of the Tosafists that had been burned and forever purged in the flames (the Tosafists were French, and thus many of their original glosses may have been written alongside the pages of the burned volumes). Even more important were two works written with a similar purpose. Rav Moshe of Coucy arranged the laws in the Talmud according to the 613 commandments to which they corresponded, calling his work Sefer Mitzvot Gadol. Soon after that work appeared Rav Yitzchak of Corbeil authored a similar work, the Sefer Mitzvot Katan (Semak). These two works still serve as major reference guides for halacha and helped to minimize the magnitude of the tragedy in Paris.
The Kina itself is written byRav Meir of Rotenberg, a student of Rav Yechiel who may have actually witnessed the burning. It is beyond the scope of this Chabura to scan each line of the poem, yet a general overview is yet possible. The lamentation follows a pattern familiar from many of the other Kinot. First Rav Meir calls out to the Torah (and presumably to Hashem as well) to see the pain that those who love it are suffering through as a result of the burning, followed by a weeping, despairing cry, asking how such an event could come to pass. The next section presents a series of contrasts, first describing the glory with which the Torah was given, and following that with a mournful line about how shameful a place it has now been relegated to. The final two sections trace the path from the abyss of desperation to the hope for salvation, as Rav Meir painfully describes, using several metaphors, how he sees himself (and the Jews) abandoned by Hashem, and he ends off with a prayer that in the near future Hashem will once again look favorably upon the Jews and redeem them from the horrible straits in which they find themselves.
The burning of the Talmud at Paris, while perhaps not the most horrifying of the tragedies commemorated on Tisha B’Av, is one that contains an extremely important message. We are told by the Sages that the destruction of the Second Temple, resulting in our current exile, was caused by spiteful and needless hatred among the Jews. Over a millennium later, this trend had ceased to evaporate, as Nicholas Donin and his successors proved that the best enemy of the Jews is in fact the Jews themselves. I will refrain from pontificating here, but it is not difficult to see that even now this trend continues, as does the exile. It is our sincere hope that this Tisha B’Av will be the last that we will have to observe as a day of mourning, and that we will soon see the fulfillment of the words of Zechariah (8:19) that this day will be transformed into one of happiness and rejoicing.
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