When The Talmud Was Burned

Lawrence H. Schiffman

How was it that you, O Law, given by G-d, the Consuming Fire,
Should be consumed by the fire of mortals,
And that the heathens weren’t singed by your burning coals?
How can food ever again be sweet to my palate
After beholding what your plunderers have gathered?
Men whom you rejected from entering your assembly
Burned the spoil of the Most High in the midst of the market square,
Like the possessions of a condemned city.
(Adapted from a translation by A. Rosenfeld)

With these poignant words from the kinah “Sha’ali Serufah Va’eish,” recited by Ashkenazim each year on Tishah B’Av, Rav Meir of Rothenberg (1215-1293) mourned the burning of the Talmud in Paris that he had witnessed in June of 1242. He writes that he himself saw 24 wagon loads of Talmudic volumes destroyed. This horrible anti-Semitic act had enormous consequences for the study of the Gemara in Ashkenaz (France and Germany) in the Middle Ages. In fact, we have only one complete manuscript of the Talmud Bavli, the Munich manuscript, an Ashkenazic copy from 1342.

But the burning of the Talmud in Paris was not a sudden, isolated event. Rather, it capped a long history of anti-Semitic accusations.

While the European Jewish communities had their origins in the Roman period, it wasn’t until the Middle Ages that they emerged as major centers of Jewish life. By the time these communities attained developed status, during the 10th-11th centuries, the text of the Gemara had reached a more or less fixed form, even if it circulated in varying manuscript traditions. The authority of the Bavli over the Yerushalmi had been accepted already under the Geonim (7th to 11th centuries). But it would not be long before it, like the community that lived according to its principles, would come under attack from anti-Semites.

In 1095 Pope Urban II called for the First Crusade. While the pope did not mention Jews in his call to arms, he clearly touched off the spontaneous attacks on Jews that eventuated in the Rhineland massacres, commemorated by Ashkenazim in the kinah “Mi Yitein Roshi Mayim” by Kalonymus ben Yehudah (11th century). This was the time of Rashi (1040-1105), and the communities destroyed, most notably Speyer, Worms (where Rashi studied) and Mainz (the home of Rabbeinu Gershom, 960-1040) were part of the heartland of Talmudic study.

The earliest person to directly polemicize against the Talmud was probably Petrus Alphonsi, a Jewish physician and scholar who converted to Christianity in 1106 and was formerly known as Moses Sephardi. Leaving Spain, he eventually lived in England and then France. The first sections of his Dialogue Against the Jews attacks Judaism to a great extent by challenging the Gemara and Chazal. Whereas previous claims had been that the Jews continued to practice biblical law, refusing to accept Christianity, Petrus now claimed that the Jews were following what he said was a new and false law—that of the Talmud.

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