Fuel for the Fire

Two riddles, one answer:

When is a book not a book? When it is fuel burned to fan the flames of hatred.

What is black and white and red all over? The 24 cartloads of Talmud engulfed in flames in Paris in 1242.

Monday, the 17th of June, marked the 771st anniversary of the first recorded burning of Jewish sacred texts by the Church in 1242. Let’s try to put this horror in contemporary terms: A complete Talmud set in the Vilna Shas format runs about 2,300 pages. The 24 cartloads, all the copies of the Talmud that could be found throughout France, amounted to some 12,000 volumes or roughly 2 million words. Remember, this occurred in the Middle Ages and each page was hand-written. The pure physical labor of sitting and writing that quantity of words boggles the mind.

That event effectively marked the end of the Jewish community in France. French King Louis IX followed the destruction of the sifrei Talmud with the destruction of Jewish life in France, expelling the Jews from his kingdom after taking their money and property. The Jewish community in France never recovered, never again becoming the great seat of learning that it was in the 11th century and the first half of the 13th.

The tragedy was so traumatic for Jews that a fast was instituted amongst many Ashkenazic communities to be observed on Erev Shabbos Parashas Chukas. Both the Magen Avraham and Sefer Eliyahu Rabbah (Orach Chaim 580) mention this custom. Though the fast is no longer practiced, the tragedy is memorialized in the kinah of Rabi Meir ben Baruch, the Maharam of Rothenburg, recited on Tishah B’Av, Sha’ali Serufah b’Esh, in which he compares the burning of the cartloads of the Talmud to the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash.

The flames which ended up consuming the holy books of France were actually first sparked two years earlier by a Jewish apostate, Nicholas Donin. Donin, a Parisian Jew, had upset his rabbis by repeatedly espousing heretical beliefs, forcing the leader of the Paris community, Rabi Yechiel, to take the extreme step of excommunicating him. Donin subsequently converted to Christianity, became a Franciscan friar and sought revenge. He encouraged Crusaders to massacre Jews while on their way to fight in the Holy Land precipitating several pogroms in France. He convinced the Pope that the Talmud needed to be examined, that it contained terrible errors and slurs against their “savior.” The Pope wrote to the kings of Europe, instructing them to investigate. And the result, in Paris, was the seizure of every volume of the Talmud and a disputation between Donin and Rabi Yechiel. This was the first of the numerous disputations between representatives of the Torah and representatives of the Church, many of whom were apostate Jews, and typified the problems inherent in debating against the Church. A Jew could say nothing that would be considered critical of the Church or Christianity or he would be brutally punished, effectively making it not a debate at all but rather a public performance on bashing Judaism. Despite the inherent unfairness of the rules, Rabi Yechiel, mentioned many times in the Tosafot commentary of the Talmud, made such a skillful defense that King Louis agreed with Rabi Yechiel’s position and the debate was essentially a draw. Nevertheless, King Louis considered the Talmud an insult to Christianity and incinerated the 24 cartloads of it as penalty.

This tragedy is not merely the history of the destruction of the 24 cartloads of the Talmud in the year 1242 in Paris but the catalytic role played by the Jew, albeit an apostate Jew, Donin. History has not recorded the nature of his heretical views. Perhaps had he been positively educated in Torah, the tragedy of his life, the burning of the Talmud, and the expulsion of the Jews of France could have been averted.

It has accompanied the Jewish people throughout our history, persisting and malignantly growing to this day to include irrational claims against brit milah, kashrut or other fundamental principles of Torah. Beliefs antithetical to our traditions that border on the heretical are now prevalent, making headlines and grabbing the front page of all media. Prominent Jews, whose fame is in the sphere of anything but traditional Judaism, never having experienced it, feel that because of being born Jewish they have some innate right to pontificate on issues on which they are profoundly ignorant, generally beginning their attacks on Torah values with the words, “As a Jew, I am compelled to speak out against (fill in the ________) because it is against Jewish values.” Are Jewish values a topic they have studied extensively or merely things they ingested along with their bagels and lox and The New York Times?

Contemporary Judaism would benefit by rejecting the destructive anger of Donin which was the fire that lit the 24 cartloads of Talmud ablaze and instead recall the Maharam’s analogy comparing the destruction of the Talmud to the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash. Perhaps by inverting the Maharam’s words and preserving the Talmud and Jewish traditions we as a nation can extinguish the still-smoldering embers of the Beit Hamikdash and as a nation begin its rebuilding, living as a unified people in Israel.


Meir Solomon is a writer, analyst and commentator living in Alon Shvut, Israel with his wife and two children. He can be contacted at msolomon@Hamodia.com